Defending the Defenders

The criminalization of Don Julio, defender of indigenous rights and mother earth

Don Julio speaking into a microphone with his arm raised
Photo by Nelson Rivera/Prensa Comunitaria

In early 2019, as Julio Gomez Lucas–Don Julio–was driving home one night in the far northwestern reaches of Guatemala, he was stopped by a group of men. The men beat him, dragged him along the road, and locked him up, demanding that his family bring Q200,000 (the equivalent of $26,000) to secure his release. His wife, Mariel, frantically gathered money together, borrowing from everyone she could, and eventually Don Julio was set free.

Why was he kidnapped? Because he has been a leader in a powerful movement to stop corporations from coming into Maya Chuj and Q’anjob’al territories and destroying the environment and indigenous livelihoods with mining, dams and other giant infrastructure projects.

Since 2004, national and international corporations have been trying to get into this resource rich and heavily indigenous region to extract its riches. Communities have risen up in opposition, voting overwhelmingly against the projects and organizing to defend their rights as enshrined in the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and elsewhere. In response, the companies have violently attacked protesters and criminalized human rights defenders, sending many of them to prison.

And that’s exactly what happened to Don Julio. Mariel reported her husband’s brutal kidnapping and extortion to the police. But instead of arresting the attackers, Don Julio himself was arrested this winter on trumped up charges.

Maya territory defended from extractive industry Photo: by Kathryn Johnson

As part of its work for human rights in Maya territory, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim has joined with the Gobierno Plurinacional Ancestral (Plurinational Ancestral Government) and Mayan attorneys to defend these defenders. The attorneys are representing Don Julio for free, but there are other expenses related to the case. And CMPI is trying to raise at least $5,000 to contribute to these efforts.

Don Julio’s case is a perfect example of a destructive, insidious pattern of criminalization to stifle dissent. He’s facing charges that are clearly about his work as a community organizer and rights defender, including “illegal meeting and protests,” and “instigation to commit crime.” Luckily, lawyers have managed to free Don Julio for now, but he faces an expensive legal process and possibly more time in jail.

Unfortunately, we’ve seen this type of criminalization escalate across Guatemala in recent years. Corporations conspire with corrupt prosecutors and judges to bring charges against human rights defenders, sending them to Guatemala’s notoriously dangerous prisons often for months or years before they’re even put on trial.

Attacks on defenders like Don Julio affect not just him and his family, but everyone who benefits from the defense of human rights and the protection of mother earth. This criminalization is designed to quell community mobilization and prevent others from joining the fight. Supporting the legal defense of these defenders is a powerful way that we can contribute to the struggle for indigenous rights and the defense of land and a clean environment.

If you’d like to join us, you can make a donation to Don Julio’s Defense Fund here. We’d love to have you in this movement with us today.

By: Luis Marcos Executive Director, Comunidad Maya Pixan Ixim

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