Indigenous Community Organizes For Reform

by Diana Pastor

Some of our traveling readers probably noticed that the 21st and 22nd of February was marked by protests —indigenous organizations from communities across western Guatemala blocked various points along the Pan-American Highway. Their motives were diverse, but their top priorities were to mobilize against the rising cost of electricity and to push for reforms in Guatemala’s constitution to establish an indigenous court system.

What is indigenous court? It’s rooted in an ancestral legal system that dates back to the fifteenth century. Indigenous communities appoint judges and hold court to deal with crimes within their community —especially questions of land ownership, domestic violence, and alimony. Indigenous courts are common in the northwestern part of Guatemala, include the departments of Alta Verapaz, Izabal, Totonicapan and Sololá. These departments tend to have lower rates of criminality than other parts of Guatemala.

In some places, the national legal system with th eir in dig en ou s community courts are already linked. A young Kaq’chiquel survivor of sexual assault recently sought indigenous court before the evidence was handed over to the legal prosecutor. Those calling for reform want to see a formal reconciliation between the indigenous and state legal systems.

What authority does the indigenous court have to punish? That depends on both the community and the crime. The aim is repentance and low recidivism —a common indigenous worldview is that life in prison is a living hell that will worsen someone’s behavior . Still, some of the punishments can be harsh. In Sololá, sentences may include restitution, community service, exile, or corporal punishment administered by the family of the victim. That last one is controversial: opponents reform say that it’s a violation of human rights. Many opponents of reform are also (ironically) pro-death penalty.

How did these proposed constiutional reforms come about? More than 1500 representatives of various  Guatemalan organizations came up with the proposal. It’s long, and I’m running out of space, but if you have enough Spanish you can read them for yourself

It is the diputados in Congress who will decide to approve or deny the proposed refor ms. They were expected to go through, but the last two meetings did not make quorum, leaving the country in suspense as to whether or not the changes will be made. In the meantime, we hope that Guatemalans will be tolerant and engage in diaglogue —to do better, in short, than they have with this proposal, which has tainted the conversation with the air of racism, hate, and misinformation.

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