GUATEMALA CITY – Fourteen people were injured and 30 others arrested on April 20 in scattered incidents across Guatemala as thousands of campesinos mounted protests to demand land reform.
The rallies were called by the National Coordinator of Indigenous and Campesino Organizations, or CONIC, to press President Oscar Berger to redress inequality in rural Guatemala, where, according to Amnesty International, 62.5% of the arable land is in the hands of just 1.5% of the population.
Though the largest gathering was in the capital, the reports of violence came from the southern province of Escuintla, and the western district of Quetzaltenango.
Four protesters were injured in the southern town of El Obero when police attempted to clear a Pacific coast road that was being blocked by more than a hundred campesinos.
Local firefighters said the four were struck by bullets and one witness told a radio station that police were responsible for the gunfire.
National Police director Erwin Sperissen denied the reports, and said the officers on the scene in El Obero were not carrying guns. He said the shots were fired by a private security guard from a local farm who was later arrested.
“They attacked us with stones, sticks and machetes,” a police spokesman in Escuintla told the local radio station, referring to the protesters blocking the road.
Sources at the National Hospital in Escuintla said that one of the four campesinos injured in El Obero – an 80-year-old man – was in critical condition from a blow to the head. Also injured in El Obero was a police officer, while eight protesters were arrested.
In Quetzaltenango, meanwhile, eight schoolteachers backing the CONIC protests were injured in separate clashes with police at various spots in the western province.
Authorities said that a total of 30 protesters were detained nationwide, including three minors.
More than 2,000 men, women and children marched in Guatemala City, pausing in front of the U.S. Embassy to shout slogans against the U.S.-Central American Free-Trade Agreement (CAFTA), before concluding their protest outside the former presidential palace.
The campesinos say CAFTA-style trade pacts expose them to unfair competition from subsidized producers in wealthy nations.
A member of CONIC’s leadership told reporters that Berger’s government does not have the political will to undertake genuine land reform and vowed that protests will continue until the President offers a positive response.
A report issued last month by Amnesty International said that since Berger became President in January 2004, Guatemala has seen an increase in the number and pace of forced evictions of peasants from land they claim as rightfully theirs.