Guatemala City, April 4. Chief Prosecutor of the Nation Ramses Cuestas Gomez has given the green light to landowners to take the law into their own hands and evict peasants and farm workers who have invaded rural estates.
"Estate owners may evict invaders, as long as they don't commit any criminal actions," Cuestas said March 31. "They have the right to protect their property." Back in February however, Cuestas had advised against evictions, blaming the invasions on Guatemala's unequal land distribution.
Cuestas' declaration comes a day after landowners allegedly tried to evict farm workers from an estate in Colomba Costa Cuca, Quetzaltenango province without waiting for a court order. According to the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC), landowners led some 200 campesinos in the eviction of 100 families who had invaded San Isidro estate in El Asintal. Several campesinos were wounded during the eviction and others are missing, according to CUC.
Landowners say the government is purposely holding up eviction orders against the invaders. In the face of alleged government inaction, Agricultural Chamber president Humberto Preti called on the army to protect landowners' interests, and then told Congress that plantation owners would arm their tenant farmers to prevent occupations, if the invasions were not stopped.
Surprisingly, Defense Minister Gen. Mario Enriquez did not back Preti's request for troops. The minister minimized the extent of the land conflicts and said that plantation owners shared the blame for the invasions, since many do not pay their workers the minimum wage. "[Plantation owners have] no right to ask that the law be applied if at the same time they don't respect it," he said. Observers say the defense minister's position reflects current tensions between the government and the private sector, which is blocking the government's attempt to reform the tax system.
Increased tensions in the countryside are also reflected in recent arrests of campesino leaders. Campesino groups charge that in separate incidents police in Retalhuleu province illegally arrested Cesar Alberto Custodio Juarez and Guillermo Cox Alvarado, and attempted to kidnap Alberto Ordonez.
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