The government of Guatemala has imposed a “state of prevention” in the central municipality of San Juan Sacatepequez, sending in security forces and suspending civil liberties after 11 people died in clashes over plans to build a cement factory there. This strategy has become a familiar pattern in the country, where civil society groups say there is a chronic lack of dialogue with communities over development projects.
The violence in the municipality began on Friday, after residents in favor and against a proposed cement factory and highway clashed. Eight people were reportedly killed in the initial violence, which continued through Saturday, and at least six vehicles and a house were burned.
On Monday authorities raised the death toll to 11, and President Otto Perez Molina declared a 15-day “state of prevention” in San Juan Sacatepequez. Protests, strikes and large gatherings of any kind are prohibited, Prensa Libre reports, and some 900 National Police officers have been sent in to secure the community.
The roots of the conflict are murky, and both sides in the dispute appear to have resorted to violence. According to El Periodico, the initial conflict was sparked when locals confronted an area man who worked for the cement company and sold it his land. He was allegedly given five hours to leave town, but when he refused, armed individuals surrounded his home and opened fire, ultimately killing him and his family.
However, The Human Rights Convergence – a coalition of Guatemalan human rights groups -- has offered a slightly different version of events. According to a Convergence press release, the victims were killed in retribution for the murder of two opponents of the cement factory, who were shot at a protest earlier in the day. Regardless of the cause, the Convergence directly faults the state for failing to send police officers to the area as the violence escalated early on.
While the duration of this state of prevention appears to be relatively short-term, it is the latest in a series of similar measures imposed in rural areas throughout the country in recent years. A months-long state of siege was declared in Peten province in mid-2011 after the massacre of several farmworkers, another one was imposed in Huehuetenango in May 2012 following hydroelectric project conflicts, and a state of siege was announced in Jalapa and Santa Rosa departments last year in response to mass protests against a mining project there.
In the face of domestic and international criticism of his handling of social conflicts, Perez Molina has sought to give greater resources to the National Dialogue System, a federal commission tasked with entering into dialogue with local communities to de-incentivize violence.
Nevertheless, these efforts have failed to stem criticism of the administration. As Oswaldo J. Hernandez detailed recently in an in-depth report for Plaza Publica, the dialogue system -- and the government in general -- is largely seen as in the pockets of the extraction industries. And human rights groups in the country, especially those that work in rural areas, view Perez Molina’s approach to social conflicts as a military-heavy extension of Civil War-era counterinsurgency strategy. This attitude is reinforced, as Hernandez notes, by the administration’s 2013 shift towards addressing social conflicts as matters of “national security.”
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