Guatemala News Update: September 28 – October 2

Guatemala’s Civil Society Just did the Impossible

Former GHRC Director Patricia Davis recently published an article for The Nation about the radical changes occurring within Guatemalan civil society. After months of mass protests throughout Guatemala, citizens emerged victorious in September when they ousted their President on fraud charges. This is a major turning point for Guatemalan civil society, but “in their view, the struggle has just begun.” The momentum of these protests and the results it has yielded is momentum enough for Guatemalan citizens to continue to seek the best leadership possible and to defend their human rights. Still, Davis reminds us that what happens next for Guatemala relies on the September and October elections as well as the role that the international community decides to play within the country.

Rise and Fall of Otto Perez Molina

In an article recently published by Foreign Policy In Focus, GHRC Board Member Jesse Franzblau describes the rise and fall of Guatemala’s ex-President Otto Perez Molina and his much-awaited trial. After months of mass protests, in early September, Guatemalan Congress voted to end the former president’s immunity from prosecution. The following day, Perez was ousted from his position as President. Franzblau writes that “It is a striking blow to the wall of impunity that surrounds the county’s most powerful figures – and in this case, one of the most feared as well.” While Perez may be awaiting trial on fraud charges, the former President has committed even worse crimes.

Franzblau explains Perez Molina’s military involvement in Guatemala’s internal armed conflict dating back to the 1970s. During Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, Perez committed “numerous human rights atrocities and political murders.” Backed by U.S. military intelligence agencies and security forces, Guatemalan military officers committed heinous dehumanizing acts including torture, disappearances, and executions. Throughout this time, Perez rose through the army ranks and was a part of an airborne troop that carried out counterinsurgency operations at the height of the violence in July and August of 1982.

Trial of Salvador Estuardo Gonzalez in La Linea corruption case

On Monday, the businessman accused with participating in the customs fraud scam known as La Linea, told the court that “half the bribes in the scam were paid to the former leader and his ex vice president.” Salvador Estuardo Gonzalez acted as an accountant for the entire fraud scam that ended with the resignation of former Guatemalan vice president Roxana Baldetti and President Otto Perez. In June, Gonzalez was arrested along with 28 other La Linea suspects and investigators claim that he was one of the key operators in the scam. Gonzalez backs up official allegations that Perez and Baldetti heavily profited from this scheme in which importers paid bribes to avoid customs duties. Both Baldetti and Perez await trial in jail and still deny any wrongdoing.

CICIG to be replicated in Honduras

La Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, better known for its Spanish acronym CICIG, was a big actor in the removal of Guatemala’s ex-president Otto Perez, ex-vice president Roxana Baldetti, and many other corrupt individuals in the administration. On Monday, the Organization of American States (OAS) said that it will create a similar organization to monitor and tackle corruption and impunity in Honduras. Along with Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, the secretary-general of OAS, Luis Almagro, presented the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH as its Spanish acronym). Leaders hope to make this an effective legal tool to support the Honduran justice system and punish corrupt individuals.

Update on “Ecocide” case in La Pasión River

Recently, the ecological disaster plaguing La Pasión River in Sayaxche, Guatemala has made it to larger international news sources. CCTV America sent a correspondent to Guatemala to investigate what is killing the river’s fish. According to correspondent Harris Whitbeck, locals suspect an African palm processing plant as the source of this disaster. The United Nations reports that this plant was in violation of many environmental regulations and has shut down. Still, the consequences of the plant are astonishing as the once fresh water river is now wrought with pollution.

GHRC and partners initiated an urgent action to support the teacher killed in relation to the Pasion river case. Please sign on if you have not already.

Guatemala News Update: September 14-18

Violence in the Aftermath of REPSA Case Decision

Yesterday a judge in Guatemala ordered the temporary, six-month suspension of the activities of African Palm company REPSA while an investigation takes place into the company’s alleged role in the contamination of the La Pasión river.

Then, today, reports circulated that REPSA employees had kidnapped three human rights defenders in an alleged effort to pressure community members to withdraw their legal complaint against the company. In addition, Professor Rigoberto Lima Choc has reportedly been murdered; he was a key point person in the legal case against REPSA and one of the first people to publicly denounce the company’s contamination of the Pasión river.

Human rights group UDEFEGUA and others are denouncing that municipal authorities, police, and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s office have failed to send representatives to the scene. GHRC will provide updates as more information becomes available.

Indigenous Leader Assassinated in Guatemala

GHRC mourns the death of Guatemalan Ixil spiritual guide and indigenous leader, Sebastián Sajic Córdova, who was violently attacked on September 11, 2015. There is some speculation that the killing may be linked to the fact that Córdova was a survivor and witness in the genocide trial against Efraín Ríos Montt, though details around the attack remain unknown. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: September 7-11


Jimmy Morales

Guatemala Comedian Wins First Round of Presidential Vote

Just days after former President Otto Pérez Molina resigned and was subsequently sent to prison, Guatemalans took to the polls on September 6 to elect a new leader. FCN candidate Jimmy Morales — a comedian with no political experience, but who has marketed himself as a “new option” — led the presidential race, winning almost 24% of the vote. Initial counts have revealed an extremely close race between the two second-place finishers, Manuel Baldizón (LIDER) and Sandra Torres (UNE). Although the final numbers are not yet known, Torres seems to hold a slight lead, and will likely face Morales in a runoff election set for October 25.

The overall mood remained peaceful and calm on election day, although several complaints were reported, including vote buying, interference from political parties, and ballot burning in some municipalities.

Analysts warn that whoever assumes the presidency will face a multitude of challenges, including a looming financial crisis and a citizenry that is no longer afraid to demand reform.

Read more about the elections on GHRC’s blog.

Guatemalan ex-President Pérez Molina indicted for corruption, sent to jail pending investigation

This week, former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was indicted and will face charges of criminal conspiracy, fraud and accepting bribes. Prosecutors will have three months to continue the investigation, during which time Pérez Molina will be held in preventative prison — an order that Pérez Molina’s lawyers have since appealed. On Wednesday, a court also froze some $700,000 in Pérez Molina’s bank accounts.

The former president maintains that he is innocent, and has accused the US of meddling in Guatemalan politics, endorsing the CICIG, and of orchestrating a “soft coup” against him. Continue reading

Guatemala’s Presidential Race Headed to Runoff; Comedian Jimmy Morales Leads the Vote

Residents vote at a center in Guatemala City. Photo: Dania Rodríguez

Residents vote at a center in Guatemala City. Photo: Dania Rodríguez

Just days after former President Otto Pérez Molina resigned and was subsequently sent to prison, Guatemalans were faced with the next chapter in an ongoing political saga: the opportunity to elect a new leader.

When polls closed on September 6, votes had been cast not only for the new president and vice president — who will take office in January 2016 — but also for members of congress and the Central American Parliament, as well as for municipal leaders throughout the country.

FCN candidate Jimmy Morales — a comedian with no political experience, but who has marketed himself as a “new option” — led the presidential race alongside Manuel Baldizón (LIDER) and Sandra Torres (UNE). However, since no candidate secured the required 50% of the vote needed to win, a runoff election will take place in October between the two top candidates. [Read more about the leading candidates here].  Continue reading

UDEFEGUA calls for the respect for all rights during election process

In a context in which at least 282 municipalities have reported threats of conflict on election day on September 6, UDEFEGUA urges all citizens — whether they choose to vote for a candidate, casta null or blank vote, or abstain from the process entirely —  to exercise their rights peacefully.

La Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala ante el proceso electoral que se realizará el domingo 6 de septiembre de 2015 a la ciudadanía guatemalteca manifiesta lo siguiente:

Guatemala atraviesa una de las crisis institucionales más grandes de su historia democrática. El sistema de corrupción perpetuado utilizando la maquinaria de partidos políticos y aprovechando el voto ciudadano ha instalado a verdaderas corporaciones mafiosas al frente del Estado guatemalteco. En las semanas anteriores al proceso electoral el país ha vivido las movilizaciones ciudadanas más grandes de las últimas décadas, trasladando el reclamo ciudadano por la transparencia hacia el clamor por detener la galopante corrupción del sistema, la dimisión del ciudadano presidente, revisar el proceso electoral y depurar los listados de candidatos de personas cuya honorabilidad está cuestionada por tener procesos penales en curso o por tener pendientes procesos de antejuicio. Todo este contexto, coloca al proceso electoral en un ambiente de fragilidad, en tanto la legitimidad de los mismos está cuestionada por distintos sectores de la sociedad.

En ese marco, hemos observado con preocupación desde el mes de mayo el aumento de agresiones a ciudadanos, defensores y defensoras de derechos humanos, que expresan su opinión ante la podredumbre de la clase política. Dichas agresiones no han sido ni prevenidas ni investigadas por las autoridades responsables, lo que ha permitido que su frecuencia y gravedad aumenten conforme se acercan las elecciones. Continue reading

Guatemala’s 2015 General Elections: Updates

*Election day updates at bottom of post

Despite the recent resignation of Otto Pérez Molina, a deepening political crises, and calls for the postponement of general elections, Guatemalans are gearing up for election day on September 6 — so far set to move forward as planned.

In addition to the presidential election, Guatemalans will also be voting for all 158 congress people and mayors in every city. Here, interestingly, the slate of candidates includes a number of people who come not from partisan political backgrounds but from Guatemala’s historic social movements and indigenous leadership structures.

The pool of candidates for president, though, has left voters feeling deflated, and analysts estimate that there will be high rates of absenteeism and “null” votes. (Null votes are used as a purely symbolic statement of dissent, given that a single vote can decide an election.)

Of the 14 parties that have launched presidential candidates, a handful have emerged as the most popular in polls:


Campaign advertisement for Baldizón. Photo: InfoLatAm

Manuel Baldizón (president) and Edgar Barquín (vice president)
[Party: Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER)]

Baldizón is rumored to be engaged in illicit activity in Petén, though he is not under investigation. He has been an outspoken critic of the CICIG, which is currently investigating his vice-presidential candidate, Edgar Barquín, for criminal conspiracy, influence trafficking and money laundering.

Jimmy Morales (president) and Jafet Cabrera Franco (vice president)
[Party: National Convergence Front (FCN)]

Morales is a professional comedian with no experience in politics, yet his presidential campaign and has become very popular in polls. A candidate with the FCN party, he presents himself as a “new option,” but is funded in part by hard-liners in the Guatemalan military. Morales has also been linked to Byron Lima, a former military captain currently serving a sentence for the 1998 assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi and who is now accused of criminal conspiracy and influence trafficking from within prison.

Sandra Torres (president) and Mario Leal (vice president)
[Party: National Union of Hope (UNE)]

Sandra Torres has been called the “least worst” by some. Of the center-left UNE party, she was first lady during President Colom’s administration, 2008-2012; she forged a divorce in order to run for president in 2011 but was barred. Her vice-presidential running mate is also under investigation for criminal activity.

Zury Rios (president) and Juan Luis Mirón (vice president)
[Party: Vision with Values (VIVA)]

Ríos is the daughter of military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, accused of overseeing a campaign of genocide and war crimes in the early 1980s. As the family member of a participant in a military coup, her candidacy is technically illegal.

Roberto González (president) and Rodolfo Neutze Aguirre (vice president)

González is a former energy minister who is currently facing charges for alleged influence trafficking.

UPDATE | Sept. 4: Polls show that support for Baldizón has decreased, with Morales and Torres tied for the lead.

UPDATE | Sept. 5: UDEFEGUA released a press release calling for the peaceful expression of rights on Sept. 6, including for those who choose to cast a null vote or choose to abstain from the process.

UPDATE | Sept. 6: Guatemala’s new president, Maldonado Aguirre, voted early in the morning, reiterating the importance of reforms and urging “dialogue before conflict.” Many voting stations opened as normal and without conflict, though with mixed results in attendance.

Although the process has overall been peaceful, several issues of interference in the voting process have been reported, including:

  • In Totonicapán, some community members reported that the TSE call center was not functioning properly, and that there was confusion around voting locations.
  • One of this year’s candidates, Carlos Bezares, reported that he was unable to vote because someone else had falsified his documents and voted in his name.
  • There have been reports from several different areas about the transportation of people to voting sites by political parties. The Mirador Electoral election observation and monitoring group has also stated that it is aware of the vote buying that some parties intend to carry out, signaling out the UNE, PP and LIDER parties.

Guatemala News Update, August 24-28: 100,000 Join Protest in Guatemala City

Thousands Join Protest; Call for Resignation of Otto Pérez Molina

A general strike was called on Thursday, August 27 as an estimated 100,000 people gathered in Guatemala City’s central plaza to call for the resignation of President Pérez Molina, an end to corruption, and postponement of the upcoming elections. Many schools and businesses closed yesterday to allow for participation in the protest, and, in the end, Guatemala’s powerful business lobby — CACIF — also supported the strike.

The protest — the biggest yet in a series of mass mobilizations held over the last 17 weeks — comes just after President Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti were named last week as the head of “La Linea,” a tax fraud scheme used to defraud the State of what could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Baldetti was arrested on August 21 and is being charged with criminal conspiracy, customs fraud and accepting bribes. Pérez Molina, who has reiterated that he will not step down and has already survived one attempt from congress to strip him of his immunity from prosecution, is also implicated in the corruption network. Once again, Guatemala’s top court ruled on August 25 to accept a petition to repeal the president’s immunity, and the matter now awaits a decision from congress.

Protest-Aug27“It was incredible to feel the energy of everyone present,” said Dania Rodríguez, GHRC’s interim director of the Guatemala office. “The plaza was filled with families, students, representatives from the government and business sectors, artists, and indigenous authorities from different departments. People began arriving at 8:00 am, with many people staying until after 10:00 pm at night. “

Demonstrators used the space to call for the resignation of the president, holding signs that read “Yo no tengo presidente” (I don’t have a president) and “Renuncia Ya” (Step Down). The Attorney General’s office, the National Council of Bishops and the government comptroller’s office have also urged the president to resign.

“However, others,” Dania explained, “made calls for comprehensive government reform, for the possibility of a transitional government, for reforms to electoral law, and for the postponement of the national elections scheduled for September 6.”

To read more from GHRC Executive Director Kelsey Alford-Jones about concerns around the upcoming elections, click here. The protests were also covered by Democracy Now and were the subject of Al Jazeera’s August 27 episode of The Stream.

Genocide Retrial is Set for Guatemalan Former Dictator

On August 25, judges ruled that the re-trial against Efraín Ríos Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez will move forward. On August 18, Montt was diagnosed with “incurable” dementia — the culmination of a series of psychiatric evaluations that had delayed the trial for weeks and threatened to shut down the case. Despite the fact that Montt is unable to appear in court, a closed-door trial will move forward with witnesses (but will not be open to the public). Judges also ordered that the physician who has been treating Montt be investigated for possible medical negligence and for potentially endangering his life.

Montt’s legal team will represent him in court, and the next hearing is set for January 11, 2016.

Earlier in August, GHRC Executive Director spoke about the case on Latin Pulse radio.