Accompanying the Peasant Movement Part 2: Conquistador with a Briefcase


June 29, 2010 by Kate Savage

Saquimo Setaña is a community in northern Guatemala facing eviction by a local plantation owner. Three community members—Jesus Yat, Oscar Manuel Xol, and his son Alvaro Barahona Xol Pop—are in jail, while five others have arrest warrants. The community claims that the plantation owner is bringing false charges against them, with the expectation that they don’t have the resources to represent themselves fairly in court. We (Katy Savage and Tristan Call) are working with the Guatemala Solidarity Project to help coordinate international support for political prisoners of the Guatemalan peasant movement.

After a bumpy bus-ride north from Cobán to the Canguinic River, we stuffed an unsteady canoe with baggage and foreign observers for the last leg of the journey to Saquimo Setaña. We were finally in the forest, where epiphytic orchids and cicadas, blue kingfishers and milpa and long-eared cows could stitch up our wounds from the cities, highways,and prisons we had come from. The sounds and smells were like splashes of water on dried brine shrimp: all this time we had been alive!

We were met at the riverbank by a group of kids and adults, including Ana Maria, a Saquimo resident who, apart from translating Q’eqchi to Spanish for international human rights activists, is a regional coordinator for CUC (Comité de la Unidad Campesina). They took us to the town’s school, where a crowd of kids in ripped t-shirts were waiting to shake hands and wish us buenos días. Just outside waved the red flag of the peasant movement. One wall of the dirt-floor school were hand-made posters for teaching the Q’eqchi alphabet; on another were crayon-colored drawings made by the children in honor of mothers’ day; on a third were locally-produced posters illustrating government soldiers massacring Q’eqchi villagers, images from the genocidal war that had ravaged the area surrounding Saquimo during the 1980’s –a war whose tactics of kidnapping, assassination and eviction are eerily repeated even in this “post-war” era.  A spokesman apologized that not every member in the community was there to greet us—a few had journeyed to another town to get vaccines. They immediately uncovered the wooden marimba in the corner and struck up a song, bringing us plate after plate of food to eat by candlelight.

One by one, in meetings held that night and the following day, they explained to us that their community, consisting of around forty families, collectively bought their land twenty-five years ago—land which their families had long worked as wage laborers and colonos. But in 1997, a relative of the former owner claimed that this sale had been illegitimate, and she was the rightful owner. She ordered each family to pay 50,000 quetzales (around $6,200) or leave. Not having financial resources, in 1999 the families moved to another location, a steep hillside across the river. Everything they left behind—houses, fields, trees, and plots of shade-grown cardamom they had been tending for years—was destroyed for cattle pasture. After razing Saquimo, the woman began building a multi-story plantation house on their former homeground.

But the families of Saquimo Setaña found it impossible to start over from scratch on the mountainside. And so, after six years of organizing, and formally joining CUC, last October the families reoccupied their land. Everything we found there–the houses, school, soccer field, crops—were the work of only a few months of united labor. The woman’s half-built house sits hollow in the background: the people do not go there.

While there we wandered in the forest or among the cattle and chickens, ducks, and turkeys that ranged through the community. We bathed in the river, and danced until midnight to the marimba. The children, boys and girls, rapidly took to grabbing hold of our hands as though it were an old habit, walking with us or stopping to tell us slowly and repeatedly, in Q’eqchi, what we must do, laughing at our inability to understand, and concluding with the one phrase we thought we understood: Batzuk-ko!—let’s go play.

Before coming to this town, we were granted five minutes to speak with the community members in an over-stuffed concrete prison in Cobán.  Now that we saw the forest home they came from, Jacob, a soft-spoken companion from the States, said what we were all feeling: imagine going from here to that cage.

In a meeting we held in the afternoon with only the women present, an old woman with two family members in prison told us she wanted to ask us only one question: what is our crime? We knew what was written on the steadily-growing pile of arrest warrants for community members, the charge that they were taking what didn’t belong to them, land that they, as poor Mayans, didn’t deserve.  We could have answered that part of their crime is that old felony of being poor—the judge that sentenced the three men to prison is notoriously corrupt, and was recently suspended for releasing a group of Mexican Zetas, drug-runners who had led Guatemalan police on a long, violent car chase and firefight that left several dead (In contrast, he refuses to release the “Saquimo 3” on bail because they are allegedly “violent”). Another part of their crime is their mother tongue: in the labyrinthine Guatemalan legal system, with its protocols and contradictions all carefully hidden away in the inaccessible Spanish language, they face off against a supposedly new but strangely familiar enemy: the conquistador with a briefcase.

But their most heinous crime is this: that they have put this spot of ground in the service of a functioning community, with a soccer field for kids and adults instead of a helicopter-landing pad for a plantation-owner, with food grown for themselves, not just for U.S. grocery shoppers. They are a community learning to provide for itself, without reliance on bosses and government officials. And so, though the men in jail are innocent of the crimes they are charged with, they are behind bars for a reason. Guatemala’s rulers may have to pull teeth (and buy judges) to claim that Saquimo is illegal, but that is just a cover, really, for what everyone here already knows: freedom for normal people threatens the privileges of the powerful. This is perhaps why we hear so little about places like Saquimo: the biggest names on maps are always the biggest cities, where the most is consumed, and the noisiest headlines are always blinder-locked on what Al Giordano likes to call “the circus up above” –that is, the celebrity cult of excess and political centralization that distracts us from celebrating (or improving) our own everyday lives. That circus stays as far as possible from mapping places where people are good and careful and beautiful, or where there is the highest diversity of living beings.

There’s another reason why Saquimo –and for that matter, most of northern Guatemala– doesn’t show up on the media map. It is one of hundreds of communities in this region that face eviction by the wealthy, as Guatemalan entrepreneurs have realized that the rainforest the Q’eqchi inhabit is a great area for clear-cutting the trees and replacing them with African palm (for biodiesel), grazing land (for cattle), tree plantations and ‘protected areas’ (for credits on the new carbon market), and mining and oil drilling (for export), a process that economists and sociologists darkly refer to as the “revalorization” of the Guatemalan countryside. It’s no accident, of course, that many of those entrepreneurs are the same generals who nearly cleared the region of people during the ‘scorched earth’ campaigns of the 1980’s. The media blackout of these evictions, often involving hundreds of militarized police, is necessary in order to obtain the silent consent of the populations which eventually consume those resources and arm the Guatemalan government.

The three men in jail —Jesus Yat, Álvaro Barahona Xol Pop, and Oscar Manuel Xol— are told by the guards that no one cares about them or their no-name town. Though the act of uprooting the poor from the land is worldwide and constantly repeated, our work in Saquimo was to discover so many specificities of this act that we couldn’t help but care: the smiling man who wore a VOTE FOR PEDRO shirt, the sixteen-year old kids in soccer shorts who timidly asked us to take their picture, little boys running across the river on a rickety wood bridge, games of duck-duck-GOOSE with the daughters of the incarcerated.

To help free the Saquimo 3 from prison and help protect their community from violent eviction, read these instructions and send an email demanding their release directly to the judge:

And check out this video of CUC´s protest for the liberation of the Saquimo 3 in Coban the other day:

One thought on “Accompanying the Peasant Movement Part 2: Conquistador with a Briefcase

  1. Jason Brown says:

    Thank you Tristan and Kate for this excellent coverage!

    Keep up the good work, but please come home soon!

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