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May 7, 2018

Abelino Chub Caal, an indigenous Q’eqchi leader in northeast Guatemala, was sitting down to lunch with his wife and children in the town of San Pedro Carchá, when he was approached by police and arrested without explanation. He was later charged with aggravated land grabbing, arson, coercion, illicit association, and association with illegal armed groups, based on a complaint filed by Cobra Investments, a Guatemalan company owning banana plantations. He has now been in prison without trial for 15 months, and still no evidence has been presented to substantiate the charges brought against him.

Abelino is a university student and a volunteer with Guillermo Toriello Foundation, an organization dedicated to the implementation of the Peace Accords following the end of the Guatemalan Civil War. He was targeted because he had worked tirelessly for the land rights of indigenous Q’eqchi communities and attempted to mediate conflicts with large agricultural plantations that have been pushing out impoverished indigenous farmers. Agroindustry, particularly the palm oil and mining industries, is taking indigenous land in the region.

The justice system in Guatemala has a long history of being used to hold innocent indigenous political prisoners for years with delayed trial proceedings. A hearing on his case has been scheduled for May 8. This hearing has already been postponed twice in recent months, once because the police failed to transfer Abelino to the court from jail, and a second time because a prosecuting attorney failed to show. International scrutiny is needed to make sure that the case is not further postponed and that Abelino is not held for trial unjustly.

Conflict over land has been recognized by the US government as being the major cause of the Guatemalan Civil War which included a genocidal military campaign against Maya communities by the ruling elite. Today, only 2.5% of the farms control two-thirds of the land in Guatemala.

The Peace Accords, supported by international donors such as the United States, European governments and the World Bank, promised to address the problems of extreme inequality and lack of land for indigenous communities. Instead the donors and the Guatemalan government have allowed large-scale plantations to continue to expand at the expense of indigenous communities, leading to new tension and conflict. Agribusinesses wishing to grow crops like palm oil for the processed food and biofuels industries in countries like the United States rely on corruption and use the justice system to persecute indigenous land rights defenders. They intimidate them with the prospect of months and years in jail before even coming to trial.

Over the last decade the United States and other international donors have successfully supported United Nations assistance to Guatemala, enabling an independent prosecutor’s office that has brought charges against political leaders and businessmen for human rights violations and corruption. However, it is time that donors exert pressure on Guatemala’s justice system to extend reforms into the countryside so that it can’t be used as a political tool against community leaders.

Tragically Abelino Chub Caal’s case is not unique. Hundreds of arrest warrants have been issued against community leaders and rights defenders in Guatemala based on unsubstantiated complaints. Impunity for threats, attacks, false arrests and practically indefinite detentions of rights defenders must end.

** This blog was updated on May 8 at 10:56 AM EDT.