January News Round Up

Ríos Montt on trial for genocide and crimes against humanity
The trial against former head of state Ríos Montt and along with former general José Rodríguez, began on January 30th, two days after Judge Ángel Gálvez announced his decision to try the two men for genocide and crimes against humanity. The much-anticipated announcement drew a large crowd which included many survivors of the armed conflict as well as journalists, retired military personnel, and human rights activists. The decision was hailed as a victory for the victims of one of the most violent conflicts in Central America.

Spanish delegation comments on conflict in Santa Cruz Barillas
A group of Spanish representatives on a mission to investigate human rights in Guatemala held a press conference last week to talk about several of the cases they looked into during their visit. One of the cases that they highlighted was the conflict in Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango surrounding the dam proposed by the Hidro Santa Cruz energy company. One Spanish representative expressed concern for the human rights violations there including the assassination of a community member, illegally long detentions of political prisoners and the absence of a means of democratic communication between the community members and authorities. Another representative, Josep Nuet, expressed a desire for Hidro Santa Cruz to start the project anew, this time with the input of the community.

Limitations on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights repealed
The executive branch announced on January 17th Government Agreement number 30-2013, which repealed an earlier decision to not recognize the jurisdiction of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights on violations prior to February, 1987. The original agreement (number 370), which was announced on January 2nd, was met with much criticism, forcing the President to suspend it the next day.

An analysis of President Perez Molina’s first year in office
During his first year in office, President Pérez Molina launched the Cero Hambre and Bolsa Segura programs to combat malnutrition and hunger. His critics allege that these programs have not yet reached much of the at-risk population and have not done enough to break the cycle of poverty. Credit should be given to the attorney general, police commissioner, and interior minister, and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala for the improvements in the murder rate as well as the security situation. “In 2012, Guatemala recorded 5,174 homicides, approximately 500 fewer than in Colom’s last year, thereby reducing the country’s murder rate from 39 to 34 per 100,000. However, while the government’s increased reliance on the military and mano dura policies has not led to an increase in homicides, there is good reason to be concerned with the government’s increasing reliance on the military to perform acts better suited for police.” writes Mike Allison.

Defense Ministry blocks access to military records from 1982
The Minister of Defense, Ulises Noé Anzueto, has declared that military documents from 1982 shall remain classified. Last month the Office of Human Rights requested access to specific documents detailing Army General Orders for Officers from that year. Military officials have stated that the documents contain sensitive information pertaining to the “structure, composition, size, strength and weaponry” used by the army and therefore cannot be released. GAM (Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo) rejected the Defense Ministry’s decision, saying that it is necessary for the public to have access to this information and that their refusal to release the documents violates the Law of Access to Public Information (LAIP). According to the Defense Ministry, the documents must remain classified for another seven years.

President Pérez Molina talks about drug reform and ‘alternative’ approaches to dealing with gangs
The Guatemalan president indicated that he would be open to alternative ways of dealing with the gang problem in his country, including negotiating a dialogue between rival groups. After the success of this strategy in neighboring El Salvador, Guatemalan officials were hopeful about the outcome of such ‘alternative’ ways of dealing with this issue although Pérez did warn that the nature of the Salvadorian gang problem was different than that in Guatemala. The President’s comments were made at the World Economic Forum, where he also claimed that reforming prohibitionist drug laws would reduce drug violence by half. More recently, the Minister of the Interior announced a new heroin poppy crop substitution program.

Conflict and violence at San Rafael mine
A violent attack on the San Rafael Las Flores mine took place sometime in the night between January 11th and 12th. The citizens of the town, who have been peacefully protesting the mine for several months, became worried as news of the event spread. At least two of the mine’s workers were killed during the night and several others were injured in what appears to be a well-planned attack from an unknown source. Unfortunately, reports soon circulated blaming the local population for creating unrest in the community. Minister of the Interior, Mauricio López Bonilla, claimed that the attack was an act of terror connected to drug-traffickers and hired hitmen. Most media reports failed to highlight the non-violent efforts of community members over the past few months to stop the company from violating their rights. Community members insist that they stand in opposition to the mining company, not the people of San Rafael.

Security guards at Marlin mine shoot at workers
On January 8th, guards at the Marlin mine in San Miguel Ixtahuacán, San Marcos shot at and wounded nine mine workers who are protesting against the mining company, Montana Exploradora of Guatemala. The workers were protesting for the right to employment benefits. The company has been coercing its workers to sign employment contracts which do not allow them to receive any benefits for working in the mine.

Human Rights Ombudsman says the state has failed to consult local populations about hydroelectric and mining projects
Jorge de León Duque went before the Court of Constitutionality to testify the that State of Guatemala has not been respecting the human rights of the indigenous communities whose lands are being used for hydroelectric and mining purposes. He points to the fact that the government and energy companies have been ignoring the input of the communities where these projects are being built.

Military increasing role in citizen security
President Pérez Molina has order the Ministry of Defense to develop a plan to increase military involvement in both citizen and border security. The president indicated that he would not back down when it comes to matters of security, especially after the news of increased violence in January. The Catholic Church has expressed a concern over the remilitarization of the country. Following a meeting between the President, the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Defense, Perez Molina announced that they were looking into the possibility of declaring a state of emergency in those areas of the country that have been most affected by violence.

A tense situation faces community members of San Antonio Las Trojes 1, San Juan Sacatepéquez
The community has opposed the construction of a cement factory for Cementos Progreso since 2006. In spite of their protests, the company has brought heavy machinery to the community to build a well, as well as threatened and assaulted both a visiting verification commission and local leaders. Since January 28th, over 5,000 people have maintained a daily, nonviolent protest in front of the cement factory to denounce the acts of violence and intimidation, and to demand that their rights be respected.

Weekly News Roundup

April 27th- May 3rd

  • Human rights organizations protest against Canadian mining company. On April 27th a group of thirty activists of human rights organizations protested Goldcorp’s mining operations in Toronto while the company was holding its Annual General Meeting in Timmins, Ontario. The protesters hoped to raise awareness of the company’s human rights abuses and environmental violations. The mine has been criticized locally and internationally for contaminating water sources; condoning intimidation, threats and attacks against community members; disregarding community referendums and international regulations, among other abuses.
  • Thousands of workers participate in International Workers’ Day marches on May 1st. Echoing the demands of previous campesino and union marches this month, the International Workers’ Day marchers demanded an end to militarization and exploitative mining projects and criticized the decision by Congress to freeze further dialogue concerning the rural development law. They also asked for higher salaries and an end to high levels of impunity. According to Carlos Contreras, Guatemala’s Employment Minister, seven out of ten companies violate labor rights. In the first months of 2012 more than 4,000 complaints of labor violations have been sent to the Department of Labor.
  • Guatemala declares state of siege in Huehuetenango on May 1st. Interior Secretary Mauricio Lopez Bonilla sent a contingent of 100 military and 160 police forces to Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango to “restore order” after a group of 200 men armed with machetes and guns took over a military base in the area. Security forces arrested nine men involved in the mob after the declaration of the siege. That same afternoon, one community member was assassinated, and two others injured, in attacks by armed men with apparent links to the companyThe village of Santa Cruz Barillas has outspokenly protested against the construction of the hydroelectric company and denounced the lack of consultation. The community is calling for a suspension of the company’s license.  According to Interior Secretary Mauricio Lopez Bonilla the riots were started by a group of intoxicated men who had been celebrating the La Cruz festival. President Perez Molina justified the state of siege on the grounds that the rioters were accomplices of drug traffickers. Human rights and peasant organizations repudiate the state of siege.
  • Former police officer to stand trial for his involvement in Spanish Embassy fire in 1980. On the day of the fire, January 31st 1980, the Embassy was stormed by indigenous protestors who wanted to inform the world about human rights abuses committed during the internal armed conflict. Former police officer Pedro Garcia Arredondo is accused of keeping firefighters from extinguishing the fire and ignoring the ambassador’s plead to withdraw his forces.
  • 5,708 remains of victims of the internal armed conflict unearthed. Juan de Dios Garcia, representative of Adivima, confirms that the exhumation of victims’ remains helps to push the Public Prosecutor’s Office to move forward with their investigations of the massacres, and to bring justice to the victims and their families. He also mentions that finding the remains of the disappeared gives family members the peace of mind to know where their loved ones are and enables them to carry out a proper burial in keeping with cultural traditions.
  • Candidates for the position of the Human Rights Ombudsman summoned to hearing. Candidates were asked to respond to questions and concerns from civil society groups. Most questions were directed towards the current Ombudsman Sergio Morales. The next step in the election process will be a forum discussion to be held May 11. Civil society organization released a public call to the Congressional Commission for Human Rights asking for an evaluation of the immediate necessities of the Office of the Ombudsman to strengthen the institution. With regards to the election of the Ombudsman, they recommend considering candidates whose defense of human rights, academic background, honesty and impartiality have sustained national and international acclaim.

Otto Pérez Molina takes office as Guatemala’s new president

Photo: Al-Jazeera

Otto Pérez Molina was inaugurated on Saturday as Guatemala’s new president, making him the first military official to take office since the end of the military government 25 years ago.  As the murder rate, violence and infiltration of organized crime and narco-trafficking groups have increased, Guatemalan voters have offered their support to Pérez Molina’s ‘iron fist’ approach to security and crime.  In his inaugural speech, Pérez Molina promised to ‘show results’ in the first six months of his presidency and ‘cut the murder rate by half by the end of his term.’ Speaking directly to military officials yesterday, President Pérez Molina  called on the army to ‘neutralize illegal armed groups by means of military power’ and demanded loyalty, participation and enthusiasm from all military officials.

The new president is asking the United States and Mexico to support Guatemala in its efforts to crack down on drug-related violence, expressing his intentions to push for the lifting of a military aid ban from the U.S.  Lifting the ban would lead to greater emphasis on military training in a country suffering from continued military impunity from the internal conflict and a dire need for police and judicial reform–not more military support.  However, regaining aid from the U.S. would require Guatemala to meet a set of 6 conditions, including releasing all military documents from the armed conflict–something Perez Molina is unlikely to do.  The move to lift the ban is a glimpse of what is to come in the new president’s term, marking a shift back to the militarization strategy of the armed conflict and raising serious concerns over the potential for human rights abuses, given the accusations of war crimes held against President Pérez Molina and the well-known history of human rights violations by the Guatemalan military.

Check out video coverage of the inauguration from Al-Jazeera below:

Holiday News Round-Up

Happy New Year everyone! We hope you all had a wonderful holiday and are looking forward to an exciting new year. The GHRC news briefs are starting up again with the following summary covering some of the more significant and important stories from the previous week, bringing us all up to speed on current events in Guatemala.

National News

  • Rubén Herrera, a Guatemalan notary and lawyer, has been appointed by Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz as the new Special Attorney against Impunity (FECI), which is responsible for expediting cases of high impact and advancing the fight against impunity in Guatemala.
  • According to statistics released by the National Institute of Forensic Science (Inacif), Guatemala suffered an average of 17 violent deaths per day in 2011, with a total of 6,187 assassinations.  Even though these numbers represent a 7.4% reduction in violent deaths from 2010, those that occurred in 2011 were performed with more brutality and cruelty.  The Minister of the Interior has indicated that over 60% of assassinations in Guatemala are related to drug cartels, gangs and organized crime groups.  The PNC reports different statistics, with 5,618 homicides in 2011 and an average of 15.5 per day.  Central American Politics also covers the release of the homicide rates.  

International News

  • HablaGuate blog has published an interview with Jean-Marie Simon, author of the book, Guatemala: Eternal Spring, Eternal Tyranny, recently republished in Spanish. Listen here.

Weekly News Round-Up

Weekly Round-Up: 12/11 – 12/16

National News

  • President-elect Pérez Molina met with Mexican President Felipe Calderón yesterday to discuss their collaboration on a variety of issues.  In a press conference following the meeting, Pérez Molina reported that they had discussed several issues, including the creation of a civil intelligence platform to share information regarding the organized crime and narco-trafficking and a possible ‘consular pass’ that would allow Guatemalan immigrants to travel through Mexico without a visa.
  • Fifty more names have been added to the list of those accused of violent actsduring their supposed involvement with the leftist guerilla movement of Guatemala’s armed conflict.  Theodore Michael Plocharski, a Guatemalan citizen responsible for the accusations, is claiming that the accused were involved in the kidnapping, torture and assassination of eight diplomats.  The list includes human rights defenders and social activists Sandra Torres Casanova, Orlando Blanco and Marielos Monzón.
  • In an interview with ElPeriodico, Theodore Plocharski comments on his motives for accusing over 50 people with links to the assassination of diplomatsand association with the leftist guerilla movements during the armed conflict.  Plocharski said he wants the truth to be heard and justice to be served and argued that it is time the Attorney General investigates crimes committed by the guerrillas as well as the military.  He also commented that he is not necessarily proposing legal action against the individuals on the list, but rather against the guerilla entities—ORPA, EGP, PGT and FAR.

    Michael Plocharski, denunciante. (Foto Prensa Libre: Erick Avila)

International News

Weekly News Round-Up

National News

  • Transparency International reports Guatemala’s score has fallen from 3.2 to 2.7 out of 10 for public’s perception of transparency within government for 2011.  The country is now ranked 120 out of 182 countries, only above Nicaragua, Honduras, and the Dominican Republic within Latin America.
  • The U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Arnold Chacon, commented Tuesday that the U.S. would guarantee the safety and security of Alfonso Portillo through the extradition process, but reminded Guatemalan authorities that his transfer is their responsibility.  Chacon also hailed the recent successful captures of narco-traffickers by Guatemalan authorities, mentioning U.S. involvement in the operations and his support for the continuation of such activities.  The new ambassador commented that it would be ideal to approve the implementation of a C4I system in Guatemala to prevent the flow of narco-trafficking.  Chacon met with Otto Perez Molina Wednesday.
  • Yuri Melini, environmental activist and director Center of Legal, Environmental and Social Action (CALAS), announced that, during this past presidential term, human rights violations against environmentalists increased by 12%.  A report released by CALAS documents 96 total cases of attacks, threats, assassinations, injuries, defamation, illegal detention and unlawful searches.  Melini argued that actions against environmentalists frequently go unreported or underreported.
  • The Public Prosecutor’s office announced the creation of an agency to investigate crimes committed by “non-state armed groups” during the armed conflict as part of the Special Cases Unit for Human Rights.
  • Groups such as the Association of Military Widows (Asomilgua) continue to carryout out public attacks against Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, demanding investigation of 36 supposed guerilla members, which include her aunt, Laura Paz y Paz, and her deceased father, Enrique Paz y Paz.  The supposed guerrilla members are being accused as the intellectual authors and directors of more than 45 acts of violence committed between 1978 and 1982.
  • Through a poignant case-study of the San Jose Calderas community in Guatemala, Plaza Publica analyzes the factors pushing and pulling migrants to the United States, the failures of the Guatemalan government to provide adequate support, and how the migrant flow has impacted the local economy.
  • 800 families from 14 different communities remain displaced in the Polochic Valley after the violent evictions carried out by the sugar cane company Chabil Utzaj last year.  Communities whose land was taken and crops destroyed have now reached a level of starvation and desperation. Now community members find themselves insulted and infuriated by the State’s meager food distribution which comes 6 months after the Inter-American Court of Human Rights called for measures to ensure food, health, housing, and security for the 800 families.  The food delivered by the State is barely enough to last 2-3 days for the average family.  The community believes that if such trends are a signal of a return to the violent, abusive past, they will not hesitate to take up arms to defend themselves and their land.

International News

Weekly News Round-Up

National News

International News

International coverage of Otto Pérez Molina

Following Sunday’s presidential elections, there has been a swarm (at least by Guatemalan standards) of international media sources reporting on former general and president-elect Otto Pérez Molina.  It seems that the rest of the world has finally caught on to the potentially ominous political shift occurring in Guatemala and the serious implications it could have on the entire Central American Region.

As drug-related violence and organized crime has been steadily on the rise in the past ten years, foreign governments–particularly the U.S.–are beginning to pay close attention to security and military policy in Guatemala.  With his aggressive promises to crack down on crime and narco-trafficking, the election of Otto Pérez Molina reflects the growing dissatisfaction and frustration spreading throughout Guatemala.

Check out some highlights of recent international news coverage of Otto Pérez Molina:

Election Results are in…

Photo by: Associated Foregin Press, for BBC World

Otto Peréz Molina was the clear winner in yesterday’s presidential elections, receiving 54% of the popular vote and beating out opponent Manuel Baldizón, who received 46% of the vote.  The majority of Molina’s support comes from the capital city, where 66% of votes were in his favor.  Alongside the new president-elect, Roxana Baldetti will become the first female vice-president in Guatemala’s history. During a press conference following confirmation of the results, Molina announced the first official members of his cabinet–Mauricio López Bonilla as Interior Minister, Francisco Arredondo as Minister of Health, and Alejandro Sinibaldi as Communications Minister.

The election of the former general  marks a dramatic and worrisome political shift in Guatemala, as increasing violence and drug-trafficking has led many citizens to support Perez Molina’s ‘mano dura’ hardline approach to cracking down on crime.  Guatemala is facing some of the highest rates of poverty, malnutrition and violence in all of Latin America.  The election of Otto Perez Molina points to the increasing level of dissatisfaction and frustration with previous leaders’ failure to control what many view as a downward spiral.  Many Guatemalan’s seem to be desperate for results and the ‘iron-fist’ approach of Perez Molina is an appealing and dramatic shift in policy.

However, human rights defenders and organizations–GHRC included–have expressed serious concerns about the incoming president’s involvement in acts of genocide and war crimes during Guatemala’s armed conflict.  In alliance with Rights Action and lawyer Jennifer Harbury, GHRC presented a formal allegation letter to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on Human Rights denouncing Otto Perez Molina and accusing him of direct involvement in the systematic use of torture and acts of genocide during his military service as a general in the Ixil Triangle from 1982-83 and as Director of Military Intelligence in the early 90′s.  A recently published article in the Wall Street Journal provides an extensive profile of the general, including an interactive timeline of his involvement in the armed conflict and the torture, capture and murder of political prisoner Efrain Bámaca.

Crisis Group releases report on narcotrafficking and violence in Guatemala

The International Crisis Group, ‘an independent, non-profit, non-governmental organization committed to preventing and resolving deadly conflict,’ recently released an extensive report documenting the recent influx of drug-trafficking and violence into Guatemala, highlighting state corruption, strategic geographic location and internal economic and social inequities as major factors contributing to the violence.  The report also includes an overview of the increased presence of the Los Zetas drug cartel and an evaluation of the state and judicial institutional systems, providing concrete recommendations for the incoming president. Check out the full report and executive summary. 

Following last month’s release, Kimberly Abbott (Communications Director for North America at the International Crisis Group) published an interview with Mark Schneider, Senior Vice President and Special Adviser on Latin America about the economic, geopolitical and institutional factors contributing to the increase in violence in Guatemala.  Schneider makes some recommendations for the incoming president, including support of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, the work of Helen Mack and national police reform, and the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG). Listen to the podcast, which provides a succinct and helpful explanation of why the violence has been increasing and what should be done about it.