Our second day in Guatemala had a different focus than the first. You could call it a focus on the living, or maybe just contemporary issues. But either way, it’s about the here and the now.
I made my first visit to a Latin American prison that day. Not because myself, or anyone in our group did anything bad. We were visiting a political prisoner, Ramiro Choc. Hailing from the eastern region of Guatemala, around Lake Izbal, Ramiro is a community leader, with a primary focus on land rights. He has worked with numerous communities throughout the years, and in something rare for many people, was able to attend a few years of university. He has been incarcerated at El Pavon prison for several years, and although it’s one of the most infamous prisons in Guatemala, he says the treatment there is better than elsewhere. They have a little plot, with a little room, where himself and some friends are able to grow corn and vegetables, and make hammocks and bags to sell.
To say our wait to get into the jail was long is a bit of an understatement. We arrived around 7:30am and didn’t get into the processing area until after 11:30am. There is little to entertain when you aren’t allowed to bring anything into the jail (well not for us, but lots for the prisoners). No phones, no cameras, not much of anything, apart from our notebooks and pens. We were able to bring Ramiro some necessities, such as some food, shoes, and other necessities.
Our conversation with him lasted about two hours, during which time he explained to us his own history, as well as that of Guatemala and his people, because you cannot tell one without the other. He told of indigenous racism, the violence during the forty year internal conflict (during which he saw several people shot) and the current issues faced by the indigenous and the poor with regards to land rights. And the land rights struggle is exactly how he ended up in El Pavon. The land owners and the companies did not appreciate his actions, and thus created false charges under which to criminalize him.
There is something about Ramiro that makes him incredible. Indigenous community leaders throughout Guatemala face obstacles that I can only imagine but they carry on. You can tell that people are natural leaders, charismatic and incredible, even when a language can divide.
After leaving Ramiro at El Pavon, we continued on our way to San Jose del Golfo, just outside Guatemala City for our first encounter with Canadian mining. The community of San Jose del Golfo is peacefully resisting Radius Gold by occupying the road to the mine. They have not taken any action that has not been peaceful, and to date they have been fairly successful in repulsing security and police who are trying to remove them from their lands. It was an incredibly moving experience to see community in the true sense of the word, and as they met with the Metropolitan Archbishop at this meeting.
Our time here was spent listening to numerous speeches by community leaders who are leading the struggle against Radius Gold. They are choosing to protect their land before it is too late, and in the best manner they can.
***UPDATE***: Yesterday, June 13, Yolanda Oquelí was ambushed by gunmen on a motorcycle while returning home from a meeting about this issue. She is still alive, but this marks a major turn in the situation in San Jose del Golfo.