GUATEMALA BLOG SERIES #3 Land conflicts, violence and… a way forward?

September 2018, by Jur Schuurman

A few weeks ago, an international fact-finding mission led by the International Land Coalition (ILC) visited Guatemala. The reason: from January to July 2018, 18 leaders and members of Guatemalan movements defending human rights were killed – without any suspects being rounded up, not even the usual ones.

13 of these men and women were active in defending land and territorial rights, protesting against arbitrary evictions and negative spillovers because of hydroelectric projects and the like. Several of them were active for ILC member organisations in Guatemala, of which there are four. Particularly CODECA (Committee for Peasant Development) and CCDA (Farmers’ Committee for the Altiplano) were hit hard by the killings.

Guatemala is a violent country: the homicide rate is lower than in the other two Northern Triangle countries (Honduras and El Salvador)[1], but still, many issues are ‘solved’ with arms, and land conflicts (of which there are some 1,450 to be resolved[2]) are no exception. To discuss the causes for this centuries-old propensity to use force would be beyond the scope of this blog; suffice it to say that the arrival of the Spaniards in 1524 unleashed an arbitrary and intimidatory style of land appropriation, mainly aimed at indigenous people and persisting to this day.

The ILC mission, whose main goal was, besides visiting affected communities and organisations, to have talks with Guatemalan authorities at different levels on how to end this wave of violence, concluded that it takes a leap of faith to expect much of those same authorities. The mission had every reason to believe that they don’t have the capacity nor political will to deal with this problem: “Instead of upholding the human rights of individuals and communities, the legal and judicial systems are being used to advance the interests of powerful state and non-state groups against the interests of local communities”[3]. And indeed, in general most observers agree that the government, parliament included, is an instrument of the elites in Guatemala, and by no means a body that acts accountably and on a mandate by the voters. That is not how the political system works in Guatemala. A telling quote from a newspaper article in the aftermath of the mission illustrates this. In reaction to demands by forty civil society organisations in Guatemala that the killings be investigated, the Attorney General responded that ‘we would have to look into this’.[4] Somehow that does not sound right.

All in all, a bleak picture emerges, with one of its salient aspects being the almost total absence of policy dialogue on land in Guatemala: not in general, nor in specific cases. The right to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) by communities, as advocated in the Voluntary Guidelines on Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGTs), is paid lip-service in the government’s Agrarian Policy (2014), but in fact does not exist. It is therefore only timely that, also in August, a seminar was organised in Guatemala City with the explicit ambition to find ways to make progress in the application of the VGGTs to land governance in the country.[5] The results are not yet known but hopefully they will be available in about a month.  To be continued…


Juana Raymundo (25) of CODECA, tortured and murdered on 27 July 2018


[1] InSight Crime: 2017 homicide rates in Latin American and the Caribbean (, retrieved 19 August 2018)

[2] FAO-Guatemala: Nota técnica para el Seminario ‘Gobernanza de la Tenencia de la Tierra y Perspectivas Productivas para Guatemala’. 17 July, 2018.

[3] ILC/Front Line Defenders/Civicus: Press release – International Mission in Guatemala on violations to defenders of land and the environment (10 August 2018). (, retrieved 19 August 2018)

[4] Piden agilizar acciones. Prensa Libre, 20 August 2018. See

[5] FAO-Guatemala: Guatemala busca implementar eficientemente la Gobernanza de la Tenencia de la Tierra para el desarrollo (, retrieved 19 August 2018)


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