Violence, Indigeneities and Human Rights

Arturo Arias
The University of Texas at Austin


     Picture Courtesy of James Rodríguez

      Juan de León Tuyuc Velasquez (Kaqchikel Maya), was killed on January 15, 2014 in Sololá by unknown gunmen. Velasquez was the brother of Rosalinda Tuyuc, founder of the National Association of Guatemalan Widows (CONAVIGUA), a leading human rights organization representing Indigenous women whose husbands were killed in the Guatemalan civil war (1960—1996). In June 1982, the Guatemalan Army kidnapped and murdered their father, Francisco Tuyuc. In 1985, Rosalinda Tuyuc’s husband suffered the same fate. In 1994, she founded the National Coordination of Widows of Guatemala (CONAVIGUA for its Spanish acronym). Rosalinda Tuyuc was elected as to Congress in 1995, one of only a handful of Maya representatives ever to serve. In 1994 she was decorated by the French National Order of the Legion of Honor for her humanitarian activities. Her brother Juan de León, in turn, worked tirelessly for the transformation of social inequality and injustice that greatly affects Maya communities.

Tuyuc Velasquez’s murder is emblematic of the multiple assassinations of Maya leaders taking place in Guatemala at present, despite the fact that, in theory, the country ended its 36-year old civil war in 1996 and technically is now a democracy, if by this we understand exclusively free and fair elections to choose a new president every four years. Yet the never-ending continuum of murderous practices over political negotiation evidences that, structural racism, militarism and impunity are by no means problems of the past. Indeed, evidence indicates that the killing of historical and contemporary leaders has increased in this century, instead of waning after the signing of peace accords.

Let me add a further example of structural violence. On April 9, 2013, Maya K’iche’ scholar Francisca Gómez Grijalva, one of only two Maya columnists in Guatemalan newspapers and a holder of a Ph.D. in Political Sciences from the University of Granada (Spain), described in her weekly column Ukemik Na’oj (“our” knowledge; that is, Maya knowledge) how on August 23, 2012, a security guard of Hidroeléctrica Santa Rita, S.A., a hydroelectric power station imposed on a Maya Q’eqchi’ community against its will and despite their continuous protestations, suddenly appeared at the house of community leader David Chen. When he could not find him, he intimidated the father and brother of Chen, prior to shooting two Q’eqchi’ children, Isaac Güitz and David Estuardo Pacay, aged thirteen and eleven years old respectively. They died on August 26th the first, and on the 27th, the second.

As Gómez Grijalva adds, this hydroelectric power station is owned by Inver Energy, a partner of U.S. owned Duke Energy, to which, in 2008, The Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines gave authorization to build over the Dolores River, near the town of Cobán. The Ministry’s authorization was secretive. Needless to say, there was no consultation with Maya Q´eqchi´, Poqomchi´, or Achi families, despite the fact that they depended on this river for survival, as well as for the preservation of the local ecosystem. Amanda Fulmer, Angelina Snodgrass Godoy and Philip Neff has written a similar critique of the Marlin mine in San Marcos, which she argues, typifies “the newly emerging kinds of encounters between global corporations and local communities that will define the twenty-first century” (112—113).

Numberless indigenous accounts of this nature articulate political and cultural critiques of the never-ending junctures of racism, violence and overall abjection in which their communities have been submerged. The racialization process that took place shortly after the 16th century Spanish invasion recurs grotesquely to this day, a “macabre experience of genocide and ecocide” as Adam Lifshey names it (2), questioning the legitimacy of Eurocentric attempts to inscribe human rights within their phantasmatic representations of nation-building in the Americas. Indigenous textualities formulate contestatory heterogeneous critiques that, inevitably, fall within the purview of decolonial perspectives signaling new directions for the future and providing a critical framework on decolonial processes.

In the Latin American context, it is impossible to separate indigenous decolonial maneuvers from the violence and the violation of human rights suffered by these populations in most countries with sizable native communities. We are still witnessing these deplorable conditions in nations otherwise heterogeneous among themselves, such as Guatemala, Peru, and Chile, to just cite a few, where violence, including rape, femicide, assassinations, or torture, still take place on a daily basis against an array of indigenous groups, including Mayas, Quechuas, or Mapuches, to name but the larger and better known ethnicities.

In April 2013, when an array of Maya Ixil women testified in the trial against General Efraín Ríos Montt, the de facto Guatemalan head of state in 1982 and 1983. Ríos Montt was accused of genocide and crimes against humanity for his role in the massacres, forced displacement, rape and torture of Guatemala’s Maya Ixil population. During the trial, one Ixil woman after another described military incursions on their villages, indiscriminate massacres, rape, torture, and forced dislocation into the mountains where victims faced starvation and military bombing campaigns. Multiple witnesses described being treated “like animals.” Judging a Dictator recounts some of the horrific testimonies. I cite only one in this short article:

Elena Caba limped to the witness stand to tell the court of the April 3, 1982 massacre in which soldiers killed 96 people. Caba, then eight or nine years old, nearly died: soldiers stripped her naked and threw her from a bridge into a river. When she landed in a pool in the river, and injured herself but did not die, the soldiers above threw rocks and shot at her, hitting her foot with a bullet. She saw many dead bodies in the river, but was able to swim to the riverbank and hide, and eventually flee. Her family was not so lucky; soldiers fatally shot her younger siblings, aged four, three, and one; hacked her father to death with a machete after shooting him; and killed her mother. (4)

These aggrieved indigenous women, however, did not intend to send the aged and ailing general to jail. All they wanted was that the general apologize to them.

For most of the last 500 years, the non-recognition of indigenous subjectivity has remained nearly constant. Perhaps because of this, no agreement on the rights of Indigenous peoples has been adopted by the UN General Assembly. Their impotence reminds us that indigeneities remain outside of a cultural re-centering that enables most global subjects to learn from and share with the their cultures’ experience and see them in contrast to other disciplines of knowledge, especially Western forms of knowledge.

Violence from a decolonial perspective would indeed point in this direction, one that makes the indigenous subject unsettled in its daily life along the terms of Saskia Sassen (2009, 228), pointing in the direction of worthless subjects, those considered by global capitalism “without value,” even if mapped, embodied, and performed. In this logic, indigenous subjectivities are not only subject to violence, but also deprived of basic human rights, as are all discardable beings. Nevertheless, the analytic foundations of these modes of thinking produce a place-based epistemology that inevitably articulates a new theoretical and political logic. It confirms, to summon Peruvian anthropologist Marisol de la Cadena (2007) that heightening social conflict, new citizens’ protagonism, and abandonment of traditional political party practices can lead to the ontological-political de-centering of modern politics.

Arturo Arias
Tomás Rivera Professor of Spanish Language and Literature
Dept. of Spanish and Portuguese
UT Austin.

DISCLAIMER: The views expressed on this blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position and views of LLILAS BENSON Latin American Studies and Collections.

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