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.

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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: December 7-11

Celebrating International Human Rights Day

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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: October 5-9

Appeals court rejects amnesty for Ríos Montt

A Guatemalan appeals court has rejected former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt’s request for amnesty in a trial regarding Montt’s responsibility for war crimes and genocide. Though Montt was recently diagnosed with dementia, he will face a special, closed-door trial in early 2016. Due to his condition, Montt will be represented by his lawyers.

Ambassador Thomas Shannon Visits Guatemala

US Ambassador Thomas A. Shannon, Counselor of the Department of State, traveled to Guatemala City from October 7-9.

In a meeting with President Alejandro Maldonado Aguirre, Shannon reiterated US political and financial support for Guatemala and for the Alliance for Prosperity — a development plan created by the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, with support from the US. The plan was initially a response to the influx of child migrants in the US from Central America, and Shannon lauded “advancements” in border security as well as in reducing trafficking and child migration. GHRC and partners presented concerns about migration and the Alliance for Prosperity at a congressional briefing on Sept. 16.

Shannon also reiterated the importance of CICIG, stating that the renovation of its mandate was “very important” for the US Congress.

Guatemala to Investigate Who Is to Blame in Mudslide

Guatemala’s public prosecutor’s office is conducting an investigation into who was responsible for a mudslide just outside of Guatemala City that left at least 250 people dead and several hundred missing. There had been warnings of a mudslide for weeks, and throughout the past fifteen years many have occurred. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update, August 24-28: 100,000 Join Protest in Guatemala City

Thousands Join Protest; Call for Resignation of Otto Pérez Molina

A general strike was called on Thursday, August 27 as an estimated 100,000 people gathered in Guatemala City’s central plaza to call for the resignation of President Pérez Molina, an end to corruption, and postponement of the upcoming elections. Many schools and businesses closed yesterday to allow for participation in the protest, and, in the end, Guatemala’s powerful business lobby — CACIF — also supported the strike.

The protest — the biggest yet in a series of mass mobilizations held over the last 17 weeks — comes just after President Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti were named last week as the head of “La Linea,” a tax fraud scheme used to defraud the State of what could amount to hundreds of millions of dollars.

Baldetti was arrested on August 21 and is being charged with criminal conspiracy, customs fraud and accepting bribes. Pérez Molina, who has reiterated that he will not step down and has already survived one attempt from congress to strip him of his immunity from prosecution, is also implicated in the corruption network. Once again, Guatemala’s top court ruled on August 25 to accept a petition to repeal the president’s immunity, and the matter now awaits a decision from congress.

Protest-Aug27“It was incredible to feel the energy of everyone present,” said Dania Rodríguez, GHRC’s interim director of the Guatemala office. “The plaza was filled with families, students, representatives from the government and business sectors, artists, and indigenous authorities from different departments. People began arriving at 8:00 am, with many people staying until after 10:00 pm at night. “

Demonstrators used the space to call for the resignation of the president, holding signs that read “Yo no tengo presidente” (I don’t have a president) and “Renuncia Ya” (Step Down). The Attorney General’s office, the National Council of Bishops and the government comptroller’s office have also urged the president to resign.

“However, others,” Dania explained, “made calls for comprehensive government reform, for the possibility of a transitional government, for reforms to electoral law, and for the postponement of the national elections scheduled for September 6.”

To read more from GHRC Executive Director Kelsey Alford-Jones about concerns around the upcoming elections, click here. The protests were also covered by Democracy Now and were the subject of Al Jazeera’s August 27 episode of The Stream.

Genocide Retrial is Set for Guatemalan Former Dictator

On August 25, judges ruled that the re-trial against Efraín Ríos Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez will move forward. On August 18, Montt was diagnosed with “incurable” dementia — the culmination of a series of psychiatric evaluations that had delayed the trial for weeks and threatened to shut down the case. Despite the fact that Montt is unable to appear in court, a closed-door trial will move forward with witnesses (but will not be open to the public). Judges also ordered that the physician who has been treating Montt be investigated for possible medical negligence and for potentially endangering his life.

Montt’s legal team will represent him in court, and the next hearing is set for January 11, 2016.

Earlier in August, GHRC Executive Director spoke about the case on Latin Pulse radio.

Guatemala News Update: August 17-24

Guatemala President Balks at Calls for Resignation

With just weeks until Guatemala’s general elections, public prosecutors and the CICIG revealed that they have uncovered enough evidence to place President Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti at the top of a tax fraud scandal that has rocked the country since mid-April. Baldetti was arrested on August 21.

The announcement prompted another wave of resignations from government ministers; however, President Pérez Molina again rejected calls for his resignation in a public statement on Sunday.

Guatemalans Say Reforms Needed Before Any Future Election

In this opinion piece, GHRC Executive Director Kelsey Alford-Jones discusses Guatemala’s current political context, ponders what might happen next in the country, and explains the risks of moving forward with elections without much-needed reforms.

A related article also highlights the dismal conditions for holding Guatemala’s presidential election.

Doctors say Guatemala ex-dictator Rios Montt has dementia

On August 18, a team of medical evaluators ruled that Ríos Montt suffers from “incurable” dementia, a development which could prevent Montt from ever again facing trial. This was the final decision in a series of psychiatric evaluations of Montt that has delayed the trial for weeks. In a hearing is set for August 25, judges will decide whether or not the retrial will move forward. Continue reading

Guatemala News Update: July 13-24

Rios Montt Sent for Psychiatric Observation, Delaying the Genocide Trial

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Yesterday, ex-Dictator Efrain Rios Montt was placed in a psychiatric hospital for observation by the Guatemalan Court overseeing his retrial for genocide. The court said its ruling was to protect Rios Montt’s health, and was also requested by the Public Ministry, after the defense found him incompetent to stand trial. It has been reported that Rios Montt will be in observation for nine days, delaying his retrial once again.

Senate Published Draft Budget

On Thursday, July 9, the Senate passed a foreign assistance budget allocating $675 million for Central America, with $142 million designated specifically for Guatemala. The bill contains important restrictions, conditions and reporting requirements for Guatemala – including restrictions on funds to the Guatemalan Army. Conditioning US funds based on compliance with human rights investigations and accountability is one thing GHRC and our partners advocate for every year as a tool to leverage positive change in Guatemala, and we were pleased to see many of our recommendations including in the Senate Bill.

Victory for La Puya: Guatemalan Court Orders Suspension of Construction Operations at the El Tambor Mine

GHRC applauds the July 15 resolution by a Guatemalan appeals court which ruled in favor of the right of residents to be consulted about projects that affect them and ordered the suspension of construction activities at the mine.

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The court found the company was operating illegally, “without permit, authorization or approval from the Municipality of San Pedro Ayampuc…to carry out its mining project” and that the responsibility falls to the Municipal Council to enforce the law. GHRC has called on the US Embassy to encourage the company to comply with the verdict, and suspend all construction activities at its mine site until a community consultation is held.

Further recognition of the work of land rights activists continues with the comprehensive account published by Jeff Abbott of Vice News of the country’s unified effort to end corruption within the current political crisis of Guatemala, and describes the role of indigenous communities in current social movements, including resistance efforts against mining and hydroelectric projects.

Judge Confirms Soldiers will be charged not with extrajudicial execution, but with murder in self-defense, for 2012 killing of indigenous protesters

On October 4, 2012, approximately 15,000 members of the indigenous communities in Totonicapán, Guatemala gathered to block five key transit points on the Pan-American Highway to protest the excessive electricity prices, changes to the professional teacher training requirements, and proposed constitutional reforms. A military contingent of 89 soldiers confronted the protestors. As a result, six protesters were killed, 40 were wounded by the military, and one of the protesters was disappeared during the confrontation. The Totonicapán massacre was the first by the military since the war.

After years of delays, a judge, Carol Patricia Flores has confirmed that the nine soldiers involved will be charged of murder in self-defense (“en estado de emocion violenta), rather than for extrajudicial execution. Flores herself faces allegations put forward by the CICIG and Public Ministry of illicit enrichment and money laundering. The Supreme Court will soon decide if Flores should face criminal investigation.

Criminal Charges Filed against former Minister of Energy and Mines

On July 12, 2015, the Guatemalan Center for Environmental and Social Legal Action (CALAS) filed criminal charges against former Minister of Energy and Mines (MEM), Erick Archila, and former Mines Director at MEM, Fernando Castellanos. Archila and Castellanos are accused of violating the Constitution and for breach of duty, as they granted Tahoe Resources an exploitation license without adequate consideration of more than 250 community complaints against the project. CALAS called on the CICIG to fully investigate the Escobal licensing process, citing Archila’s possible involvement in influence trafficking and illicit enrichment.

UN Report Concludes that Criminal Organizations Fund 25% of the Country’s Politics

A recent report conducted by the UN’s CICIG demonstrated that a quarter of the money supplied for the cost of Guatemalan politics comes from criminal organizations, primarily drug traffickers. The report released on Thursday also stated that dishonest money and corruption financially fuel the political system of the country. “Corruption is the unifying element of the Guatemalan political system based on an amalgam of interests that include politicians, officials, public entities, businessmen, non-governmental organizations and criminal groups,” said CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velasquez.

In fact, on July 15, the Vice Presidential candidate for the Lider Party, currently leading polls, was accused of corruption, specifically of illicit association and influence trafficking. Authorities allege that Edgar Barquin was a part of a criminal network led by businessman Francisco Morales to create ghost companies in order to channel over $120 million to China, the US, Colombia, and others countries. 

Meanwhile, Guatemala’s electoral court ruled that Zury Rios Sosa, the daughter of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, could not run for president, a decision quickly overruled by the Supreme Court. Former president Portillo, 2000-2004, was also denied his candidacy for congress. Portillo recently returned to Guatemala after serving a 70-month sentence in US prison for laundering money from the Taiwanese government during his administration.

Public attention is more focused on the multitude of corruption scandals than on the upcoming elections; the OAS, however, has announced it will send a mission to monitor the process.

“Supreme Court on the Side of the Guatemalan People”

The Guatemalan Supreme Court has ruled to allow a congressional probe into corruption allegations against President Perez Molina to continue. If his immunity is withdrawn, he could face charges before his term ends in January 2014.