The human rights situation, on the surface, seems to have improved last year in Guatemala, but while the number of attacks was down to levels not seen since 2008, the violence of the attacks intensified: the number of assassinations increased. From January 1 to October 31, eleven human rights defenders were killed in Guatemala, and after October 31, the killings escalated. For example, on November 2, indigenous leader Benjamin Roderigo Ic Coc, departmental representative of the Mayan Council of the Peten, was found shot to death in Sayaxché. He had received threats prior to his killing. On November 6, journalist Hamilton Hernández and his wife were assassinated in Coatepeque. On November 9, union leader Eliseo Villatoro Cardona, in Tiquisate, was killed. On November 12, Jeremy Abraham Barrios Lima, Assistant to the General Director of the Center for Environmental and Social Legal Action of Guatemala, was shot to death. Miguel Suchite Hernandez, COCODE president, in La Llorna, Petén, was killed November 18, bringing the total number of defenders killed to date this year to sixteen.
By comparison, the number of defenders assassinated by December 31, 2015 year was thirteen. In 2014, it was seven. The cases of the defenders killed in the Petén are still being verified to ascertain whether their work on behalf of human rights led to their deaths. But even excepting those two cases, the total number of murders this year exceeds that of last.
Union members, environmental defenders, and journalists have been the most heavily targeted groups.
As of September 22, the Observatory of Journalists of the Center for Information Reports on Guatemala (Cerigua) recorded 47 grievances against the press. By the same date, the Fiscal Unit of Crimes against Journalists had received 76 complaints. Targeted assassinations, assaults, intimidation, censorship, and cyber-attacks hindered press freedom. In addition to Hamilton Hernández, mentioned above, the following journalists were murdered:
On the March 17, Mario Roberto Salazar Barahona, director of Radio Estéreo Azúcar, was killed in Asunción Mita, Jutiapa as he waited in his car for change after buying a coconut on the roadside. Gunmen pulled up beside him on a motorcycle and opened fire. Less than a month later, on April 8, Winston Leonardo Túnchez Cano, a broadcaster on Radio La Jefa, was shot and killed by men on a motorcycle while he was shopping for groceries in Escuintla. On April 30, journalist Diego Salomón Esteban Gaspar, the 22-year-old leader of Radio Sembrador, was killed by three men who intercepted him on his motorcycle in the village of Efrata, Ixcán, Quiché. The director of the radio station had been receiving threats since 2015. On June 7, journalist Víctor Hugo Valdéz Cardona was shot and killed in the streets of Chiquimula by two individuals on a motorcycle. Víctor was the director of Chiquimula de Visión, a cultural television program that had been around for more than 27 years.
On June 25th, journalist and radio reporter Álvaro Alfredo Aceituno López was shot by unidentified assailants on the street where the Radio Ilusión station is located, in the southeastern city of Coatepeque. He was director of the station and the host of a news program called Acontecer Coatepecano. One of the bullets hit Aceituno in the back of the head. He was rushed to the hospital by the Guatemalan Red Cross, where he died later the same day. Just a month after the murder, Aceituno’s daughter, Lindaura Aceituno, was shot and killed by men on a motorcycle as she was driving her daughter to school. According to reports, one of the men got off the motorcycle and approached to see if she was dead and then fired again.
On November 6, a journalist for the cable station Punto Rojo, Hamilton Hernández Vásquez, was killed by while returning home from covering an event. Men on a motorcycle chased him and his wife, who were also on a motorcycle. The men opened fire. His wife, Ermelinda González Lucas, also was shot to death
On March 16, Walter Méndez Barrios was shot and killed outside of his home in Las Cruces. He was a well-known environmental rights defender, fighting to protect natural resources in communities of the Maya Biosphere Reserve. He was a founding member of FPCR (Petenero Front Against Dams), an organization that was formed in 2005 to fight for land rights, water rights, and other natural resources of those affected and threatened by the construction of dams. He had been receiving death threats prior to his murder.
On April 13, Benedicto de Jesús Gutiérrez Rosa, Juan Mateo Pop Cholom and Héctor Joel Saquil Choc, forestry engineers with the National Institute of Forests, were ambushed and shot to death by gunmen in a car around 2:00 PM as they were driving in Carcha, Alta Verapaz.
On June 8, human rights defender Daniel Choc Pop was killed by unknown individuals who shot him numerous times. He was an indigenous and campesino human rights defender from the community of San Juan Tres Ríos in Cobán, which he represented at the General Assembly of the Highlands Campesino Committee (CCDA). The CCDA is a national organization committed to defending local water sources used by indigenous communities. There had been recent disputes regarding over land ownership with owners of the estate Rancho Alegre.
On November 12, Jeremy Abraham Barrios was shot to death. He worked as the Assistant to the General Director of CALAS (Centro de Acción Legal Ambiental y Social de Guatemala). CALAS is a human rights organization founded in 2011 and based in Guatemala City. The organization has been active in denouncing abuses committed by mining companies in the region, as well as in the protection of environmental rights. There was no prior indication Barrios had received any threats; however his employers had received warnings.
Union members and Community Leaders
On May 10, community leader Blanca Estela Asturias was shot to death in Villalobos, Villanueva, Guatemala. Two men approached her as she was at her newspaper stand at 6:00 A.M. and without a word shot her at point-blank range. She had recently organized a protest to call for better water service and better maintenance of the community’s drainage system.
On June 19, around 6:00 P.M., Brenda Marleni Estrada Tambito was driving through Zone 1 in Guatemala City when a vehicle drove up next to her. The occupants of the vehicle then opened fire. She was hit by bullets and died at the scene of the attack. She was a member of the Coalition of Workers’ Unions of Guatemala (Unión Sindical de Trabajadores de Guatemala – UNSITRAGUA) and the Sub-Coordinator of the Legal Aid Commission within the union. UNSITRAGUA brings together workers’ unions from the different industries, as well as self-employed workers and independent farmers. Estrada was the daughter of lawyer Jorge Estrada. Prior to her assassination she had driven her father to a bus terminal where he would travel to Puerto Barrios, Izabal. He is currently involved in investigating and assessing labor rights in several banana plantations across Izabal.
On November 10th, Eliseo Villatoro Cardona was riding his motorcycle, headed home, when two pursuers, also on motorcycles, shot and wounded him. He tried to flee, in spite of his wounds, but the gunmen closed in and killed him. Villatoro Cardona was a member of the executive committee of the Organized Municipal Employees’ Union of Tiquisate, Escuintla (SEMOT).
Look for our final 2016 human rights report, including a broader range of violations, in February.