Last Updated: Friday, 24 October 2014, 15:39 GMT

Guatemala: Status of land issues for returning refugees and internally displaced

Publisher United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services
Author Resource Information Center
Publication Date 18 August 1999
Citation / Document Symbol GTM99001.ZLA
Cite as United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, Guatemala: Status of land issues for returning refugees and internally displaced, 18 August 1999, GTM99001.ZLA, available at: http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6a6a6c.html [accessed 26 October 2014]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Query:

What is the status of resettlement of Guatemalan refugees who fled during the civil conflict and those who were internally displaced?  Are land conflicts still a problem?

Response:

As of March 1999, some 468 million quetzales (about $63 million) had been spent to resettle 41,000 Guatemalans who had fled to Mexico during the civil war, but who returned under the terms of the peace agreement. Of that amount, some 57% was provided by the Guatemalan government, and the remainder by the international community. About 55% of the funding was used to purchase 31 tracts of land in various departments. (Prensa Libre, March 1999)

On May 13, 1999, the Congress passed legislation creating a Land Fund to aid in the resettlement of persons who were displaced by the war, but who did not leave Guatemala. The Fund is to be supervised by a council consisting of the minister of agriculture, a representative of the finance ministry, one member each from the National Council on Agricultural Development (Consejo Nacional de Desarrollo Agropecuario, CONADEA) and the Chamber of Agriculture, and from the Coordinating Committee of Mayan Peoples' Organizations (Coordinadora de Organizaciones del Pueblo Maya de Guatemala, COPMAGUA), the National Coordinating Committee of Peasant Organizations (Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas, CNOC), and the Confederation of Guatemalan Cooperatives (Confederación Guatemalteca de Federaciones de Cooperativas, CONFECOOP), as well as representatives from another peasant organization and another indigenous organization yet to be specified. (CAR, May 1999)

The Land Fund's objective is to provide credit on favorable terms to landless peasants for the purchase of land, as stipulated in the peace accords. The Fund has an initial balance of $43 million, and is expected to receive further contributions from international sources. It will replace the National Institute for Agrarian Transformation (Instituto Nacional de Transformación Agraria, INTA) which is to be phased out over the next ten years. (CAR, May 1999)  INTA's role has been to distribute state land to state-organized peasant cooperatives. (Barry, 1992)

With the Land Fund only beginning to get under way, land conflicts continue to flare up in rural Guatemala.  The National Land Commission (Comisión Nacional de la Tierra, CONTIERRA) reported 238 such cases in 1998, with the highest rate occurring in the department of Alta Verapaz (58 cases). (GHRC/USA, 16 January 1999)  In July 1999, the National Indigenous and Peasant Coordinating Committee (Coordinadora Nacional Indígena y Campesina, CONIC) complained about inadequate government support for solving land conflicts, pointing to some 68 cases still pending. (GHRC/USA 15 July 1999)

Immediately following are some representative cases from the past 16 months:

Ÿ         In late June 1999, national authorities intervened to head off a potentially violent face-off between 3,000 men from Nahuala, Sololá, and 100 families from the neighboring community of Santa María Ixtahuacán [near to or part of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán]. The latter had resettled on a hillside claimed by residents of Nahuala after their village was declared a high-risk zone for landslides in the aftermath of Hurricane Mitch. The men of Nahuala responded by massing nearby, armed with machetes. It took the intervention of the Army, the National Civilian Police (PNC), the United Nations Mission for the Verification of Human Rights in Guatemala (Minugua), and the National Coordinating Committee for Disaster Reduction (Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres, Conred) to head off confrontation and negotiate a peaceful outcome. In July, an agreement was announced under which the families from Santa María Ixtahuacán would be relocated to the Alaska region of Sololá. (Siglo Veintiuno, 1 July 1999; GHRC/USA, 15 July 1999)

Ÿ         On June 27, 1999, two peasants were arrested in San Jorge La Laguna on charges of aggravated robbery and injuries. The National Indigenous and Campesino Coalition (CONIC) [Another translation for CONIC is the National Indigenous and Peasant Coordinating Committee.] has contested the charges asserting that the real reason for the detention of Edgar Antonio Mendoza Cholotio and Mateo Xuruc was their efforts to win back lands neighboring plantation owners claim as their own. According to CONIC, "[t]he landlords, supposed owners of these lands, have forged documents and made false accusations to prevent the organized struggle of the campesinos." CONIC has also reported that, "[i]n response to pressure from plantation owners, the courts have issued more than 35 arrest warrants against campesinos in the municipality who are involved in land claims." Another peasant organization, the General Guatemala Workers Central (CGTG) has charged plantation owner Oscar Enrique Asturias Schlesinger with taking reprisals against farm workers who have dared to organize. The CGTG reported that "workers at Asturias' estate, 'New California,' in San Miguel Pochutla [Chimaltenango province], have been subject to firings, more difficult work and isolations from their peers, when they report any violations to the collective agreement between the owner and the farm's union" and that" [l]iving and labor conditions in general on the plantation threaten the health and safety of its workers." (Cerigua, 1 July 1999)

Ÿ         On April 21, 1999, Carlos Coc Rax, vice-president of the Pro-Development Association of the Mayan Queqchi [Kekchi is an alternate spelling.] People in El Estor, Izabal, disappeared. He had just returned from Guatemala City, where he had been seeking assistance in resolving land conflicts. He was last seen in the company of an employee of farm (finca) owner Waldemar Lorenzana, who had previously threatened to kill him. As of July, the authorities had yet to launch an investigation. (GHRC/USA, 15 July 1999)

Ÿ         On April 15, 1999, residents of Caserío Semuy, in San Francisco, Petén, complained to the National Civilian Police that they had received death threats from Jorge Víctor Orellana y Orellana, who claims ownership of the land on which they live. The peasants claimed to have been living on that land for five years, and that it had been abandoned when they moved in. Yet Orellana's name appears on the registry maintained by the National Institute for Agrarian Change (Instituto Nacional de Transformación Agraria, INTA). On April 11, according to the residents, Orellana arrived in their community with several dozen men, and burned four homes. (GHRC/USA, 30 April 1999)

Ÿ         In March 1999, the Peasant Unity Committee (Comité Unidad Campesina, CUC) filed a complaint with CONTIERRA against Israel Esquivel Vásquez, who claimed ownership of a farm (finca) in Semuc, Cahabón, Alta Verapaz. The peasants who settled on the tract in question claimed they were given the land by its owner, Jaime Champaney, prior to his death. Esquivel Vásquez countered that the deceased owed him for a debt, and that he wanted to use the land for reforestation. According to the CUC, he threatened to burn down the peasants' homes if they did not vacate within 15 days. (GHRC/USA, 17 March 1999)

Ÿ         In February 1999, the National Indigenous and Peasant Coordinating Committee (Coordinadora Nacional Indígena y Campesina, CONIC) commemorated a year of resistance against eviction by the occupants of the La Blanca farm in Ocos, San Marcos. CONIC claims the peasants are the rightful owners, having been assigned the land by the National Institute for Agrarian Transformation (Instituto Nacional de Transformación Agraria, INTA) in 1962-63. Yet INTA later assigned the land to others. Security forces acting on behalf of the more recent assignees have made three efforts to forcibly remove the occupants, with the loss of several lives, including Mauro Godoy, Gabino de León Taj and his wife Yolanda Ardon Soto, and Francisca Pérez Estéban. (GHRC/USA, 17 March 1999 and 15 July 1999)

Ÿ         In January 1999, the Foundation of the Centavo and residents of the San Antonio Buena Vista finca, Guanagazapa, Escuintla, signed an accord ending a land conflict that lasted more than seven years. Minugua, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Procurador de Derechos Humanos), and the Guillermo Toriello Foundation mediated the successful outcome. (GHRC/USA, 29 January 1999)

Ÿ         The neighboring hamlets of Coyá and Tziquinhuitz in the municipality of San Miguel Acatán, Huehuetenango, have been engaged in a land dispute. On August 13, 1998, a group of persons from Coyá held an angry protest in front of the town hall, causing the justice of the peace to flee. That led to negotiations with department authorities and representatives of the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (Procurador de Derechos Humanos) and the Presidential Human Rights Commission (Comisión Presidencial de Derechos Humanos). On August 23, while negotiations were still underway, the mayor, standing on the second level of the town hall and using a megaphone, warned that soldiers were present to "finish with" ("acabar con") the residents of Coyá. The following day, representatives of the 19th Military Zone showed up in Coyá to explain that the only reason for their presence was to maintain order. Given the fact that the Coyá area had been hard hit by counterinsurgency operations during the armed conflict, the implicit threat by the top municipal official to the 3,000 inhabitants of Coyá was of serious concern to Minugua. Yet as of March 1999 no judicial action had been taken against the mayor. (MINUGUA, 19 March 1999)

Ÿ         The hamlet of Juan Ponce, Gualán, Zacapa, has seen a string of murders influenced by longstanding conflicts over land between families, and by the alleged involvement of members of those families in gangs of delinquents. A report submitted to the National Civilian Police (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC) by the local army attaché states that a group of residents raised money to pay for the execution of suspected gang leaders, with the acquiescence and involvement of local authorities. One of those killed was Carlos Benedín Sosa. On April 13, 1998, he had filed a complaint with Minugua, stating that on April 3, five men had driven into Juan Ponce in a black pickup truck, firing in the air and threatening to kill him. Though their faces were covered, he was able to identify one of the men as  Luis Alfredo Moscoso Monroy, chief of the National Police (Policía Nacional) substation in Gualán. Amazingly, an auxiliary agent of the Public Ministry (Ministerio Público) chose to get in touch with Benedín Sosa by way of the very police chief denounced in the complaint. On April 20, Moscoso sent out agents to summon Benedín Sosa to appear the following morning at the Public Ministry in Zacapa. Just as he arrived in the vicinity of the Public Ministry on April 21, he was shot to death by unknown individuals who had been awaiting his arrival. (MINUGUA, March 1999)

This response was prepared after researching publicly accessible information currently available to the RIC within time constraints.  This response is not, and does not purport to be, conclusive as to the merit of any particular claim to refugee status or asylum.

References

Barry, Tom. Inside Guatemala (Albuquerque: Inter-Hemispheric Education Resource Center, 1992), p. 102.

Central America Report. "Legislature Approves Land Fund" (Guatemala City: Inforpress Centroamericana, Vol. 26, No. 19, 21 May 1999), p. 2.

Ceriguq Weekly Briefs. "Plantation Owners Harass Workers and Peasants," (Guatemala City: Centro de Reportes Informativos sobre Guatemala, No. 25, 1 July 1999), p. 1,3.

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "CONTIERRA Reports More than 200 Conflicts in 1998," Update (Washington, DC: No. 1, 16 January 1999).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "Land conflict resolved in Escuintla," Update (Washington, DC: No. 2, 29 January 1999).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA, "CONIC Commemorates Year of Resistance" Update (Washington, DC: No. 5-6, 17 March 1999).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "CUC Denounces New Land Conflict," Update (Washington, DC: No.5-6, 17 March 1999).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "Campesinos Denounce Land Conflict in Petén," Update (Washington, DC: No. 8, 30 April 1999).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "Ixtahuacán residents relocated," Update (Washington, DC: No. 13, 15 July 1999).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "Lack of Investigation into Indigenous Leader's Disappearance Denounced," Update (Washington, DC: No. 13, 15 July 1999).

Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. "Scant government collaboration for solving land problems," Update (Washington, DC, No. 13, 15 July 1999).

MINUGUA. Noveno Informe sobre Derechos Humanos de MINUGUA (Geneva: UN, A/53/853, 10 March 1999), ¶ 21.

MINUGUA. Suplemento al Noveno Informe sobre Derechos Humanos de MINUGUA, "Casos de violaciones a los derechos humanos" (Geneva: UN, A/53/953, Anexo, March 1999), ¶ 16-18 (Caso 4), ¶ 41-42 (Caso 9).

Prensa Libre, " Conflict: More Costs," (Guatemala City: 22 March 1999) - as reported on the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS). Exchange rate used (1 quetzal = 0.135 dollars) was that in effect on 12 August 1999.

Siglo Veintiuno, "Residents of Nahuala and Santa María Ixtahuacán on Brink of Massacre," (Guatemala City: 1 July 1999) - as reported on the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS).

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