Three People Convicted in the Death of Guatemalan Maya Healer Domingo Choc Che
Maya community upset about lax sentencing and tribunal’s rejection of hate crime allegation
Editor’s note: Some of the quotes in this article have been translated from Spanish. The author would like to thank Matthew “Mateo” Lluis, PhD, for his help with translation.
By Connor Yearsley
On June 24, 2021, three people (two women and one man) who were accused of the 2020 murder of Guatemalan Q’eqchi’ Maya healer and traditional medicine expert Domingo Choc Che each were sentenced to 20 years in prison and ordered to pay 13,600 Guatemalan quetzales ($1,758) in reparations.1,2
Members of the Maya community, who hoped the ruling would be an example and deter similar crimes against Maya people, are instead upset about the trial’s proceedings and outcome. That is partly because Choc Che’s murder was not considered a hate crime, as the tribunal deemed it irrelevant that he was a Maya healer. In addition, the Guatemalan Public Ministry, which is responsible for the prosecution of criminal cases, reportedly had asked for the maximum penalty of 50 years for each of the three people accused.1,2
In early June 2020, Choc Che, 55, was brutally tortured and murdered after a group of people seized him from his home in Chimay, Guatemala, according to an article in The Guardian. Choc Che’s abductors allegedly accused him of witchcraft and performing a ceremony on a grave, beat him for more than 10 hours, and then doused him with gasoline and set him on fire. Police initially arrested two men and two women in connection with his murder, but one man was released due to lack of proof. The trial for the others originally was set to begin in October 2020 but was rescheduled when the defense lawyer did not appear.3,4
Choc Che, who was affectionately called “Tata (‘Elder’ or ‘Grandfather’) Domingo,” was involved in several research projects to conserve traditional Maya knowledge. At the time of his death, he was one of about 30 participants in a project to document traditional medicinal plants in the Petén department of Guatemala. This effort, which is set to end in December 2021, is a collaboration among University College London, University of Zurich, and Universidad del Valle de Guatemala (UVG).4 One paper that resulted from the project was published in the journal Botany in 2021.5
Choc Che was an ajilonel (Maya traditional herbalist-healer) and a member of the Council of Spiritual Guides Releb’aal Saq’e. Over the years, he cared for many people with diverse health problems and worked as a counselor for victims of Guatemala’s civil war (1960–1996) who needed emotional and spiritual support. At the time of his death, he was also part of an effort to build a popol jay, or the “House of the Council,” a place with a medicinal plant garden where new generations of ajilonel could be trained.4
An article in the September 2020 issue of HerbalEGram, the American Botanical Council’s monthly online newsletter, described Choc Che’s murder and included a Q&A with two of his colleagues, who provided insights about who he was, what should be learned from his murder, and what can be done to prevent similar crimes in the future. That article was the seventh most-clicked HerbalEGram article of 2020 and also was published in HerbalGram issue 128.4,6
On the morning of the sentencing for Choc Che’s murder, the accused individuals reportedly looked nervous, and one said a prayer. Two of them said they did not know what happened. The other woman said she would not be there if Choc Che had not performed witchcraft on her husband. Later that morning, she cried and said that God would make justice. After the sentencing, Juan Castro, the lawyer for Choc Che’s family, expressed disapproval of the tribunal’s decision and how it mitigated the fact that Choc Che was burned alive.1
Mónica Berger Gonzalez, PhD, director of the Unit of Medical Anthropology at UVG, worked with Choc Che, was close to the case, and testified during the trial. According to her, the accused were convicted of “homicidio” (manslaughter) but acquitted of “asesinato” (murder), which implies that they just “happened” to kill Choc Che, with no direct intention (email, September 12, 2021). “When someone hits a person on the street with a car, it is called ‘homicidio,’” she wrote. “In the judge’s final statement, the wording was horrible and basically implied it was a mistake to set Domingo on fire.”
The tribunal dismissed all evidence that Choc Che was an ajilonel and that his death was a hate crime or in any way related to religious intolerance, Berger Gonzalez added. “The judge basically said this was a stupid quarrel … that got out of hand,” she wrote. “Both my testimony and [Maya anthropologist] Aura Cumes’ testimony were dismissed. This basically means the crime cannot be linked to the things that matter most to us: ensuring a clear punishment for persecuting people who practice Maya spirituality and Maya medicine. That was eradicated from the trial.”
She believes that because the tribunal deemed it irrelevant that Choc Che was a Maya healer, almost nothing was achieved in the compensatory hearing, during which Choc Che’s widow sought compensation for Choc Che’s death. “By negating that Domingo was a healer, there is nothing to ‘compensate,’” Berger Gonzalez wrote. “It is another way of saying he was a simple ‘Indian,’ and society lost nothing.”
Attorney Castro decided to appeal the sentence, because the prosecution believes this is a clear case of murder and not manslaughter, according to Berger Gonzalez. The court rejected the request for “dignified compensation” for Choc Che’s widow, so Castro is also appealing that decision. For now, the date for the second hearing, which will most likely be public, is pending. “Since the original trial was held [with] closed doors, the press could not play a role in informing public opinion [about] the court’s apparent bias during the debates,” Berger Gonzalez wrote. “[The fact that it will likely be public] will be an important change for the second hearing.”
According to Cumes, a Maya Kaqchikel who holds a PhD in anthropology and co-founded the blog and writers’ group Comunidad de Estudios Mayas, the tribunal had the opportunity to deliver a historic sentence, but was not interested in doing so, only “washing its hands” of the case.2
“Domingo Choc Che was killed while observing his … commitment to serving [the Maya], and I thoroughly explained this to the tribunal,” Cumes was quoted as saying. “He was helping the community heal, trying to collect and conserve medicinal plants…, [and sharing] his knowledge with national and international universities.2
“It is clear that Domingo was a wise man who was burned for being accused of being a warlock,” Cumes added. “The tribunal should have recognized and responded to this specific motivation [for killing him] so that these incidents stop [and] no other healers or spiritual guides are persecuted.”2
However, according to her, the tribunal was not secular in the implementation of justice, did not respect religious plurality, and had no intention of dignifying Choc Che’s role as a Maya healer and traditional medicine expert. She also emphasized that Guatemala is still suffering from colonial attitudes.2
The murders of Choc Che and others are a harsh reminder of Guatemala’s 36-year genocidal civil war. During that time, more than 200,000 people were killed and an additional 45,000 disappeared, according to The Guardian. Eighty percent of victims during the war reportedly were Indigenous. The 1996 Guatemalan peace accords recognized the rights of Indigenous peoples to their traditions, but prejudices and persecution continue.3
Domingo Choc Che. Image courtesy of Mónica Berger Gonzalez.
- Ponce E. Petén: 20 años de cárcel por el crimen contra Domingo Choc Aj Ilonel. Prensa Comunitaria website. June 24, 2021. Available at: prensacomunitaria.org/2021/06/peten-20-anos-de-carcel-por-el-crimen-contra-domingo-choc-aj-ilonel/. Accessed September 25, 2021.
- Han quemado por segunda vez al Aj Ilonel Domingo Choc, esta vez lo hizo un tribunal del Estado. Tujaal website. June 26, 2021. Available at: tujaal.org/han-quemado-por-segunda-vez-al-aj-ilonel-domingo-choc-esta-vez-lo-hizo-un-tribunal-del-estado/. Accessed September 25, 2021.
- Abbott J. Outrage as Guatemalan Maya spiritual guide is tortured and burned alive. The Guardian June 10, 2020. Available at: www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/10/guatemalan-maya-spiritual-guide-tortured-burned-alive. Accessed September 4, 2020.
- Yearsley C. The Murder of Maya Healer Domingo Choc Che: A Q&A with Mónica Berger Gonzalez and Michael Heinrich. HerbalGram. 2020;128:39-40. Available at: herbalgram.org/resources/herbalgram/issues/128/table-of-contents/hg128-wnews-choc-che/. Accessed September 27, 2021.
- Berger-Gonzalez M, Scotti F, García Ambrosy AI, Hesketh A, Hitziger M, Thompson I, Heinrich M. Green health in Guatemala — How can we build mutual trust and partnerships for developing local medicines’ evidence-base and potential? Botany. August 2021. doi: 10.1139/cjb-2021-0070.
- ABC Staff. The Top 10 HerbalEGram Articles of 2020. HerbalEGram. 2021;18(1). Available at: herbalgram.org/resources/herbalegram/volumes/volume-18/issue-1-january-2021/the-top-10-herbalegram-stories-of-2020/the-top-10-herbalegram-stories-of-2020/. Accessed September 27, 2021.