- Darius Brooks
- BBC News World
“We want a territorial limit, we no longer want shots, we want peace,” says the poster held by a girl.
The little girl is part of a protest on a road that passes through Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán Y Nahualá, two municipalities in western Guatemala whose historic enmity has claimed dozens of lives since the 19th century.
The last episode went beyond daily violence, since 13 people killed, four they were children and five were women.
Along with four other men, they were attacked by surprise near the village of Chiquix last Friday, with shots fired from high caliber weapons, a sample of a level of violence not seen before.
The protest of the girl from the cartel and other residents of Ixtahuacán challenged on Monday and Tuesday the state of siege that the Guatemalan government implemented to try to contain a powder keg that constantly explodes in this region.
The measure seeks to “establish order and prevent new incidents of violence,” the president explained. Alejandro Giammattei in a message to the nation in which he lamented “the loss of human life” in an event that causes “mourning and pain.”
But neither Giammattei nor his predecessors have been able (or wanted, according to those in the know) to resolve a historical feud that originated centuries ago.
The forced union
Like other indigenous peoples, the mayas k’iche ‘ saw their lives transformed with the reorganization that the Spanish colony in America implemented.
The New Spain authorities considered that it was necessary to apply the concept of “reduction” of communitiesGuatemalan anthropologist Diego Vásquez Monterroso explains to BBC Mundo.
“Basically it was to gather people who were scattered in a lot of places and concentrate them in a new center with a European, Spanish trace,” he points out.
“And this often implied destructuring previous political organizations.”
The community of Sija, which became Ixtahuacán, was united with the community of Mutzula ‘, converted to Nahualá, without taking into account the combative character of those peoples.
“There were major conflicts in the colonial era. There are several documented conflicts in both communities,” says Vásquez Monterroso.
The marked growth of the population over the centuries began to generate pressure for the dominion of the land and the political organization until, in the middle of the 19th century, there was a division.
“In the 1860s, the conflict already led to many deaths between the two groups and eventually there was a de facto separation. Nahualá built his own community, his church and the layout of the streets,” explains the expert.
The boundary problem
Many communities in Guatemala lived through this colonial “reduction”, but over time they managed to settle their differences despite the fact that they are known to have different origins.
“Mayan communities in general in Guatemala have a long memory, which goes to colonial times. Maybe they don’t know how to explain it in such detail, but they know who they were and where they were from, “says Vásquez Monterroso.
It was not the case of Ixtahuacán and Nahualá.
These were very large, densely populated and relatively wealthy communities, unlike others that had more trade and were unwilling to give up power.
Although they were constituted in two different towns, with a ground “mattress” in between, the growth gradually made them closer, which aggravated the conflict.
And nature also contributed to the problem.
And is that Ixtahuacán had to move its settlement to another space due to a geological fault that worsened after Hurricane Mitch in 1998, which created a shaky ground for housing.
“And the new area fell right on the land of El Alto, which has been this land that in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries was established as a ‘cushion’ land, on the border between Nahualá and Ixtlahuacán,” explains the anthropologist.
The head of Ixtahuacán is within the municipality of Nahualá. But the land titles belong to Ixtlahuacán.
So the struggle for farmland and other natural resources has exacerbated the conflict in neighboring towns.
The hand of crime
In recent years, Guatemala has seen an alarming increase in violence and homicides, with 60.000 murders in the last decade, the majority in impunity.
Only the, the department where Ixtahuacán and Nahualá are located, are among those that registered the most murders this year.
In that region, Vásquez Monterroso explains, in recent years there has also been an incursion of drug traffickers who use the roads that go to the Pacific coast from the center of the country.
But a phenomenon has also been seen that influences land problems in populations in conflict: the “coyotes” or migrant smugglers.
Guatemalans from Ixtahuacán and Nhualá seeking to reach the United States they pawn their land to the “coyotes” to pay for the trip of thousands of dollars to the US border.
“Probably these last disputes are more related to these situations, due to the fact that many coyotes ask for the lands of the people [migrantes] as a guarantee, “says the anthropologist.
And what property titles are in the midst of conflict between peoples, is one more ingredient that aggravates the violence and that could explain the use of large-caliber weapons in the last attack.
The territorial conflict accumulates between 5 and 10 deaths per year, many of which are not known in the news. But the case this Friday went beyond the “usual”.
For President Alejandro Giammattei, violence is not seen in other cases: “The work of an illegal armed and organized group that acted against civilians and security forces,” he said.
“They are no longer the product of an ancestral land conflict,” Giammattei emphasized, who added that “law enforcement will pursue those responsible for the attack until they are arrested and brought to justice.”
The National Civil Police announced on Monday the capture of three suspects and dozens of troops were deployed to monitor the Pan-American highway and the surroundings under a state of siege.
But the residents challenged these measures and blocked this way on Tuesday to demand a definitive solution to the conflict, the representative of the Human Rights Ombudsman in Sololá, Jorge Marcos Chochoy, explained to BBC Mundo.
“In recent months the conflict has worsened“says Chochoy.
“There has been no will in the governments in turn to fix the conflict of limits and the communal land dispute (…) It will not be resolved overnight. All state institutions have to intervene, “he says, noting that, unlike in the past, now violence is taking place in areas that were relatively peaceful, such as Chirijox.
Vásquez Monterroso agrees: “It is not an important region for them. [los gobernantes]”.
“In general, the governments, the State of Guatemala, are not interested in indigenous peoples, they are not important to them. They see them as a tool they can use, but rarely to help them.“, he concludes.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.