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.