Luis Pacheco, center, President of the K'iche' Indigenous organization "48 Cantones de Totonicapan"

Indigenous leader of Guatemala protests: Defending democracy after election

BARRIO (ABC) – One of the leaders of the nationwide protests against efforts to undermine Guatemala’s elections that have paralyzed much of the country’s commerce for nearly two weeks is a young one-time law student who now heads up one of the country’s most important Indigenous organizations.

While Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei tries to draw President-elect Bernardo Arévalo into a dialogue aimed at ending the protests, Luis Pacheco says that it isn’t Arévalo’s call to make and that Giammattei could end them by meeting their demands.

Guatemala has been roiled throughout much of this year’s election cycle and even a resounding victory by Arévalo in August did not calm it. The academic and former diplomat ran on a platform of battling corruption that observers say has unnerved Guatemala’s entrenched power structure.

This month’s protests have been the largest public display rejecting the administration’s questioning of the election. Protesters have peacefully blocked key roadways at more than 100 points across the country. Giammattei this week made clear his intention to clear them by force if necessary.

The protesters have made Attorney General Consuelo Porras the target of their ire. Since Arévalo was the surprise second-place finisher in an initial round of voting in June, her office has pursued investigations related to how Arévalo’s Seed Movement party collected signatures required to register years earlier and multiple investigations related to the election itself.

For Pacheco and the 48 Indigenous communities he represents northwest of Guatemala’s capital, the solution is simple: Porras, one of her prosecutors and a judge who suspended Arévalo’s party have to go.

“We’re not asking for something that can’t be done, we are not asking for constitutional reforms, which would be more complicated,” Pacheco said late Tuesday. He stood a block from one of the roadblocks in Guatemala City, holding the wooden staff that signals his position and his customary wide-brimmed hat and shoulder bag. His manner of speaking was measured and calm.

Pacheco said the galvanizing moment for the K’iche’ people he represents was a raid on electoral offices broadcast live in which federal agents opened and took away — despite resistance from some electoral officials — boxes containing precinct vote tally sheets. “The people already voted and you have to respect the decision taken,” he said.

“We know that they don’t want to lose the power they have,” Pacheco said.

The protests have been largely peaceful. Demonstrators allow ambulances to pass, as well as trucks carrying basic food stuffs and gasoline. “We don’t want to kill ourselves as people,” he said. “What we want to show is that we want to defend and take back democracy.”

Pacheco cited Atanasio Tzul, an Indigenous leader who led an uprising in 1820 demanding rights, as an influence.

Álvaro Pop, former chairman of the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, said that what is happening now in Guatemala is the end of a cycle in which the government has tried to eliminate or transform the protest.

In 2015, thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets, eventually forcing then-President Otto Pérez Molina to resign over corruption allegations. In 2020, Giammattei violently put down protests against his administration.

Guatemalans are much more conscious than in previous years of the pervasive corruption in their government, Pop said, in large part because of the years of work by a U.N.-backed anticorruption mission.

“The Indigenous peoples (call for the protests) because they are the ones with the moral standing to do so and that is why there is a response and support, but there is the risk that the protests are undermined by racism,” Pop said.

Pacheco, mayor of the town of Juchanep, will only hold the rotating post of president of the 48 cantons for a year, but is aware that his role in the protests could lead to persecution.

Recently, a far-right activist closely aligned with Porras filed a complaint against Pacheco alleging damage committed by protesters. Often this is a prelude to criminal charges.

“We’re not here on behalf of a political party, we’re not defending Arévalo so he can assume the presidency, no one else decided this,” Pacheco said. “Not even if Arévalo told us to stop the protests, we’re not going to do it. The negotiation is between the Indigenous peoples and the government.”

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