Assassinations Increase in 2016

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

Environmental defenders

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.


Guatemalan News: November 27 – December 2

Guatemalan woman dies in Immigration and Customs Control Service (ICC) custody in Arizona

A 36 year old Guatemalan woman died after suffering convulsions in the Eloy detention center in Arizona, a privately managed facility where 15 migrants have died since 2004.  She had been placed in the facility on November 23, and was awaiting deportation.

Transleader and activist murdered in her home

Sulma Alegría Robles (also known as Evelyn), trans leader and activist, was found murdered in her home on November 18 with signs of torture and physical violence. Sulma was a beneficiary of precautionary measures granted by the IACHR for risk of systematic attacks, threats and violations for defending human rights. The murder of Sulma demonstrates the state of Guatemala failing to fulfill its duty to protect its life and physical integrity, and a case of targeted violence against the LGBTQ community.

Mayan elders go to Standing Rock to show solidarity

Mayan representatives from the Mam and Ixil peoples of Guatemala have travelled to Standing Rock in the Dakotas, in solidarity with the Sioux Tribe in defense of the land, territories, environment, sacred sites and all natural elements.

Survivors of the Armed Conflict Demand Compliance with Peace Accords

Survivors of the thirty-six-year internal armed conflict have asked the Guatemalan government to comply with the peace accords signed in 1996 and approve a budget for reparations. Presenting a report evaluating the impact of the accords, survivors of the armed conflict requested “profound reforms” to combat poverty, racism, and discrimination.
The conflict claimed 250,000 victims, including those dead and disappeared, and left more than a million people internally displaced.  The survivors asked Congress to create the National Commission on Forced Disappeareances aimed at searching for the victims, as well as to approve a budget of 50 million quetzals for reparations.

“We believe in peace and that the authorities must have the political will to solve the structural problems that led to the war,” Miguel Quiej, who represents survivors, told EFE.

Quiej was one of the paricipants in the presentation to the three branches of government of the report on the impact of the accords. The peace accords were signed by the government and the guerrilla forces twenty years ago.

Here are those of us who suffered bombings and machine gun strafings and the contempt of the state, to demand that the commitments acquired in the peace accords be taken up again and fulfilled.”

In the opinion of Feliciana Macaria, another representative of the survivors, the government “has not shown sufficient will to comply with the commitments and protect the rights of the victims.” The report, titled “The Impact of the Peace Accords on the Victims of the Internal Armed Conflict 1996-2016,” was presented on the Patio of Peace.

The analysis states that the government has not complied with guaranteeing the victims’ rights to truth, justice, and just reparations, nor has it searched for the more than 45,000 disappeared, among them 1,000 children.

“It is lamentable that the government continues not to recognize the veracity of the Historical Clarification Commission’s report, which determined that acts of genocide were committed against the indigenous peoples, indiscriminately killing children, women, and campesinos,” the report states. In the report, the three organizations representing victims find that on balance, compliance with the peace accords has been “negative.” The groups add that refusing to look for the disappeared and put into practice and exhumation and burial policy “only serves to protect those responsible for the violations and prolongs the anguish of the families.” Indigenous peoples and women have confronted numerous obstacles to justice and many communities do not even have Public Ministry and Judiciary offices, the report explains.

The groups emphasize that the recognize the valiant work of the prosecutors and judges who have issued nineteen sentences against those responsible for serious violations committed during the conflict, but add that these are “small efforts in light of the magnitude of the violations.”

The survivors also assert that they have not received reparations. In thirteen years, only 16,000 applications have been processed and the support received has been only a small economic compensation.

“The victims and survivors continue living in conditions of extreme poverty and marginalization” because the government has not implemented policies to reduce inequality,” they point out. They note that all the governments following the signing of the accords have relegated the peace agenda to the back burner and have prioritized their political plans.

The groups ask the executive branch to strengthen the capacities of the police and to limit the army’s work to guarding the borders, as well as to implement policies to eliminate racism and discrimination.

They urge the judicial branch to investigate, prosecute, and punish the intellectual and material authors of the grave human rights violations committed during the armed conflict.




Black Wednesday in the Defense of Human Rights

The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) has issued a communique expressing deep concern about a spate of serious human rights violations. GHRC provides a rough translation below. See the original here.

The Unit for the Protection for Human Rights Defenders-Guatemala expresses deep concern about a series of violent acts committed yesterday, Wednesday, November 9, rarely seen and with little precedent. On that account, UDEFEGUA wishes to express:

  1. On yesterday [Wednesday] alone, union leader Eliseo Villatoro Cardona in Tiquisate was assassinated; illegal, forced entry was made into the Teachers House, where information valuable to STEG [the Union of Guatemalan Education Workers] was stolen; the threat was made to lynch two defenders of a Sololá social auditing organization and five members of COCODE [the Community Development Council] of the same department, whose location we maintain in reserve until the risk is diminished; and one act of sexual violence was committed against a community leader whose name and organization we keep in reserve. Also, reports came to light that a member of CODECA [Committee for Campesino Development] in Cobán was abducted, with the involvement of members of the National Civil Police.
  2. These events are part of a series of acts of violence that affect the capacity to carry out the defense of human rights, such as the assassination of journalist Hamilton Hernández and his wife in Coatepeque last week; threats to three journalists by the group identified as “the Zetas” to stop their coverage in the fight for human rights in Alta Verapaz, El Quiché, and Huehuetenango; violent evictions in El Estor; the illegal arrest of an elder of the Q’anjob’al Nation, as well as the  aggression against another community member in Yxquixix, San Mateo Ixtatán, and the attack on members of UVOC [the Verapaz Union of Campesino Organizations] in El Estor.
  3. These acts of exacerbated violence occur within the framework of permissiveness that the government of Jimmy Morales and the ruling political party (FCN-Nacion) extend to the perpetrators.

    Given the facts expressed above, UDEFEGUA demands:

  1. That the authorities in charge of criminal investigation carry out the pertinent procedures and that they permit the intellectual and material authors of these crimes and serious human rights violations to be identified and condemned.
  2. That the Public Ministry [recognize] the urgent need to carry out a general instruction to permit prosecutors to have greater and more capacity to guarantee an end to impunity.
  3. That COPREDEH take effective steps towards the creation of a Program for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in order to take other preventive measures.

Finally, we wish to send a message of solidarity, support, and accompaniment to the defenders who commit their lives to the defense and promotion of human rights.

Links that may be helpful: El Estor eviction (more here)
Recent communique by UDEFEGUA on other recent acts of violence

Union Member Killed

On November 9, around 3:00 PM, Eliseo Villatoro Cardona, a member of the executive committee of the Organized Municipal Workers Union of Tequisate (SEMOT), in Escuintla, was assassinated in Zone 2 of Tequisate.  He was riding his motorcycle, headed home, when two pursuers, also on motorcycles, shot and wounded him.  Seeing that he continued to try to flee, in spite of his wounds, they killed him.

According to Cerigua, SEMOT had received threats and had been pressured by the municipality of Tequisate.  These measures of pressure violate the right to organize guaranteed under Guatemalan law and by the International Labor Organization (Convention 87). The municipality had reportedly stopped paying the salaries of the unionized workers some months earlier. Eliseo Villatoro Cardona is the third union member killed in Guatemala this year, according to the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights.


UDEFEGUA Releases Year-To-Date Human Rights Report

The Unity for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) has released its human rights report covering the first ten months of 2016. Between January 1 and October 31, eleven human rights defenders were assassinated. Union members, defenders of the environment, and journalists were the most heavily targeted groups. The most common forms of attack were defamation and intimidation. See the full report in Spanish here.  

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Journalist and his wife shot to death in Coatepeque

Journalist Hamilton Roelí Hernández Vásquez, 28, and his wife Ermelinda González Lucas, 35, were killed in a shooting on Saturday November 5th. The National Civil Police (PNC) reported that the bodies were found on the road leading from Coatepeque to Flores Costa Cuca, Quetzaltenango.

According to the Diario Digital, Hernández Vásquex worked in a local radio station as a news broadcaster. The motive for the attack is so far unknown; Public Ministry spokeswoman Julia Barreda has said at this time the proceedings have been made to begin an investigation.

“Calls came in alerting [us] that two people were found on the edge of a dirt road on the Coatepeque highway, upon arriving at the location we found that the victims had died some hours earlier, both had several bullet wounds in their heads,” said Cecilio Jackal, spokesman of the local fire department.

Information given to firefighters at the scene stated that Hernández Vásquez had covered an event on Saturday night, and left the area on his motorcycle, on his way to pick up his wife.

Neighbors were the first to notify police of the shooting. Official spokesperson for the PNC, Jorge Chinchilla, stated that the victims were found at 5:00 am.  

“Hernández Vásquez had at least three gunshot wounds in the back of his head, and Lucas González had two, according to witnesses.

“The guild once again suffers the death of another colleague. This raises warning signs, since last year three murders were recorded, while in 2016 with the death of Hernández Vásquez, the number has risen to nine. Each time, we move up on the scale of countries where it is a risk to practice journalism,” said Ileana Alamilla of the Association of Journalists of Guatemala (APG).

By October, 76 complaints had been registered in the Fiscal Unit for Crimes against Journalists, according to the latest report of Journalists Observatory, part of the Center for Informative Reports on Guatemala (Cerigua). Cerigua has reported 47 attacks on the guild to the Inter American Press Association (IAPA)

Within a month the number rose, according to Alamilla, and with this case, there are now 55 cases that include allegations of threats, assaults, intimidation and censorship on journalists. According to the Diario Digital, Alamilla stated, “There will be many cases that are not related to the practice as such, but records are still in process, which the Public Ministry should determine. It is necessary that investigations and cases of judicialization be sped up. This year, as in others, cases are repeated in the departments.”

Ivan Velasquez, head of the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), confirmed that they support the investigation of the two assassinated journalists, which could be tied to organizations that are already being investigated.

Note: The number of murders of journalists varies is reported at 7, while other sources report numbers as high as 11.