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The Afternoon Giammattei Unleashed the Fury

The corner of Seventh Avenue and Eighth Street in Zone 1 was the dividing line between the two stages of the November 21 demonstration. One, calm, the other, a clash with police. From the corner between the Cathedral and the Trade Portal, tear gas entered the Plaza de la Constitución several times; the gas was released from the cannisters that the PNC riot police hurled at protesters who wanted to get into the congressional building, but which also stung the eyes of bystanders. Minutes before 3:00 p.m., a small part of that building was set on fire. One question remains in a city that seemed asleep: where did such fury come from?

 

This article was originally published in Spanish by Plaza Pública

Ricardo Marroquín y Francisco Rodriguez

 
 

In the hours following a demonstration unleashed by the approval of the 2021 budget, it is still difficult to explain what happened. This photo gallery describes what occurred, but it is not so easy to explain why it happened.

In the square, there were already thousands of people hours before the protest was scheduled to begin. Until before 2:00 p.m., the demonstration was very similar to the one that took place in 2015. There were people with flags, vuvuzelas, whistles, noisemakers, and posters and banners expressing their repudiation against politicians and corruption. On the surface, the only difference between yesterday and five years ago was that everyone wore masks — the rest was quite similar.

Volunteer firefighters remove burned debris by a congressional window.
 
Volunteer firefighters remove burned debris by a congressional window.

From a platform placed in front of the National Palace of Culture, the same one that President Alejandro Giammattei used to defend the questioned budget, social leaders and individuals spoke, after waiting in line for up to 45 minutes, to express their opposition to the Government, Congress and, some, to the economic elite. Social distancing seemed at times the same as in 2015. The Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, also spoke from there. When he began his speech, some tried to silence him, but after a reprimand from one of the speakers, he continued with his message. It was necessary to demonstrate in peace, said Rodas, respecting public and private property.

In that instant, the anger among those present was already noticeable. It was a demonstration very similar to the ones of 2015, but this time, indignation was not the only thing present. There was also a great irritation, the weariness by the direction of the country, a boil.

“Today we are living history. We students have a commitment to our future”, said Camila Samayoa, one of the university student leaders, from another platform, on the basin of a pickup truck. “We reject a system that has us living in misery. This indignation should not last us only a week”.

Then another student spoke. He said that in the corner of the Cathedral and the Trade Portal, there was a group of students held by the riot police. He called on students and parents to release them. They made their way through the crowd sitting on the floor of the Plaza de la Constitución to reiterate to the riot police that theirs was a peaceful demonstration.

A protester celebrates the burning of Congress. Esteban Biba / EFE /
 
A protester celebrates the burning of Congress. Esteban Biba / EFE /

Who lit up the Congress?

The anger was felt more strongly past the corner of the Cathedral and Trade Portal. From that point on and over Ninth Street, between Eighth and Sixth Avenue, the fury was unleashed, or rather, it became contagious. Yes, perhaps that is the best word to describe what happened yesterday, because a contagion means that everything changed from being in contact with a trigger, in this case: a Congress on fire.

It was a coming and going between protesters and riot police. A dispute over the space won in the streets.

A policeman observes the burned rubble on the floor of one of the rooms damaged by the burning of Congress /
 
A policeman observes the burned rubble on the floor of one of the rooms damaged by the burning of Congress /

What happened in Congress? Live broadcasts make it clear. People with covered faces climbed the windows, smashed them, and used a giant Guatemalan flag as a Molotov cocktail lighter. This is how the fire started inside the same building where they approved the budget that caused the protest.

There was something strange about this act, or several unusual things.

Hours earlier, at approximately 10:30 a.m., protesters covering the walls distributed flyers to the few police officers who were guarding Congress.

“Oh, yes, get them out," replied the agent as she received a drawing in which rats occupied the seats.

This police officer was older, evidently without the physical condition to face a mob, nor specialized equipment to do so. The number of officers guarding the building was barely enough to line the entire door. Days before, when they approved the 2021 budget, the Ministry of the Interior assigned enough agents to cover several streets around. Yesterday, the security of the Legislative Organ was only given a few policemen. 

Photographs circulating on social media show a corridor inside Congress with fire extinguishers and barrels of water. Unlike previous occasions, the deputies were not inside, and on social media both real and figurative messages had been circulating that the Congress had to be burned.

A protester burns gas in front of a riot squad. /
 
A protester burns gas in front of a riot squad. /

Was it really an entire mob that set it on fire? The videos prove it: no.

The same people who climbed the windows of the building to break them and start the fire, danced on the ledge while the smoke served as the background of a choreography that screamed rebellion. The perpetrators of the fire that immediately unleashed the government's repression both in the specific place and in other areas of the protest are unknown. This, and the fact that many attendees claim they saw spies inside the demonstration, raise suspicions about the possibility that it was caused by infiltrators.

Plaza Pública spoke with half a dozen people who lived through those moments. They were not sure, but are inclined to think that it was an outburst of fury from a group of protesters who danced proudly on the ledge of a burning Congress. In addition, the fire was welcomed by many of those present and even celebrated with jubilation in the protests in Antigua Guatemala.

Plaza Pública found that, at least from 1:28 p.m. (shortly before the Congress was set on fire), people with bats walked among the protesters. 

From the official account of the Bancada Une, deputy Orlando Blanco launched a direct accusation, although without concrete evidence other than his word by the closing of this edition. Wearing a mask and accompanied by deputy Jairo Flores, he questioned why the "security forces practically allowed the vandalism to take place without them intervening at the time ... We believe that there was possible participation of members of Congress in the events," he said.

Volunteer firefighters put out the fire inside the Congress, trying to rescue the remains of documents and official records kept in the damaged rooms /
 
Volunteer firefighters put out the fire inside the Congress, trying to rescue the remains of documents and official records kept in the damaged rooms /

Gas rain and random arrests

Minutes after the flames started, the firefighters arrived to put out the fire, then the riot police dispersed those who were trying to enter Congress or only participated in the demonstration. People were incensed with rage.

Sometimes the protesters (young people, adults, men, and women) advanced a little more and reached the Eighth avenue, past Ninth street. Then the riot police were the ones to gain ground. Their advance was preceded by tear gas. Then the protesters ran, terrified, avoiding arrests, some with watery eyes and difficulty breathing. In its official account, the PNC also reported injured police officers.

A protester is pinned to the ground by members of the Police. /
 
A protester is pinned to the ground by members of the Police. /

That scene of the demonstration seemed like a trip to another time. To the decade of the 1980s or 1990s, when the repressive apparatuses of the State acted openly against the population. Or a trip outside of Guatemala City, to one of the rural and indigenous areas where the Army and the PNC dissolve the peasant demonstrations. Like in the Alaska Summit in 2012 during the government of Otto Pérez Molina.

By midafternoon, Ninth Street was a different color. The ground was pink and there were rocks and pieces of concrete everywhere. The glass at the Transmetro station near Pasaje Aycinena was shattered. In the corner, while a group of protesters celebrated that they had taken a shield from the riot police, several people sought the help of the delegates of the Red Cross, who attended those affected by tear gas.

The riot squads were waiting. They seemed undaunted by the protesters’ slogans and shouts. But suddenly, as if activated by a button, they decided to regain ground and move forward. And, along the way, they took the opportunity to beat up some people (journalists as well) and detain others (including documentary filmmaker Melissa Mencos). 

A PNC armored car advanced on Sixth Avenue, an area dedicated to pedestrians and used by people to get home after work, or to walk leisurely.

A protester is helped after being hit by tear gas /
 
A protester is helped after being hit by tear gas /

Around 7:00 p.m., in the midst of the chaos on the streets near the Congress, Plaza Pública recorded a video in which a truck with the Gallo Brewery logo passed through the mob facing down the PNC. The protesters hit the vehicle, it advanced and, with a very different attitude from the ones shown to the protesters, the riot police broke ranks to let it pass.

According to the Ministry of the Interior, 30 people were detained throughout the day, most between 20 and 30 years old. Cristian Orozco is one of them, from Torre de Tribunals he told Plaza Pública how the PNC beat him and detained him. He claimed that he was demonstrating peacefully and a police officer arrested him after trying to defend a woman.

"Demonstrating without arms is a constitutional right," said the newly appointed Minister of the Interior, Gendri Reyes. The official described the fire in the Congressional building as terrorist acts and the justification for the police deployment.

After the battle, the clerk of a store on ninth street, between 7 and 8 avenue, sweeps stones and tear gas shells scattered on the ground /
 
After the battle, the clerk of a store on ninth street, between 7 and 8 avenue, sweeps stones and tear gas shells scattered on the ground /


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