Domingo Vásquez is an indigenous authority and member of the organization Central Campesina Ch’orti’ Nuevo Día (New Day Ch’orti’ Indigenous Association, CCCND). As a human rights defender and member of CCCND, he particularly works on issues concerning rural economy, environmental and land rights. Together with the CCCND he advocates for the recognition of indigenous communities and their possession of collective land titles. The recognition of indigenous peoples and territory allows the communities to make collective decisions about their land and can protect them from the construction of extractive projects on their territory without prior consultation.
The situation faced by land defenders in Guatemala is extremely serious. 2018 saw a wave of assassinations of defenders in the country, with CCCND receiving heightened attacks and death threats. In August, President Jimmy Morales' decision not to renew the mandate of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), announcing the decision flanked by army officers, sparked fears of escalating impunity and militarisation.
On 7-9 October 2018, following his participation in PBI's Brussels events for the 20th anniversary of the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders, Domingo visited London on a speaker tour to give visibility to the situation faced by his community.
On becoming a human rights defender
"My name is Domingo Vasquez Ramirez. I am an indigenous authority in the Ch’ortí Maya community of Pelillo Negro, Chiquimula department, and also a human rights defender. The truth is that being a defender arises from necessity. We human rights defenders are those who defend the land, the water, the woods, the rivers and hills and everything that’s in our territory. I do this because we know that if no one stands up to defend the territories, then there would be consequences. Defending the land is a human right. The land is very useful to us in order to plant corn, beans, everything that the land produces. It is the land that gives us the means to feed our children. And that is why we are so committed to defending the resources in our territory."
On the situation faced by the Ch’ortí community
"My political vision is that one day the Chortí indigenous community will be free, that there will be no threats by transnational companies and extractive companies. We know that these extractive companies have been dividing the communities. The consequences represent a problem for us because there’s division among families, among neighbours, and this conflict only exists due to the companies that are trying to establish themselves in our lands.
The main threat we face is the hydroelectric company Las Tres Niñas. A company that tries to establish itself in our territory is a threat to us, because they want to take away our right to land and water, and that for us is a fundamental right. In the Ch’ortí territories and at the national level there is strong militarization. This is a threat to us because before there wasn’t such military presence and we see it as a way to oppress the people."
On the increase in threats against human rights defenders in Guatemala
"The threats that we have received happen because as human rights defenders we must denounce injustices, otherwise we wouldn’t be doing our job. For that we are attacked because they know that when we report injustice, we are attacking them through the laws.
On a personal level I have received threats not only because I defend the land but also because, as a defender, I support victims of abuses and attacks. For that reason I have felt personally very threatened by people who have been tried and put in jail. I have been threatened because they know I am the person supporting victims of abuses. For example, there is the case of a woman whose husband was murdered, so she ask me for support. We were able to find and imprison the perpetrator, but the mastermind behind him is being investigated and he attacks and threatens me because he wants me to stay quiet and not pursue the case."
On President Jimmy Morales’ decision not to renew the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)
"I think this situation is extremely important and that we must be informed about what is happening. The fact that the government has refused to renew the mandate seems dangerous to us. When an institution that works against corruption is declared unwelcome, that means that the government has ties with corruption and that is why they want (CICIG head commissioner) Ivan Velasquez to leave the country. Ivan Velasquez and the CICIG have done good work; there are many cases that are well advanced, but if they go then those cases will be lost.
Corruption exists not only in the capital, in the central government, but also in the municipalities. We presented a writ of protection and succeeded in regaining 635 caballerías of land (almost 30.000 ha) for the indigenous communities. The court ruled in our favour, but the municipality and the hydroelectric company Las Tres Niñas made an appeal against us. Ultimately, if the CICIG goes, that case will be lost."
On the role of the international community and the importance of speaker tours
"I am happy to be on this tour in Europe, because we defenders are not recognised by the State and government officials in Guatemala. Therefore, it is very important that I can be here and give visibility to our situation so that we defenders can be recognised in Guatemala and internationally. There have been some recognised defenders but we in the indigenous communities are not yet so visible in national and international institutions.
I would ask for international organizations to give protection to defenders because in Guatemala there are a lot of threats against us. Greater recognition would mean that, when we are attacked, we can use our contacts to counteract such attacks against human rights defenders."
On the support of PBI
"In the case of the Chortí territory, PBI has a fundamental role. They have provided support through community visits and when we have any lawsuits against us. We always value and talk highly about the work that PBI does, accompanying us in various spaces so we are not discriminated against. This is important because the State institutions and public ministries have long discriminated against indigenous authorities."
If you share PBI's vision of a world where individuals and communities are free to protect their rights and lands without fear of reprisals and violence, you can help by donating to our Shoulder to Shoulder campaign.