Abelardo Curup, a 72-year-old Mayan Kaqchikel community leader and environmental activist who resisted the construction of cement project in his community, died in a Guatemalan prison Sunday, unable to serve his 150 years sentence for an alleged murder, a crime he claimed he didn't commit.
Curup was one of the leading figures in a resistance movement opposing the establishment of a cement plant by Cementos Progreso in San Juan Sacatepequez in 2008, which was faced by a strong response from the government and a media campaign against the indigenous people fighting for their land.
His involvement in the movement made him a target for the Guatemalan government, which has taken on a systematic strategy to topple social movements opposing “development” projects in the Central American country.
In 2005, the Energy and Mines Ministry (MEM) granted three mining licenses over a third of the San Juan territory to Cementos Progreso without prior consultation with the indigenous people, thereby violating Convention 169 of the International Labour Organization (ILO) on Indigenous rights and multiple articles of the national law codes.
The local population opposed and in 2007 twelve Mayan communities affected by Cementos Progreso's project carried out a community query to decide on the matter. About 9,000 people (99 percent of the consulted population) vote against the development of the projects, arguing the cement company's activities would severely damage the environment and represented a serious violation to the local population's will and territorial integrity.
Although the affected communities decisively opposed the construction of the plant, the Guatemalan government decided to go ahead with the licenses, finding a strong local resistance.
The communities protested and blocked roads leading to the construction site at the tensest moment in 2008. The government answered with violence, and the blamed it on local gangs, abstaining from accepting responsibility. Scores of people were arrested during that period.
On January 20, 2018, Jose Irineo Raxon Canel, Florentin Raxon Raxon and Erwin Raxon Raxon were killed in San Juan by unknown people and local prosecutors blamed Abelardo Curup for the triple murder, but the people of San Juan that support the struggle claim a Patrullas Civiles paramilitary group from Loma Alta, Curup's village, were the real murderers. Curup's sentence also included accusations of property damage for burning construction machinery.
Later that year, an employee of Cementos Progreso named Francisco Tepeu was also murdered by unknown assailants. The government and organizations close to the company blamed the Nobel Laureate Rigoberta Menchu, indigenous lawyer Amilcar Pop and other community leaders for the violence, as part of their strategy to criminalize a popular civil resistance movement.
He was found guilty of murder and sentenced to 150 years in prison. The government declared a state of exception and the military occupied the community, allowing Cementos Progreso to continue its activities. The plant was finally built in 2013, in spite of the local communities continuous struggle.
Media also fought a war against the communities, reporting on violent protests, “kidnapping of police officers,” and even a bomb attack attempt to blow a bridge.
Sympathizers of Curup claim he was unfairly imprisoned on political motives, while others call him a terrorist. His “crimes” were enough to sentence him to 150 years in prison, despite his advanced age and health issues. He will be buried in his community on Wednesday.
His family, friends and fellow community members claim the criminalization of Abelardo Curup is part of the company's strategy, backed up by the government, to dismantle the local opposition to its projects.
On the other hand, the cement company claims the proposed road dealer, a new plant, urbanization plans and several community projects are for the best interest of the local communities, despite being nowhere near their actual demands.