Social research and political action in the context of violence. Reflections on my experience in Community Press in Guatemala

Received: August 28, 2018

Acceptance: December 3, 2018


After the genocide of the 1980s and the peace process that occurred in Guatemala, a process of territorial dispossession was launched linked to the activity of extractive industries and megaprojects. The response was a mobilization of the affected communities that became the axis of the indigenous and anti-neoliberal organization in the country, to which the State has responded with the delegitimization, repression and criminalization of leading activists and community authorities.

In this context, a group of activists invited me to participate in a political project to support these communities through analysis, dissemination and reflection. The same context forced the project to end up becoming an alternative communication initiative - Community Press - and actions against criminalization.

In this text I reflect on my experience in this space and this process, as a case of political use of the profession of social researcher. I dwell on the challenges and possibilities that the processes in which the social sciences are transformed into tools for communicative and legal action pose, and I show the tensions that were present.

Keywords: , , ,

Social research and political action in contexts of violence: reflections on my community-press experience in Guatemala

After Guatemala's 1980s genocide and peace process, a territorial land-seizure protocol was enacted in hand with extractive-industry and mega-project activities. The response was mobilization on the part of affected communities that became an axis for organizing indigenous and anti-neoliberal resistance throughout the country. The state responded with de-legitimization, repression and criminalizing community activists, leaders and authorities.

Within that context, an activist group invited me to start up a political accompaniment project in those communities using analysis, diffusion and reflection. The context itself obliged the project to end up being an alternative-communications initiative — a “community press” —and also translated into actions against criminalization.

I reflect on my experience in that space and process, as a case of using the social researcher's work to political ends. I revisit both challenges and possibilities that social-sciences processes imply when they become tools for communicative and legal acts, as well as examples of tensions that arose as I worked.

Key words: Guatemala, communities, dispossession, collective research.

In a recent work, Gustavo Lins Ribeiro (2018) called for a greater involvement of the social sciences in that society that we study and of which we are a part. The question of the relationship of social scientists to political action is by no means a new or resolved issue, but the current situation demands that we rethink our actions.

To this is added the provocation that comes from the same subordinate social subjects, historically investigated - indigenous peoples, in my case - both from politics (Segato, 2015) and from the same academy (Cumes, 2008; Ramos, 2018) , which is questioning and modifying the forms and objectives of our work - especially of those of us who work with and on politically organized groups - forcing us to think about social research from frameworks and processes that incorporate them as full subjects of activities research and knowledge generation.

In this article, I want to contribute to that debate by sharing my experience as part of the collective that created Prensa Comunitaria in Guatemala, to reflect on the possibilities that the social sciences and our work as researchers can offer to carry out a political activity, and the limitations and problems of this performance. I am not going to tell the whole story of this group nor would it be possible to show here the amount of activities, dynamics and relationships that they have set in motion, I will only present reflections from some of my work in the collective work between 2011 and 2016, to show the dilemmas, problems and proposals that arose during my participation in this project.1

In this sense, this text is part of —and owes much to— a series of works that seek to reflect on the social sciences from a contextualized ethnography of our own acting as researchers.2

The context and the problem: the political action of the communities in Guatemala

The entry of the indigenous communities in the process of general questioning was one of the elements that made the military regime installed in Guatemala shake since the intervention of the CIA in 1954. Far from triumphalist narratives that subsumed this incorporation to the political actions of the guerrilla organizations or those that placed the indigenous people “between two fires” (Stoll, 1993), it is increasingly clear that this massive incorporation of Mayans into the revolutionary movement in the second half of the 1970s (Arias, 1985) was the result of a dynamics of transformation and politicization of the Guatemalan Mayan highlands (Vela, 2011), who thus responded to the type of modernization that was imposed on them.3 Revolutionary incorporation was not the only way to seek political participation, there was also electoral participation at the national and municipal level, as well as in cultural, peasant and cooperative organizations. But the important thing is that from the second half of the seventies, the communities stopped being the political subject of the mobilization, and the initiative passed to the national organizations (Bastos, 2015a), whether they were the Indigenous Coordinator, the National Integration Front party (FIN) or one of the revolutionary organizations (Falla, 1978, Cojtí, 1997; Uk'ux Be ', 2005). Despite the fact that this revolutionary activity was the most radical example of the indigenous entry into modernity (Le Bot, 1992); Community forms and logics were fundamental in the mobilization (McAllsiter, 2003; Bastos and Camus, 2003; Vela, 2011; Palencia, 2015; Tzul, 2016).4

The genocide of the early 1980s, which devastated 400 villages, caused one million displaced people, and most of the 200,000 deaths in the conflict (CEH, 1999) was the result of the combination of the doctrine of national security with racist fear and contempt (Casaus, 2008; Sanford, 2003). It ended this phase of indigenous mobilization and organization in Guatemala by making the communities the central object of atrocious and inhuman violence, and then subjecting them to a militarization and control that disarmed the community instances in the midst of an environment of fear, internal division. and mistrust that lasted 15 years (Zur, 1998).

The objective was that in the “civil regime” that was inaugurated in 1985-1986 under military control (Schirmer, 2000), those indigenous communities that had come to put the entire network of oligarchic power on the tightrope would not participate. However, the organized Mayans took advantage of the scarce open spaces and the dynamics of the peace process that took place between 1991 and 1996, to reappear as a “Mayan movement” that demanded rights as a people and a place in the political space. With his political actions and thanks to the support of the international community, this unified indigenous actor achieved that the peace signed in 1996 included an Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples (AIDPI) that recognized the historical discrimination against the three indigenous peoples of Guatemala. : Maya, Xinka and Garífuna, to which a series of cultural rights and some political rights were recognized (Cojtí, 1997; Bastos and Camus, 2003).5

All this mobilization was done from the idea of creating a subject, the Mayan people, from a “pan-Mayan” identity that would overcome the political-cultural division produced by the 23 languages and by the powerful local-community identities —which are they considered the result of the division imposed by the colonizers-— (Warren, 1998; Fisher and Brown, 1996). This unified people is the one who claimed to the Guatemalan State the rights that corresponded to them as an original people. For this reason, the political dynamics continued to privilege national actors, now coordinations and organizations that assumed and acted as Mayans (Bastos and Camus, 2003). The communities were fundamental as support, by providing leaders and activists and supporting in the moments that were required.

Even so, the long-awaited peace did not bring tranquility to these spaces, since the peace agreements were mostly parked, and an insertion into the world market was promoted from neoliberal policies (Guerra Borges, 2011) that brought de-peasantization, migration to The United States, violence, electoral farce and corruption to those communities that were just emerging from militarization and internal decomposition (Camus, 2008).

In the midst of all this, however, processes of recomposition of the community's logic and institutionality were taking place, as a means to heal wounds and recover living spaces.6 Mayan community law practices began to rearm (Esquit and Ochoa, 1998; Sieder and Flores, 2011), of spirituality in the hands of spiritual guides (Morales, 2004); of self-government by the hand of indigenous Mayorships —simply recognized by the Municipal Code of 2003—, of the Community Development Committees —which had been created to control this community capacity— (Ochoa, 2013).7 All of this was now being considered as a way of exercising and constructing those human rights and indigenous rights for which they had been fighting and that were proclaimed in the new "democracy" from practice. In this rearticulation, leaders and activists were very important who, after having participated in that national policy that was now collapsing, returned to their communities in many cases as authorities (Bastos, 2015b). But more important was the recovery by the population of these logics, activities and social relations that came from their historical experience.

This process of rearticulation was fundamental, since the oligarchy saw in megaprojects and extractive activities an opportunity to renew the economic bases of its power. Especially since 2004, Guatemala's economic policy has been dedicated to supporting investments in mining, hydroelectric plants, and agrofuels (Solano, 2005; Yagenova, 2012). Faced with the threat that these activities posed to the little space and common goods that they had left, and to that community life that was just beginning to rearm, in these communities that were in the process of rearticulation, groups arose that responded by confronting and refusing to operate in their territory. The way in which this capacity and decision was reflected were the community consultations in good faith in which the communities showed their rejection of these activities supported by ILO Convention 169, the Constitution and the municipal code. They began in Sipakapa, department of San Marcos in 2005 against the expansion of the Marlin Mine (van der Sandt, 2009; Revenga, 2005), they spread through Huehuetenango in 2006 (Mérida and Krenmayr, 2008), and by 2011 they had already been carried out consultations in some 70 municipalities throughout the country (Prensa Comunitaria, 2016).

What attracted the attention of these consultations was not so much their spread, but the response: wherever they were held, participation was massive and included women and children (Mérida and Kremayr, 2008; Castillo, 2010; Camus, 2010; Rasch, 2012). This ability to convene was due to the fact that they were carried out following community procedures and logic, since it was the authorities of these communities - reconstituted, newly recognized or traditional - who were in charge of carrying them out (Trentavizzi and Cahuec, 2012 ). In this way, this community institutionality in the process of renewal acquired a fundamental political role as intermediaries with capital and the State, and as agglutinators of internal dynamics (Tzul, 2016); at the same time that it ensured a continuous mobilization against the companies that came to settle in the community territories.

Thus, in a context in which national actors - indigenous, peasant, revolutionary organizations - had been exhausted and demobilized after the mirage of peace and muticulturalism (Bastos, 2013), these communities mobilized in defense of their territories and their life took the initiative in popular, indigenous and anti-neoliberal politics. From them, regional articulation processes were launched (Castillo, 2010) and the previous organizations that survived politically were those that joined this mobilization, giving prominence to the community authorities.

A research work proposal with and for the communities

In this context, in 2011, Quimy de León, a Guatemalan feminist with extensive experience in the social movement, invited me to participate from Mexico in the implementation of a project / process of accompaniment and support to these communities that were organizing against the territorial dispossession.8 The objective was to support these mobilized communities because we thought that participation processes were taking place and forms of organization were being developed that could contribute a lot to the future of the post-war neoliberal Guatemala that we were experiencing. We wanted to put into practice a process / project in the center of which were those communities and organizations that were the protagonists of the mobilization, to which this work should serve as an input for their process, but also from whom the action should start.

After our respective experiences in academia, NGOs or other organizations, the members of the collective thought that the logic of the research should start from the political subjects themselves, without seeking to supplant them, but by placing ourselves at their orders. In this sense, and without being our purpose, this experience was part of the efforts to achieve collaborative methodologies in the relationship with political subjects (Leyva, Speed and Burguete, 2008; Rappaport, 2015; Leyva et al., 2015). Of course, there was an intrinsic contradiction in the fact that all this started from our initiative and not from those communities as political subjects. We try to solve it from the contacts we had in communities and collectives, with whom we seek to do something similar to the "anthropology on demand" proposed by Segato (2015).

After several attempts to launch action-research dynamics, this previous relationship with actors and processes allowed us to locate three places marked by conflicts derived from the presence of extractive activities where we carried out an investigation on community mobilization that opposed this dispossession. It was about San Juan Sacatepéquez, a Kaqchikel municipality near the capital where a cement plant had been built since 2005; Barillas, a Q'anjob'al and mestizo town in the north of Huehuetenango, where in 2008 the company Hidro Santa Cruz, of Spanish capital, settled to build a hydroelectric plant, and the Polochic river valley, where Q'eqchi communities had been displaced by the Chabil Utzaj company to plant sugar cane. In all three cases, the community organization had been responded to with repression, violence and criminalization by the State, which allowed the impunity with which the companies attacked the communities (Bastos and de León, 2014).

Despite our intentions, it was largely a traditional investigation, carried out by researchers outside the community; But from the beginning, the axis of the work was the local versions of what happened, obtained from the direct protagonists of the defense of the territory. After many vicissitudes, the work was finished and it was published a year later than planned with the title Dynamics of dispossession and resistance in Guatemala. Communities, State and companies (Bastos and De León, 2014).9 The book was published as a product of what by then we decided to call the "Left Handed Colibri Communication and Analysis Team".10

The experience of joining this group, this project and these tasks meant a change for me in my career as a researcher. I had worked alongside and accompanying popular mobilizations - specifically indigenous - from an academic work that could be considered as collaborative, but always from my autonomous position as a researcher. Now there was a difference: he no longer acted as the researcher who collaborates with the subject in struggle, but as part of it. It was a political work carried out by an actor who was assumed as part of that mobilization.

However, it wasn't totally a part of him either. My academic trajectory was what had gotten me there, but being an academic-male-white-foreigner made me the symbol of what my colleagues fought against. They anchored their identity roots — personal and political — in struggles and a creed that I had later come to know and shared, but from other personal and ideological bases. In the team we were aware of these differences, and we seek to use them as part of the richness of our work. The epistemological and political surveillance of which my contributions were the object was a true learning for me, both in the design of the methodologies and in the interpretation of the results. But that did not prevent tensions from also arising over points of view and ways of facing problems, relationships with the rest of the popular subject, and the very conception of teamwork.11

The impact of criminalization in Huehuetenango

In 2012, when we began to work on the investigation, something happened that was fundamental for the dynamics of community mobilization in Guatemala and changed our work plans: retired General Otto Pérez Molina assumed the Presidency of the Republic, consolidating the support policy extractive companies through the repression and criminalization of any form of discontent, mobilization and defense of rights, which was responded to with direct repression and the militarization of political life (Cabanas, 2012; Colibrí Zurdo, 2013).12

Barillas, the place where we were investigating, inserted in the Q'anjob'al area, was one of the places where this strategy took shape. On May 1, 2012, a peasant was killed by the security officer of the Hidro Santa Cruz company, and two other activists who accompanied him were injured. Barillas was in the middle of the titular fair and popular anger led a group to break into the military detachment, retaining its person in charge. The president declared a state of siege and before dawn, some 260 policemen and 370 soldiers (OACNUDH, 2012: 3) arrived in the town, which for three days relived the worst moments of the repression of the eighties in the people of Barcelona: searches , militarization, blacklists. As a result, nine community leaders and authorities were arrested and immediately taken to the capital, and an imprecise number of them fled to the mountains to avoid the same fate.13

These events were a precedent for what would happen in more places over the next four years. Faced with community mobilization, the Guatemalan State did not hesitate to use its repressive repertoire: deaths, kidnappings, militarization, disappearances, impunity (Rivera and De León, 2018). From the beginning of this phase, criminal prosecution was the most used form of repression in a context that did not recommend extreme violence. This strategy, used throughout Latin America (Composto and Navarro, 2014) seeks to demobilize communities and groups organized by both fear and attrition, and requires the direct collaboration of the security and justice authorities to implement criminal processes that from the beginning are flawed and illegal.14 Its importance in terms of community mobilization processes made us pay special attention to it, with the idea of understanding it and knowing its logic. Since the events of Barillas in 2012, we had denounced that the detained leaders were political prisoners (De León and González, 2012). Later, hybrid forms of presentation and dissemination were explored between the academic, the political and the communication, such as the text The voices of the river (Colibrí Zurdo, 2014), which reconstructed the history of organization, repression and criminalization in Barillas through the voices of the politically persecuted, and the Report on the political persecution in Barillas (Colibrí Zurdo, 2013; De León, 2018), which sought to analyze the way in which the events had occurred and occurred in this place.

However, the criminalization of authorities and activists in Barillas meant for the team, in order to maintain the spirit of the project, to change its focus and objective. As De Marinis (2017: 11) says, violence forces us to consider a “why” that requires concrete answers, and in this case there were two. On the one hand, the bonding of the team members with the prisoners placed them in a role of intermediaries for the families with the criminal process that was beginning. They were essential to connect with lawyers and human rights organizations, to send information on the situation of the prisoners and to support visits from Barillas, more than 12 hours away. Thus began a work in relation to judicial processes that was developed over the following years in strategic litigation tasks, campaigns for the release of prisoners and collaboration with lawyers, which we will see later.

On the other hand, the need for truthful information about what was happening in Barillas and with the prisoners became clear, since the written, radio and television media had imprecise, partial versions and many times with a clear intention of turning community members into criminals, thus facilitating the legal-political face of repression (Korol and Longo, 2009; de León, 2018). Thus, based on the experience of some of the team members in alternative communication, in the days after the events reported, the Barillasresiste! Page was created, in which information that arrived from the place, progress on the processes, was published. legal and opinion articles. Faced with the generalization of repression throughout the country - with the Alaska massacre as the culminating point -,15 And in agreement with the authorities and leaders of Huehuetenango, in December of that year the page Prensa Comunitaria appeared publicly as a means to publicize the different resistances that were taking place in the country and, above all, to denounce the harassment they were subjected to. .

Communication as the axis of political action

The appearance of Prensa Comunitaria as a news agency managed by a collective implied that the objective and focus of our work shifted from community mobilization and organization, to forms of repression towards them, and the form of political action shifted from research to communication.16

New people joined the team, young people who supported with different tasks, and a network of communicators and community communicators was forged, usually young people inserted in the struggle processes in their communities, who represented and represent better than anyone that work with and from the communities that we wanted from the beginning. Thus, a “political-affective community” was formed (De Marinis, 2017: 17) that largely extended to the members of community organizations, especially in the Q'anjob'al and Q'eqchi areas.

The base of the informative work was in the community mobilization and the criminalization with which the companies and the State responded; But the work was extended to other spaces and topics (from the trial of Ríos Montt for genocide to the days of protest against corruption, and led to the resignation of the vice president and the president of the country in 2015) based on a network of collaborators who sent opinion texts, reports or news, of the link with media from other countries and the use of various digital media (WordPress, Facebook, email, Twitter).

Communitarian Press became the space that gave shape to the concerns of political action that had given rise to our project and communication was, now, the basic work of the group. Understood as a political action, it gave scope for many types of actions and fields of incidence: the document About us talks about community journalism, feminism, human rights, strategic litigation, memory and justice, systematization and social research, art, short films and illustration (Prensa Comunitaria, nd: 3-19). That is to say, a range of possibilities that derive from the will to convert communicative action, based on research, into political action. That is why we did not pretend to be neutral, we were consciously biased, since the other versions were already given by the corporate media.17 This stance did not conflict with rigor in the verification of sources and the treatment of the issues: reality was shown in such a way that it did not have to be forced. With tenacity and perseverance, based on volunteer work in the midst of the labor and economic precariousness of the team members in Guatemala, Prensa Comunitaria was making its space and obtaining recognition among the media and political actors in Guatemala.

However, this action from politics also had its costs. Several members of the team have had to suffer pressure, violence and criminalization from the government and companies.18 But not only that; being part of the subject also made us participate in its internal conflicts and contradictions. When the Prensa Comunitaria team became an actor within the political field of northern Huehuetenango, rarefied and tense after the Barillas state of siege, the internal dynamics of that space affected the work: we were unable to present the book Dynamics of dispossession and resistance neither in the city of Huehuetenango nor in Barillas because of the boycott organized by part of a sector of the social movement. Already since 2013 there were rumors, disqualifications, silences and verbal attacks that became a real harassment for the members of the team in the capital, especially Quimy de León and the photographer Cristina Chiquín. Those whose interests we had touched took very good advantage of that trace of mistrust and misgivings that had left the clandestinity and repression among the popular political subject, to destroy friendships of years, put an end to coordination spaces and cause emotional imbalances.

All these changes affected my work in the team. Physical distance had already made it difficult for me to participate in investigative tasks, and now it made participation in daily journalism much more difficult. I used to work as a text editor and interviewing people on Skype who called from their communities to report cases of violence or criminalization. Thus, I was able to follow the evolution of the struggle and repression in Barillas, the farm violence in Alta Verapaz or the judicial impunity in various parts of the country.

All this did not hide the fact that I was getting further away from the facts that I was working on. If social research is based on the role of witness (De Marinis, 2017: 18), it was increasingly difficult for me to do the work of a researcher: direct knowledge of the social reality on which I was reflecting was distancing me and that diminished my ability to analyze in depth and use my experience and knowledge. This made it difficult for me to contribute to the work of analysis and reflection, which had been accelerated by this new methodological framework, and to the research activities that were being maintained. There was a contradictory, bittersweet question in this, because at the same time the presence and role of the community communicators assumed that we were working from the knowledge and the direct version that the mobilized subjects themselves gave us: they were the ethnographers, the ones who gave the guideline to understand the processes, getting closer to one of our initial objectives. From there the work of systematization and analysis was done.

However, I want to dwell on one of the tasks that I had to take on in this new format: I had to write in-depth articles over four years. Generally, these were texts of analysis rather than opinion, the result of teamwork: the arguments were based on first-hand facts collected by the communicators, and we discussed and discussed the subject. It was a new format for me in which the demands of conciseness and communicative strength were placed above or next to the rigor and depth of analysis. It was shown as a medium that not only allowed it to be read far beyond the usual academic channels; but to give way to other forms of expression and reaction to reality: outrage was often the trigger for writing.

Legal action before criminal prosecution

As I said before, faced with this criminalization of social protest, Prensa Comunitaria did not act only as an agency that privileged these issues. In addition, various political activities were carried out and are being carried out: campaigns for the liberation of political prisoners, initiatives such as Solidarity Festivals were supported, contact was made with international media. In this context, a new work front was opened in collaboration with lawyers in criminal proceedings against activists and authorities. Since the cases of the nine Barillas leaders in 2012, work has been done with some of them, in communicating with the families, with the prisoners themselves, and in planning strategies. Over time the work was systematized, with the design of information and complaint campaigns within the strategic litigation proposals of the lawyers, and providing information about the cases and their context that the lawyers normally lacked.19

The criminalization affected in a very specific way the north of Huehuetenango, where the mobilization had not stopped with the events of May 2012. The process of the detainees in May 2012 ended with their release without charges eight months later (Bastos et al., 2015). The pressure continued on Barillas and spread to the neighboring municipalities of Santa Eulalia and San Mateo Ixtatán, where hydroelectric projects were also opened.

In May 2013, a second wave of repression began with the frustrated arrest of the leader Maynor López, who was finally arrested in September 2014, which in both cases led to a mobilization throughout the northern region of Huehuetenango that forced the central government to negotiate in September 2013 agreements that he never fulfilled (Bastos, 2016a). In this context, the Plurinational Government of the Q'anjob'al, Chuj, Akateka, Popti 'and Mestiza nation took shape, made up of community authorities from the localities of the eight municipalities in the north of the department. Its nucleus was the organized sector from Santa Eulalia - which had always been autonomous with respect to other organizational forms in the region - headed at the time by Daniel Pedro and Rigoberto Juárez, and backed by the spiritual authorities of the area given their speech of respect and support for native culture.20 Without ever losing the relationship with other options, it was with them that Prensa Comunitaria worked most directly.

By then there were already accusations against Francisco Juan Pedro, Sotero Adalberto Villatoro and Arturo Pablo Juan for the retention of Hidro Santa Cruz workers on April 22, 2013 in the place known as Poza Verde in Barillas, where a sit-in had been installed. pacific against hydroelectric. They tried to arrest them on January 23, 2014 at the Santa Eulalia Justice Administration Center (CAJ), but there were people who objected, and for these events they were also charged when they were detained on February 27, 2015. With this A new persecution phase began that followed on March 24, when Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltasar were captured for events that also occurred in the Santa Eulalia CAJ as a result of the arrest and release of two Pojom residents, San Mateo Ixtatán, on March 19. January of that year. On June 3, Bernardo Ermitaño López Reyes was also arrested for the events of January 23 of the previous year.

Thus, by mid-2015, a good part of the community authorities involved in the defense of the Q'anjob'al territory were imprisoned, through a criminal action conducted by the Human Rights Prosecutor of the Public Ministry; a paradox that shows well the functioning of the legal instances in these cases.21 Despite the fact that the acts for which they were accused had occurred in different ways, the crimes for which they were brought to trial were similar for all of them: illegal detentions, coercion, threats, instigation to commit a crime and obstruction of criminal action . (Excerpts from the judgment: 13). In addition, all of them had also been accused of kidnapping or kidnapping, but the action of the defense team succeeded in having it dismissed in October 2015. Despite this, they were denied provisional release, as was their right.22

The visits to the detainees in Guatemala City, the coverage of the hearings of the cases, the support to family members when they traveled to the capital were repeated again; thereby strengthening the role of intermediaries and personal ties with them. Because of this and because of its knowledge of the environment and the process, Prensa Comunitaria was collaborating in various ways with the team of lawyers, members of the Mayan Lawyers Association, CPO and the Human Rights Law Firm.23 With all of them we began to work in different ways, the campaigns were conceived within the idea of strategic litigation; Contacts were provided and information was provided whenever required.24

In this context, Prensa Comunitaria insisted to the lawyers on the need for expert reports to show how the detainees acted in their capacity as community authorities. Hence the call to the K'iche 'sociologist Gladys Tzul for an expert opinion in this regard, given her work on political forms in the Mayan communities of Guatemala (2015; 2016). In addition, they asked us as Community Press to provide an expert opinion on the conflictive context in which the arrests took place, and it was my turn. This was my most direct and personal experience within this facet of Press Community activities within the judicial world. Due to the phase of the process, my participation was not officially considered as an “expert opinion”, but rather as an “expert witness report”. This allows me to clarify that, although my participation could be seen as an expert opinion, it served to “provide a means of proof that allows a fact or circumstance that is considered obscure to be made clear” (Valladares, 2012: 11); not an anthropological or cultural expertise, which provides "information to the judge about the importance of cultural difference in understanding a specific case" (idem). In that sense, I participated more as a “witness”, someone who knew very well an aspect that was believed necessary for this court to be able to do justice: the context in which the facts that were being judged had occurred. That knowledge was through the Community Press team.

The content of the document that would be presented to the Court was defined with the Communitarian Press team and in talks with the lawyer Édgar Pérez. It was built using two combined axes: on the one hand, the continued dispossession of resources and work, updated in the phase that was being judged, and on the other, the historical formation and performance of the community authorities in the Q'anjob'al area. , thus insisting on the historical role of this community institutionality regarding dispossession. 25

In this way, the Ladinos, who until then had barely been present, fully entered the Q'anjob'al area, as owners or managers of the coffee farms that were established, and as representatives of that State that is now being established. very present in the area. They occupied the positions of power in the municipalities, displacing the Q'anjob'ales to secondary positions and forcing them to be a parallel structure, from where they organize the community government from what will now be called the Principals. This figure continues with the tasks of internal government, now with a very important role of intermediary with that national state that for the first time is located within the same locality, articulating two spheres of legality (Bastos, 2016a: 5).

The conflict generated in the Q'anjob'al area by the presence of hydroelectric plants, was understood within the Latin American framework of extractivism (Seoane, 2012) and accumulation by dispossession (Harvey, 2004), and specifically the end of the conflict in Guatemala (Bastos and De León, 2014). This reconstruction included the mobilization in the municipalities of the area, the conflicts that occurred with the arrival of the different companies and the processes of criminal prosecution of each one of the tried prisoners. All this was done from the news collected in the Communal Press, supplemented with that of other media, if any. Therefore, the core of this expertise was in the collective work carried out since 2012 by the local teams in collaboration with the central team. Based on these evidences, we could conclude that the current prisoners were detained in situations in which they carried out their work as authorities.

After the signing of the peace agreement, hydroelectric companies were present in Barillas, Santa Eulalia and the northern area of San Mateo Ixtatán at different times, without respecting the result of the community consultations that had previously been carried out in these municipalities. In all cases, they began their activities with deception, and resorted to intimidation, pressure and co-optation, so that the community authorities fulfilled their role as spokespersons for discontent, exercised the leadership role, and came to mediate when there were conflicts. with company personnel to avoid major problems.

But companies and the Ladino State did not understand them and a prejudiced view of their role prevailed. For all this, they became the target of the criminal prosecution strategy that the companies launched in conjunction with judicial agents. Despite this, the organized communities and their authorities always moved looking for the channels of legality and dialogue with the different representatives of the State to resolve the situations of conflict, repression and community division that had been created with the arrival of these companies. (Bastos, 2016a: 24-25).

All this meant giving legal form to the argument of "community mobilization" that had been the axis of the collective's work since its inception, and based on collaborative work with the communities through their communicators. In addition, the need to put order to the enormous amount of events that constituted the conflict generated by the hydroelectric plants made it necessary to seek a logic - as always happens in systematization processes -, which allowed us to advance in understanding the processes of dispossession and endurance.

The experience of Prensa Comunitaria, an example of research as political action

This tight summary does not do justice to everything that happened in those five years or to the dedication, creativity and professionalism of the Press Community team. I have only shown some of the elements of my participation in the process, to be able to reflect on the role and possibilities of the social sciences in the context of violence and generalized dispossession that we live; but also about the problems that arise and the limitations of this type of action.

The first thing that could be said, in my opinion, is that the experience of Prensa Comunitaria is one more example that the social sciences can give a lot of themselves if they leave the niche of the academy. It does not mean condemning the academic space, but rather complementing it, transcending it, going beyond training people to be academics and writing articles that only academics will read. As has already been done on many other occasions (Leyva et al., 2015), I am talking about using our capacities and learning - our intrinsic will to know and unravel, the methodological rigor, frameworks and concepts - to intervene in social processes through actions that, such as communication or the legal, is understood for political ends and objectives.

With this, the practice and the meaning of the investigation are enriched, they are creatively transformed and they acquire critical capacity about their own function. This way of using the social sciences outside the academic space, complements, enriches and gives meaning to the work we do, collaborates with concrete and palpable results beyond those obtained through the academy. Working within the political subject and putting the knowledge and knowledge that we have acquired at the service of subjects outside the academy allows expanding the spaces and expressions of the investigative work.

For this, it is necessary to recognize the value of political action in the generation of knowledge. If in the field of politics, “theoretical innovation comes from practice”, this support by the social sciences can be very useful on both sides: “the meeting point between political action and its analysis is an extremely fertile point for theoretical innovation ”(Hale, 2008: 304). In this case, the insertion in the processes through the communicative and legal action allowed the elaboration of academic works (Bastos and De León, 2014; Bastos, 2015; 2018; Bastos et al., 2015; De León, 2018; Rivera and De León, 2018) based on that perspective from community action; at the same time that it enriched the legal works (Bastos, 2016b) and obviously, the journalistic ones. Thus, while I was enriching my capacity for analysis, the community subjects with whom we collaborated also appropriated techniques, concepts and forms of analysis from the social sciences.

Teamwork was always full of tensions, comings and goings and sometimes conflicts, as I have already related. But having to confront visions and academic frameworks with other more politicized matrices and, above all, with those from the actors we write about, was a challenge that forced us to broaden those frameworks. In the same way, the communicative vocation and the use of updated digital formats has been a platform for the dissemination of discussions and analysis frameworks.

All this is not new, there is already a whole tradition of forms of active, participatory, committed and collaborative research “on demand” that have done this (see the three volumes of Leyva et al., 2015). What is specific about this experience - in a sea of specificities - is that although at the beginning we wanted to produce knowledge through social research, we had to act from other areas and by putting the axis in communication, with which the research happened from being the center to being a support for communicative work, as I have already shown. It was about the transposition of the technique, the methodology and the concepts of the social sciences to these other areas of application.

In this process, as we saw, progress has been made in one of the premises of collaborative work: the active participation of the subject in defining the objectives and scope of the process.26 Based on the actions of the Comunitaria Press team, some organized communities and other subjects have increasingly taken over the project. With regard to community issues, about dispossession and mobilization, the work of community communicators is increasingly central and has more repercussions on the struggle processes themselves.27 The objective now would be to turn that into a systematic social analysis work in which they participate at the same level and in line with their objectives.

My experience in Community Press also shows the limits and conflicts of this option, how it is not so easy and it involves tensions. Hale (2008: 2) insists that the relationships between research and political action are tense and difficult in themselves, but that this is part of his creative capacity. Contrary to what is done in academia, social research is conceived and practiced as a means to a political goal and not as an end in itself. This implies questions as simple as that the times, the objectives and the logics of the process are no longer marked by the mere operation of inquiring and seeking answers. Each of them has a reading from the political activity that affects the dynamics. The same occurs with concepts —one of the bases of our work—: their use will be evaluated for their political function and value, not analytical. Sometimes, factional logic is imposed in the research process, influencing analysis, methodologies and activities; others, the autonomy of the researcher is called into question.

Another aspect where this tension manifests itself is when the will to know and understand social processes is mediated by the need to support them. In principle there is no contradiction, since this support is given precisely in the analysis; But when we are at the level of urgent communication in the face of the facts, the need for a complaint takes precedence over the need for understanding. Sometimes it is not possible to enter into the complexity of the studied phenomena - this is not important for political action - and the times are forcing us to leave behind those intuitions and matters whose deepening are the soul of the investigation. Awareness of the need to rethink the conceptual foundations of the work led to a process of reviewing the analysis and understanding frameworks that was launched in 2016, which is already producing results.28

These issues are behind what I have been commenting on throughout this text, and sometimes the daily practice of this relationship led me to think many times that Hale's proposal was more a hope than a reality.

Research, subjects and knowledge

Much of the theorizing around this type of research practice is based on the idea that ending the power relations implicit in academic practices will lead to a horizontal relationship between the researcher and the political subject, and a “dialogue knowledge ”(Santos, 2010) that will enrich both (see again Hale, 2008: 7; Rappaport, 2015: 345). I want to end this text by reflecting on this idea, which implies a binary conception of the relationship between the researcher and the “political subjects in struggle” (Hale, 2008). However, my work at Prensa Comunitaria, and what I have written here shows a more complex reality in these relationships.

To begin with, in this case, more than a “dialogue of knowledge”, to describe this relationship we should at least speak of “tetralogue”, taking into account the subjects involved and the tensions between their ways of understanding the work done. Without going into much detail, in the process that I have related, at least four subjects with their own ways of understanding and acting can be found.

As we have seen, in the first place there would be the organized communities themselves - specifically the sectors and actors that act and mobilize politically - represented in this case by leaders and authorities of the Q'anjob'al area. Then there would be the collective that forms the Prensa Comunitaria, as part of all that political subject of revolutionary heritage and based basically in the capital that acts as an intermediary for the communities and other political subjects at the same time that it behaves as a subject in itself. He is a very diverse subject, as can be seen in my relationship as an academic - the third actor - with the group, which has not been without tension, and is an example of what happens when an academic enters to work in a defined group for political action. And, finally, there would be the lawyers as the subjects who intervene as "experts" in criminal proceedings and have their own way of understanding this and the political context in which they occur.

Within this complexity, what is the “political subject” (Hale, 2008: 3) with which we relate as a social researcher? Am I going to collaborate with "the communities", if I do so as part of the capital's revolutionary political subject? Or is it that my collaboration is with this one, that is to say with the Communitarian Press? Or is it that we all form a single broad subject, defined by the anti-oligarchic, left-wing orientation and by the defense of the planet? What we have seen is that the relationships between each of these can be fraught with tension. This could be complemented by the very different forms of reaction of the mobilized community subject to our work: upon becoming part of the political subject of the north of Huehuetenango, a portion of it ignored us and relations with them were tense from that moment, while those maintained with the other sector were narrowed. Finally, the relationships of the lawyers with the Communitarian Press collective also had their burden of tensions, misunderstandings, denials and concealment.29

None of the above prevented the joint work that was done, largely because we all shared the basic understandings of what we were doing; but I have brought it here because it seems to me that it questions the idea of "dialogues" between two perfectly delimited and differentiated subjects with also delimited and differentiated knowledge, which is at the base of some proposals on the "decolonization" of the academy. As I was saying before, what is the "political subject" in relation to which my work took place? All the actors that have appeared are part of the same political subject, but each one is in turn a differentiated subject, with its own forms, which in turn could form part, with another of them, of a specific subject.

It is necessary to take into account this tension-ambiguity in the relationship between the subjects. To understand it, the idea of “cosmopolitical alliances”, proposed by Marisol de la Cadena, seems useful to me.30 Without yet entering the ontological, epistemic or cultural character of the differences of thought (Blaser, 2009), what interests me is the idea that for indigenous subjects, the concepts that we handle —in this case, they could be community, territory, authority— they mean the same as for Westerners "and something else", which is their own way of understanding it from their ontologies, something that is forbidden to Westerners from our rationality. But from knowing and respecting this difference, alliances are established, which are based on the sum of what we share, respect for what we do not understand (I hope I have not misrepresented the ideas of the Chain).

Applying this to our case, and to the multiple relationships between the multiple actors, we could say that joint political action can be established because there is a common core that we share among the actors - perhaps not one among all, perhaps with nuances between each one. , or directly bits of understanding in every relationship — and somehow we also respect what we don't understand. Thus, this "multiple cosmopolitical alliance" allows one to act from common interests in favor of particular interests, which result in that common good that is sought. However, it also happens that this alliance is broken or weakened when these understandings fail or interests are jeopardized.

This approach complicates the idea of "a subject" with which we academics collaborate, which is per se different from ourselves, putting in tension what unites and what differentiates. At the same time, it questions the idea of some "knowledges" sealed to each other that enter into relationship within a given framework, and much more, it questions the "ontological" nature of these knowledge and therefore its incommensurability. If the boundaries between one and the other are much more porous and the limits are blurred in action, the same happens with their ways of understanding and signifying their actions. Starting from a constructionist idea of associated meanings and practices (Wolf, 1987; Roseberry, 1989), common stories have created more or less common meanings; from the own of each subject and their place in relationships. These common meanings are what allow alliances - be they ontological or only political - that will work to the extent that they lose their hierarchical element, which is the result of a political attitude on the part of all those involved. This political attitude of all parties is what allows the barriers between fields of action to be surpassed and the constitutive elements of the social sciences can be used in activities that in principle do not correspond to them.


As I have tried to show through my experience, doing is a worthwhile challenge, but whose putting into action will always entail difficulties and tensions such as those I have related along with the achievements and advances, and which requires constant reflection. Seeking social sciences committed to their environment and consistent with a world view without hierarchies should not make us forget Boaventura de Sousa's warning: “The social scientist should not dilute his identity as an activist, but neither should he build it without relation to activism ”(Santos, 2003: 36). These words challenge the idea of a simple transposition of roles, since work as a social scientist has its own objectives and mandates, and acting from them makes sense. Although this has already been raised by other authors (Hale, 2008; Rappaport, 2015, for example), the practice of collaborative research and other similar forms requires continuous epistemological vigilance to maintain a critical attitude about what makes us be there , which can serve to maintain that role.


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