Sometimes indigenous and rural activists in Central America are targeted for being environmentalists. Other times, they are targeted in the name of environmentalism. A report from Mexico brings worrisome news: Last week, on June 2, the Guatemalan military and National Police drove 700 Guatemalans from the Petén community of Laguna Larga, a majority of them women, children, and older people, out of their homes into the Mexican state of Campeche. The objective of the eviction was to clear people off nature-reserve lands, though other interests were at play. The refugees had to work their way through the lowland jungle in the rainy season, apparently pursued by a military helicopter.
In the 1980s, as the Guatemalan military executed its genocidal scorched-earth campaign, which included the destruction of hundreds of villages and the commission of over 600 massacres, more than a million Guatemalans were driven from their homes. Many escaped into the mountains and jungle lowlands, where they organized themselves into clandestine Communities of Population in Resistance. For over a decade, they eluded the military’s efforts to track them down and forcibly resettle them in strategic hamlets under army control. Many thousands fled into Mexico, into Chiapas and Campeche, some staying for decades. So news of last week’s eviction raised fears of a new “exodus” of Guatemalan refugees.
In Mexico last week, the Guatemalans were provided aid by local officials and by the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). But they were also harassed by Mexico’s immigration interdiction agency, the Instituto Nacional de Migración, which basically acts as the advance guard of the US deportation regime. The last thing Mexico’s federal government wants, as it ruthlessly captures economic migrants from Central America, is yet another humanitarian crisis similar to the 1980s one on its southern border.
According to Luis Solano, an investigative reporter with deep knowledge of the Petén, the refugees don’t want to be treated as refugees. They want to return to their homes. The reason the military drove them out was to execute a court ruling, which found in favor of Guatemala’s National Council of Protected Areas of Guatemala (CONAP, in Spanish) in its effort to clear the settlers out of the region’s protected nature reserve. Sounds good, right—protect nature? Except that in the Petén, what passes for “environmentalism” often masks a toxic mix of crime, corruption, and counterinsurgency (Tony Andersson is writing a terrific dissertation, “Environmentalists with Guns,” on this subject, covering the period from the 1940s up until the official end of Guatemala’s armed conflict in 1996).
Solano says there are 37 communities located in what is known as the Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre, locked in a fight for recognition of their rights to live and work. Although the Guatemalan government and the country’s big newspapers often portray that fight as a conflict between squatters and conservationists, the interests are much murkier. “The problem for the communities in the Parque Nacional Laguna del Tigre,” says Solano, “is that they are located on land where military, economic (oil extraction, agribusiness, including biofuel production, and tourism), and extra-economic interests (including drug trafficking, ‘narco-planters,’ and ‘narco-ranchers,’) intersect. They are subject to the corrupt political structures and narco-power that dominate the region, in collusion with the main oil company, Perenco” (for more on Perenco, see here).