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Guatemalan farm workers group speaks out against violence

Pro-Justice group demands answers for farmer’s unexplained disappearance, massacre

Members from the Pro-Justice Nueva Linda group relayed the story of a Guatemalan man who disappeared from his farm at an open discussion with a small group in Montreal Thursday.

Farm worker Hector Reyes disappeared after he left for work in September 2003.

His disappearance sparked an outcry from rural Guatemalans, according to Mariano Calel, president of the Civil Association Pro-Justice Nueva Linda Group, a collection of farm workers who combat impunity in the country.

“What happened to Hector Reyes could happen to any of us,” Calel said, explaining that Reyes was one of the 45,000 desaparecidos, or disappeared persons, kidnapped and likely killed in Guatemala during the country’s 36-year-long Civil War.

According to Calel, Reyes vanished shortly after he joined an organization called the Landless Mayas and demanded that farm workers receive wages they were owed. Residents of Nueva Linda assumed that the owner of the farm, Carlos Vidal, ordered Reyes’s removal, Cael said.

Refusing to be intimidated by Vidal’s scare tactics, the workers of Nueva Linda and their families occupied the farm, demanding that Vidal tell them what had happened to Reyes, Calel said.

Nueva Linda residents remained there for 10 months – until August 31, 2004 – when a combination of government police forces and the farm’s private security officers forcefully removed the families. Six workers and three police officers were killed in the fight.

“They just threw the bodies onto pickup trucks and drove away,” said Calel, who believes the incident represents a wider problem of institutionalized corruption and brutality.

In a documentary about Reyes’s disappearance screened before the discussion, Óscar Berger, former president of Guatemala, sided with the landowners in the conflict, asserting that the state must protect private property.

Calel said that he still distrusts the government, now a new administration. Berger, he said, has done nothing to prompt an investigation of the massacre or of Reyes’ disappearance.

“The state is culpable for all of the deaths at Nueva Linda; for all of the desaparecidos,” Calel said.

A worker interviewed in the documentary claimed that in Guatemala occupying a farm is a greater crime than committing murder.

After the massacre on August 31, Reyes’s daughters erected huts on the roadside that passes in front of the farm, refusing to leave until justice was brought to the murderer of their father. They are still camped there, demanding that the government and judicial authorities explain the disappearance of Reyes and the August killings.

“The experience of the women on the road is very difficult,” said Carmen Reyes Rojas, secretary for the Pro-Justice Nueva Linda Group.

“We all have children to take care of, I have eight myself, but we have to keep fighting for justice.”

Project Accompaniment Quebec-Guatemala and Montreal’s Social Justice Committee hosted the discussion.