The Murder of Guatemalan Maya Spiritual Guide Jesús Choc Yat
By Connor Yearsley
On January 4, 2021, Jesús Choc Yat, a well-known Maya medicine man from Guatemala, was murdered. That is according to a January 7 press release issued by Asociación Maya UK’UX B’E, a Maya advocacy non-governmental organization (NGO). Choc Yat was an ajq’ij (spiritual guide) and healer who also used local medicinal plants. He was 57 years old at the time of his death and was from the El Vergel community of La Zona Reina of the municipality of San Miguel Uspantán of the Quiché department of Guatemala.1
On January 3, Choc Yat reportedly arrived at the community of Lancetillo La Parroquia to celebrate a Maya ceremony where, according to the press release, he was last seen alive. His body was found the next day, allegedly with extensive signs of torture.1
In the press release, Asociación Maya UK’UX B’E denounced Choc Yat’s murder and called on the Guatemalan Public Ministry, which is responsible for the prosecution of criminal cases, to investigate and apprehend those responsible. There were no leads about the murder at the time, but a human rights law office in Nebaj, Guatemala, reportedly was interested in any information on which to investigate. It is unclear if any investigation has been conducted in the meantime. This author made repeated, persistent attempts to obtain more information about Choc Yat from multiple potential sources in Guatemala and elsewhere, but those attempts were unsuccessful. Asociación Maya UK’UX B’E also called for public support to urge the state to stop the persecution of indigenous peoples.1
Choc Yat’s murder is part of a disturbing trend in which indigenous peoples in general and, in some cases, traditional healers specifically are being persecuted and perhaps targeted in Guatemala and elsewhere. In fact, in early June 2020, Domingo Choc Che, 55, a Q’eqchi’ Maya spiritual guide and traditional medicine expert, 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. Domingo 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.2,3
An article in HerbalGram issue 128 described Domingo Choc Che’s murder and included a Q&A with two of his colleagues, who provided insights about what should be learned from his murder and what can be done to prevent similar crimes from happening in the future. Some or many of those insights may also be relevant and applicable to the murder of Choc Yat. At the time of the HerbalGram article (November 2020), three people were awaiting trial for Domingo Choc Che’s murder,3 but the status of the trial is still unknown despite follow-up inquiries by this author.
In a tribute article published in April 2021, Cultural Survival (an NGO that advocates for indigenous peoples’ rights and supports indigenous communities’ self-determination, cultures, and political resilience) states that it documented 56 murders, 11 disappearances, and 23 violent attacks against indigenous human rights and environmental defenders in Latin America in 2020. Some of those, including Domingo Choc Che, are described in the tribute.4 While Domingo Choc Che’s role as a religious leader and spiritual guide apparently played a part in his murder, the circumstances and motivations behind Choc Yat’s murder, on the other hand, are not clear.1-4
The murders of Choc Yat, Domingo Choc Che, and others, are a harsh reminder of Guatemala’s 36-year genocidal civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. 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.2 And, in some or many cases, like Choc Yat’s, information and justice are apparently scarce and elusive.1 His death has attracted far less international attention than Domingo Choc Che’s, maybe because he did not have the national and international links that Domingo Choc Che had, according to a peer reviewer of this article who knew Domingo Choc Che.
“Indigenous peoples of tropical America are suffering from two plagues: political killings and COVID-19,” wrote Mark Plotkin, PhD, an ethnobotanist and president of the Amazon Conservation Team (email, April 23, 2021). “The rate of infections in Amazonia is about twice that of urban centers. And the spate of killings of political leaders and environmentalists, both indigenous and not indigenous, is further compounding the negative effects of the current day and age.”
The author would like to thank Matthew “Mateo” Lluis, PhD, for his help with translation.
- Escobar G. Asesinan a guía espiritual maya en Quiché y autoridades desconocen del caso. Prensa Comunitaria website. January 7, 2021. Available at: prensacomunitaria.org/2021/01/asesinan-a-guia-espiritual-maya-en-quiche-y-autoridades-desconocen-del-caso/. Accessed April 18, 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.
- In Memoriam: Indigenous Human Rights Defenders Murdered in 2020 in Latin America. Cultural Survival website. April 9, 2021. Available at: culturalsurvival.org/news/memoriam-indigenous-human-rights-defenders-murdered-2020-latin-america#guate. Accessed April 18, 2021.