In response, the company started advertising on local radio, saying that the electrical output of the dam would benefit the communities, and the energy generated would go to them. According to Hermelinda, the companies said “that they were going to plant trees, create jobs, and generate income for the women who would go to wash the clothes of the men who worked.” The company kept up its public-relations efforts, but most of the people in Barillas are still in opposition to the project. With a long history of marginalization, very few actually believe that the electricity generated from the dam would go to them.
Hermelinda further notes that there are still remote communities that don’t have full information, though their lives would be deeply impacted by the dam. Taking advantage of this situation, the company has purchased airtime on radio stations in these remote communities and on cable. They have also paid representatives to go to the communities and give them the company’s side of the story.
To Hermelinda, this is nothing more than misinformation. The company tells them “the supposed benefits and none of the disadvantages.”
Militarism And Violence
“Ever since the company arrived, we have had violence,” says Micaela, another organizer in the anti-hydroelectric-dam movement. In the case of Barillas, the company uses militarismo as a strategy to penetrate communities.”
According to Bezares, “people were arrested without being investigated first; and throughout the case the company has been linked to such men as Roberto Garrido Pérez.” Bezares listed charges against Garrido Pérez, saying he “is under investigation for ties to organized crime, drug trafficking, spying and for stealing millions. He is the company’s representative in the communities, the one who is supposed to facilitate community relations.”
Although martial law only lasted a short time, the area is still heavily militarized. To this day there are barracks and soldiers, and they are intimidating to community members. According to Bezares, other regions where projects are being pushed can be militarized as well, such as in La Puya where a gold extraction firm is meeting local resistance.
“Mining or hydroelectric dams, the model is the same,” says Bezares.
The Civil War Map Repeated
The future is unclear for Barillas and the community organizers. But there is something worth noting in the past that Rocael and his fellow organizers understand well. The reasons may be new, but the actions of marginalizing the indigenous communities are very old.
In our conversations it is made clear that the communities being targeted now by megaprojects, such as hydroelectric plants and gold mines, are also among the communities most affected by the civil war.
“Neoliberalism needed the conflict zones to be pacified in order to gain access to the zones’ natural resources. That’s why they were so interested in resolving the internal conflict,” says Bezares. “When the Spanish came, they took the arable land and sent everyone else into the high mountain zones. Now they come to find that there’s gold, mercury, rivers that can produce energy . . . So, are they going to kick us out of there, too? The story continues of indigenous people being crushed and pushed off of their lands.”
What is happening in Barillas is happening in other communities around Guatemala. Communities are threatened, and communities are uniting to resist those threats. And these contending forces are engaged at a time when the country’s business, military and political elite are realigning with unforeseeable results.
All the while, in Barillas, fear is still palpable with the continued military and police presence. It revives the community’s memories of criminal prosecutions, assassinations and deaths threats that took place during the armed conflict. The community remembers that local leaders were forced to leave because of terror and political persecution then, too.
From the perspective of the organizers in Barillas, the state looks much more like a militarized, counter-insurgency court using a narrative of dangerous internal enemies as an excuse to marginalize communities, than a democratic government which exists to protect their rights.
This situation is not new in human history. It has taken place in this part of the world at least since the time of colonization. But, in the eyes of the community organizers in Barillas, it continues — strong as ever — in this era of neoliberal capitalism.
Indigenous communities have suffered injustices under externally-imposed economic models for centuries. That history is knocking on the door of Barillas, again. This time in the form of a hydroelectric dam that they do not want.
As such, the Q’anjob’al Maya in Barillas continue organizing, rejecting fear, and their numbers continue to grow. This past February they organized a peaceful protest repeating their “no” to the imposition of Hidro Santa Cruz on their lands.
At that protest Ermitaño López, another community leader, said this: “We are here to let the President know that Santa Cruz Barillas doesn’t want the company here, we want to live in peace. That’s why we are carrying our flag, and a white flag, to show the world that Barillas wants to live in peace, and if we are to live in peace, Hidro Santa Cruz must go.”
Marta Molina is an independent journalist, originally from Barcelona, Spain. She has spent the past several years reporting on peace movements in the Middle East and Latin America. Please join the conversation by commenting on this piece below. More of her work can be found here and at www.wagingnonviolence.org. All photographs accompanying this story were taken by the author.