Dear Colleague Letter on Guatemala Calls for Additional US Action

The situation in Guatemala has deteriorated, marked by strategic steps made by President Giammettei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras to protect corruption and impunity and silence their opponents. Recent attacks against independent judges and prosecutors and more broadly the rule of law in Guatemala have created a crisis for human rights. Thirteen environmental defenders were killed in 2020, according to Global Witness; and, according to  mid-year data from UDEFEGUA, 2021 is on track to be this century’s worst year on record for attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala. 

A Dear Colleague Letter (text below) circulating in the House addresses the “rapid decline of human rights, democratic institutions, and rule of law in Guatemala” and asks Secretary of State Blinken to take decisive action against proponents of corruption and impunity in Guatemala. 

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Dear Secretary Blinken,

We write to express our grave concern about the rapid decline of human rights, democratic institutions, and rule of law in Guatemala. Below, you will see a list of recent events highlighting the urgent need to counter democratic backsliding and support the brave actors upholding the rule of law. We ask that you consider immediate strong actions, as well as engaging with diplomatic allies and partners in the region. Please allow us to detail our concerns below:

Human Rights Violations:

On June 8, the Guatemalan Congress introduced an amnesty law that would prevent justice for crimes against humanity carried out during the internal armed conflict. 

Further, on June 21, a law went into effect that will allow the Guatemalan executive branch to shut down nongovernmental organizations that “alter the public order.” In a July 1 joint statement, experts of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights said the changes introduced by this law “risk choking the vital work of civil society” and expressed alarm at provisions that give the government wide scope to control NGOs. Further, these provisions could be used to criminalize human rights defenders and civil society.

Democratic Institutions and Rule of Law:

The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, which plays a critical role in protecting and promoting human rights, has been denied funds by the Guatemalan government and as a result is in danger of closing. In addition, the Ombudsman has suffered repeated harassment and threats of removal, even though he was granted precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 

Judges and witnesses have reported being followed by armed men and by individuals in vehicles without license plates who photographed and videotaped them. Four High Risk Court judges with precautionary measures are also being intimidated. Judges are being subjected to countless baseless legal complaints intended to stymie their work. Many of these complaints are brought by the same groups and people, some of whom have been publicly named as corrupt by the U.S. government.

Mid-year figures provided by the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala suggest the number of attacks on human rights defenders in 2021 will be the highest since the signing of the Peace Accords. The case of indigenous defender Bernardo Caal Xol is emblematic of the persecution against indigenous and environmental defenders, which UN experts have characterized as an apparent attempt to silence and intimidate activists. Despite the Constitutional Court ruling that the indigenous communities’ rights had in fact been violated, Caal is serving a seven year prison sentence as a result of baseless criminal charges. 

On July 23, Guatemala’s Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras arbitrarily fired Juan Francisco Sandoval as the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI). His firing came as FECI investigators appeared to be inching closer to exposing corruption in the current administration of President Alejandro Giammattei. Sandoval’s replacement as head of FECI was also quickly removed and replaced with another prosecutor who is currently facing an internal affairs investigation for his alleged mishandling of a corruption investigation and recently targeted a tax reformer and a former CICIG investigator. Prior to his removal, Sandoval and FECI had faced numerous legal challenges aimed at obstructing his work and seeking to declare its mandate unconstitutional. After he was fired, the Attorney General, with the support of President Giammattei, as well as the new head of FECI, have opened investigations into Sandoval and on September 3 obtained a warrant for Sandoval’s arrest. 

On September 2, the Constitutional Court also recently ruled that certain individuals with corruption charges can have their charges commuted and leave prison. The law could also commute prison sentences for crimes related to corruption, such as bribery and illicit enrichment. The Court made clear that corruption is not a priority, and the commutations open the door for additional acts of impunity. It is a further insult to target these crimes, while continuing to deny justice for those targeted for political reasons. This ruling will be another set back in the fight against corruption.

We commend the Department of State’s decision to pause assistance to the Attorney General’s office and to publicly denounce their actions.  We have similarly lost confidence in Attorney General Porras’ ability to perform her job impartially. However, we also believe that further steps are necessary to protect democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala.  Towards that end, we urge you to take the following actions:

  • Cease all coordination with Attorney General Porras’ office until we are confident in its commitment to the rule of law, rather than its demonstrated loyalty to corrupt interests.
  • Immediately ensure protection for Sandoval’s family and for others who are also at physical and legal risk for their work at FECI, and other prominent legal positions. 
  • Strongly oppose laws that endanger the work of civil society and the right to justice. 
  • Ensure the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala is robustly engaging with individuals and groups at risk, including indigenous and environmental defenders and those who are working for justice and are increasingly under threat, including lawyers, judges, and witnesses in corruption and transitional justice cases. 
  • Leverage all our diplomatic tools, including additional visa restrictions, targeted economic sanctions, ensuring accountability through international lending, and withholding assistance and economic support for those who are undermining democracy in Guatemala.

Corruption, impunity, and repression threaten Guatemalan society to an extent not seen in decades. The United States must make clear that our partnership with Guatemala depends on protecting human rights and democracy and upholding the rule of law for the people of Guatemala. We appreciate your leadership in this challenging environment and look forward to continued engagement to advance democracy and rule of law in the region. 

Sincerely,

Raúl M. Grijalva                                 Norma J. Torres
Member of Congress                          Member of Congress

September 3 Human Rights Update

2021 on Track to Be Worst Year for Human Rights Defenders in 20 Years

According to the Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), in the first half of 2021, human rights defenders have been attacked at a rate suggesting this year may surpass 2020 to become the most violent year for human rights defenders in this century. From January to June, 551 attacks on human rights defenders were documented by UDEFEGUA. In 2020, the year with the most attacks against defenders since UDEFEGUA began documenting such attacks in 2000, the total number of attacks on defenders was 1,055. 

The attacks documented in the first half of 2021 include five murders of defenders and three attempted murders. The majority of attacks, 137, were carried out against defenders working in the justice sector, followed by those attempting to secure their right to justice (104); journalists (87); and campesinos (49). In an alarming trend, women human rights defenders suffered 42 percent of the attacks. UDEFEGUA cited as concerns the systematic dismantling of public institutions set up to guarantee implementation of the Peace Accords and respect for human rights; the capture of fundamental state institutions; and the guarantee of impunity for actors who engage in corrupt and violent acts. 

UN Special Rapporteurs Ask Government for Answers in Case of  Bernardo Caal

Four UN Special Rapporteurs in a letter to the Guatemalan government demanded answers to questions involving due process and concerns related to the health of political prisoner Bernardo Caal Xol. The letter–from the Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, the President-Rapporteur of the Working Group on Business and Human Rights, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, and the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers–was sent on June 21, 2021 and made public this week. The UN Rapporteurs in the nine-page letter called the government’s “urgent concern” to Caal’s case. The UN experts expressed “serious concern over the allegations of the violations of the guarantees to due process in the legal proceedings of indigneous defender Mr. Bernardo Caal Xól,” and well as “the state of health of Mr. Caal Xól that has deteriorated in a concerning manner.” They requested information from the Guatemalan government on nine specific aspects of  Caal’s case. In closing, they urged the government to “adopt all necessary measures to to protect the rights and freedoms” of Caal and to “investigate, try, and adequately punish any person responsible for the alleged violations.”

The Guatemalan Government responded on August 19, failing to fully answer the concerns expressed. Regarding concerns expressed by the Rapporteurs about overcrowding in the prison and the risk of COVID-19, for example, the Guatemalan government was silent. The government did attempt to explain the multiple legal delays in Caal’s case; yet days after the government sent UN experts its letter, another such delay occurred. Rather than closing the case as Caal’s lawyers had asked, given that there is no evidence against him, the court on August 24 suspended proceedings for another six months. Caal’s imprisonment continues.   

Named a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International in 2020, Caal is imprisoned for his role as leader in the peaceful resistance to two hydroelectric projects on the Cahabón River in northern Guatemala. In 2018, the court sentenced him to more than seven years in prison on spurious charges. Caal’s defense team filed an appeal, but multiple delays have plagued the process.  No evidence links Caal to any supposed crimes occurring at a demonstration in 2015.  As the UN Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples noted in 2018, the kinds of irregularities that characterize his case “are consistent with the patterns of criminalization directed at those that defend their land and the environment.” 

Mexican Authorities Use Excessive Force Against Migrants Traveling North

This week, agents from the Mexican National Migration Institute (INM) attempted to forcibly stop a migrant caravan from traveling north; one video surfaced showing an agent kicking an already immobilized migrant in the face. In response, the Human Rights Observation and Monitoring Collective in the Mexican SE released a joint statement and demanded the “immediate halt to violence against migrants by Mexican state security forces.”  

Migrants made the decision to travel north after waiting over a year without access to legal refugee status in Tapachula nor the ability to work. Support for migrants at Mexico’s Southern border is severely lacking, and the migration system is now stressed by Title 42 expulsions of Central American migrants who in recent weeks have been flown from the US to Mexico’s southern border, where Mexico then buses migrants into Guatemalan border towns.   

US Agrees to Fly Migrants Directly to Guatemala City 

This week–after a visit from Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo Villa to the White House–the US agreed to suspend the program whereby migrants are being bussed to the remote border town of El Ceibo. This comes after Brolo met with Mexico authorities and expressed deep concern, asking that returns of migrants be facilitated through “established reception centers … because they have the necessary conditions to receive these populations in a safe and dignified manner.” After a series of meetings with US officials, Brolo announced that the US will send deportees by air to Guatemala City. He stated, “The most important thing is that they committed to send return flights to the [migrant return] center,” and “that they no longer enter through El Ceibo.” 

This past weekend, over 600 migrants who had been expelled from the US and flown to southern Mexico were placed on 17 buses and were left in Guatemala. Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas expressed concerns on an official visit to El Ceibo, noting the clear lack of capacity of the state to assist migrants in these remote towns.  

Update from Cases GHRC is Accompanying 

Judge Rules to Close Case Against Criminalized Women Human Rights Defenders in Joyabaj 

GHRC has been accompanying the case of Anastasia Mejía and other criminalized defenders from Joyabaj. Mejía is a Maya K’iche’ journalist and human rights defender. Charges against the women were filed by Joyabaj mayor Florencio Carrascoza, who has been named as a corrupt politician on the Engel List. The women suspect the baseless charges against them owe to their work exposing corruption in the municipality. 

Today, Mejía as well as Petrona Siy had their intermediate hearing in Nebaj, Quiché. After the prosecution and defense presented their arguments, the case was dismissed. The judge found no evidence to link them to the alleged crimes; the case against Anastasia Mejía and Patrona Siy Castro is closed. Mejía spent more than a month in jail last year and nearly a year under house arrest as she awaiting today’s ruling.

Guatemalan Soldiers to Stand Trial for Alaska Massacre

On October 4, 2012, eight officers under the command of Juan Chiroy opened fire on peaceful protesters from the 48 catones of Totonicapan; six people were killed and one was disappeared. GHRC has monitored the case since 2012 and accompanied the 25 widows, orphans, and victims today at the High Risk Court A in Guatemala City as they continue to seek justice after nine years. 

In today’s hearing, Judge Claudia Dominguez ruled that the members of the Guatemalan military arrested for the 2012 Massacre in La Cumbre de Alaska must stand trial for the charge of extrajudicial killing. Both the prosecution–consisting of the Public Prosecutor as well as the legal team representing the victims–and the defense presented evidence to Judge Dominguez. She admitted technical expert opinions, testimonies, and audiovisual evidence from the prosecution. She rejected various forms of evidence from the defense. 

Unrest Grows in Guatemala as Crisis Intensifies

Plurinational Strike Continues 

Widespread protests continued this week, calling for the resignation of President Giammettei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras. The Plurinational Strike began in July and has gained momentum in the last few weeks. On August 13, protesters marched to the Presidential Palace, giving the president and attorney general five days to step down. As the deadline passed and their  demands were not met, indigenous authorities and popular social movements released a joint statement announcing plans to continue the strike on August 19 and 20 and calling others to “join the demonstrations of protest and pacific resistance enshrined in Article 45 of the Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala.”    

Giammettei responded by going on the defensive, blaming protesters for the most recent surge in COVID. Having declared a state of prevention on July 13 for fifteen days, limiting freedom of movement and banning unauthorized protests, President Giammattei in August announced a state of calamity, to last from August 14 to September 11. Apparently aimed at preventing the spread of COVID, one of the measures imposed prevents protests without prior notification. By law the state of calamity should have been approved by Congress within three days of its declaration but was not, leading many to consider the state of calamity illegal and not in effect.   On August 19, National Police fired teargas at protesters in Jupilingo, Camotán, Chiquimula, and apparent counter-protesters armed with sticks threatened demonstrators in Guatemala City. Despite these threats, protesters continued the strike into Friday.           

Constitutional Court Blocks Swearing in of Gloria Porras

In the continuing attack on the independence of the judiciary, the Consitutional Court unanimously ruled to grant an injunction filed by the Foundation Against Terrorism and lawyer Juan José Sandoval Saucedo. The injunction orders Congress to abstain from swearing in Constitutional Court Judge Gloria Porras as Titular Magistrate. Porras has been on the Constitutional Court for ten years and had served as president since 2020. She is known for taking anti-corruption and pro-human rights positions. In March of this past year she was elected by the Higher University Council, but her confirmation was blocked by Congress on April 13. Porras was forced to flee Guatemala and has joined other exiled prosecutors and jurists in the US as challenges to this decision continue.  

Human rights organizations condemned the Court’s decision, viewing it as the latest step in a series of attacks to remove independent judges from their posts. The Convergence for Human Rights in a statement expressed fear for the future of rule of law in Guatemala: “The institutions are under the control of mafia networks with the political, economic, and criminal power to decide in a whimsical and convenient fashion to preserve the current system.” This week’s decision by the Constitutional Court effectively blocks the swearing in of Porras and deals yet another blow to the campaign against impunity and corruption in Guatemala.  

Ombudsman’s Office Protests Outside of Congress

On August 18, the Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, led a protest outside of the Guatemalan Congress to demand that the budget for the Ombudsman’s Office be delivered.  Congress has refused to hand over the Q20 million allotted in the budget to the office. Now, after six months, the office has run out of the funding it needs to be able to perform its vital human rights work. As Rodas has pointed out, Congress is required to release the funds and was ordered to do so by the Constitutional Court last February. 

Migrants  Forced Back to Guatemalan Border   

Meanwhile, Guatemalan and other Central American migrants expelled by the US and flown to the south of Mexico have been forced back into Guatemala by the Mexican government. Citing new threats from the delta variant and record numbers of migrants at the southern border, the US resumed expulsion flights to Mexico under Public Health Authority: Title 42. Upon arrival in Mexico, Central American migrants are being loaded onto buses by Mexican authorities and dropped across the Guatemalan border into the remote towns of El Caibo and El Carmen. Guatemalan Migration Authorities have admitted to working with Mexico to accept expelled migrants, but migrants are receiving little to no assistance once they arrive.  

Migrants report that they were never given credible fear interviews at the US border nor the chance to apply for asylum in Mexico before being transported back to Guatemala; both are violations of international refugee law, according to UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Matthew Reynolds. In a statement he explained, “Individuals or families aboard those flights who may have urgent protection needs risk being sent back to the very dangers they have fled in their countries of origin in Central America without any opportunity to have those needs assessed and addressed.” Natalia Lorenzo, of the Ombudsman Office in Petén expressed concern, explaining the pre-existing capacity issues in the region.  Dumping migrants into a country facing its own corruption tailspin is more than a violation of international law, she notes.  As she puts it, “It’s abusive.”    

Criminalizing Human Rights: August 17th hearing continues the campaign to discredit journalist Anastasia Mejía and other women defenders from Joyabaj, Quiché.

Today’s hearing will determine whether the Public Prosecutor’s Office can continue the case against Maya K’iche’ journalist, Anastasia Mejía, as well as Petrona Siy Castro, Sebastiana Pablo Hernández, Micaela Solis, and Tomasa Pastor. All are facing charges related to protests that took place outside of the Joyabaj municipality building on August 24, 2020.  

Officers from the Specialized Investigative Division (DEIC) as well National Civil Police arbitrarily arrested Mejía on September 22 of last year. Without being promptly brought before a judge, as required under Guatemalan law, she was held in the women’s prison in Quetzaltenango for 36 days before posting bail and being moved to house arrest. Sebastiana Pablo remains imprisoned after ten months, in spite of a lack of evidence against her. 

Charges of sedition, aggravated assault, arson, and aggravated robbery were lodged by Joyabaj Mayor Florencio Carrascoza Gomez. Carrascoza is one of the politicians included in the “Engel List,”  which identifies government actors who are denied entry visas to the United States because they are “engaged in significant corruption and the undermining of democratic institutions.” Carrascoza, according to the US State Department, has undermined democratic processes or institutions “by intimidating and unjustly imprisoning political opponents.”

This is not the first time Mejía faces trumped-up charges from the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Joyabaj; attempts to criminalize her began in 2016. Her career as a journalist, as well as her term as a Municipal Councilor from 2015-2019, often put her at odds with the mayor, but her anti-corruption investigation of the municipality of Joyabaj made her a target. She found evidence of the embezzlement of public funds funneled through overvalued projects contracted to ghost companies–and patterns of violence against women–in the ten-year administration of Carrascoza. In return, the mayor treated her with hostility, refused to share public information with her, denied her credentials as a journalist, and openly used racial slurs against her.            

In 2016, Mejía submitted several complaints to the Public Prosecutor’s Office regarding verbal and physical attacks against her, in addition to participating with other women in the filing of 24 criminal complaints against Carrascoza for violence against women, fraud, embezzlement, and illicit enrichment. The Public Prosecutor’s Office stalled legal proceedings and five years later no ruling on any of the complaints has been made.          

Meanwhile, the charges filed by Carrascoza against Mejía and the others continue to move forward with the cooperation of the Public Prosecutor’s Office and without due process. By law, a preliminary hearing must take place within 24 hours of arrest, but Mejía did not receive a preliminary hearing for 29 days. Moreover, the Public Prosecutor’s Office failed to conduct a preliminary investigation, imprisoning these defendants without proper evidence.

When asked about her case, Mejía told our team, “Justice is very selective.  I’m indigenous and a woman, so who will listen to me?” She continued, “They’re in control of everything: the prosecution, the judges, the witnesses. They are doing this to keep me quiet, to stop me.” 

While the Biden administration temporarily shut off funding to the Public Prosecutor’s Office after the illegal removal of the head of the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), Francisco Sandoval, defenders like Mejía and the others accused continue to face persecution at the hands of a system co-opted by corruption.   

Today’s hearing will determine whether or not the Public Prosecutor’s Office can continue with the case. The GHRC team in Guatemala will accompany the defenders and continue monitoring the deteriorating situation. We at GHRC are increasingly concerned for the safety of defenders, journalists, and civil society groups in Guatemala and condemn the weaponization of the criminal justice system, as well as the recent attacks on the independence of the  judiciary.

Tensions Escalate as National Strike Continues

In response to Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ dismissal of top anti-corruption prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, the Biden administration has taken steps intended as a rebuke. On July 27 the administration announced it had “temporarily paused programmatic cooperation” with the Guatemalan Public Ministry. “Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ July 23rd decision to remove Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, or FECI, Chief Juan Francisco Sandoval fits a pattern of behavior that indicates a lack of commitment to the rule of law and independent judicial and prosecutorial processes,” according to the State Department’s spokesperson. “As a result, we have lost confidence in the attorney general and their decision and intention to cooperate with the US government and fight corruption in good faith.”

Attorney General Porras, rather than backing down in the face of the aid cut, argued in a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken that Juan Francisco Sandoval’s dismissal was legal, a claim former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and other experts point out is false; Sandoval’s firing, in fact, was arbitrary and illegal. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission, along with eleven other international organizations, denounced the dismissal of Juan Fransisco Sandoval and called for his immediate reinstatement.

The embassies of Sweden, Switzerland, France, Germany, Great Britain, Canada, and the United States in a joint statement as members of the G-13 Donor Group lamented the attorney general’s firing of Sandoval. “This incident is seen as part of a pattern of instability and institutional weakening that affects the rule of law in Guatemala,” the statement said.

Indigenous-Led National Strike Continues

In response to Sandoval’s ouster, indigenous authorities on a national level convoked a national strike on July 29. Thousands protested Sandoval’s dismissal, demanding his reinstatement and calling for President Alejandro Giamatttei and Attorney General Porras to resign. According to Maya K’iche’ leader, journalist, and human rights defender Andrea Ixchíu, the indigenous-led movement for the national strike stemmed from frustration with a government administered by economic elites, the military, and drug traffickers who have blocked the possibility of a life with dignity for the indigenous peoples. “In the midst of the pandemic, the Guatemalan government is stealing the money from the vaccines and militarizing the country,” she told Democracy Now.

GHRC’s team in Guatemala observed and accompanied the protests outside of the National Palace on July 29 and has continued accompanying demonstrations as protests have continued in recent days. The national strike is continuing, as well.

NGO Law Moves Ahead

On August 2, the articles of the highly contentious NGO law were published by the Ministry of the Interior. The articles—outlining regulations such as monitoring processes, prohibitions, and registration requirements for NGOs—went into effect on August 3. Although a few modifications were made to the original law upon appeal to the Constitutional Court, the provisions of this law continue to be unconstitutional. As Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights experts in a joint statement made clear, the law’s provisions “risk choking the vital work of civil society.” These provisions, the experts said, can be used to criminalize human rights defenders and civil society in general. NGOs now have six months to register under the new law or risk being dissolved.

The enactment of the NGO law is only the latest step back in the struggle for rights. More challenges await; the National Reconciliation law, which would grant amnesty to perpetrators of grave human rights abuses, is expected to be debated in coming weeks. Guatemalan defenders of human rights need our support now more than ever. Our team in Guatemala continues providing physical accompaniment and support to defenders at risk. If you’d like to be a part of our efforts, visit our website to see how you can help..


Lead Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Dismissed

Developments in recent days shed light on the intensifying battle for civic space and judicial independence.

  • Lead Anti-Corruption Prosecutor Dismissed    The Public Prosecutor’s Office has removed Juan Francisco Sandoval as lead prosecutor for the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI). According to El Faro, this step taken by Attorney General Consuelo Porras, on July 23, represents “a major move against the most independent wing of state prosecutors tasked with investigating corruption and impunity.” Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordan Rodas, publicly called for Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ resignation. “The message that you are implicitly sending is that those who ensure strict compliance with the law and defend the independent action of the prosecutors’ offices will be removed from their duties, marginalized, exiled, or persecuted . . . .Given so much damage that you have caused to the rule of law, to the institutionality of the Republic and the hope of obtaining justice that you have systematically frustrated for millions of Guatemalans, Madame Attorney General, I publicly recommend that you present your irrevocable resignation from your position.”
             US Congressman Albio Sires tweeted, “The removal of Juan Francisco Sandoval from #FECI is a lethal blow to the fight against corruption in #Guatemala. Unless this decision is reversed, the US Govt should designate AG Porras under US law for obstructing anti-corruption investigations.”  Samantha Power, head of USAID, tweeted, “As I stressed in my visit last month, the independence of #FECI is an essential test of Guatemala’s commitment to the rule of law. Attorney General Porras’s firing of anti-corruption champion Juan Francisco Sandoval is an outrageous move. The Guatemalan people deserve better.”
             Julie Chung, Acting Assistant Secretary for US Department of State’s Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, stopped short of calling for a reversal of the decision to remove Sandoval or any consequences related to that move but denounced his firing: “The firing & removal of immunity of Juan Francisco Sandoval, Chief of Guatemala’s Prosecutor Against Corruption and Impunity (FECI), is a significant setback to rule of law. It contributes to perceptions of a systemic effort to undermine those known to be fighting corruption. As with all justice defenders, the safety of Juan Francisco Sandoval must be protected. Guatemalan authorities must ensure his safety. It is also essential that FECI remain intact and empowered to ensure the fight against corruption in Guatemala. Any politically-motivated interruption of investigations has no place in an open and strong democratic system.” National Security Council Director for the Western Hemisphere Juan Gonzalez tweeted, “I don’t know what @MPguatemala Fiscal Porras is playing at, but every day it becomes clearer it’s not the rule of law. The Guatemalan people deserve better.”
             Indigenous organizations throughout the country protested the dismissal of Sandoval, including the indigenous municipality of Solola and the indigenous organization of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapan, which demanded the restitution of Sandoval, the resignation of President Giammattei, and the resignation of Attorney General Porras. 
             In a press conference at the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, Sandoval said his dismissal was illegal and that he would challenge it. Attorney General Porras, he said, blocked and delayed investigations that affected her allies. After finishing the press conference, escorted by Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas and other human rights defenders, Sandoval left Guatemala, fearing for his safety and that of his family.
            Sandoval was replaced by Carla Isidra Valenzuela. She reportedly is the cousin of Roxana Baldetti, the former Vice President convicted of corruption, and the great niece of former president Serrano Elías. The FECI, created over a decade ago to work closely with the UN-backed anti-impunity commission known as CICIG, has continued prosecuting cases begun with the assistance of CICIG. Sandoval—an “anti-corruption champion,” as the State Department’s Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) deemed this past February 23, spoke to El Faro in the weeks before his dismissal. Without CICIG, the work became more complicated. “CICIG gave us great support,” Sandoval told El Faro, “from the logistic to the political. If we were accusing politicians with power, someone had to give us a sort of cover, and the CICIG did that. Now, we don’t have that.”

  • Land Rights Defender Murdered    Regilson Choc Cac, a sixteen-year-old land rights and indigenous defender and member of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), was murdered on July 20 in San Juan Tres Rios, Alta Verapaz. Choc Cac is the third member of the CCDA murdered in this community.  On June 8, 2016, Daniel Choc was murdered, and on May 13, 2018, Mateo Chaman was murdered. Neither case was successfully prosecuted. The CCDA Committee in San Juan Tres Ríos has petitioned the Land Fund to grant them legal ownership of land disputed with the owner of the Rancho Alegre estate.  Choc Cac, although very young, was a community leader and had participated in dialogues related to the land dispute.
             Although the murders of CCDA members have not been resolved, CCDA members themselves are being criminalized for “usurpation” of land. According to the CCDA, 962 warrants for the arrests of campesino leaders have been issued, and two CCDA member have been sentenced to 35 years in prison.

  • President Declares Temporary Suspension of Certain Constitutional Rights    On July 13, Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei declared a state of prevention for fifteen days, limiting freedom of movement and banning unauthorized protests.  Although many of the provisions of the decree relate to measures apparently designed to deter the spread of COVID-19, the day before he announced the state of prevention—as hundreds gathered to protest the lack of COVID vaccines and demand Giammattei’s resignation—Giammattei stated, referring to the protests, “[W]e are going to limit this type of thing. I think this is enough already.” 
             The Human Rights Convergence, a coalition of prominent human rights organizations in Guatemala, decried the state of prevention, stating that it “seeks to prevent the exercise of rights and not to protect the population from the pandemic.” The coalition stated it would “hold the government, particularly President Giammattei and his Minister of the Interior, Gendry Reyes, responsible for any aggression, violation of rights and restriction of freedoms to those who legitimately demand his resignation, due to incapacity, corruption, and dereliction of duties.” In spite of the state of prevention, demonstrations have continued.
             The Guatemalan government has instituted an unprecedented number of states of prevention since the start of Giammattei’s term. According to the OHCHR, the government declared 11 states of exception in 2020, “establishing limitations on the rights to freedoms of movement, peaceful assembly and due process rights.”

Peaceful Protesters Arrested

The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission/USA is greatly alarmed by the arrest of 21 members of the Chicoyogüito community during a peaceful demonstration in Cobán on June 9. The peaceful protest, to ask the authorities for the return of their ancestral lands, was violently repressed by agents of the National Civil Police. Several people were beaten and injured. During the detention of the 21 men, due process, including the right to be brought promptly before a competent judge, has been violated.

These arrests take place in a context of systematic violation of the rights of indigenous peoples, increased criminalization of defenders, and a weakening of the rule of law.

In 1968 the Q’eqchi families of the community of Chicoyogüito in Alta Verapaz were dispossessed and uprooted from their land by the Guatemalan state. In their place, the government built Military Base #21, a center where the army carried out forced disappearance, torture, execution, and burial of hundreds of indigenous men, women, and children. 

For 53 years, the surviving families have asked state institutions for the return of their lands, to return to their homes, and to dignify the memory of the victims. Their just demands have fallen on deaf ears. Moreover, for seeking the restitution of their lands, the families have been threatened and persecuted. Their constitutional right to demonstrate and protest peacefully has been continually denied.

Therefore, we urge the government of Guatemala to comply with its obligation to respect rights and freedoms, principally the right to life and the prohibition of torture and other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment. As highlighted in ILO Convention 169: “Indigenous peoples shall enjoy the full measure of human rights and fundamental freedoms, without hindrance or discrimination.”

We request, in the face of such a grave situation, the immediate release of the 21 people arbitrarily detained and the response to their basic demands for their human rights, the right to life, the right to existence, and the right to their land and territory.

The detained men’s first appearance before a judge is scheduled for June 18. GHRC will accompany the families of Chicoyogüito in the search for justice, honor the memory of the innocent people buried in the mass graves of Military Base #21, and observe the proceedings against the 21 Q’eqchi men who are detained.

We will keep you updated on their status, as well as on the status of the repressive NGO Law, set to go into effect on Monday, June 21.

Recently Announced Initiatives Spark Concern

Recent initiatives announced by the White House, aimed at addressing the root causes of migration, as well as stemming the flow of migrants to the US border, are concerning. USAID, as part of these initiatives, will provide up to $7.5 million over three years and leverage at least $22.5 million from the private sector to support “entrepreneurs and innovators” working in, among other industries, renewable energy. This plan appears to be consistent with the $4 billion dollar, four-year Northern Triangle aid package Biden had announced during his campaign, which contemplates grid modernization, a transition to clean energy, and doubling the capacity of the Central American Electrical Interconnection System. While supporting renewable energy may seem a reasonable, environmentally sustainable goal, hydroelectric dams in Guatemala, as well as in Honduras, have led to repeated and deadly violence. The imposition of geothermal and solar plants in the region have also occasioned violence.

Often these large-scale projects are situated on land belonging to indigenous people. The rights of affected communities are routinely violated, including the right to prior, informed, and free consultation, mandated by Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization, the right to self-determination, and the right to life. Land-grabbing on the part of private companies and the state is a pattern. Violent evictions and displacement ensue. For those driven out of their communities, either by violence, eviction, or damage to the environment resulting from these projects, migration is a logical option.

The same is true of the many hundreds who have been criminalized for opposing such land grabs. Using charges meant to be applied to organized crime, the governments of Guatemala and Honduras issue arrest warrants that terrorize community activists and leaders who are defending their land and natural resources. Such charges usually require pretrial detention. As a result, before ever being tried on spurious charges, many environmental defenders spend years behind bars. 

A development model that favors the elite while disrupting, displacing, and violating the rights of many long-established and often indigenous communities, will not address the root causes of migration but will continue to exacerbate the suffering of Guatemala’s most vulnerable communities. As UN Rapporteur for indigenous rights Victoria Tauli-Corpuz points out in a report on Guatemala, “In addition to the question of territorial rights and consultation, projects that are imposed on indigenous peoples disregard their rights to their own development models and have a serious impact on other human rights. It has been pointed out that the areas in which foreign investment is most highly concentrated are also the areas with the worst human development indicators, which indicates that the indigenous communities affected do not benefit from such projects. It is telling that, in Alta Verapaz, in areas with a high number of hydroelectric power plants, the communities have no electricity. In San Pablo, in San Marcos department, there are serious problems with electricity costs and supplies. Departments where agro-industry is particularly active, such as Alta Verapaz, exhibit the highest levels of acute malnutrition.”

The US should reject an economic approach based on the extraction of resources and low-wage employment. The Biden administration has taken a false step in planning to invest in expanding the land of a banana plantation in Guatemala in order to create jobs, an initiative that will be carried out through the Development Finance Corporation. Although the particular plantation in question has not been revealed, banana plantations have long been a part of Guatemala’s economy and social fabric and have not improved the quality of life for Guatemala’s most vulnerable sectors.

Instead of natural resource extraction in the areas of large out-migration—areas which are primarily indigenous—the US government should encourage the Guatemalan government to implement the indigenous rights agenda it committed to in the 1996 Peace Accords. Rapporteur Tauli-Corpuz notes the lack of guarantees in Guatemala for the rights of indigenous peoples to self-determination, the recognition of their own systems of self-government, their rights to lands, territories, and natural resources, the exercise of indigenous jurisdiction, and access to basic health, education and food that are culturally and linguistically appropriate. “The implementation rate of the 1996 Peace Accords regarding the Agreement on the Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” she pointed out after a 2018 trip to Guatemala, “is only 19 percent. Failure to comply with these commitments has undermined the progress of adopting measures in many areas, including land reform, recognition of indigenous authorities and justice, political participation and bilingual intercultural education. . . .The full implementation of the Peace Accords must be a priority on the State’s agenda to overcome existing problems that impede the enjoyment of the rights of indigenous peoples.” 

The US must encourage the recognition of indigenous peoples’ land ownership. The ownership by the indigenous of land they have historically lived on must be recognized whether or not they have formal title, and indigenous titles must be recognized where they do exist.[1] It is also important that land tenure include the concept of communal land, which is essential for indigenous peoples. The Peace Accords mandated compensation for lost land. An integral strategy for rural development was also outlined in the accords and now not only have these not been fulfilled, but the very institutional framework for implementing the accords has been dismantled, in spite of the objections of Guatemalan civil society. The US must push the Guatemalan government to create institutions to carry out the work of those institutitions which were closed and to continue making progress with justice for crimes of the past, reparations, and land reform committed to under the accords.

A potentially more effective initiative than the economic measures announced is the “Anti-Corruption Task Force.” The Task Force will entail “Resident Legal Advisors to provide capacity-building, training, and case-based mentoring to the Guatemalan Public Ministry.” This Anti-Corruption Task Force, to be truly effective, should address corruption in all its forms, and the rights of the indigenous—as the most dispossessed sector of Guatemalan society, who already suffered a genocide provoked by US interests[2]–must be paramount. The Task Force should investigate the malicious prosecution of human rights defenders, uncovering the factors that lead to such misuse of the criminal justice system and encouraging punishment of those involved. The US should also encourage the adoption of measures to penalize false prosecution.

Of extreme concern is the “Human Smuggling and Trafficking Task Force.” Law enforcement agencies headed by the Department of Justice will partner with security forces in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to “track migrant smuggling, identify, disrupt, and prevent smuggling, and plan coordinated enforcement actions.” “Migrant smuggling,” we fear, may simply refer to the process by which many migrants find their way to the US-Mexico border: with the help of a coyote and/or with the assistance of civil society aid organizations that provide resources such as shelter and advice. Migration is an internationally recognized right, and seeking asylum is a right. The use of the term smuggling appears to be an effort to criminalize the movement of people exercising that right. The promise to engage in “coordinated enforcement actions” with notoriously brutal and unaccountable security forces suggests, not a new strategy by the Biden White House, but a reversion to the disastrous tactics of the past.


[1] The March 2019 report of the Guatemalan Human Rights Ombudsman to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination concluded that no progress had been made in the adoption of legislation regarding access to land by indigenous peoples and the creation of an effective mechanism for claiming ancestral lands. Additionally, no progress had been made on any measures adopted to prevent indigenous peoples from being forcibly evicted from their traditional territories and to mitigate the impact of such evictions. Nor had any progress been made in legislating to comply with the constitutional mandate to respect and ensure traditional possession and ancestral ownership of indigenous lands. Article 70 of the Constitution of Guatemala, in force since 1985, establishes the obligation to issue a specific law for indigenous peoples, but this obligation has not been met. Additionally, judicial evictions continue to be carried out without due process for the indigenous people involved. Furthermore, the State has not guaranteed a responsible property registry to identify the ancestral lands of the indigenous peoples, as well as to harmonize national legislation with international standards, the Ombudsman’s report noted.

[2] In banana plantations, no less.