What you need to know about the indigenous women protesting in Guatemala

Late last month, one thousand indigenous women took to the streets of Guatemala City to protest the violent militarization of their communities fueled by a powerful Guatemalan cement company. Their persistent and courageous organizing has helped to highlight the regular abuses of power in Guatemala and the rest of Central America that disproportionately hurt indigenous and rural communities. 

Indigenous Guatemalan women stand holding signs in protest of the cement factory.

A group of indigenous women protest against the construction of a cement plant at Cruz Blanca village in Sacatepec Department of Guatemala Nov. 27, 2013. (Xinhua/Luis Echeverria) Image Credit

What started the protests?

Once built, Progreso Cement’s San Gabriel cement factory will stand as one of the largest factories of its kind in Latin America and cause huge disruptions to the livelihood of the surrounding indigenous Kaqchikel communities. Since the beginning of the factory’s construction, community members have been organizing to hold the Guatemalan government accountable to its promise to consult indigenous communities on projects that affect them. And though they have never actually been consulted on the project, indigenous activism has certainly affected its progress.

Apparently, Progreso Cement had enough, because on September 19, workers from the cement factory came into a local town and opened fire, inciting retaliatory violence from indigenous community members who then tried to block their exit. Over the course of a few hours, 11 people were killed, and 20 wounded. This was not the first attempt at stirring up conflict on the part of factory employees — in fact, human rights defenders contend that the company has been trying to create an excuse for increased policing in the area.

A few days after the massacre, a State of Prevention was implemented in San Juan Sacatepequez. Under this law, public protests, meetings, and gatherings are prohibited, along with strikes or the bearing of arms. Essentially, the right to organize against powerful corporations is being criminalized, as enforced by the 2,000 police and military personnel sent in to “maintain the peace.”

Unsurprisingly, in the first 15 days under the State of Prevention, San Juan Sacatepequez residents reported over 1,300 human rights violations, among them 68 instances of sexual harassment of women by soldiers and police officers. Community members’ mobility was severely limited as many feared for their safety. The police presence even took a toll on the local economy as local farmers could not travel to tend their crops or sell their produce.

This sounds familiar. Hasn’t something like this happened before?

During the Guatemalan Civil War (1960-1996) the government’s favorite strategy to repress and terrorize was the militarizatation of civilian life. Police forces throughout the country dictated and took hundreds of thousands of lives, most of them indigenous Maya.

What is now being called a “State of Prevention” was referred to as a “State of Siege” back then. In 1970, then president President Arana imposed a nationwide curfew from 9 pm – 5 am under this title. This is the same guy who once stated that “If it is necessary to turn the country into a cemetery in order to pacify it, I will not hesitate to do so.” Needless to say, this move allowed the government to continue targeting and killing anyone who threatened its power, including journalists, academics, left-leaning politicians, and even street children. Women suffered immensely during the war, and sexual violence was used as a tool of terror.

In other words: the Guatemalan people have a particularly horrific history that is being replayed in San Juan Sacatepequez.

How are people responding?

Upon learning that the State of Prevention would be extended for another 15 days, one thousand Kaqchikel women traveled to Guatemala City to call for an end to the violence and repression in San Juan Sacatepequez. This protest was amazing not just because of the women’s powerful message, or their dedication, but also for their bravery. For many of these women, publicly coming out as human rights defenders puts them at all kinds of risk. Women activists who step out of traditional cultural roles within indigenous and rural communities can face sexism or social stigma from their family and friends. But they also face increased violence from the state for challenging the abuse of power. In fact, soon after the march, community leader Barbara Diaz Sunin was accused of being involved in September 19 massacre and arrested in another attempt by the state at silencing and threatening community leaders.

These women are risking their lives to defend their community and stand up to a government that has killed activists like themselves before. If that’s not feminist, I don’t know what is.

How is militarization and policing being used in your community to prevent people of color from mobilizing? And how are you supporting them in pushing back?


“My neighborhood, your neighborhood.” All struggles are connected. Image Credit

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Bay Area, California

Juliana is a digital storyteller for social change. As a writer at Feministing since 2013, her work has focused on women's movements throughout the Americas for environmental justice, immigrant rights, and reproductive justice. In addition to her writing, Juliana is a Senior Campaigner at Change.org, where she works to close the gap between the powerful and everyone else by supporting people from across the country to launch, escalate and win their campaigns for justice.

Juliana is a Latina feminist writer and campaigner based in the Bay Area.

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