Columns / Corruption

Our Father is a Prisoner of Conscience in Guatemala

Wednesday, June 9, 2021
Ni’kte ‘Ixch’umil Saqijix Caal Matzir y Chahim Yaretzi Ketzalí Caal Matzir

Photo courtesy of the family of Bernardo Caal Xol.
Photo courtesy of the family of Bernardo Caal Xol.

For as long as we can remember, we always called him “the perfect dad”. No matter how tired or busy he was each day, he always made sure that we were very happy. 

His love, his tenderness, his advice, his strength, his fight, his courage, his affection, his happiness, his peace, his dynamism and his joy are a constant presence in our hearts and memories.

We had so many joyful times and learned so much by his side! He always taught us that we should not tolerate injustices, machismo or inequalities.  

We have hundreds of memories, such as the delicious and nutritious breakfast he always cooked for us, the broths, the b’aacha... We always admired his patience and his incredible talent for cooking.   

We really enjoyed the journey every day when he took us to school. We learned so much every night when he told us stories, from when he was a child, or the history of our Mayan Q’eqchi people. We had a great time when he taught us to play football and to use the computer. We had such fun when he carried the two of us together. And we were so happy when he gave us lots of hugs, when he taught us to swim, to ride a bicycle! He tenderly and lovingly taught us to read, to debate and to speak in public – and he also taught us to protest against corruption and impunity in Guatemala.  

We’ll never forget the time when we asked for a dog, he immediately asked his friends on Facebook if they knew of any organization that had dogs for adoption and lectured us about the importance of adopting, because animals should not be bought or sold. And when the adoption was approved, the whole family went to collect our “baby”.  

We never saw him angry. We were always very happy by his side. We’ve always seen him as a role model, a protector, a teacher and an unconditional friend, a guide, a counsellor and a hero. 

For the last five years of our lives we’ve not been able to hug him and say: “Have a good day dad”. It has been a very difficult five years. Our lives changed radically after the first arrest warrant was issued against him in March 2017. Being so young, it wasn’t easy for us to understand that in Guatemala there are so many injustices against children and against those who defend collective rights. It wasn’t easy to understand that in Guatemala those who decide to support the collective struggles of their peoples are persecuted, defamed, stigmatized, threatened, criminalized and killed. 

Our father, Bernardo Caal Xol, is unjustly imprisoned solely because of his opposition to a hydroelectric project, as Amnesty International noted when they declared him a “prisoner of conscience“ last year and launched a campaign calling for his immediate release. 

The hydroelectric company Oxec S.A. entered our Mayan Q’eqchi territory using deception and lies to seize and divert our Ox-eek’ and Cahabón Rivers, as well as illegally cutting down 15 hectares of native forest and appropriating communal lands. The Guatemalan state gave them a licence to operate without consulting our people, as is our right.

Our ancestors cared for and protected Mother Nature and Mother Earth. In our Mayan culture, life cannot be conceived without the presence of water, without hills, without Mother Earth. Our environment must be protected, our rights as Indigenous peoples must be respected, our territory must be defended. But the state of Guatemala does not want to respect our rights and unjustly imprisons those who defend them. 

As girls, we demand the release of our beloved father, Bernardo Caal Xol, and we demand the freeing of our Ox-eek and Cahabón Rivers. The criminalization of human rights defenders by the Guatemalan state greatly affects children. We live in fear of growing up because we want our father to be part of every moment of our lives.

Since 30 January 2018, we’ve had to risk our safety by travelling 16 hours to visit our father in prison and spend about six hours with him. But since the beginning of 2020, the Penitentiary System has not allowed us to enter the prison, because of COVID-19 restrictions. This has been the most difficult period we have lived through.

It has been very exhausting and has drastically changed our family dynamics. It has affected our physical and mental health, and not only us, but our mother as well. The responsibility of providing for the whole family has fallen on her. She has had to look after Bernardo’s immediate needs, such as buying medicine, hygiene products and cleaning supplies, plus the costs of each visit to the prison.

Even from prison, with each letter our father writes, he continues to educate us, and teach us the strength of dignity and courage to stand up to racism and criminalization by the Guatemalan state. 

The world should know that there is an entire people in Bernardo Caal Xol’s heart, a people that does not surrender to the atrocities and injustices that they experience every day.

We are very proud to be his daughters and to have his unconditional love. We thank life for choosing him to be our dad. Today, despite our distance, we continue to say with all our love that Bernardo Caal Xol is our perfect dad.  

*Translated by Amnesty International

Ni’kte ‘Ixch’umil Saqijix Caal Matzir, age 14, and Chahim Yaretzi Ketzalí Caal Matzir, age 12, are the daughters of Bernardo Caal Xol, a Mayan Q’eqchi human rights defender in Guatemala. Since 2015, their father has defended the rights of the communities of Santa María Cahabón, who have been affected by the construction of the OXEC hydroelectric plant on the Ox-eek’ and Cahabón rivers in the northern department of Alta Verapaz.

In 2018, Bernardo Caal Xol was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison for unlawful detention with aggravating circumstances and aggravated robbery. However, after reviewing the criminal proceedings against him, Amnesty International found no evidence of the crimes he was accused of and declared him a “prisoner of conscience” who has been criminalized because of his human rights work.

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