Guatemala Faces International Backlash for Attacks on Freedom of the Press

On February 28, top prosecutor Cinthia Monterroso called for the investigation of nine journalists associated with the internationally acclaimed newspapers El Periodico and the Prensa Comunitaria. Monterroso alleged that the journalists opened themselves to charges of “spreading disinformation” and “obstruction of justice” by maliciously pursuing prosecutors, judges, and other members of Guatemala’s justice system in their reporting. Judge Jimi Bremer agreed and ordered the Public Ministry to investigate the activity of the nine journalists, as well as the sources of the newspaper’s funding.

Civil society organizations condemned the ruling, seeing the investigations as another attack against the media outlet. In July 2022, Guatemalan authorities arrested José Rubén Zamora–president and founder of El Periodico–on spurious charges. Despite international condemnation and calls for his release, Zamora has spent the last eight months in pre-trial detention. According to Committee to Protect Journalists Advocacy Director Gypsy Guillén Kaiser, “Judicial persecution against journalists is a mechanism of intimidation, and authorities in Guatemala need to put an end to their campaign to intimidate and threaten the press.”

Hundreds of protesters gathered outside the Supreme Court in Guatemala City, carrying signs and chanting, “We won’t be silenced. Without journalism, there is no democracy.”  At the Guatemalan embassies in Mexico City and Washington, DC, supporters stood in solidarity with the journalists, organizing demonstrations and leaving signs calling on the Guatemalan government to stop the criminalization.

US Department of State spokesperson Ned Price shared his concerns, condemning the attack on freedom of the press. He called upon the “Guatemalan justice system to reject the criminalization of independent journalists and support independent journalism as one of the foundations of a secure and prosperous democratic society.” 

US Senators Call for Stronger Action on Corruption in Guatemala

In a letter addressed to Secretary of State Blinken, seven Senators urged the State Department to hold Guatemalan officials accountable for corruption. Signed by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA), Bob Menendez (D-NJ), Dick Durbin (D-IL), Ben Cardin (D-MD), Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), Jeff Merkley (D-OR), and Peter Welch (D-VT), the letter expressed concern about “the continuing deterioration of democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala.” It cited efforts by the Giammettei administration to attack independent judges and prosecutors, journalists, and civil society. According to the senators, “These attacks represent an intentional targeting and hollowing out of key institutions critical to a functioning democracy.”

In response to the ongoing institutional crisis in Guatemala, the senators called upon the Biden administration to take more decisive action, underscoring the need for US policy that creates real consequences for high-level corruption and human rights violations. They asked to State Department to “urgently review and update its approach in Guatemala in a manner that better aligns longstanding US values” and recommended the that the administration continue denying visas and freezing the economic assets and holdings in the US of those Guatemalan officials and private citizens who have engaged in acts of corruption or human rights violations or who have undermined democratic processes or institutions. Finally, the senators urged the administration to “make clear that the US-Guatemala relationship must remain grounded in a mutual and unwavering commitment to protecting democracy and democratic institutions–without exception.” 

La Puya Resistance Demands Participation in Upcoming Consultation Process

On Monday, March 27, the La Puya Resistance and Indigenous communities affected by the El Tambor gold mine delivered a petition to the Guatemalan Ministry of Energy and Mines (MEM). The petition–signed by over 80 organizations and 2,500 individuals–calls upon the government to ensure the surrounding communities’ full, free, and safe participation in the court-ordered consultation. The petition also urges MEM to respect the communities’ rights without fear of retaliation in the face of a $400 million arbitration suit filed by the mine’s Nevada-based owners Kappes, Cassiday, and Associates.

On March 2, 2012, community members established a peaceful encampment outside the mine, uniting to defend their land and water from an open-pit gold mine threatening their communities. Over the years, KCA employees and state security forces employed harassment, intimidation, criminalization, and violence to destroy the community’s efforts to close the mine. In 2014, the resistance filed a legal motion against the mine, and in the end, the community’s efforts resulted in victory. On February 22, 2016, the Guatemalan Supreme Court upheld a ruling to suspend all mining operations. The Supreme Court’s ruling was based on the grounds that KCA, and its subsidiary EXMINGUA, had initiated operations without prior consultation with affected communities, as is required under Guatemalan and international law, particularly ILO Convention 169.

Now, however, the movement faces challenges. Following the suspension of mining activities, the mining company sued Guatemala for $400 million, claiming that the government failed to protect the company’s investment. Moreover, MEM has begun the court-ordered consultation process; however, it has already gotten off to a rocky start. So far, the government has refused to accredit a representative of the impacted Indigenous communities for the consultation. Community members fear that MEM and local government entities will follow the same playbook that was used to push through a consultation in El Estor in 2021, when the government declared a state of exception, limiting movement and basic rights, arbitrary arrests, and intimidation with excessive use of force by the security forces continued for weeks. The community’s chosen representatives were not allowed to participate in the consultation. 

Communities and Organizations Announce Protests to Denounce Electoral Fraud

On March 13, organizations and communities throughout Guatemala held press conferences, announcing upcoming protests scheduled for Thursday, March 16. These protests–denouncing electoral fraud–will combine different sectors of Guatemalan civil society, including Indigenous authorities, human rights organizations, student movements, and more. Demonstrations are scheduled to begin at 8 am with road blockades and sit-ins in front of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE). 

Their response comes in the wake of ongoing irregular activity by the TSE. Over the weekend, magistrates from the TSE ruled to register Manuel Baldizón as a congressional candidate for the Cambio party, despite his 2019 conviction by the United States for money laundering and having two other cases pending against him. Meanwhile, the TSE rejected the presidential ticket with the People’s Liberation Movement (MLP) on the grounds that VP nominee Jordan Rodas faces charges related to his role as Human Rights Ombudsman. According to Marco Bran, of the Front of Professionals Against Electoral Fraud, the discrepancy in TSE candidate registration reflects “the decomposition of a system that is already dying.” 

The TSE later repealed its decision, rescinding the registration of Baldizón, but citizens remained disillusioned. Bran stated, “We want to make our position clear as outraged citizens that this cannot continue.” So far, protests are planned in Guatemala City, Quetzaltenango, and Esquintla. 

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