On July 30, 2016, seven ancestral and community authorities from northern Huehuetenango began their journey back home after being held as political prisoners. All of the men were held for over a year – one for over three – on charges related to community protests opposing hydroelectric dams imposed without community consent.
Read more about the trial and charges.
Criminalized for their role as community leaders, Arturo Pablo Juan, Francisco Juan Pedro, Adalberto Villatoro, Ermitaño López, Rigoberto Juarez, Domingo Baltazar, and Mynor López have faced a series of trumped-up charges including kidnapping, illegal detention, instigation to commit a crime, and obstruction of justice.
But on July 22, the men stood before the High-Risk Crimes Court “B”, presided by Yasmín Barrios, who read the verdict absolving them of almost all the charges and ordering their immediate release. The verdict emphasized the role community authorities play as mediators, and as Barrios read out, “Attempting to mediate a community conflict is not a crime.”
Legal processes are not over, however. In a divided decision by the 3-judge panel, ancestral authority Rigoberto Juarez was convicted of coercion and Ermitaño López was convicted of obstruction of justice. Yet because of time already spent in pre-trial detention, both were released. While appeals processes will likely be launched for the conviction of Rigoberto Juarez and Ermitaño López, this victory sets an important precedent in cases of criminalization of community leaders who are defending land and life.
The Caravan to return home
Beginning on July 30, the newly-free men began their journey back home to Huehuetenango, together with groups from Guatemalan civil society, human rights bodies, and international accompaniment organizations. Making stops along the way to express solidarity with communities facing similar struggles defending their lands against extractive companies, the messages on the caravan were clear:
- Communities have the right to determine what happens on their lands, and this struggle is part of the legitimate exercise of ancestral and community authority.
- The State needs to be structurally transformed. The legal system used by the State was not made by nor for indigenous peoples. Instead, indigenous people have had to operate within that legal system and learn to use those laws as a way of gaining their freedom once criminalized. This is not a judicial problem – it’s a problem of power.
- Many others continue to be held as political prisoners of the State, for speaking out in the defense of their communities against exploitative economic interests. The caravan was part of a unification of peoples, in that this is everyone’s struggle.