Another community leader criminalized in Guatemala: Maria Cuc Choc released on bail

On Friday, January 20, 2018, Maria Cuc Choc made her first appearance in front of a judge in Puerto Barrios for her arraignment hearing. Maria is no stranger to the legal system in her town. For years she has supported communities in the struggle to secure legal certainty for ancestral lands. But this time, she was being criminalized- accused of threats, aggravated usurpation and illegal detention for her work with the community Chab’il Ch’och’, in the department of Izabal.

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Maria waits for her hearing to begin

In a short hearing with Judge Edgar Anibal Arteaga of the First Instance Court, Maria was released on Q5,000 bail, and  a trial date set for August 2018. She must register with the court each month  and cannot leave the department of Izabal. The next six months will be used to gather evidence for and against her.

On the day of her arrest, only two days earlier, Maria was in Puerto Barrios to accompany and translate for members of the community of Rubel Pek, who had come to the town for legal proceedings. The case was suspended, and she took advantage of the visit to buy school supplies for her children. When she arrived at the bank, her account had been locked, as were her phone and social media accounts. She was then arrested by the Guatemalan National Civil Police.

Before the arraignment hearing began, Maria stated, “I’m surprised by what is happening to me…I have worked as a community leader. But I am here with people from my community confronting these charges. I will leave here with my head held high. I know my rights as an indigenous woman. No one can silence me, because there is so much violence in our country, so much injustice. These laws are imposed and created to be co-opted by the state…I know that the hills and valleys are listening to me.”

Maria is originally from the community of El Estor, Izabal, where she and her family have struggled for decades against national and transnational companies invading their ancestral land. Maria has been an outspoken opponent against the Fenix Nickel Mine located in El Estor. Former owners, Canadian Hudbay Minerals, is currently being sued in Canada for the gang rape of 11 women by mine security, the injury of German Chub, and the murder of Adolfo Ich Chaman, Maria’s brother-in-law.

When speaking about Maria, German Chub stated, “To see her like this, in handcuffs- it is so painful. I never imagined [it]. She is a woman who struggles, supports her community, the Q’eqchi’ people. She is a woman with such a pure heart. But to see her now, to see how the powerful and rich are trying to destroy her life- I can’t understand how this could be.”

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Maria hugs German Chub before entering into her arraignment hearing

Angelica Cuc Choc, sister to Maria, and plaintiff in the case against Hudbay Minerals in Canada for the murder of her husband, Adolfo Ich, stated, “We have known full well, for many years, that the justice system is not on our side as indigenous people. So in this case, Maria is accused of something that for me is false. This is the way they try to silence our struggle, especially that of indigenous women. But I thank God that we have enough strength to continue, and I feel proud of my sister for her strength and her bravery, for being an indigenous woman who continues her struggle, whatever it brings.”

Ramiro Cuc Choc, brother to Maria and Angelica, spent almost six years in jail in Guatemala on trumped up charges including usurpation of land, aggravated robbery and illegal detention. He had worked for many years for access to land for campesino workers, and the accusations against him came from powerful landowners.

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The Cuc Choc siblings in El Estor, May 2017

Maria’s accusers are Elias Joel Diaz Guerra and Miguel Angel Alvarado Cruz, the administrator and legal representative respectively, of Lisbal Sociedad Anonima. Lisbal claims ownership of the Finca Isabal, a large  tract of land, illegally acquired by ex-president Otto Perez Molina, who is currently in jail awaiting trial on corruption charges. After Molina’s arrest in 2015, plantation workers reclaimed their historic rights to the land, and began to build their community, now known as Chab’il Ch’och’.

On October 30, over 1500 police surrounded Chab’il Ch’och’, Izabal and evicted the community, forcing 80 families to hide in the mountains, without food, water or shelter. The plantation administrator, present during the evictions, later contracted 500 people to burn down the homes and destroy the belongings of the evicted community members. Last week,  community members began moving back on to the land. The accusations against Maria and two other community members were presented in January 2017, but the arrest warrants were acted on just days after the community’s return to Chab’il Ch’och’.

Maria was released from police custody Friday afternoon, but it will be a long 6 months before  her trial date. Upon her release, Maria said, “If my crime is that my voice is heard, well only God knows where this will lead.”

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Maria released on bail. Photo by Francisco Sanchez

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