Guatemala News Update: March 26-April 1

Genocide Case: Expert Forensic Anthropologist confirms horrors committed

On the 4th day of the closed-door debates against Jose Efraín Ríos Montt and Jose Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez,  they listened to the testimonies of  forensic anthropologists who carried out the exhumations in the Ixil area and confirmed the horrible crimes the army committed there against the unarmed civilian population.

Ríos Montt is represented by a third party in the closed-door special proceedings; the Court does not have the power to impose a prison sentence due to Rios Montt’s physical health.

In a recent public statement, GHRC and partner organizations expressed concern about the case and called for the trial against Rodríguez Sánchez to be public.

Judge Gálvez declassifies 8 military plans from the armed conflict

Judge Miguel Angel Gálvez declassified eight plans from the military campaign which were used as strategies during the internal armed conflict between 1983 and 1990. These can now be used in in-progress investigations related to the Military Diary and cases of extra-judicial executions, forced disappearances, and massacres.  Copies of these documents have been given to plaintiff groups including, FAMDEGUA and the Association for Justice and Reconciliation.

CERIGUA: Poverty is worsening in the country

Currently 79.2% of the population in Guatemala is living in poverty, while 46.6% are below the extreme poverty line. This situation principally affects indigenous and rural communities, and, according to CERIGUA, the State has not adequately addressed this issue and in fact there has even been regression on progress on these issues since the start of Morales’ presidency.

Ex-President Otto Pérez Molina’s Hearing Suspended

Judge Miguel Angel Gálvez has suspended the scheduled hearing of the former president due to an appeal from the Attorney General’s Office, and it was not clear when the trial would resume. Both the former president and former vice-president, Roxana Baldetti resigned last year after a corruption scandal involving both came to light. Former Vice-President Baldetti arrived late to the proceedings due to health problems according to her lawyers, and the judge ordered she undergo medical examinations.

Following the March 28th court appearance, former President Pérez Molina was quoted as stating “I am innocent, and everyone must respect that.” He has also blamed the U.S. Embassy for interfering in the internal affairs of Guatemala through the CICIG.

Guatemala News Update: March 1-25

Assassinations of Human Rights Defenders

Environmental Activist Killed
A prominent environmental activist, Walter Méndez Barrios, was shot and killed March 16th in Guatemala. He had fought against deforestation and hydroelectric projects within Central America, was part of the Petenero Front against Dams – an organization opposing hydroelectric projects in the Usumacinta River- and led the Association of Forest Communities in Petén. His association released a statement saying that Méndez had been receiving death threats for his work.

The assassination came not long after two environmental activists were killed in Honduras – including world-renowned activist Berta Cáceres – leading to increased criticism of US and Central American plans to build more hydroelectric dams without consultation and to the detriment of local communities.

Radio Station Director Killed
On March 17th, Mario Roberto Salazar Barahona, the director of EstéreoAzúcar in the department of Jutiapa was killed. According to CERIGUA, Salazar had been inside his car after returning from meetings at another radio station when he was shot. Police believe hit men had been following him, yet the motive for the murder is still unknown. Salazar had worked in the field of journalism for over a decade. UNESCO and the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights have both condemned the attack. They stated, “we reaffirm the absolute need to develop a comprehensive public policy for protection of defenders of human rights, including journalists to enable them to carry out their work in an environment where their security and integrity are guaranteed.”

Transitional Justice Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: Feb. 15-19

Analysts Critique President Jimmy Morales´ First Month in Office

A series of scandals and non-transparent actions have generated strong critique of the new Morales administration. Martin Pellecer, writing for Nomada, describes four areas in which Morales has been an obstacle to fighting impunity, including his poor management of donations of medical supplies and cozy relationship with a major Guatemalan palm oil company. Iduvina Hernández, in Plaza Pública, adds concerns about Morales´ cabinet and advisers.

The new administration takes office as the US ramps up it’s new Central America Strategy under the Alliance for Pro. Acisclo Valladares Urreula, Guatemalan Presidential Commissioner for Competitiveness and Investment, stated that the funds for Alliance for Prosperity wouldn´t be arriving until October of this year. He says he plans to visit 51 communities to get their input. Valladares also mentioned the donation of US $28 million from the Millennium Challenge Corporation to improve education and increased tax efficiency.

“Racism and Sexual Violence has served to suppress the indigenous populations”

This week in the Sepur Zarco trial, survivors and expert witnesses take the stand. “In 1982 the arrival of the soldiers began and they were grabbing people to bring them to the outpost and many were never seen again. The soldiers came from Puerto Barrios,” said Agustín Chen, one of the survivors from a community close to the military base Sepur Zarco. He told of how they brought him to a cell and beat him every day. “They killed seven people, throwing two grenades into the pit where they had put them.” The anthropologist Irma Alicia Veláquez Nimatuj stated that “The military outposts were installed in the region to give security to the landowners’ farms and to take possession of the lands.” For the women in the communities, “racism and sexual violence had come hand in hand in the subduing and controlling of indigenous populations.” she explained.

Minister for the Environment has “No information” on River Diversion

The Ministry for Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) recently admitted having no knowledge or control over private companies´s diversion of public tributaries of the rivers Madre Vieja and Achiguate in Escuintla. Ernesto Moscoso, Director of Watersheds and MARN’s Strategic Programs for the Department of Hydraulic Resources, stated in response to being questioned: “We do not have information regarding the diverted rivers, because there is no monitoring at this moment.” Dialogue has initiated between government offices and the companies, Hame Agroindustries and the sugar refineries Madre Tierra, El Pilar, Magdalena, Palo Blanco, Santa Ana, San Diego, Pantaleón and Bananera. Community members have noted that water no longer reaches communities downriver and with it, the fish and wildlife are disappearing.

Military Veterans Protest in front of U.S. Embassy

A “protest of ex-soldiers” blocked transit at midday on Feb. 18 on the front sidewalk of the U.S. Embassy in Zone 10 of Guatemala City. The dissidents detained vehicles for a few moments and then afterwards left. They also protested in front of the Supreme Court, where the Sepur Zarco trial is being held. The group had printed banners with a photo of the US Ambassador´s recent meeting with the Human Rights Law Firm, with the statement “the friends of our enemies are our enemies.”

Rural Development Law Encounters More Obstacles

The Congressional Committee on Agriculture is set to analyze Bill 4084, the rural development law, a proposal that has been on the table for years. The spirit of the law is to benefit impoverished and excluded communities, but the Minister for Agriculture says the law would conflict with international treaties.

Police Clash with Dozens Protesting Water Fee Hike in Guatemala, 20 Injured

Protesters demonstrating against a rise in water and garbage collection costs blocked off major highway between Guatemala City and Villa Nueva. The police used tear gas and petrol bombs to break up the protest after dialogue failed. Several civilians were also injured in violent confrontations with the police officers.


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 projects can 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. Continue reading

Guatemala’s Presidential Race Headed to Runoff; Comedian Jimmy Morales Leads the Vote

Residents vote at a center in Guatemala City. Photo: Dania Rodríguez

Residents vote at a center in Guatemala City. Photo: Dania Rodríguez

Just days after former President Otto Pérez Molina resigned and was subsequently sent to prison, Guatemalans were faced with the next chapter in an ongoing political saga: the opportunity to elect a new leader.

When polls closed on September 6, votes had been cast not only for the new president and vice president — who will take office in January 2016 — but also for members of congress and the Central American Parliament, as well as for municipal leaders throughout the country.

FCN candidate Jimmy Morales — a comedian with no political experience, but who has marketed himself as a “new option” — led the presidential race alongside Manuel Baldizón (LIDER) and Sandra Torres (UNE). However, since no candidate secured the required 50% of the vote needed to win, a runoff election will take place in October between the two top candidates. [Read more about the leading candidates here].  Continue reading

Excerpt from Nómada interview with Ambassador Todd Robinson

The below excerpt is part of an interview with Todd Robinson, the US Ambassador to Guatemala, published in Nómada (in Spanish). With increasing calls for President Pérez Molina’s resignation, Ambassador Robinson has come under fire recently by Guatemalans who accuse him of helping to “prop up” a corrupt administration. The interview contemplates the role of Robinson and the US in Guatemala.

Selected questions and answers from the interview, translated to English:

Question 1: Right now, no one wants to be seen with President Otto Pérez, and you do. What message would you like to send with your appearance at the Presidential House? Aside from the issue of polygraphs.

Photo: Carlos Sebastián

A: None. The government has asked us to help with the SAT [Guatemala’s tax collection agency] and we had polygraph equipment [and technicians]. There was a team of Guatemalan businessmen who were in Washington to discuss the Alliance for Prosperity and they asked for help with several institutions from the State Department. It was a happy coincidence that we had that equipment. I don’t believe that it’s a secret that we work very closely with the government. We don’t have the luxury of choosing the Guatemalan government—it’s the decision of the Guatemalan people. And of course, because we are good partners, or want to become good partners with the Guatemalan society and the government, when they ask us for help and we can help, we’re going to do it. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: May 25-29

One Year After Violent Eviction, La Puya Under Threat Again

On May 26, almost exactly one year after police violently broke up the peaceful anti-mining blockade at La Puya, approximately 300 police officials arrived again at the site. Police officials claimed that they were responding to an allegation that members of La Puya had illegally detained several mine works — an accusation that community members say is “totally false,” and that a justice of the peace could find no evidence to substantiate.

Police threatened to evict protesters, but lacked the required eviction order to forcefully remove them. While community members have let workers in to the mine and no longer block the road, a contingent of police remain, and a new police camp has been set up on company land right across from La Puya. Read more about recent events at La Puya on our blog.

Vice President Baldetti’s Properties Raided

On May 28, Guatemalan authorities and CICIG officials raided 14 properties associated with former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, whose press secretary has been linked to the tax fraud scandal that resulted in the resignation of several top Guatemalan officials earlier this month. Baldetti resigned on May 8 due to increasing public pressure, although she denies any involvement in the scandal. Continue reading