Attacks on Electric Towers Spark Rumors of Guatemalan Insurgency

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Clandestine elements have launched a series of attacks against transmission towers in rural Guatemala, in response to a controversial hydroelectric development project.  Due to the similarity between these incidents and the attacks on public works employed by Guatemala’s guerrillas in the country’s civil war, rumors abound that a nascent rebel group is behind the sabotage.

According to business magazine America Economia, most of the incidents have occurred in the Ixcan region of the department of Quiche, where from November 2010 to January 2011, at least eight electrical transmission towers have been destroyed.

Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reported in January that a group known as the Army of the Jungle (Ejercito de la Selva) were linked to two such attacks in October and December of 2010.  In both cases, after the transmission towers were deactivated and toppled over, the saboteurs littered the surrounding area with leaflets urging local residents to reject hydro-electric projects in the region.

Quiche is the proposed site of the controversial $400 million Xalala hydroelectric dam. Although the government and power companies say the dam will increase access to electricity in the region and bring economic development, there is strong local opposition to the project. According to a 2009 report by International Rivers, a U.S.-based environmental group, the dam would displace at least 2,300 local farmers and cause significant damage to the the local ecology.

The department of Quiche was a historical base of support and logistical hub for guerrilla groups during the 40-year long civil conflict that ended with the 1996 peace accords and left more than 200,000 people dead. The Guerrilla Army of the Poor (Ejercito Guerrillero de los Pobres – EGP) emerged in the Ixcan and was the first largely Mayan-based rebel army.

The EGP’s presence in area led to massive army assaults and widespread human rights abuses by the military and their civilian paramilitary counterparts, the Self-defense Civil Patrols (Patrullas de Autodefensa Civil – PACs).  Because distrust of the government is still largely common in the region, the Guatemalan government took great pains to frame the acts as criminally, not politically motivated.

Guatemalan Defense Minister Abraham Valenzuela said on Monday that although the government plan to increase intelligence operations in the area, “At this moment, there is no indication that there are guerrillas in the area, only anonymous individuals.”

Guatemalan daily El Periodico reports that at least two major power companies claim that they have received calls from individuals attempting to extort them, threatening further damage to power installations if payment was not made.

In a statement released yesterday to the country’s news media, Guatemalan President Alberto Colom denounced the wave of attacks as “acts of terrorism,” and emphasized that the price of electricity temporarily rose as their result.  He also announced the creation of a commission headed by the Attorney General to investigate the incidents.

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