Guatemala City – Guatemalan legislators voted on Saturday to ratify a state of siege in the eastern part of the country, despite protests by social groups.
Outgoing President Jimmy Morales established the 30-day state of siege on Wednesday by executive decree after three soldiers were killed a day earlier in eastern Guatemala. Congress had passed a resolution on Wednesday urging the executive branch to issue the decree.
“We ask all institutions and also the population to cooperate and collaborate with all the work our security forces will do,” Morales said on Wednesday after announcing the measure.
The state of siege is in effect in the entire department of Izabal and in 17 municipalities across five of Guatemala’s 22 other departments. It suspends many constitutional guarantees, including the freedoms of movement and assembly. It also implements a night curfew for the affected areas.
According to the government, the military was engaged in counter-narcotics operations on Tuesday when local residents working for drug traffickers killed three troops. Community reports and an initial forensic evaluation contradict the official version of events. Police and prosecutor’s office investigations into the incident continue, as does the militarisation of eastern Guatemala.
The measure sparked widespread condemnation from human rights and social groups. The significant geographic scope of the state of siege is one of the key points of concern.
“The geographic coverage can only respond to the scene of the incident,” Iduvina Hernandez, director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy, told Al Jazeera.
Much of the affected region in eastern Guatemala is inhabited by indigenous Maya Q’eqchi’ communities fighting for land rights and against nickel mining and oil palm plantations.
Several predominantly Maya Q’eqchi’ municipalities included in the state of siege were hard hit by massacres, forced disappearances, and other military atrocities during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war between the army and leftist rebel forces.
Of the five kinds of states of exception under Guatemalan law, a state of siege, which concentrates operation under military command, is second only to a state of war.
“The magnitude allows them to militarise or remilitarise a region with a high level of conflict, where communities are opposed to extractive industry projects,” Hernandez said on Saturday outside Congress, where drumming activists urged legislators entering the building not to ratify the state of siege.
The Campesino Unity Committee (CUC), a long-standing rural social movement group, organised a march on Saturday from the presidential palace to Congress, but the march was stopped by police two blocks from the building.
Police cordoned off several blocks in downtown Guatemala City to prevent all but a handful of protesters from reaching Congress.
CUC coordinator Daniel Pascual is concerned the government could use the state of siege to pursue pending community evictions and arrest local leaders.
“We think that is one of their objectives,” Pascual told Al Jazeera during the protest action halted by police barricades.
“The situation is gradually becoming clearer,” Pascual said.
Saturday’s ratification came after Congress passed amendments to the decree that increase transparency and accountability regarding government and spending under the state of siege, and require a report from the National Security Council about achievements during the state of siege.
The Xinka Parliament, the representative body of the indigenous Xinka people, filed a legal challenge on Friday in the Constitutional Court against the state of siege. Additional legal challenges are expected now that Congress has ratified the measure.