Guatemala City – Thousands of indigenous Guatemalans blocked sections of the Pan-American highway on Monday, kicking off a week of marches, blockades and rallies to protest the government’s decision to shut down an international anti-corruption commission in the country.
Last month, President Jimmy Morales announced he would not renew the mandate of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish initials, CICIG), which has played a key role in prosecuting high-level officials for corruption, including taking down a sitting president and most of his cabinet ministers three years ago. Morales and his family are also the subjects of several corruption investigations by the body.
The government said in a statement that it was “respectfully requested of the United Nations that the commission initiate the transfer” of its capacities to Guatemalan institutions, adding that the body will remain in the country until the end of its current mandate in September 2019.
Following the announcement, the government announced it will bar the entry of CICIG head commissioner Ivan Velasquez, a Colombian former judge, setting off a number of legal challenges and protests in the streets.
Indigenous Maya Kaqchikel and Tzutujil communities mobilised on Monday along the Pan-American highway, shutting portions of it down. Thousands of people continued protesting in three key locations between 117 and 130 kilometres west of Guatemala City until later in the afternoon.
The blockades were organised by the Solola Indigenous Municipality, an autonomous structure of traditional indigenous authorities. Residents from other municipalities around the Solola department joined the local crowds in their peaceful takeover of the highway, demanding CICIG stay and Morales go.
The people of Solola support the work of CICIG and its head, Commissioner Ivan Velasquez, to investigate anyone involved in corruption, Solola Indigenous Vice Mayor Roberto Coc told Al Jazeera.
He said they will continue to protest until Morales formalises the renewal of CICIG’s mandate.
“If he doesn’t, the mobilisation and the paralysation of the country will continue until he gives a positive response,” he said.
Further west into the highlands, indigenous authorities of the 48 counties of Totonicapan have four highway blockades planned for Tuesday. Student, peasant, religious and other groups have called for at least five different marches and rallies in the capital over the first three days of this week.
Fear of crackdown
Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman Jordan Rodas said he is concerned about a potential crackdown on the protests.
His office filed a motion in the Constitutional Court on Sunday against Morales, the interior minister and the national police director, in the hope that the court will require them to respect the constitutional right to protest.
“We’re under an authority that, in terms of security, is not very democratic,” Rodas told Al Jazeera, pointing to the use of military vehicles in the capital city on August 31.
The government has said the vehicles, donated by the United States for anti-narcotics operations, were simply engaged in a “routine patrol”. But protesters pointed out they were lining the street outside the CICIG offices in the lead-up to Morales’ announcement that the commission’s mandate would not be renewed.
“If that’s what they do with the commission, which is part of an international agreement, I have serious concerns for the security of the population in general nowadays,” said Rodas.
Police officials were not immediately available for comment.
‘Risks are high’
In addition to the motion to order the government to respect the right to protest, the court must also rule on several constitutional challenges against the government’s decision to ban Velasquez from Guatemala.
Last year, Morales declared Velasquez persona non grata, but the court reversed the measure.
Rodas and others argue that this year’s ban violates the 2017 ruling, but there’s widespread concern that this time around, Morales may not respect a ruling from the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court.
On Thursday, Morales said that the constitution “authorises” him to “not obey illegal orders”.
“I say to the people of Guatemala that over the course of our administration, we will never make decisions that violate the constitutional order,” he said during a press conference.
The reference to the illegal orders is widely viewed by CICIG supporters as a reference to potential plans to disregard an unfavourable Constitutional Court ruling.
Iduvina Hernandez, a human rights activist, told Al Jazeera that movements need to take action to put a stop to the regression towards authoritarian rule.
“It’s hard to predict what someone totally deranged by a need for impunity will do. In that sense, the risks are high,” Hernandez said.