40 families flee rural Guatemala after armed group sets homes on fire

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Forty indigenous families have fled their homes in north Guatemala after an armed group set fire to several residences on occupied farmland, a land rights group said on Sunday.

Peasant farmer groups involved in land occupations frequently suffer violence in the Central American nation. Advocacy organization Global Witness in 2019 called Guatemala one of the world’s most dangerous places for land rights defenders.

Guatemala’s Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC) said the families belong to the Q’eqchi’ indigenous group and are former workers of the Cubilgüitz coffee farm in the Alta Verapaz department laid off 15 years ago without full severance.

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Since then, they have demanded land as compensation and occupied part of the farm in protest, CUC representative Maria Josefa Macz said.

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“Last night, the 40 families were forced to leave their homes, their belongings and residences were looted, similar to the 1980s,” the CUC said in a statement, referring to some of the bloodiest years of Guatemala’s Civil War when villages often were burned.

It was not clear who was behind the attack. However, a little over a year ago, another group of people began to occupy the land and intimidate the former workers, the CUC said.

According to the CUC, the former workers live on land belonging to Dorothee Dieseldorff, whose family runs coffee brand Dieseldorff Kaffee. She did not immediately reply to a request for comment.

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In comments reported by Guatemalan newspapers last month, Dieseldorff said about 300 people invaded her land in Alta Verapaz last March, destroying crops of rubber trees.

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The UN High Commission for Human Rights has raised alarm over an increase in killing of mainly indigenous rights defenders in Guatemala. In a report last year it counted 39 such killings in 2017 and 2018 alone.

A police report said the armed group threatened officers who attempted to enter the area on Saturday night, and noted that six homes were left “completely burned.”

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Macz said in addition to the six homes that were incinerated, another four were half-burned and nine were looted.

A spokesman for the president’s office said authorities investigating the incident.

Photos posted on Twitter by indigenous rights group Waqib’ Kej show several one-story structures in flames.

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