The Ongoing Criminalization of Human Rights Defender Abelino Chub Caal

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The Guatemalan government, through the Public Prosecutor’s Office, insists on continuing to criminalize Abelino Chub Caal, in the context of land dispossession suffered by the Q’eqchi community of Plan Grande in El Estor, Izabal.

Abelino Chub, an indigenous land rights advocate, spent 813 days unjustly imprisoned previous to his trial, falsely accused of aggravated usurpation, arson, and illicit association. He was finally released on April 22, 2019 after the High-Risk Court A issued an exculpatory sentence, finding him innocent of all charges.

However, the Public Prosecutor’s Office has—inconceivably—decided to file an appeal against the sentence. On February 24, 2021, the Criminal Court of Appeals held a special appeal hearing. Defense attorney Jovita Tzul presented her arguments and Abelino Chub voiced his dismay at the appeal, asking the Court to uphold the sentence in his favor.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office did not even appear at the hearing, opting instead to send its allegations via written form. The court’s resolution of this appeal will be issued on March 10 at 3:00 pm. 

The actions of the Public Prosecutor’s Office appear to be part of a strategy to criminalize human rights defenders and community leaders in Guatemala. Keeping Abelino Chub embroiled in a criminal process literally handcuffs his ability to carry out his work in defense of the Q’eqchi people. This despite the high court’s finding Abelino to be completely innocent.

According to Abelino Chub’s defense, “The sentence issued on April 22, 2019 by the High-Risk Court A, is clear and logically reasoned. It is therefore incomprehensible that the Public Ministry alleges in its appeal that the sentence (2016-00328) is not well founded because it didn’t give sufficient evidentiary value to two of the prosecution’s witnesses—the foreman and the manager of the Murciélago farm, allegedly owned by Cobra Investments and CXI, Inc. (companies with a vested interest in the area and plaintiffs in the case). For this reason, it is clear that this continues to be a case of criminalization and a strategy for dispossession of the Q’eqchi lands.”

It is troubling that the Guatemalan State, via the Public Prosecutor’s Office, continues to criminalize and persecute human rights defenders, while promoting and endorsing the dispossession of indigenous lands. Furthermore, the Public Prosecutor’s Office has clearly disregarded its duty to investigate the serious irregularities that were evidenced during the trial. The High-Risk Court A, in its sentence, ordered “the Public Prosecutor’s Office to conduct an investigation into the irregularities detected in the public land titles that form part of the documentary evidence.” No such investigation has been conducted, however, to our knowledge, and no results announced.

Abelino was captured by the Guatemalan National Civil Police on February 4, 2017, in the department of Alta Verapaz.  The arrest took place in a context of pronounced social conflict provoked by business interests that have systematically stripped the Q’eqchi people of their lands. These companies have produced violence and serious environmental impacts while imposing their economic projects: monoculture plantations, the construction of massive hydroelectric plants, and nickel mining.

These projects have contributed to the increase in poverty and extreme poverty in the region. The Q’eqchi communities that have historically resided in the territory have repeatedly denounced the violence, repression, criminalization and evictions they suffer. However, the Guatemalan justice system has not responded to these complaints. In fact, megaprojects continue to be imposed on community lands, in violation of rights protected by the Constitution of the Republic and international conventions, such as ILO Convention 169, which establishes respect for indigenous lands and the right to prior, free, and informed consultations concerning the use of those lands. 

We, the undersigned organizations, denounce the criminalization of defenders and the dispossession of indigenous lands through the improper application of the law against those defending their legitimate and legal rights. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) has expressed its concern regarding the criminalization of human rights defenders and the malicious use of criminal law to limit the exercise of the defense of human rights.   

We urgently call on the Guatemalan State to guarantee the rights of the Q’eqchi indigenous communities, including the right to defend human rights and the right to defend their territory. 

We urgently call on the Public Prosecutor’s Office to desist from continuing to pursue criminal proceedings which criminalize human rights defenders such as Abelino Chub Caal and violate the rights of indigenous communities, such as Plan Grande de El Estor, Izabal. In addition, we call on you to comply with your obligation to investigate objectively and impartially to stop the forced dispossession of Q’eqchi lands.

Signed:

Institutions

Abogado Liberal
ActionAid Guatemala
ALIANZAS, Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington
Asociación Chomija
Center for Gender & Refugee Studies
Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional-CEJIL
Chomija
CoDevelopment Canada
Colectivo de Mujeres Ix Bahlam
Committee for Human Rights in Latin America (CDHAL)
Denver Justice and Peace Committee
Foro de ONGs Internacionales de Guatemala
Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
Guatemala Solidarity Project
Hamalali Garinagu
Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network
MiningWatch Canada
Montreal Elders for Environmental Justice
Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA)
New Hampshire-Vermont Guatemala Accompaniment Project
Nicaragua Center for Community Action
Northern Virginians for Peace and Justice
Older Women Live OWL collective – Ckut 90.3 FM
Plataforma Guatemaltecos y Guatemaltecas Exiliados por Terrorismo de Estado
Projet Accompagnement Québec-Guatemala (PAQG)
Todos por Guatemala/All for Guatemala
TROCAIRE

Individuals

Jo-Marie Burt, Senior Fellow WOLA

Suzan Chastain

Roger Soles, Jade Enterprises

Wes Callender

Laila Hamdan

William Mair Russell

Gaillmarie M Goldrick

Bruce D. Rieder

Constance Freeman

Marilyn Baker

Jonathan Moller

John Ellig

William Walls

Sigue la Criminalización en Contra del Defensor Abelino Chub Caal

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El gobierno de Guatemala, a través del Ministerio Público, insiste en seguir criminalizando a Abelino Chub Caal que subyace el despojo de tierras a la comunidad q’eqchi Plan Grande, de El Estor, Izabal. 

Abelino Chub, defensor de la tierra y los derechos de los pueblos indígenas, pasó 813 días injustamente encarcelado, acusado falsamente de usurpación agravada, incendio y asociación ilícita. 

Abelino finalmente fue puesto en libertad el 22 de abril de 2019 después de que el Tribunal de Mayor Riesgo “A” dictó una sentencia exculpatoria, evidenciando su inocencia. 

Pero el Ministerio Público -incomprensiblemente- presentó una apelación contra la sentencia. Por ello, el 24 de febrero de 2021, la Sala de la Corte de Apelaciones del Ramo Penal de Proceso de Mayor Riesgo y Extinción de Dominio llevó a cabo la audiencia de Apelación Especial. La abogada defensora Jovita Tzul presentó sus alegatos y Abelino Chub expuso su desacuerdo a la apelación y pidieron al Corte confirmar la sentencia a su favor. 

El Ministerio Público ni se presentó por haber enviado sus alegatos por escrito. La resolución de esta audiencia será dictada el día 10 de marzo a las 3.00 pm. 

La actuación del Ministerio Público se enmarca dentro de la estrategia de criminalización contra las y los líderes y defensores de los derechos humanos en Guatemala. Seguir manteniendo a Abelino Chub ligado a un proceso penal, es seguir criminalizándole. Ya fue declarado inocente. 

Según la defensa de Abelino Chub, “la sentencia dictada el 22 de abril del 2019 por el Tribunal de Mayor Riesgo A, es clara, con razonamiento lógico, por lo que es incomprensible que el Ministerio Público alegue en su apelación especial que la sentencia 2016-00328 que no se fundamenta al no dar valor probatorio a dos testigos de la empresa acusadora, siendo ellos caporal y gerente de la finca Murciélago, supuesta propiedad de las mismas empresas familiares de COBRA S.A. Y CXI S.A. Por tal motivo se analiza que sigue siendo un caso de criminalización y estrategia de despojos de las tierras q’eqchi.“ 

Es preocupante que el Estado, a través del Ministerio Público, siga persiguiendo y criminalizando a los defensores de los derechos humanos, siga promoviendo y avalando el despojo de las tierras indígenas, descartando su deber de investigar graves irregularidades que se evidenciaron en el proceso. 

Incluso el Tribunal de Mayor Riesgo A, en su sentencia, “ordena al Ministerio Público que realice investigación en relación a las irregularidades detectadas en las escrituras públicas que forma parte de la prueba documental.”

Abelino fue capturado el 4 de febrero de 2017 por la Policía Nacional Civil de Guatemala, en el departamento de Alta Verapaz. La captura se dio en un contexto de alta conflictividad generada por intereses empresariales, que han despojado de forma sistemática la tierra en manos de comunidades q’eqchis. Estas empresas han generado violencia e graves impactos ambientales en imponer sus proyectos económicos: plantaciones de monocultivos, la construcción de hidroeléctricas masivas, y la explotación minera de níquel. 

Dichos proyectos han contribuido al aumento de la pobreza y la extrema pobreza en la región. Las comunidades q’eqchies que ocupan históricamente el territorio han denunciado de manera reiterada la violencia, represión, criminalización y ataques que sufren. Sin embargo, el sistema de justicia guatemalteco no ha dado respuesta alguna a las denuncias. Al contrario, los megaproyectos se imponen por encima de tierras de comunidades violentando derechos amparados en la Constitución Política de la República y en convenios internacionales como el convenio 169 de la OIT que establece el respeto a las tierras indígenas y la consulta de buena fe: previa, libre e informada. 

Las organizaciones que suscribimos el presente pronunciamiento, denunciamos las intenciones de promover la criminalización y la promoción de los despojos, haciendo uso indebido del derecho penal contra defensores de los derechos humanos y comunidades indígenas que defienden sus derechos legítimos y legales. Es de resaltar que La Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH) ha expresado su preocupación respecto a la criminalización de personas defensoras y el uso malicioso del derecho penal para limitar el ejercicio de defensa de derechos humanos. 

Exhortamos al Estado Guatemalteco, de manera urgente, a garantizar los derechos de las comunidades indígenas q’eqchi, así como el derecho a defender los derechos humanos y la defensa de su territorio. 

Solicitamos al Ministerio Público desistir de seguir impulsando recursos penales que tienen como objetivo la criminalización de defensores de los derechos humanos, como Abelino Chub Caal, y la represión contra comunidades indígenas, como la comunidad Plan Grande del Estor, Izabal. Además, pedimos que se cumpla su obligación de investigar de manera objetiva e imparcial para detener el despojo de las tierras q’eqhi.

Firmado: 

Instituciones:

Abogado Liberal
ActionAid Guatemala
ALIANZAS, Unitarian Universalist Church of Arlington
Asociación Chomija
Center for Gender & Refugee Studies
Centro por la Justicia y el Derecho Internacional-CEJIL
Chomija
CoDevelopment Canada
Colectivo de Mujeres Ix Bahlam
Committee for Human Rights in Latin America (CDHAL)
Denver Justice and Peace Committee
Foro de ONGs Internacionales de Guatemala
Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA
Guatemala Solidarity Project
Hamalali Garinagu
Latin America Working Group (LAWG)
Maritimes-Guatemala Breaking the Silence Network
MiningWatch Canada
Montreal Elders for Environmental Justice
Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA)
New Hampshire-Vermont Guatemala Accompaniment Project
Nicaragua Center for Community Action
Northern Virginians for Peace and Justice
Older Women Live OWL collective – Ckut 90.3 FM
Plataforma Guatemaltecos y Guatemaltecas Exiliados por Terrorismo de Estado
Projet Accompagnement Québec-Guatemala (PAQG)
Todos por Guatemala/All for Guatemala
TROCAIRE

Individuals

Jo-Marie Burt, Senior Fellow WOLA

Suzan Chastain

Roger Soles, Jade Enterprises

Wes Callender

Laila Hamdan

William Mair Russell

Gaillmarie M Goldrick

Bruce D. Rieder

Constance Freeman

Marilyn Baker

Jonathan Moller

John Ellig

William Walls

Dianna Ortiz, Presente!

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With heavy hearts yet mindful that her work continues in the world we mark the passing today of Sister Dianna Ortiz, OSU. Dianna worked at the Guatemala Human Rights Commission from 1994 to 2002.  A survivor of torture in Guatemala, Dianna bravely pursued her case through the Guatemalan court system in the early 90s, to no avail, and bravely continued fighting for the rights of survivors of torture, founding the Torture Abolition and Survivor’s Support Coalition in 1998, as a project of GHRC. TASSC operated as a project of GHRC until it received its own 501(c)(3) status in 2002. In 1996 Dianna conducted a highly publicized vigil and hunger strike in front of the White House to request the declassification of all US government documents related to cases of human rights abuse in Guatemala since 1954. The State Department made a voluntary release of thousands of pages of documents that illustrated US complicity with the Guatemalan government in its brutal and genocidal campaign against the Mayan indigenous and against armed insurgents, human rights defenders, and others working for change.

Dianna first came to Washington to participate in GHRC’s 1992 conference against torture in Guatemala, giving the keynote speech. GHRC’s founding director, Sister Alice Zachmann, had fought for Dianna’s release when she was abducted in Guatemala in 1989 and was instrumental in connecting her with a torture treatment center in Chicago, the Marjorie Kovler Center. A couple of years later Dianna would join GHRC’s staff of three and play a pivotal role in supporting Jennifer Harbury’s efforts to learn the fate of her husband, Efrain Bamaca Velasquez, efforts that resulted in the disclosure of continued and close US collaboration with and funding of Guatemala’s military death squads.

Dianna was an example of strength, generosity of spirit, and courage. All who knew her were touched by her and all she touched was improved. We are blessed to have had her with us at GHRC and we know she will remain with us in spirit and with all who fight for human rights.

Dianna Ortiz, presente!

(Traduccion por Felipe Elgueta Frontier)

¡DIANNA ORTIZ, PRESENTE!

Con nuestros corazones apesadumbrados pero con la convicción de que su obra continúa en este mundo, hoy anunciamos el fallecimiento de la hermana Dianna Ortiz, OSU. Dianna trabajó en la Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC) desde 1994 hasta 2002. Superviviente de tortura en Guatemala, Dianna llevó adelante su caso con valentía en el sistema judicial guatemalteco a principios de los años 90, sin obtener resultados, y con valentía continuó luchando por los derechos de las y los supervivientes de la tortura, fundando la Torture Abolition and Survivor’s Support Coalition (TASSC) en 1998, como un proyecto de la GHRC. La TASSC funcionó como proyecto de la GHRC hasta que recibió su propio estatus 501(c)(3) en 2002.

En 1996, Dianna llevó a cabo una vigilia y huelga de hambre muy publicitada frente a la Casa Blanca para solicitar la desclasificación de todos los documentos del gobierno estadounidense relacionados con casos de violaciones a los derechos humanos en Guatemala desde 1954. El Departamento de Estado liberó voluntariamente miles de páginas de documentos que ilustraban la complicidad de EE.UU. con el gobierno guatemalteco en su campaña brutal y genocida contra las y los indígenas mayas y contra insurgentes armados, defensores de derechos humanos y otros que trabajaban por el cambio.Dianna vino por primera vez a Washington para participar en la conferencia contra la tortura en Guatemala realizada por la GHRC en 1992, donde fue la oradora principal. La directora fundadora de la GHRC, la hermana Alice Zachmann, había luchado por la liberación de Dianna cuando fue secuestrada en Guatemala en 1989 y fue fundamental para conectarla con un centro de tratamiento de tortura en Chicago, el Centro Marjorie Kovler. Un par de años más tarde, Dianna se unió al equipo de tres personas del GHRC y tuvo un rol fundamental en el apoyo a los esfuerzos de Jennifer Harbury para conocer el destino de su esposo, Efraín Bamaca Velásquez, esfuerzos que revelaron los lazos estrechos y continuados de colaboración y financiamiento entre EE.UU. y los escuadrones militares de la muerte de Guatemala.

Dianna fue un ejemplo de generosidad de espíritu, fortaleza y valentía. Todos los que la conocieron fueron tocados por ella, y todo lo que ella tocó, mejoró. Fue una bendición de tenerla con nosotros en el GHRC y sabemos que seguirá con nosotros en espíritu y con todos los que luchan por los derechos humanos.

Constitutional Court and Human Rights Update: 3/20 – 4/16

New Constitutional Court Excludes Elected Anti-Corruption Judge

The new Constitutional Court (CC) judges were sworn in on Tuesday, April 14. Missing from the group is Gloria Porras, who has served 10 years on the court and is a critical figure in the fight for justice and against corruption. Porras’ reelection for her next 5 year term was blocked by an unjust ongoing legal challenge against her. The case, one of 53 attempts to stop her work against corruption since 2015, is related to the CC’s involvement in stopping the removal of the Swedish ambassador by President Jimmy Morales in 2018.

GHRC’s Guatemala City director, Isabel Solis, signed a joint letter to the Guatemala Congress outlining the illegality of blocking the seat of an elected judge based on their rulings in a court case.

The new composition of the CC is very concerning and could lead to grave results on future human rights cases that pass through the court.

The three judges who were sworn in include: 

  • Dina Ochoa; dubbed the ‘judge of impunity’ by the former Anti-Corruption commission, CICIG.
  • Layla Lemus; the former chief of staff for President Alejandro Giammattei.
  • Roberto Molina Barreto; former vice presidential candidate for Zury Ríos, the daughter of Guatemalan dictator Ríos Montt

You can find a more comprehensive background on the elected judges from Peace Brigades International.

Raid and Intimidation Attempt of the Indigenous Peoples’ Law Firm

The offices of the Indigenous Peoples’ Law Firm (BPI) were broken into and robbed over the weekend of March 20 – 21. BPI is well known for accompanying cases for indigenous humans rights and land defenders. GHRC awarded BPI the Alice Zachmann Human Rights Defenders Award in 2018 and continues to work closely with the firm as a key partner. 

Wendy Geraldina Lopez, lawyer and director of PBI, explained to the press that the details of the raid are evidence that the attack was a targeted assault and attempt to intimidate the organization. The doors of the office were broken down, all of the computers and security camera recordings were stolen, legal files on current cases were damaged, the sign labeling the PBI offices was destroyed.

Despite the destruction of tools fundamental to their work, Lopez affirmed that “they have not taken away our desire to continue fighting… we will continue to defend the fundamental human rights of every person who requests our help.”

Court Suspends Bernardo Caal’s Hearing

Bernardo Caal Xol, a Q’eqchi Maya and human rights defender, has been imprisoned since 2018 on crimes that he did not commit. On April 5, the Supreme Court suspended his hearing, using the excuse of an unexplained recusal of judges. The court justified the hearing’s postponement on grounds of the recusal of judges without further explanation. 

Bernardo has been defending access to water for the local indigenous community in his municipality of Santa María de Cahabón since 2015. Hydroelectric projects on the rivers of Oxec and Cahabón have dried the waterway that the local Q’eqchi community depends on. Additionally, these dams generate electricity that the Q’eqchi don’t have access to. As a result, the locals are left with serious negative social and environmental impacts from the presence of these hydroelectric projects. Bernardo and the Q’eqchi people mobilized in 2015 to peacefully resist the construction of the OXEC hydroelectric project in their area. They demanded the company comply with their right to a consultation prior to the construction of the dam to address their concerns. The Supreme Court supported the Q’eqchi people’s demands. As a result, Bernardo was targeted with smear campaigns that have been used to stigmatize the efforts of human rights defenders. In 2018, Bernardo was convicted of illegal detention and theft despite the lack of evidence and subsequently sentenced to seven years and four months in prison. 

On March 22, 2021, Alianza por la Solidaridad delivered a petition with 30,000 signatures for Bernardo’s release to the Barcelona City Council, requesting their support. GHRC has signed the petition and we continue to call for the immediate release of Bernardo Caal Xol. Additionally, GHRC continues to financially assist Bernardo and his family as he makes an effort to defend the environmental and land rights of the Q’eqchi people from behind bars.

Human Rights Defender Killed in Jalapa

On Sunday April 11th, 2021, Emilio Aguilar Jiménez was fatally shot at his home in El Duraznal, Xalapán, Jalapa. Emilio was a member of the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA), an indigenous-led grassroots human rights organization that aims to improve living and working conditions for farming and indigenous groups. Emilio was a member of CODECA for six years and a recognized human rights defender in his community. 

Since 2018, over 20 CODECA members and leaders have been killed. CODECA has called for the immediate investigation into the murder of Emilio Aguilar Jiménez. 

ABELINO CHUB CAAL’S ACQUITTAL HAS BEEN APPEALED—COURT HEARS APPEAL TOMORROW

ALERT

On February 24 at 10:00 AM, the High Risk Court A in Guatemala City will hear an appeal in the criminal case against Abelino Chub Caal.  Abelino was acquitted of all charges in April 2019 and was freed after serving more than two years in pretrial detention.

The Public Prosecutor’s Office filed an appeal against the acquittal sentence (C-18002-2016-00328) handed down on April 22, 2019 by High Risk Court A, in Guatemala City. The appeal claims that the court’s ruling was faulty because it did not grant evidentiary value to two witnesses.

This action by the Public Prosecutor’s Office is quite worrisome; Abelino’s defense lawyers have reviewed the sentence and stress that the sentence is well founded.

It is not known exactly what the motives of the Public Prosecutor’s Office are for acting without a basis in regards to the sentence.

The imprisonment of Abelino Chub Caal and the continuing judicial persecution of Chub Caal appear to be linked to efforts by business interests to acquire land in the community of Plan Grande del Estor, Izabal.

Worrisome as well is the fact that there no information from the Public Prosecutor’s Office about any progress in the investigation of the illegal appropriation of Q’eqchi lands; the same High Risk Court A has “order[ed] the Public Prosecutor’s Office to investigate the irregularities detected in the public deeds” of the company that denounced Chub Caal. This same company insists on evicting the community of Plan Grande from the land.

In light of this situation, we fear for Abelino Chub Caal and call on the international community to monitor the hearing and denounce the undue use of the criminal justice system to harass Abelino Chub Caal.

REQUESTED ACTION 

GHRC asks that the US Embassy and the international community observe the hearing and monitor the case closely.  Convey to the Guatemalan Government that the judicial persecution of human rights defenders like Abelino Chub Caal must be brought to an end.

BACKGROUND

Abelino Chub was arrested on February 4, 2017 after the CXI Corporation and Cobra Investments, banana and palm companies, charged that he had led a group of indigenous farmers to violently occupy the Plan Grande Farm in northeastern Guatemala on August 7, 2016. They accused him of burning trees in the palm farm during the occupation.

At the time of his arrest, Abelino worked with the Guillermo Toriello Foundation accompanying communities in northeastern Guatemalan working to ascertain legal title to ancestral lands as well as rural development community work.  He is bilingual Q’eqchi and Spanish teacher who was finishing a degree at the Mariano Galvez University when he was arrested.  More information is here and here.

For more information, contact ghrc-usa@ghrc-usa.org.

2020 Breaks Record for Attacks on Human Rights Defenders

According to the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), a record-breaking number of human rights defenders were attacked in 2020. In total, UDEFEGUA documented 1,004 cases, which include 15 murders and 22 attempted murders.  Women defenders were the targets of nearly 34 percent of the attacks. Four women defenders were killed, according to UDEFEGUA’s statistics chart, making women 28 percent of the total number of defenders murdered. This figure represents a marked increase over previous years; in 2019, 11 percent of the defenders killed were female.

The number of attacks on defenders exceeds any annual tally since UDEFEGUA began documenting abuses against human rights defenders in 2000. UDEFEGUA in a December 17 communique noted that in an administration’s first year, attacks on defenders usually diminish, but the opposite occurred in 2020, in spite of the shutdown mandated to control the spread of COVID-19. In fact, the shutdown appears to have been taken advantage of; according to UDEFEGUA’s analysis, President Alejandro Giammattei has sparked a consolidation of authoritarianism and a closure of democratic spaces. UDEFEGUA has called on the international community to denounce the attacks and pressure the Guatemalan government to prosecute crimes against human rights defenders. 

    
Will the Biden Administration’s Plans Help?

President Joseph Biden’s plan for Central America emphasizes improving respect for the rule of law; but efforts to improve the situation, at least in respect to human rights, could be undercut by Biden’s economic plans for Central America. The Biden administration has promised a $4 billion aid package for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to address root causes of migration. In a bid to increase economic competitiveness and create jobs, the Biden administration will work with multilateral development banks, such as the World Bank and the Inter-American Development Bank, to develop infrastructure and promote foreign investment. Promoting transitions to clean energy is another goal mentioned in the plan. 

Biden’s economic plan follows a disruptive pattern of neoliberal policies that financially benefit large corporations and exploit vulnerable communities in Central America. This plan to encourage private sector investment in a region where the rights of rural and indigenous communities are routinely ignored risks deepening poverty for those communities and creating more conflict and displacement. In short, more attacks on environmental and land defenders could result.

A Biden presidency has the potential to advance holistic and humane policies towards Central America and aid those in desperate situations. But GHRC and other human rights organizations, some of whom have recently made policy recommendations to the Biden administration, have to remain diligent and promote US policies that advocate first and foremost for full observance of basic human rights.

 

This Giving Tuesday, Please Help Us Continue our Critical Work for Human Rights

In a year filled with hardships and protests, the Guatemalan government has increasingly turned to repression. Last week as protests erupted across the country police arbitrarily arrested scores of protesters. Most were beaten before being booked on false charges. Two men lost their left eyes when police fired teargas canisters into the crowd.

Just weeks before, two hurricanes had swept across Guatemala, destroying homes and crops and killing dozens. The shutdown to contain COVID-19 from March to September already had created severe food insecurity. Targeted killings, however, continued. Eight environmental and land defenders were killed between June and August. Between January 1 and November 20, a total of 14 defenders were murdered, 4 of whom were women. 

On the ground in Guatemala, GHRC accompanies defenders and communities under threat. We need your help to continue accompanying defenders in Guatemala and providing emergency support.

President Alejandro Giammattei spent his first year in office taking apart the institutions that were set up to implement the terms of the 1996 Peace Accords. In areas with controversial megaprojects, such as Izabal, and in communities with historic land conflicts, he declared states of siege, suspending basic rights and putting the military in control. 

We continue to document the increasing repression. Help us press the incoming administration in Washington to prioritize justice in Guatemala in all its forms and stand strong for human rights.

Partner with us! Donate today.

All gifts up to $35,000 will be matched.

Thank you for helping us defend Guatemala’s most vulnerable defenders!

Police Repress Protests

Only Half of the Story

Guatemala has once again made international headlines. Photos published by major US media showed an angry mob setting fire to the National Congress building in Guatemala City.

The New York Times, in an article entitled “Protesters in Guatemala Set Fire to Congress Building Over Spending Cuts,” wrote, “Thousands of protesters took to the streets in Guatemala’s capital on Saturday, setting fire to the nation’s congressional building in a show of anger over a budget bill passed this week that cut funding for health care and education.”

The real story, however, is far more complex and much more alarming.

The Billion-Dollar Question

With the arrival of Coronavirus in Guatemala, the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei declared a “state of calamity,” which eased restrictions on the government’s ability to seek millions of dollars in emergency loans and donations to fight COVID-19.As the months passed, however, the country did not see a significant improvement in medical attention, equipment, or infrastructure. Instead, hospitals were overrun by COVID-19 patients, testing became irregular, and medical workers complained of a lack of personal protection equipment, unsanitary conditions, and nonpayment of salaries. Doctors and nurses were among the mortal victims of COVID-19. Although 1.9 billion dollars were earmarked for social programs designed to provide a safety net for families during the coronavirus crisis, these programs came up short. An additional Q200 million (roughly $27 million) was designated by the Giammattei administration “for people of limited resources,” yet many poor families were forced to wave white flags, a symbol of need, begging for food by roadsides throughout Guatemala.

Criticism grew against the government for misuse of funds and outright corruption. On social media a growing wave of voices asked, “Where is the money?” and the hashtag #DondeEstaElDinero began to trend.

Recently the government’s deficient response to the suffering and tragedy caused by the back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota once again had Guatemalans asking, “Where is the money?”

The outcry was such that Guatemala’s Vice-president, Guillermo Castillo, offered to resign and publicly suggested that the president to quit along with him.

The Budget

On November 18, in the wee hours of the morning, the Guatemalan Congress approved a stunningly bloated budget for 2021. The Q99,000,000,000 budget (roughly $13.2 billion) was the largest in Guatemala’s history. In addition, the Congress approved a loan of $428 million, an amount that would sink the country deeper into debt.

The new budget severely underfunded essential services such as health, education, the environment, and human rights. It also slashed Q200 million—about $27 million—in funding allocated to fight malnutrition in Guatemala; this, in a country where half of the children suffer from chronic malnutrition. Earlier this month local newspapers reported the death of a 9-year-old boy in Jocotán, Guatemala due to chronic malnutrition.

At the same time, members of Congress approved $65,000 for their own meal plans. Guatemalan civil society immediately called for peaceful protests, demanding that the president veto the 2021 budget.

The Protests and the Violence

On the afternoon of November 21 thousands of men, women, and children gathered in front of the National Palace. The police presence was sizeable, but the protestors waved flags, carried banners denouncing the unjust budget, and cried out against corruption. The civil gathering was peaceful, full of creative energy and righteous indignation. It was also an act of protest fully protected by the Guatemalan Constitution and backed by the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office (PDH).

Six blocks away from the organized protest, a group of people gathered in front of the National Congress. Oddly, there was absolutely no police presence to safeguard the installation. At 2:30 PM vandals broke the windows of the building, entered the building, and set fire to the interior. The police did not arrive until much later.

At 3:00 PM President Giammattei tweeted, “I reiterate that one has the right to demonstrate in accordance with the law. But we also cannot allow vandalism of public or private property. Anyone found to have participated in these crimes will be punished with the full force of the law.”

At approximately 5:00 PM riot police arrived at the National Palace. With absolutely no provocation, and no previous warning, they began to shoot canisters of tear gas into the peaceful demonstration. Men and women, children and the elderly, were forced to flee.

The riot police began lashing out indiscriminately at anyone they encountered in the city streets. Photographers, journalists, demonstrators, street vendors, parents and children, church workers, and others were caught in a tide of police brutality: gassed, beaten, and bloodied. A photojournalist had his camera knocked to the ground before receiving repeated baton blows to his head. Women were kicked, thrown, and dragged through the streets by their hair. Two young men lost their left eyes when police fired teargas canisters at head level into the crowd. In total, 31 innocent people were arrested.

Injustice and Justice

Isabel Solis, GHRC’s Guatemala City Office Director, observed the hearings of several of the accused. She reports that one of the charges against many of the 31 of the arrested was “destruction of cultural patrimony,” a charge that falls outside of the jurisdiction of the Justice of the Peace, who otherwise could have released the protesters.

Those accused of this charge, therefore, had to spend at least two nights in prison. After a physically and emotionally exhausting wait, every single person arrested had the charges against them dropped by the presiding judges for “falta de mérito” (a lack of evidence).

Some Doubts that Remain

·         The governing board of the Guatemalan Congress has agreed to temporarily “shelve” the 2021 Budget. Yet this unilateral act in itself might be illegal since it doesn’t have the support of the entire Congress.

·         National Civil Police officers stated that those arrested had been caught in flagranti, while committing the arson, yet all of the arrests occurred in different locations and hours after the fact.       

·         Leaked images published on social media showed fire extinguishers and large barrels of water had been set up inside the building previous to the fire.

·        The former head of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Ivan Velazquez, tweeted a question about where the guards were who were supposed to be in front of Congress as it was being burned. “It’s very strange, if not suspicious, that infiltrators could get into and set fire so easily to a building that should have the greatest levels of security,” he wrote.

·        Human rights monitors in Guatemala suggest the fire may have been set by government-affiliated elements to create a pretext for repression.

In Conclusion

GHRC is concerned about the mental and physical wellbeing of those who were brutally attacked and falsely arrested by the police. We are also concerned by the increasing use of criminalization by the government to dissuade and discredit legitimate social protest and the defense of human rights. Finally, GHRC joins with those who are calling for a thorough and impartial investigation into the arbitrary arrests and the use of excessive force by agents of the National Civilian Police (PNC) and those in the chain of command who ordered the repression.

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Hurricanes Devastate Communities

Double Dose of Destruction

With media in the United States focused on the struggle to contain a surge of Coronavirus cases and navigate the complicated transition between presidential administrations, shocking news from Central America scarcely got its due: Guatemala and neighboring countries were devastated by back-to-back hurricanes. Hurricanes Eta and Iota struck the isthmus within days of each other, leaving behind a trail of death and destruction: floods, landslides, loss of crops, homes and lives. In Guatemala alone, over 150 people are either missing or dead. Even those who sought safety in overcrowded temporary shelters are now at greater risk for falling ill to COVID-19.
 
GHRC’s office director in Guatemala, Isabel Solis, mobilized immediately to connect affected communities with the individuals and organizations providing life-saving aid. 

The Polochic region of Guatemala, where GHRC has worked with communities defending the environment from illegal extractive industries, was hard hit. Families in El Estor, Izabal, lost their entire harvest. In the Verapaces, homes were destroyed by flooding, and a landslide caused by the rains buried half of the residents of the village of Queja, a Poqomchi’ community near Coban. 

A Community in Resistance, a Community in Need 

One of the communities that reached out to GHRC for help is Chicoyoguito. Three decades ago, these Mayan q’eqchi families were forced from their lands by the army. Their homes and fields were razed to build the Zone 21 Military Base, a notorious facility where men, women and children were disappeared, tortured, and buried in mass graves during the armed conflict.
 
Last January some 50 families returned to reclaim their lands. They resettled in an area that had been a garbage dump, cleaning the area up and making it habitable. Nevertheless, they once again faced eviction, this time in order to accommodate the operations of a munitions factory. 

GHRC has been accompanying the community in their struggle to recover and return to their rightful lands. Many of the Chicoyoguito families were left homeless by the hurricanes and were in dire need of food. GHRC helped spread the word about the community’s dire situation and—working with the human rights organization Just Associates and others—provided much-needed corn to the community. 

A Political Prisoner Speaks Out

Bernardo Caal, a political prisoner GHRC has been accompanying, affirms that the catastrophic flooding caused by the storms has been exacerbated by the damming of rivers for massive hydroelectric projects. Bernardo, a father, teacher, and community organizer, is serving a seven-year prison sentence based on false charges as a result of his opposition to such projects on the Cahabon River. 

Caal writes, “In the granting of 50-year concessions to hydroelectric and mining companies, which kidnap our rivers and destroy the environment, there the government is present, signing the license. But when nature reacts to these harms caused, the government and its officials are largely absent.”

Whether they are seeking to address historic wrongs, defend the environment, or simply survive natural disasters, human rights defenders need our support, and GHRC is steadfast in offering it. Thank you for standing with us!

Defenders of Land and Environment Further Stigmatized



A highly publicized arrest has created the occasion for further accusations to be leveled against land and environmental defenders in Guatemala.

César Montes, once a famed guerrilla commandant whose legal name is Julio César Macías López Mayorga, was arrested in Mexico on October 10 and is charged with ordering the murder of three soldiers on September 2, 2019 in the village of Semuy II, in El Estor, Izabal. While a number of human rights groups accuse Montes himself of working on behalf of companies and large landowners rather than in favor of the indigenous communities—allegations that documents presented in a Canadian court seem to support—his arrest is being used to further sully land rights activists and environmental defenders.

The Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (CACIF), congratulating the Public Ministry on Montes’ arrest, urged the government “to continue with these efforts to eradicate parallel groups that, with high-powered weapons, promote property invasions, carry out illegal activities, and defy the authorities.”

CACIF’s statement is especially concerning given the intensification of criminalization campaigns targeting human rights defenders. Between January and June of this year, as attacks on defenders nearly tripled compared to the same period in previous years, 481 new cases of criminalization were reported.

Conflating defenders with criminals, former President Jimmy Morales in 2019 imposed a two-month state of siege that extended over hundreds of miles, including Semuy II, where the soldiers were killed, but also encompassing six departments and twenty-two municipalities. Executive Secretary of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Paulo Abrao called the measure disproportional.

A state of siege is the second highest state of exception that the Guatemalan government can impose, topped only by a state of war. It severely limits various constitutional rights and freedoms, including the right to hold meetings, transit freely, and protest. In his press conference calling for a state of siege, Morales referred to “pseudo-human rights defenders” and “pseudo-campesinos” and said “the Government of Guatemala repudiates the actions carried out by people who shield themselves in flags of pseudo-defense of human rights.”

On July 19 of this year, the government of President Alejandro Giammattei imposed another state of siege in five municipalities, including El Estor. The decree made all meetings of two or more people illegal.

The states of siege have been implemented at critical moments for those resisting the Guatemalan Nickel Company’s (CGN) illegal Fenix mine in El Estor. Finding that the Fenix mine had carried out an incomplete environmental study and had not consulted populations affected by the mine, the Constitutional Court on June 19 of this year ordered an immediate halt to the mine’s operations. The ruling limits the area covered by the license to 6.29 square kilometers, the land that the environmental study did apply to; suspends all operations until a consultation is carried out with the affected populations; and mandates a period of 18 months during which the consultation must be conducted.

Limits on the right to assembly imposed by the government have restricted the ability of the communities affected by the mine to begin planning the consultation ordered by the court. Furthermore, the states of siege have been used harass indigenous communities working to defend their land and resources, as GHRC’s staff in Guatemala confirmed repeatedly in meetings with defenders.

As United Nations Rapporteur Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, Victoria Tauli-Corpuz, stated after finishing an investigation in Guatemala, “The initiation of criminal proceedings against indigenous authorities and leaders who defend their rights to their lands are often preceded by smear campaigns, including on social networks, which label them as violent criminals seeking conflict, campaigns that are carried out with the aim of discrediting the legitimate exercise of their rights.”
GHRC is greatly concerned that the current context may lead to further smear campaigns, criminalization, and attacks against indigenous leaders and others who defend their rights to land and a healthy environment in Guatemala.