Guatemala News Update: April 14-18

La Puya protesters continue fighting, despite police intimidation

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Community members at La Puya

Last week, members of the army and the police (PNC) visited San Jose de Golfo to try to break the La Puya resistance movement so that the mining company, KCA, could continue construction of the El Tambor mine that would severely contaminate the community’s water supply. The protesters believe President Otto Perez Molina is directly involved in the deployment of troops and police. A KCA spokesman denied contacting the PNC, but confirmed that he had been in communication with the Pérez Molina administration.

Support La Puya by asking KCA CEO Dan Kappes and the Ministry of the Interior in Guatemala to respect the rights of community members. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: February 10-14

Representatives from international organizations (including GHRC Executive Director Kelsey Alford-Jones, second from right) express concerns about the reduction of Attorney General Paz y Paz's term at a press conference in Guatemala City.

Representatives from international organizations (including GHRC Executive Director Kelsey Alford-Jones, second from right) express concerns about the reduction of Attorney General Paz y Paz’s term at a press conference in Guatemala City.

GHRC and other international organizations call for transparency in election of new attorney general

On Wednesday, GHRC and other international organizations called for transparency in the election of a new attorney general, after the ruling that Claudia Paz y Paz will end her term this May. The organizations’ spokespeople stated that transparency in this process will help ensure that the right person gets the job. GHRC Executive Director Kelsey Alford-Jones noted that the process should include people from all sectors of society. Read our blog about the press conference for more information. Continue reading

Conflict over Proposed Dam Flares Up in Guatemala

Community resistance to a hydroelectric project in Guatemala is once again met with government repression; a fourth attempt at dialogue ends with an inconclusive whimper

Community members rally against proposed hydroelectric projects, Oct 2013 (PrensaComunitaria)

Community members rally against proposed hydroelectric projects, Oct 2013 (PrensaComunitaria)

 On September 28, resistance leader Mynor López was walking by the church in Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango, when he was suddenly seized by men dressed in civilian clothing, taken in a pickup to a waiting military helicopter, and flown to Guatemala City.

Mynor had been active in the widespread resistance movement against a proposed hydroelectric dam. In an already tense atmosphere, the irregular and perhaps illegal capture was seen by community members as yet another attempt by the Guatemalan government to break the opposition through intimidation and brute force.

The response of the population was both immediate and massive. In communities across the region – San Juan Ixcoy, Soloma, Santa Eualia, San Mateo Ixtatán and Nentón – residents took to the streets in peaceful protest, blockading highways and demanding Mynor’s release.

The government responded in its typical heavy-handed fashion. Guatemalan security forces composed of riot police and soldiers were mobilized. From September 28 to 30, remote northern Huehuetenango looked like a war zone: military aircraft circled overhead, white clouds of tear gas billowed, and residents lived in terror.

The Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC’s) Guatemala office received periodic updates as rumors circulated:

  • “The military are shooting tear gas from their helicopters…”

  • “The combined forces…tried to leave through a community called La Florida. When the community denied passage to the police and military, police officers opened fire…”

  • “There are unconfirmed rumors of injured persons, amongst them children…”

The conflict resulted in several severe injuries, including women and children poisoned by tear gas, and the still-unexplained death of a soldier. In order to seek a peaceful resolution, community leaders met with high-level government officials and developed a 7-point agreement whereby the government would remove 60 percent of its security forces and the communities would liberate the highways.

Obtaining concrete or verifiable information about what actually transpired, however, has proved difficult. There was no presence of governmental observers such as the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH) or the Presidential Human Rights Office (COPREDEH). Government investigators couldn’t get access to the soldier’s body where he was allegedly shot and the forensic report has not been made public.

A cursory investigation into the death of the soldier was evidently enough for Interior Minister López Bonilla to publicly blame community members for the fatality. In a press conference on Monday, September 30, he confirmed “approximately” 13 arrest warrants for “disturbances and the death of the soldier.” Another 40 outstanding arrest warrants, some dating back as far as 2011, were also made public. “Order will be imposed in Barillas,” he emphasized, seated next to the Defense Minister.

López Bonilla additionally threatened to deport any foreigners who might be accompanying or supporting local social movements: “We won’t permit their meddling in Guatemala’s internal affairs,” he said.

Communities in northern Huehuetenango released their own press statement, linking government aggressions to the new wave of officially sanctioned “transnational invasions.” The use of excessive force by security forces, they said, brought back memories of the counterinsurgency strategy of the 1980’s, when military troops and helicopters were used to terrorize and massacre the population. “We won’t allow mining licenses to destroy us or the territory we live in and have cared for over thousands of years,” their statement said. “We demand respect for community referendums and the cancellation of all licenses for all large-scale development projects in the region.”

National and international organizations, including GHRC, immediately expressed concern about the situation, including the lack of transparency in the investigation of the soldier’s death and the alleged illegalities in the detention of Mynor López. A delegation that included a congressional representative and a member of the International Council of Jurists visited Mynor in prison and witnessed signs of physical abuse that he had suffered while in custody of state forces.

President Pérez Molina addresses the public in Barillas on Oct. 8, 2013 (guatemala.gob.gt)

President Pérez Molina addresses the public in Barillas on Oct. 8, 2013 (guatemala.gob.gt)

On October 8, after a week of tense but relative calm, official dialogue began around the proposed hydroelectric projects in Santa Cruz Barillas. This was the fourth attempt at dialogue; past efforts had either been broken off by the government, or the official representatives simply never showed up. If talks failed this time, however, it would not be for lack of high-level participation: President Otto Pérez Molina was present, as well as his Ministers of Defense, the Interior, Energy and Mines, and the Environment. A representative of the Spanish hydroelectric company, Hidro Santa Cruz/Hidralia Energia, was also at the table. Local mayors, the Human Rights Ombudsman, and religious leaders joined representatives from affected communities, filling the room. Thousands more waited in their communities for news from the dialogue process.

Repression against Non-Violent Protesters

This remote region in Huehuetenango – about as far away from the capital as you can get without being in Mexico – is part of the so-called Northern Development Zone. It has been identified as a rich source of metals, hydro power, and petroleum, and successive administrations have courted international investment from Colombia to Canada to Spain to “develop” the region. There are now approximately 15 hydroelectric dams in different stages of planning and development in the area, as well as plans for oil extraction and mining.

Under international law and, by default, Guatemalan law, indigenous peoples have the right to free, prior and informed consent before large-scale projects can be carried out in their territories. The Guatemalan government has consistently and  systematically neglected to implement that law. Instead, local Q’anjob’al, Chuj, and Akateko communities organized themselves and have taken the initiative to consult with the population. In a formal community referendum in 2007, residents in Barillas voted overwhelmingly to oppose to any mining operations or other projects funded by foreign investment.

The Barillas municipal government, respecting the will of the people, refused to grant a license to Hidro Santa Cruz for the Cambalam dam. The company sued to reverse that decision, and ultimately won. As the project advanced, still without proper consultation, opposition increased. Community leaders began receiving threats from individuals linked to the company.

President Pérez Molina addresses soldiers in Santa Cruz Barillas after declaring martial law in May 2012. (PlazaPublica)

President Pérez Molina addresses soldiers in Santa Cruz Barillas after declaring martial law in May 2012. (PlazaPublica)

On May 1, 2012, tension peaked when local community member Andrés Francisco Miguel was murdered and two others were seriously injured, in an armed attack apparently carried out by individuals working for Hidro Santa Cruz. (Residents commented that Andrés had been unwilling to sell his land to the company.) A large crowd gathered and tried to chase down the attacker, who took refuge in the military base.

That same day, President Otto Pérez Molina declared martial law in Barillas, suspending the constitutional rights of the population. Over the next 18 days, soldiers ransacked people’s homes in warrantless searches, dumping food on the floor, stealing identification papers and other documents, intimidating the population, and arresting community leaders.

Political Persecution and Criminalization

In the aftermath of the May 1st events, and under the cover of martial law, the government began arresting community activists opposed to the mine, charging them with a laundry list of crimes such as robbery, kidnapping and terrorism. Nine people were captured on May 2 by men in civilian clothing, much like Mynor Lopez. Two more were detained on May 4th. The arrests of the 11 community members occurred under questionable circumstances, and the months they spent in pre-trial detention (all were denied bail) were fraught with irregularities and gross violations of due process.

It wasn’t until January 2013 that a judge ordered provisional release of all of those detained for lack of evidence against them. In an interview with GHRC, Arcadia, a community leader whose brother had just been released and who was still in hiding to avoid arrest herself, spoke of her conviction to fight for her community.

“They are persecuting me because I am a spokeswoman for the people. I don’t just speak about my rights; I speak out about the rights of the community. I am speaking out for those children who cannot yet defend their rights,” said Arcadia. “I am speaking from the bottom of my heart for a common good. And that is why they persecute me, and not only me, but many others too, such as my friends who have already suffered in jail.”

Barillas has become a paradigmatic example of how the Guatemalan judicial system is being manipulated to target community leaders who oppose “development” projects. As defense lawyer Sergio Vives explained, when the Prosecutor’s office attempts “to charge a community leader with terrorism, simply because he demands his rights, because he exercises a constitutional right to protest, to rally, to express a difference of opinion,” the State is, in effect, taking political prisoners.

Fourth time’s the charm?

Expectations for the outcome of the latest attempt at negotiations quickly dropped. In an interview after the four-hour meeting on October 8, Q’anjob’al community leader Rigoberto Juárez said the conversation had been superficial. The success of the dialogue and the ability to reach a solution, he said, will depend on the political will of the government.

“We still need to get to the heart of the issue…Q’anjob’al communities have been demanding development for many years, but we have been one of most forgotten peoples in the country. It isn’t until companies come, promoting projects in our territory, that we hear about the ‘need to develop,’” said  Juárez. “Development for who? Will the money stay in the community? No, it goes to fill others’ pockets, and we will continue to live in poverty. What we’re asking now is for the government to cancel all the [mining and hydroelectric] licenses that have been granted.”

Few development projects in Guatemala have received as much political support and state resources as Hidro Santa Cruz has to implement their Cambalam Hydroelectric dam. (The 3-week period of martial law in 2012 alone cost the government almost $700,000.)

Unfortunately, the government’s political will seems to extend only so far as the transnational companies will allow. After participating in the dialogue, President Pérez Molina made clear that he would not restrict or cancel licenses to companies that had invested in projects in Barillas. The government, he said, might be open to “other solutions.”

By Kelsey Alford-Jones, Executive Director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA. First published on upsidedownworld.org on October 10, 2013.

News Update: September 21-27

Ex-police chief sentenced to 40 years

Hector Bol de la Cruz, chief of police from 1983-85, was convicted in the 1984 kidnapping and disappearance of student union leader Fernando Garcia. The court also sentenced former senior police officer Jorge Gomez to 40 years for his role in the kidnapping.

Former Kabil Standing Trial in U.S. for Lying on Citizenship Application

Federal prosecutors are accusing Jorge Sosa, a former Kabile, of lying on his citizenship application by concealing his involvement in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre that left over 200 people dead. Sosa, who is married to an American, was originally denied asylum in 1985. If convicted, Sosa could be stripped of his United States citizenship and face 15 years in prison. Guatemalan authorities will seek his extradition to charge him with crimes against humanity as well.

Guatemala to Rent Drones for Video Surveillance

The Interior Ministry announced that in 2014 it will rent a fleet of drones, for video surveillance. The Ministry stated that the drones would be used in military and security capacities. They will permit the government to, among other things, monitor drug trafficking along the country’s borders, criminals and criminal activities, and protests.

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Genocide Trial in Guatemala Drawing to a Close

Over the last month, the historic trial has been moving forward in Guatemala’s High Risk Court charging former Head of State Efraín Ríos Montt and former Head of Military Intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sanchez with Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity. The victims have waited for over 30 years for justice to be served for the atrocities committed against Guatemala’s indigenous people, and finally, a verdict is in sight.

Thanks to all of our supporters who sent an email to U.S. Ambassador Arnold Chacon asking him to attend the genocide trial. Although the trial began on March 19, the US Ambassador didn’t make an appearance in the courtroom until April 9th. The following day the Embassy finally broke its silence regarding the trial and issued a press release reiterating the importance of justice for reconciliation in Guatemala. The press release also expressed the US’s support for justice processes which are “credible, independent, transparent and impartial,” and exhorted “all Guatemalans to respect the legitimacy and integrity of the process.”

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Nobel Peace Prize winner and genocide survivor Rigoberta Menchu greets victims’ families. (Photo: mimundo.org)

Breaking News: We’ve received word that a decision in the trial against Efraín Ríos Montt and José Rodríquez Sanchez may come as soon as the end of this week. The trial has progressed at breakneck speed covering testimony from more than 100 survivors and dozens of experts, despite constant attempts by the defense to stall or derail the process.

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Weekly News Round-Up, March 18-25

Day 1 of Genocide Trial
On March 19, 2013, the historic trial opened against Rios Montt and Rodríguez Sánchez. After almost two hours of delays by the Defense, the trial began. The public prosecutor stated that the objective of military operational plans under Ríos Montt was the destruction of the Mayan Ixil population as part of a counter-insurgency campaign that characterized civilians of this ethnic and linguistic minority as an “internal enemy”. Attorney Edgar Pérez rejected assertions that the act of seeking justice is itself an act of terrorism or an effort to destabilize Guatemalan society. Political pressure on the actors involved has been intense, and just before the trial begain, President Otto Perez Molina’s denied that genocide took place. Perez told reporters: “It is important to state it because I lived it: there was no genocide in Guatemala.” Marcie Mersky, Program Director at the International Center for Transitional Justice, says such comments may influence legal proceedings and are inappropriate.

Lolita Chávez participates in month-long speaking tour in Canada and US
In events in Montreal, Ottowa, Vancouver, BC and Washington, DC, Lolita Chavez spoke about the work of the K’iche’ People’s Council and community resistance to harmful transnational development projects. In an interview with Montreal Gazette, Lolita stated that: “Canadian companies are the main protagonists in this invasion that brings only death and destruction.” A short video interview is available here.

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Weekly News Round Up Feb. 23-Mar.5

Constitutional Court upholds case closure for Efraín Bámaca’s disappearance
The Constitutional Court (CC) has confirmed the closure of the criminal case involving the forced disappearance of Efraín Bámaca. In March 2011, Bámaca’s widow, Jennifer Harbury, brought a criminal complaint against then presidential candidate Pérez Molina for his role in her husband’s disappearance and death. Bámaca (alias Comandante Everardo) disappeared in 1992. According to the military, he committed suicide, but Harbury says that he was actually detained, tortured and killed. In December 2010, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered the Guatemalan government to re-investigate the case of Bámaca’s forced disappearance. Harbury’s lawyer has indicated that he will take action against Pérez Molina for not fulfilling the IACHR’s demands for a re-investigation of the case.

Constitutional Court rejects legal action filed by Toto indigenous leaders
The Constitutional Court (CC) unanimously rejected the legal action filed by the 48 cantones of Totonicapán against the Mining Law. The court’s decision called on Congress to regulate consultation with indigenous communities as established in ILO Convention number 169. The plaintiffs argue that the Mining Law was issued when there was still a right to consultation under the ILO convention and therefore the law is unconstitutional because it does not respect that right. The trial against the soldiers who fired on the group of protesters in Totonicapán last year is still ongoing. One of the defense lawyers for the accused soldiers says that he will ask for an acquittal. He says that his clients were motivated by “an overwhelming fear”, and thus they are innocent.

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