• Indigenous peoples in Guatemala

    Indigenous peoples in Guatemala

    Guatemala is home to 24 principal ethnic groups. Although the Government of Guatemala has adopted the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the country’s indigenous peoples continue to face a number of challenges.
  • Peoples

    Indigenous people in Guatemala counts 6 million, belonging to 24 ethnic groups
  • Challenges

    21.8 percent of the indigenous population is affected by extreme poverty, compared to 7.4 per cent of the non-indigenous population.

Indigenous World 2019: Guatemala

Guatemala continues to suffer from a lack of reliable data on its indigenous peoples. The 2018 Population and Housing census’s ability to survey and report on the country’s ethnic dimension is limited, given that it has been conducted in the midst of an unprecedented political and institutional crisis. The data which will be generated as a result will likely mirror the figures from the last census in 2002, which estimated indigenous peoples at 45% of the population.

The main ethnic groups are the: Achi’, Akateco, Awakateco, Chalchiteco, Ch’orti’,Chuj, Itza’, Ixil, Jacalteco, Kaqchikel, K’iche’, Mam, Mopan, Poqomam, Poqomchi’,Q’anjob’al, Q’eqchi’, Sakapulteco, Sipakapense, Tektiteko, Tz’utujil, Uspanteko, Xinka and Garífuna. The social, economic and political situation of indigenous peoples has not improved in recent years and continues to run in sharp contrast to the rest of the country’s population, as can be seen from the rates of unequal public investment and the persistence of discrimination, exclusion and racism.

Notable events relating directly and indirectly to indigenous peoples in 2018 included: a) the National Population and Housing Census, long overdue as the last census was in 2002, and which it is hoped may give more accurate data on the number of people self-identifying as indigenous; b) the government’s unilateral dismantling of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which leaves human rights defenders, including indigenous leaders, more vulnerable to the repositioning of the state’s repressive forces and to organised crime; c) the visit of the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, in early May, whose report highlighted the persistence of structural problems resulting in poverty and racial discrimination, an upsurge in violence, evictions and criminalisation, as well as impunity, corruption and institutional weakness in relation to protecting and recognising indigenous rights; d) the series of protests and legal demands that indigenous peoples continued to take before the courts to demand the return of their communal lands, which have been subjected to land grabs and fraud; e) the political struggle of a number of indigenous organisations around the forthcoming general elections in 2019; and, finally, f) the cases of military personnel accused of genocide and repression of indigenous leaders.

In line with international standards, Guatemala usually conducts their census every ten years. The last was held in 2002 and the country’s total population was then estimated at 11 million inhabitants, of which 40% were indigenous. A number of organisations did, however, claim that the methods used in the census made ethnic self-identification difficult. Preliminary estimates from the 2018 census indicate that the country’s population could now be 20 million and, if the proportion were to remain the same as in the previous census, this would give an indigenous population of approximately 8 million.

Indigenous peoples and the 2018 National Census of Population and Housing

The 2018 census was conducted at a time of political turmoil and uncertainty in the country, with public institutions weakened and their credibility damaged. This included the National Statistics Institute, the body responsible for the census. Public insecurity also affected the way the census was carried out because census officials had to be accompanied by the police in order to enter many areas. For their part, the indigenous organisations questioned the lack of sufficient information in native languages, although they themselves did not conduct any campaigns in favour of indigenous self-identification in the census process.

The Special Rapporteur’s visit to Guatemala

The Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples visited the country from 1 to 10 May 2018 with the aim of examining the situation of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples through interviews with government bodies and indigenous organisations, as well as through independent information produced for this purpose. Her report was presented to the UN Human Rights Council at its 39th session from 10 to 28 September under Agenda Item 3: “Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, social, economic and cultural rights, including the right to development.” During her visit, the Special Rapporteur held meetings with representatives of indigenous organisations, including one with indigenous lawyers and another with indigenous women, at which she received specific information on current court cases and on gender equality. She also visited the indigenous territories in San Marcos, Chiquimula and Alta Verapaz, where indigenous inhabitants turned out in large numbers to explain the exclusion and violations of their collective rights.

In her report, the Special Rapporteur indicated that the situation of the Maya, Xinka and Garífuna peoples is marked by serious structural problems, in particular a failure to protect their rights to land, territories and resources, together with the racial discrimination that permeates all spheres of society. She expressed her serious concern at the upsurge in violence, forced evictions and criminalisation of indigenous peoples defending their rights. Impunity, corruption, institutional weakness, a failure to implement the Peace Agreements and extreme socio-economic inequality are the main problems she identified. It is imperative that the Guatemalan government urgently identifies and commences work to resolve these structural problems.1

The Special Rapporteur recommended that the state: support the International Commission on Impunity in Guatemala and the Public Prosecutor’s Office in investigating corruption in the registration and ownership of land and the grabbing of indigenous peoples’ lands; respect the indigenous Xinka, Garífuna and Maya peoples’ right to self-determination in Guatemala; support the indigenous peoples’ own processes so that they are able to strengthen and affirm their cultures and identities, including appropriate procedures when gathering and processing data on ethnic identity, that should include their active participation; and evaluate and adjust the country’s institutions, policies and laws to bring them into line with indigenous peoples’ aspirations.

Dismantling of the CICIG

The International Commission on Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was established in 2006 by means of an agreement between Guatemala and the United Nations, with the aim of combatting corruption and clandestine criminal networks. The arrival of Iván Velásquez to head the CICIG in 2013 brought about notable progress in the investigations conducted, leading to complaints being made against senior officials, politicians and businessmen, some of whom were arrested and brought to justice. All this work took place in coordination with the Public Prosecutor’s Office, headed by Thelma Aldana.

The most notable cases included those of 2015 involving Otto Pérez and Roxana Baldetti, then President and Vice-President of the country respectively, which led to both their resignations and subsequent imprisonment, thus triggering a chain of high-impact cases that are still making their way through the courts. Jimmy Morales, who took over the presidency in 2016, promised to support CICIG in its fight against corruption but very quickly turned against the Commissioner following complaints made against himself and some of his family. He made the Commissioner’s job difficult to the point of declaring him persona non grata and ordering his immediate expulsion from the country, although protection granted by the Constitutional Court at the request of the Human Rights Ombudsman and the social groupings, including indigenous organisations, prevented it.

The president’s disdain for CICIG only intensified, and he took advantage of the Commissioner’s trip abroad to ban him from returning to the country. He subsequently stated that he would not be renewing the CICIG’s mandate beyond September 2019, the date on which its last two-year extension was due to run out. Nevertheless, he subsequently hastily and unilaterally declared an immediate suspension of the agreement creating the CICIG and ordered its staff to leave the country. This situation resulted in institutional support being withdrawn from CICIG, in particular the support of the National Civil Police, who had been providing security for CICIG’s staff and cooperating on criminal investigations.

For its part, the UN continued to support the CICIG but, due to security reasons, ordered expatriate staff to leave, with the Commissioner and investigators continuing to support investigations from abroad.

With this action, the president thus spearheaded the dismantling of the CICIG, in line with the demands of the main defendants in corruption and impunity cases, as well as private sector leaders, the military and the evangelical churches, who had all raised arguments of sovereignty and international non-interference to protect their acts of corruption, impunity and illicit enrichment. Although the international community and social and indigenous organisations mobilised to reject the government decision, they were unable to obtain a reversal in this regard.

For the country’s indigenous peoples, the work of the CICIG and the Public Prosecutor’s Office had offered them support against those who, protected by impunity, had been grabbing their lands and committing acts of violence against their communities. The non-renewal of CICIG’s mandate thus leaves them more vulnerable to attacks both from clandestine groups and from arbitrary government decisions against their collective rights.

Imposing consultation on the Xinca people

There has been a long-running legal dispute brought by the Xinca people’s organisations to suspend a silver mine known as the El Escobal de Minera San Rafael Project from operating on their territory, in San Rafael Las Flores municipality, Santa Rosa department. This mine is owned by Tahoe Resources, a transnational mining company specialising in gold and silver mining, with its head offices in Vancouver, Canada, and investments in Canada, Guatemala and Peru. Their mining licence was granted without any consideration of the peoples living in the immediate vicinity and without implementing any prior consultation process.

Faced with complaints and calls for constitutional protection submitted to the Xinca People’s Parliament, the organisation representing the Xinca people, the Supreme Court of Justice issued a ruling on 5 July 2017 ordering a suspension in the mine’s activities due to the lack of a consultation process with the Xinca. In September 2018,2 the Constitutional Court passed its final judgement in which it confirmed the suspension and made the mine’s reopening conditional upon immediately holding a community consultation, to be organised by the Ministry of Energy and Mines, in line with ILO C169. The government therefore approved a kind of regulation governing consultations, a mechanism that the Constitutional Court had demanded of the Ministry of Labour due to another case related to the Oxec I and Oxec II hydroelectric projects affecting the indigenous Q’eqchi’ territory in Alta Verapaz department. These consultations would not be binding, given that the company would be able to continue operating once they had taken place regardless of their outcome, but the Xinca communities nevertheless intended to use them to confirm their opposition to this extractive project.

The final ruling of the Constitutional Court was based on specialist studies commissioned from the San Carlos de Guatemala and Valle universities that showed that the mining activity’s area of influence was located within the ancestral and current territory of the Xinca people, the existence of which had largely been denied by the mining company. This mining project is large scale in terms of its investment and production potential, making it the second-largest in the world. More than USD 550 million has been invested and it is intended to extract around 20 million ounces of silver a year over a 19-year period. In November 2018, Tahoe Resources announced the sale of all its shares to the US company Pan American Silver, for USD 1.6 million.3 This company states that it is the largest silver mining company in the world, with mines in Canada, Mexico, Peru, Bolivia and Argentina.4

Upcoming general elections 2019

General elections are planned for 2019 to elect the president, vice-president, parliamentary representatives and local authorities. These elections will take place in accordance with amendments to the Electoral and Party Political Law approved in 2016, including a ban on re-electing deputies that have changed political party during their time in office; greater controls to avoid unlawful electoral financing; and restrictions on publicity. These are three elements that had previously turned elections into events in which organised crime and companies financing the candidates would buy goodwill to ensure public works contracts.

With the aim of stopping the abuse of political parties’ advertising campaigns, the Association of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán (Asociación de los 48 Cantones de Totonicapán), a body representing more than 200,000 K’iché inhabitants of Totonicapán municipality, passed an agreement banning all political paintings in the streets, highways and natural spaces around the community.

Reforms aimed at ensuring gender parity and greater ethnic representation among the candidates were not approved, however, and so no changes are expected in the current diversity of the parliamentary structures, in which only 10% of the 158 congressmen and women are of indigenous origin. Despite the likelihood of at least three indigenous candidates for President and Vice-President, the country is still very far from achieving an indigenous leader, even with an indigenous majority in the country; this is clearly a product of the discrimination, racism and cronyism that runs through Guatemalan society.

Little change in indigenous exclusion and poverty

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights presented its 2017 Annual Report on 21 March, a report which demonstrates, yet again, that the fundamental rights of historically excluded and vulnerable peoples, including indigenous peoples, are being violated in Guatemala. The information indicates that 79.2% of the indigenous population live in poverty, a figure similar to previous years, meaning there has been no significant change in terms of overcoming poverty or social exclusion. Reports on the level of achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals indicate that Guatemala is the only Central American country where poverty has not declined but has, in fact, increased, evidencing the government’s lack of interest in resolving the country’s social and economic problems.

One example of this situation can be seen in the minimum wage, which has not been increased for the coming year. At the end of December, the government announced that the minimum wage would not be raised, despite evidence of an increase in the cost of living. 

Increased repression against indigenous activists

2018 was particularly difficult for indigenous peoples in terms of the repression suffered by their activists. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights indicated in a press release dated 31 October that at least 20 indigenous leaders had been murdered during the year, largely activists defending their lands, territories and other rights. Juana Raymundo, indigenous leader of the Ixil people, was kidnapped and murdered near Nebaj, Quiché, the town of her birth. These situations are reminiscent of the worst years of the internal armed conflict suffered by the country, a period that people thought was now behind them.

General Efraín Ríos Montt dies without being convicted of genocide

The 2013 trial of military personnel accused of the genocide of the Ixil indigenous population found General Efraín Ríos Montt guilty of this crime but, following pressure from the dominant elites, this verdict was annulled by the Constitutional Court, forcing a re-trial.

Five years later, on 3 August 2018,5 a different court again ruled that he had committed atrocities against the Ixil people in a plan of systematic extermination implemented by the army, and the surviving defendants were each sentenced to 40 years in prison, thus ratifying the 2013 conviction. However, the main defendant, Ríos Montt, had already died on 1 April 2018 and so was never convicted of crimes against humanity in relation to the Ixil population. 

Notes and references

  1. See A/HRC/39/17/Add.3 at http://bit.ly/2T3mDbo

  2. See Plaza Pública, “El fallo de la Corte: Los xincas serán consultados sin margen a oposición y la Mina San Rafael seguirá operando” at http://bit. ly/2T3clrr

  3. See Tahoe Resources at http://bit.ly/2T0tKRE

  4. See Pan American Silver at http://bit.ly/2T2lDEe

  5. See Publinews, “Caso por genocidio llega a su fase final, el MP emite sus conclusiones” at http://bit.ly/2T1tEt7

Silvel Elías is a Lecturer at the School of Agronomy, San Carlos de Guatemala University, where he coordinates the Rural and Territorial Studies Programme, PERT-FAUSAC.



IWGIA - International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs - is a global human rights organisation dedicated to promoting, protecting and defending indigenous peoples’ rights. Read more.

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