On February 21st and 22nd, wide-scale mobilisations of indigenous communities brought Guatemala’s busy transport network to an abrupt halt. The peaceful demonstrations demanded the approval of a constitutional reform that would legally recognize indigenous justice as part of the country’s judicial system.
On a normal day, the road junction of Los Encuentros heaves with traffic from the crack of dawn. Located on the Pan-American Highway, it acts as the portal to all of Western Guatemala. For two days, protestors carrying handmade signs and led by their respective community leaders blockaded this crossroad, permitting no transport to pass. The nearby indigenous departmental capital of Sololá was deserted; not a car in sight nor shop windows open as residents turned out to protest.
Indigenous Justice in Guatemala
The proposed reforms to the Guatemalan Constitution would legally recognise the justice systems that have existed and evolved over centuries within indigenous communities, provided that they conform to international human rights law. The lengthy process of negotiation between indigenous leaders and government representatives has been facilitated by the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and supported by other international bodies.
In November 2016, the reform bill was narrowly defeated with 103 of the 105 votes required to pass. In February 2017, Congress was scheduled to discuss the issue again, but members refused, postponing the debate for a further week. Two weeks later, Congress was no closer to a decision, and indigenous communities across Guatemala took their frustrations to the streets.
Indigenous justice systems currently co-exist legally alongside state systems in other Latin American countries, including Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Mexico. Other forms of pluralism are also already in place in many indigenous towns of Guatemala, where municipal and indigenous mayoral offices coexist.
Leaders from indigenous towns are quick to emphasize the efficacy of their justice systems. They point out the thousands of cases resolved each year at the community level, saving money and time for Guatemala’s overburdened criminal justice system. In the state system, cases may run over months or years and incur expensive legal fees. Local justice systems, on the other hand, can cater to indigenous communities, whose members often cannot afford to travel or pay legal fees and who may only be able to speak their indigenous mother tongue.
“The way we resolve problems is quick, it’s economical, it’s reparative,” says Ana Laynez Herrera, an indigenous leader from the Maya Ixil community of Nebaj. “If the reforms were approved, this would strengthen both the ‘ordinary’ system and the indigenous justice systems alike, and it would strengthen the harmony between all Guatemalans.”
However, such systems attract questions about the use of public humiliation and physical punishments. The accessibility of justice for women is also problematic, considering Guatemala’s highly patriarchal social structure and values. However, women are increasingly represented within indigenous power structures, including within the justice sphere, and studies have shown that indigenous justice systems provide the best environment for indigenous women to tackle issues of inequality and oppression.
A society divided
In Guatemala, divisions between the dominant “mestizo” class and indigenous, predominantly Maya, communities run deep. These indigenous groups have suffered intense discrimination and violence throughout history, and today are disproportionately likely to suffer from poverty and a lack of access to basic services such as education and healthcare.
The polarised nature of the debate over the justice reforms has clearly exposed these deep social divides. Opposers of the amendment claim that allowing judicial pluralism could cause legal confusion and widen divisions within society. However, some indigenous leaders view this as another instance of discrimination and disregard for indigenous peoples’ rights.
This notion is not unfounded — throughout the negotiation process, indigenous authorities have expressed their openness to dialogue, but have consistently been met with resistance. Herrera expressed disappointment at this situation: “Despite the contribution of the indigenous [justice] system, the ‘ordinary’ system has not wanted to take it into account. Proof of this was yesterday, when some congress members left their seats, invisibilizing and disregarding the presence of the indigenous authorities.”
The indigenous peoples of Guatemala have been fighting for centuries for recognition from the state. This mass mobilization evidenced this ongoing determination and commitment to the realization of indigenous rights. Yet, despite the thousands of demonstrators disrupting traffic along the length of the Pan-American Highway, local and international news remained largely silent.
Indigenous leaders often view this response from the media as something that delegitimizes the validity of their rights. Herrera responds, “The traditional sector are afraid. Why? Because they have had almost 500 years of domination (…) So, they want to keep dominating. But I think that we, the indigenous peoples, are not going to continue to allow this domination.”
Amy Porter holds an MSc in Globalisation and Latin American Development. In the past, she has been Amnesty International UK’s Country Coordinator for Guatemala, and written for UK-Central America solidarity magazines and websites. She is currently based in Guatemala.
Anna Watts also contributed writing to this article. She is a documentary photographer based in Guatemala.