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Access to Justice

María Magdalena: The Mayan teacher under house arrest for defending the rights of indigenous landowners in Guatemala

In El Estor, Guatemala, indigenous women lead the fight for land rights despite added risk of violence and stigma.

María Magdalena Cuc Choc, a community leader and human rights defender, is currently under house arrest for her work protecting indigenous Mayan communities. Photo: Federación Guatemalteca de Escuelas Radiales, FGER María Magdalena Cuc Choc, a community leader and human rights defender, is currently under house arrest for her work protecting indigenous Mayan communities. Photo: Federación Guatemalteca de Escuelas Radiales, FGER

For the last 15 years teacher María Magdalena Cuc Choc, (43), has dedicated her life to the protection of human rights and the rights of the Q’eqchí people from El Estor in northern Guatemala.

As a bilingual Q’eqchí-Spanish speaker she has also acted as interpreter for community members facing criminalisation and court hearings With swathes of tropical rainforest, smoke-spewing volcanoes, and misty lakes, Guatemala is one of the most beautiful and diverse countries in the world. However, poverty and inequality are persistently high, with Indigenous communities continuing to bear the brunt.

Poverty rates average 79%, with 35% suffering from food insecurity. Land is one of the most important resources for those living in El Estor which consists largely of Q’eqchí speaking indigenous people. A lack of access continues to be one of the main causes of poverty and violence in the region.

María and her family were themselves forced to flee their lands and stay in hiding during the country’s 36-year civil war. Now, the single mother of four children is determined to end the victimisation and criminalisation of indigenous communities and campaign for their justice and rights.

“This will not happen again on our lands,” says María, speaking about repeated evictions and dispossession the Q’eqchí people are experiencing.

María has been active in documenting and condemning human rights and environmental violations carried out by companies related to mining and African palm, as well as land grab by local landowners.

Human rights violations of Q’eqchí communities in El Estor date back to Guatemala’s long running civil war. The army opened fire on men, women, and children from the Q’eqchí community who had gathered peacefully to demand a solution to land rights conflicts in the town of Panzós, only miles from El Estor. Dozens of people, including children, were sadly killed and many more were injured in the tragedy.

María has been outspoken in demanding justice against high profile corporations for alleged sexual violence against indigenous women, and for the alleged murder of her brother-in-law in 2009.

In January 2018 she was serving as a Q’eqchí -Spanish translator for the community of Rubel Pek at a judicial hearing. After the hearing, she was arbitrarily detained by the police without warrant.

She was then notified that one year before the prosecutor’s office issued an arrest warrant against her. She was charged with aggravated trespassing, threats, and illegal detention. The request for her arrest is allegedly linked to a complaint submitted by a company controlled by former state officials.

This hearing has been rescheduled and is yet to take place. Meanwhile María continues to live her life within the constraints of house arrest. The victimisation of this Mayan community is relentless. As recently as October they were again targeted for peacefully protesting the continued environmental destruction of the area.

At least 600 police and anti-riot officers were deployed to break up the protest and used tear gas and beat the unarmed civilians The government declared a 30-day state of siege in the region, restricting the movement of people.

María has experienced health problems because of her campaigning and has had to sell her farm animals to feed her children. “This work wears us down, physically, emotionally and economically.”

Despite the continued challenges, she has not given up.

“My territory is sacred. I call on Guatemalan women, women across Latin America – and not just women but everyone – to work together, sharing the resources we have and showing these empires that we have not been defeated. Only through unity can we remain strong.”

Campaigns to criminalise women like María and delegitimise their work often results in them being attacked based on their gender. Sexual violence against female land rights defenders and their daughters is used as an intimidation technique.

How Trócaire is supporting indigenous Mayan women like María

Trócaire, through Irish Aid funding and support from local partners, has supported María by providing legal and psychosocial support to deal with some of the adverse effects of her criminalisation. When she was arrested, Trócaire also provided an emergency fund through the International Land Coalition to cover some family expenses.

For over 10 years, Trócaire has continued to support Mayan Q’eqchí communities in their struggle to defend their rights to land and water from extractive industry and agribusiness, and to fulfil their right to free prior and informed consent.

Learn more about our work in Guatemala here.


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