Families in rural Guatemala flee after armed group sets homes on fire

By Sofia Menchu

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Forty indigenous families occupying farmland have fled their homes in north Guatemala after an armed group set fire to several residences, a land rights group said on Sunday.

The families belong to the Q'eqchi' indigenous group and are former workers of the Cubilgüitz coffee farm laid off 15 years ago without full severance, Guatemala's Committee of Peasant Unity (CUC) said.

Since then, they have demanded land as compensation and occupied part of the farm in protest, CUC representative Maria Josefa Macz said.

"Last night, the 40 families were forced to leave their homes, their belongings and residences were looted, similar to the 1980s," the CUC said in a statement, referring to some of the bloodiest years of Guatemala's Civil War when villages often were burned.

It was not clear who was behind the attack. However, a little over a year ago, another group of people began to occupy the land and intimidate the former workers, the CUC said.

Guatemala's President Alejandro Giammattei said on Twitter he was concerned about the incident and authorities were investigating.

The indigenous families live on land belonging to Dorothee Dieseldorff, whose family founded the coffee brand Dieseldorff Kaffee.

"The phenomenon being experienced at present is a conflict between different groups of invaders of the farms, who are confronting one another," the family said in a statement.

The statement also said the CUC's description of the situation was false and slanderous, and that its farm was not involved in any current labor disputes.

The statement said its farm and three others in the Cubilgüitz area were occupied as early as March 2019 and as recently as April 2020.

The UN High Commission for Human Rights has raised alarm over an increase in killing of mainly indigenous rights defenders in Guatemala. In a report last year it counted 39 such killings in 2017 and 2018 combined.

A police report said the armed group threatened officers who attempted to enter the area on Saturday night, and noted that six homes were "completely burned".

(Reporting by Sofia Menchu, Writing by Daina Beth Solomon; Editing by Nick Zieminski and Edwina Gibbs)