Guatemala News Update: Feb. 6-12

Public Prosecutor’s Office presents skeletons as evidence at the Sepur Zarco hearings

In the seventh day of hearings by the judges of the Sepur Zarco case, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented as evidence boxes with the skeletons of 48 people. One expert, Juan Carlos Gatíca, explained where the bones had been exhumed and the analysis that had been done to identify them. Another expert, Óscar Ariel Ixpatá, described the types of wounds found on the exhumed bones, explaining that what they found indicated that the victims had bullet wounds and had been beaten. Furthermore, the victims had been blindfolded, bound, and gagged.

Campesinos March for Political Change in Guatemala

Thousands of Guatemalan rural workers protested in the streets of Guatemala City on Wednesday, blocking traffic to pressure President Jimmy Morales into passing political and economic reforms. The campesino organizations listed a variety of demands, including the respect of the constitutional rights of Guatemalan cities, wage levels, environmental protections, and national sovereignty.  Concerning environmental issues, protesters want an end to projects that displace communities and exploit natural resources. They also criticized agreements with transnational organizations, arguing instead for nationalized energy resources to benefit Guatemalans.

The protesters also demanded justice for those who intimidated community leaders, and the freedom of human rights defenders who had been jailed and criminalized. Furthermore, they called for resolution of 135 land conflicts, and housing guarantees.

Minister of Energy and Mining denied new moratorium on mining and will accelerate process to grant licensing

The Minister of Energy and Mines will not maintain a moratorium on new mining licenses and instead seeks to speed up the process of granting requests for licenses. The past two administrations had abstained from granting new licenses. The new officials argue that these projectscan help to reduce the high levels of poverty within the country if attention is paid to social and environmental issues, explained the Vice-minister of Sustainable Development, Roberto Velasquez. In contrast, communities who live next to resource extraction projects such as mines, as well as hydroelectric dam projects have almost unanimously opposed them as environmentally harmful, socially destructive, and as driving factors of increased violence and repression in their communities.

The Minister for Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) analyzes continuation of Perenco activities

Within the 35 days, MARN will decide the fate of the continuation of Perenco’s petroleum extraction operations, this coming after last week’s verdict from the government’s legal office, which recommended that activities be suspended until the Ministry publishes an assessment of the company’s operations. Sydney Alexander Samuels, Minister for the Environment, said that they couldn’t cancel operations entirely, given that 13 communities depend on the company economically. “Perenco has a current license and it would be an arbitrary action on my part if I stop the operations of this business at this time.” The company has been operating for years inside a nature reserve in one of the most bio-diverse regions in the country.

Video on the Ecocide Case in Peten

A video (14 min; Spanish) by the National Network to Defend Food Sovereignty in Guatemala provides a closer look at the conditions faced by communities who depend on the Pasión River for their livelihoods – and who in April of 2015 began to see a massive die-of of fish. Community leader Rigoberto Lima was assassinated in September. GHRC has taken leadership in international advocacy efforts on both the environmental contamination as well as the murder of Mr. Lima.

Guatemala elects first openly gay Congress Member

A new article profiles the first openly gay Congress Member, Sandra Moran, who took office in January. She is well known for her activism on women’s rights and she has promised to push for reforms to end hate crimes and discrimination against LGBT citizens, as well as push for passage of a law that would protect sexual diversity. This is a huge moment for Guatemala’s LGBT community which has never before hadrepresentation within government. These issues are controversial in Guatemala and President Jimmy Morales, who is an evangelical Christian, has already made clear his opposition to same sex marriage. Moran expressed hope in a statement to The Guardian, “There’s a long way to go but it’s an important start: Congress is still dominated by men and very conservative, but here I am.” GHRC accompanied Moran on a US speaking tour in 2011.

Guatemala and EU begin anti-corruption campaign within the Guatemalan Judiciary

In 2012, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) reported 18 judges who had been caught ruling in favor to criminal structures, and in 2015 at least three judges were detained for being implicated in corruption cases. Now, a new anti-corruption campaign supported by USAID and the European Union aims to promote leadership, impartiality, and independence among judges and magistrates as well as fortify rule of law.

CICIG Commission Ivan Velasquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana were both recognized recently in the US for their work to combat corruption.

Guatemala News Update: January 16-22

Joe Biden’s Visit to Guatemala

U.S. Vice President Joe Biden met with newly inaugurated Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales during his visit to Central America last week. He congratulated Morales and praised his commitment to fight corruption.

Guatemala tries 11 ex-soldiers over wartime massacres

Guatemalan judge Claudette Dominguez opened a trial on Monday, January 18th of 11 retired soldiers accused of participating in massacres of Indigenous citizens during the country’s 36 year civil war.

This case was described by the district attorney’s office as one of the largest forced disappearance cases in America Latina. Evidence that led to the its opening case includes a report from the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala, which reported finding 558 bones and human remains in 83 mass graves on Military Zone 21 (CREOMPAZ) in the Alta Verapaz region, where the detainees were active members between 1978 and 1998. 90 of these remains corresponds to minors, 443 to adults, and three to the elderly, with 22 unknown. So far 97 of the victims have been identified through DNA. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: December 7-11

Celebrating International Human Rights Day


GHRC’s Dania Rodríguez was recognized by Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman at a Dec. 10 event to honor human rights groups working in the country.

Guatemalans participated in a host of actions to commemorate International Human Rights Day, celebrated on December 10.

Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, Jorge de León Duque, stated in an event he hosted in Guatemala City that this year was marked by a “failure to fulfill fundamental rights,” citing the country’s collapsing health care and education systems. The Ombudsman also gave a special “declaration of protection” to several groups, including to GHRC, for their crucial work promoting human rights.

The Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala also presented its annual award, the Orden Juan José Gerardi, to a group of Ixil women who testified as part of the genocide trial against Efraín Ríos Montt. The award also recognized political prisoners Bernarbé Sagastume, Antonio Velásquez and Saúl Méndez for their work defending their communities’ land and environmental rights.

Many groups issued a statement in honor of Human Rights Day; our partner UDEFEGUA expressed the group’s solidarity with Guatemala’s diverse human rights struggles and movements.

Urgent Action: Denounce Repeated Threats Against Land Rights Defenders

Our partner Amnesty International Canada is circulating an urgent action campaign to denounce threats against Rafael Maldonado of the Center for Environmental and Social Legal Action (CALAS). Last week, Maldonado received a series of death threats via social media — the latest in a continuing pattern of intimidation toward him since 2013. Maldonado serves as the Legal Director for CALAS, an organization that advocates for the collective rights of indigenous peoples in relation to environmental issues. Recently, CALAS has been involved in cases related to mining and African palm production in Guatemala.

Click here to participate in the campaign by writing a letter to Guatemala’s President and Attorney General.

Guatemala court denies appeal of ex-dictator’s genocide trial

This week, Guatemala’s top court refused an injunction requested by the defense team for Efraín Ríos Montt to call off the criminal process against him for genocide and war crimes. The Constitutional Court has confirmed that although Montt was diagnosed in August with “incurable dementia,” a special, closed-door trial will move forward in January 2016. Because Montt has been declared unfit to appear in court, his legal team will represent him during the trial.

Guatemala News Update: November 16-27

Sepur Zarco Trial to Start in February

The Sepur Zarco trial — Guatemala’s first criminal trial that pertains to sexual violence from the internal armed conflict — is set to open on February 1, 2016. The case deals with the abuses of women forced to serve as domestic and sexual slaves at the Sepur Zarco military outpost in the 1980s. The case also marks the first time anywhere that a domestic court has taken on a case related to sexual slavery.

Guatemalan Migrants in US Present Demands to Guatemalan Government

Conguate, a coalition of Guatemalan citizens living in the United States, gathered in Guatemala City on November 18 to lobby the Guatemalan government for a specific political agenda concerning migration.

In Guatemala, People Living Off Forests Are Tasked With Protecting Them

This article investigates a conservation strategy in Uaxactún, Guatemala in which communities already living in the region have been given control over protecting local forests from threats such as cattle ranchers, illegal loggers and drug traffickers. The community-based approach has helped conserve the most threatened tree species in the jungle,the native bigleaf mahogany and Spanish cedar. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: November 30-December 4

Will Someone Finally Be Held Accountable for Efrain Bámaca’s Enforced Disappearance?

This International Justice Monitor blog post discusses the case of Efrain Bámaca, which may be reopened in the coming months after years of inactivity. On November 24, the Supreme Court was scheduled to hold a hearing on the Inter-American Court of Human Rights’ decision on the Bámaca case, though the hearing was ultimately suspended. The case pertains to the enforced disappearance of former guerrilla commander Efrain Bámaca, also known as “Commander Everardo.” GHRC has accompanied Bámaca’s wife, Jennifer Harbury, in her search for justice over the past several decades.

602 Public Officials Captured on Corruption Charges

According to an article from Prensa Libre, between January and early November of this year, a total of 602 public officials and employees have been arrested for corruption. The complaints filed represent a joint effort by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the Attorney General, and other offices in Guatemala.

Protests Restart in Guatemala City

Months after the resignation of former President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, protests have restarted in the Guatemala City’s central plaza. While the national corruption scandals still weigh heavily on citizens’ minds, the most recent protests now focus on the country’s healthcare crisis and other actions currently being considered by Congress, including the new budget plan for 2016. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: November 2-13

Puyasign-machineryUS Congress to Guatemalan President: Halt Illegal Mining Operations at La Puya

This week, GHRC announced that 12 members of the US Congress sent a letter to Guatemalan President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre to raise concerns about abuses related to the El Tambor gold mine in San Pedro Ayampuc, Guatemala. The letter calls on the President to use his authority to uphold human rights and to ensure that the mine’s owner–the US-based company Kappes, Cassiday & Associates (KCA)–promptly halts its illegal operations.

The congressional letter was mentioned in this Prensa Libre opinion piece (in Spanish); you can also read more in our full press release, and read the congressional letter in its entirety here.

NGOs Demand Palm Oil Industry Stop Abuses in Latin America

GHRC joined a coalition of NGOs in delivering a letter to the world’s biggest palm oil traders, alerting them to the gross violations of human rights occurring in the palm oil sector in Mesoamerica — including the recent murder of Guatemalan environmental activist Rigoberto Lima Choc.

“In Guatemala, community members engaging in legitimate actions to protect their water quality and environment consistently face threats, attacks, and assassinations,” said Kelsey Alford-Jones, “often committed with impunity due to a lack of judicial independence, widespread government corruption, and ineffective oversight of corporate practices.”

Read the press release here.

New Report: State of Fear and Terror Deliberately Created to Force Tahoe Resources’ Mine on Guatemalan Communities

A new report reveals the dramatic extent of the militarized security strategy that Canadian-US mining company Tahoe Resources developed to quash community opposition to its Escobal project in southeastern Guatemala. Read the entire report by Guatemalan investigative journalist Luis Solano here.

CICIG Proposes Tax to Combat Impunity in Guatemala

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has proposed the creation of a temporary tax on “large assets” in order to increase funds for criminal investigations as well as other programs related to combating corruption and impunity in Guatemala. While this is just the beginning of a proposal, the head of CICIG, Iván Velásquez, explained that immediate action must be taken to strengthen the Guatemalan justice system. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: October 26-30

Former Comedian Jimmy Morales Elected as Guatemala’s New President

October 25, Guatemalans elected Jimmy Morales — a comedian with no political experience and backed by military hard-liners — to serve as the country’s next president. Morales defeated his opponent and former first lady Sandra Torres with over 67% of the country’s votes; at least half of the country’s citizens abstained from voting.

Though some Guatemalans are cautiously optimistic about the future, many remain skeptical that Morales will be able to pull the country out of its current political turmoil. A US Department of State press release congratulated Morales, stating: “We trust president-elect Morales will seek to work with his citizens and the Guatemalan Assembly to stimulate economic growth, reduce crime and violence, promote educational opportunities, target criminal networks responsible for human trafficking, and help create transparent and accountable governance and institutions.”

Read more about how the elections may affect civil society and impact human rights defenders in this Foreign Policy in Focus article.

Investigation into Passion River “Ecocide” Stalled

More than four and a half months after a mass die-off of fish occurred in the Passion River in Sayaxché, Peten, the investigation into what caused the event is at a standstill. Though authorities report that they are still collecting evidence, community members are denouncing the delays in the process, as well as the fact that communities received no aid in the aftermath of the contamination of the river.

Ministry of Finance Announces Plan to Cut Spending

Guatemala faces a financial crisis due to the fact the State did not meet its tax collection goals for this year. The government plans to address this shortfall by cutting spending across several units, except in those considered “key ministries,” such as the interior and health ministries.