Guatemala News Update: March 1-25

Assassinations of Human Rights Defenders

Environmental Activist Killed
A prominent environmental activist, Walter Méndez Barrios, was shot and killed March 16th in Guatemala. He had fought against deforestation and hydroelectric projects within Central America, was part of the Petenero Front against Dams – an organization opposing hydroelectric projects in the Usumacinta River- and led the Association of Forest Communities in Petén. His association released a statement saying that Méndez had been receiving death threats for his work.

The assassination came not long after two environmental activists were killed in Honduras – including world-renowned activist Berta Cáceres – leading to increased criticism of US and Central American plans to build more hydroelectric dams without consultation and to the detriment of local communities.

Radio Station Director Killed
On March 17th, Mario Roberto Salazar Barahona, the director of EstéreoAzúcar in the department of Jutiapa was killed. According to CERIGUA, Salazar had been inside his car after returning from meetings at another radio station when he was shot. Police believe hit men had been following him, yet the motive for the murder is still unknown. Salazar had worked in the field of journalism for over a decade. UNESCO and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have both condemned the attack. They stated, “we reaffirm the absolute need to develop a comprehensive public policy for protection of defenders of human rights, including journalists to enable them to carry out their work in an environment where their security and integrity are guaranteed.”

Transitional Justice

Judge denies amnesty to retired military commanders
Four soldiers identified for participating in the forced disappearances of the 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen on October 6, 1981, asked for immunity under the National Reconciliation Law. The four accused are the commander of the military zone, Francisco Luis Gordillo Martinez; the second in command, EdilbertoLetonaLinares; the official Hugo Ramiro Zaldaña Rojas, and the Division General Manuel Antonio Callejas y Callejas. The Attorney General’s Office denied the petition, given the crimes were exempt from amnesty under the National Reconciliation Law.

Ex-Dictator Rios Montt’s Genocide Retrial Opens in Guatemala
Wednesday, March 16 saw the convening of a Guatemalan court in the country’s most recent attempt to try former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity during the country’s internal armed conflict. He is accused of ordering the killings of 2,000 indigenous Ixil Guatemalans. The three previous legal attempts to hold the former dictator accountable for his actions have failed. In 2013, the he was found guilty and sentenced to 80 years in prison, but the sentence was overturned soon after on procedural goals. The new trial was postponed twice. He was also found unfit to stand for a normal trial due to dementia, and will not be tried in a closed-door proceeding that will determine his guilt without punishment. His lawyers have already attempted to postpone the trial further, arguing that his co-defendant and former intelligence chief, Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, should be tried separately due to their differing circumstances.

Land Rights and the Environment

Mining continues at El Tambor Mine
The US mining company, Kappes Cassiday & Associates, has continued mining gold illegally in San Pedro Ayampuc despite the February 22 injunction that suspended the granting of their mining license. The Guatemalan Minister of Energy and Mines, on March 10, signed a resolution suspending the company’s extraction rights, but has not enforced the ruling. Families from La Puya and the Guatemalan Congress have called on the Minister to justify his lack of action.

Despite intense US pressure on the Guatemalan government to address corruption and improve rule of law, the Embassy has been silent on a US Company’s alleged evasion of legal procedures and it’s ongoing operations despite multiple court injunctions.

Guatemala Investigates Fraudulent Lake Amatitlan Clean-up Plan
Former Vice President Roxana Baldetti is being accused of participating in a fraudulent scheme to clean pollution in one of the country’s lakes. Last year, Baldetti announced that she had found a “magic solution” to solve the pollution problem in Lake Amatitlan, a lake about 20 miles south of the country’s capital city, once a resort town for wealthy residents which in recent years has become polluted from untreated sewage. At Baldetti’s urging, the government spent Q130 million quetzals (US $18 million) on to the Israeli company that manufactured the product. The product was never used, thanks to pressure from environmental and civil society groups that also forced an investigation revealing that the product was essentially saltwater. Baldetti is already in jail for her involvement in the La Linea corruption scandal last year that also led to the resignation of former President, Otto Pérez Molina.

Price of environmental licenses is dramatically reduced
According to the regulations of Ministry of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN), a business should pay approximately $3,228 an environmental license, however, on his last day on the job, Lehnhoff’s lowered the price to just $6.50 (Q50).

Incoming Minister Sydney Samuels, in a statement to Congress, criticized the move as a “give- away” to big business. He has said he is analyzing how to challenge the reform, which is set to take effect this May.

Corruption/Violence

U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson Pledges to Fight against Corruption
U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala, Todd Robinson, in an interview with El Periódico, assured that: “I’m going to fight against [the corruption] and it doesn’t matter if it’s a political figure, someone from the private sector or the government.”

Morales Will Extend the Mandate of the CICIG for 4 more years
President Jimmy Morales confirmed that he will extend the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) for four more years. Morales said that this matter was addressed in a private meeting with Ivan Velasquez, the current head of the CICIG.

CICIG: Impunity Surpasses 97%
The director of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Ivan Velasquez, said that general levels of impunity in the country had surpassed 97%. High levels of impunity, he said, have surely contributed to high levels of criminal activity.

“The fight against corruption isn’t an abstract fight, but one for a dignified life, and reducing the incidence levels in the public administration will permit the construction of a State that predicts better living conditions for all,” he assured.

Kaibiles Patrolling the Erick Barrondo park
Militarization is on the rise again in Guatemala. Report of robberies and assaults in Erick Barrondo park have led park administrators to bring in Guatemala’s elite special forces, the Kaibiles, to patrol the area. The vice-minister of Sports and Recreation stated that 35 kailbiles will provide security to the sports center.

The Kaibiles, infamous for their tough training and violent rituals, committed some of the worst massacres during Guatemala’s war, and in recent years, kaibil soldiers have been arrested in connection with organized criminal activity.

Guatemalan Government and Human Rights

Minister of Foreign Relations: The Protection of Human Rights in an Obligation
The Minister of Foreign Relations, Carlos Raul Morales, participated in a U.N. High Level Segment of the Human Rights Council, where they explained the necessity of stopping the cycle of violence and human rights violations and how there should be an obligation to work for human rights, specifically mentioning reparations for those affected by the Chixoy Hydroelectric dam. He also enumerated compromises of implementation for a journalist protection program and the fortifying protections for human rights defenders.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights recently released its annual report on the Situation of Human Rights in Guatemala, specifically describing the violence, structural discrimination, lack of human rights protections, and inequality that still exists within the country.

Attorney General Thelma Aldana Receives Spain’s Women’s Rights Prize
Attorney General Thelma Aldana received the award for the Promotion of Human Rights of Navarra Public University in Pamplona. The prize, $40,565, was granted in December for her work on “the rights of women, and against gender based violence, in favor of the rights of the indigenous population, and her fight against political and economic corruption.”

 

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