El Maguey sits less than 20 miles south of sprawling Guatemala City, but it has been home to a fight for land that many associate with isolated indigenous communities. This rich 300 hectares has been worked and nurtured for many years by approximately ninety families, and the struggle culminated with a presidential decree (223-03) on April 9 2003 giving title of the land to those farmers and the community. Their celebration was a brief one however, as two days later an order from President Portillo nullified the decree and returned the land in question to the army. Apparently Portillo had forgotten that the land was under control of the military, so he quickly scrambled to reverse his decision.
With this the residents were evicted by the army and National Police, their homes and school flattened, and the people forced to the side of a dirt road, which soon became mud as the rainy season hit. For months the residents worked with C.U.C. and other national campesino organizations in hopes of having this Presidential order reversed; anxious to return to their waiting crops, without success. Meanwhile, the military -in a rather sinister move- leased out the land to allow cattle grazing, destroying much of what the families had built up over many years.
On July 09 2003, after three months of sustained efforts to resolve the dispute the people of El Maguey declared “no mas” and moved back onto the land, only to be greeted by army troops and National Police at the entrance to the community. With international support (political pressure from the European Union, the presence of human rights observers) the people of El Maguey were able to set up temporary shelters of plastic and tin on the edge of their land and press the Guatemalan Constitutional Court to honor the decree of April 9 2003.
A fertile piece of farmland sprinkled with avocado trees, a huisquil (squash) plantation, natural springs, and of course a soccer pitch, El Maguey is also wedged between several signs of progress:
- A huge federal prison is situated only a few hundred yards away, and one can at times hear the cries of the inmates, as well as determine which prisoners have visitors.
- Half a mile from El Maguey is a slaughterhouse that “processes” cattle then dumps the waste into the narrow river that now runs brown and red.
- And across the road from El Maguey’s shacks a gated community, “Villas Picasso” is opening, where luxury homes are being built for wealthy citizens who commute to the Capital every morning. I wonder if it will be KFC or Mcdonalds who first breaks into the fast food market? I’ll put my Canadian dollars on the Golden Arches. Ironically the folks from El Maguey have developed a measure of solidarity with none other than the guards at “Villas Picasso”, earning their daily five dollars by screening traffic for the rich, well aware of the nature of injustice.
But none of the above compares to the constant presence of soldiers in their busy camp a few yards away, ensuring that no community members, -heavily armed with laundry, dishes or sniffling kids- make their way back onto their property. When asked why they cannot return to their land, soldiers (the majority being indigenous Mayans) simply reply they are following orders from the Capital. Threats to both residents and observers, as well as the mobilizing of troops have prompted several visits from the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) and the Guatemalan press.
Survival in El Maguey depends on husbands and fathers working on coffee plantations along the coast, young men taking construction jobs in the Capital, and, sadly, women and children travelling to Guatemala City’s garbage dump in the very dangerous “zona tres” on a regular basis. Mothers of 8, 12 and even 15 children sift strategically through mounds of trash in the basurero gathering scraps and sheets of material, discards from apparel manufacturers, which they cut and sew together for clothing.
Despite the absence of a schoolhouse there is no shortage of education for the children of El Maguey. Ideas such as human rights, injustice, solidarity and community are a constant. Surely these kids will one day be painting slogans and the faces of martyrs on university walls.
A duck limps along the ground in El Maguey. A two-foot long stick is tied to one leg. Someone explains that they’ll keep the stick tied on for a couple of weeks so that the duck cannot fly away. After that they’ll remove the stick, knowing that the duck will by then have settled in and it will no longer have a desire to take flight. I wonder if there is a lesson in there? We do grow to love our cages, and even more so if the cages include 140 channels, gourmet coffees and 24-hour security.
And the good news?
The children play soccer, swing from vines, ask questions and love to hear the ice cream truck pass by. The adults share stories, play guitar by candle light, offer whatever they have and can laugh when the night wind takes off with a piece of their home.
And more good news?
On May 11 2004 the Constitutional Court of Guatemala made its decision, which was to reverse the Presidential decree from April 11 2003. The people of El Maguey were given their land and, after 2 very long days, the military left their posts. Coupled with last year’s election which saw the convincing defeat of the former dictator Rios Montt, there is something to smile about in El Maguey, and maybe in other parts of the country where the landless continue their struggle.