Human Rights Update: 4/26 – 5/7

1. Community leaders attend public hearing to halt unlawful eviction order

2. The US will support border security forces in Guatemala

3. Pattern of judicial harassment continues against human rights defender and Q’eqchi’ indigenous leader, María Cuc Choc

4. GHRC and civil society organizations denounce the removal of supreme court justices in El Salvador

5. US will Increase Humanitarian Aid and Food Assistance to Central America

1. Community leaders attend public hearing to halt unlawful eviction order

On May 5th, the Second Chamber of the Court of Appeals held a public hearing with Plan Grande community representatives and their attorney from the Bufete para Pueblos Indígenas to discuss an eviction order issued against 42 families in the village of Plan Grande in El Estor, Izabal. The eviction order was delivered in 2016 when locals were accused of invading land owned by CXI and Inversiones Cobra. Community members deny these accusations and insist that the indigenous Q’eqchi people have resided on this land since 1831. Attorney Wendy Geraldina López, director of the Bufete para Pueblos Indígenas, pointed out at the hearing that the eviction order violates the community’s rights to due process. 

Environmental and land rights defender Abelino Chub Caal was present at the hearing and requested that the judges repeal the eviction order. Abelino expressed his serious concern over the attempts to dispossess indigenous peoples of their land and protect the interests of big companies. He predicts that the judges will follow through with the eviction order because indigenous people in Guatemala are continuously treated as “inferior” by the justice system. 

In a 2018 report by the United Nations Human Rights Council, the Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples Francisco Cali Tzay expressed a similar concern.

“In many cases, court rulings disregard the rights of the indigenous peoples and indigenous claims are not heard as promptly as those of other parties. Previous rights are being ignored, including in situations in which a community has a recognized ownership title.” 

2. The US will support border security forces in Guatemala

On April 26th, Vice President Harris spoke with Guatemala’s president Giammattei. The two leaders announced an agreement to train members of a Guatemalan task force responsible for securing the country’s borders. Security forces and military personnel in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras have been repeatedly reported to endanger the lives of migrants heading north. In March nearly 172,000 migrants attempted to cross the border into the US, a 71 percent increase from the previous month.

Harris attributes the acute causes of migration to recent hurricanes that have devastated the region, food insecurity, and the COVID pandemic. “Root causes” have been defined by the administration as government corruption, poverty, and lack of economic opportunity. 

This joint task force was announced two weeks after the Biden administration struck a deal with Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras to increase the number of military personnel at their borders. Mexico is set to deploy 10,000 troops to its southern border, Guatemala agreed to send 1,500 police and military members, and Honduras is expected to send 7,000 troops to its borders. Additionally, Guatemala will install 12 military checkpoints along known migratory routes in the country. 

Special assistant to President Biden on immigration policy Tyler Moran stated that the increase in troops at the border, “not only is going to prevent the traffickers and the smugglers, and cartels that take advantage of the kids on their way here, but also to protect those children.”

Security forces and military personnel in Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras have been repeatedly reported to endanger the lives of migrants heading north.

Harris will travel to Mexico and Guatemala in June.

3. Pattern of judicial harassment continues against human rights defender and Q’eqchi’ indigenous leader, María Cuc Choc

María Cuc Choc and her lawyer from the Bufete para Pueblos Indígenas, Wendy López, were supposed to appear at Puerto Barrios Criminal Court in Izabal on May 6th, 2021 for Choc’s hearing. María is a human rights defender and Q’eqchi’ indigenous leader from El Estor, Izabal.  In 2018, she was arbitrarily detained on unsubstantiated crimes of aggravated trespassing, threats, and illegal detention. Since 2018, the court has repeatedly postponed Choc’s hearing while mandating that she stay in the Department of Izabal. Her lawyer from the Bufete para Pueblos Indígenas confirmed on Thursday that the court has once again suspended the hearing, continuing a pattern of judicial harassment of human rights defenders.

María Cuc Choc has actively defended the environmental and land rights of the Q’eqchi’ people since 2004. She works closely with the Lote 8 community in eastern Guatemala which was illegally evicted from their land in 2007. The evictions were issued to clear land for Hudbay Minerals, a Canadaian mining company. During the evictions, scorched-earth tactics were used and 11 women were assaulted by company security guards. Choc accompanied some of these women to file lawsuits against the company. As a result of her efforts to document and report the human rights violations by several canadian mining companies, Cuc Choc has been criminalized by the state.

The accusing party has failed to appear in court or present any evidence for the crimes issued against Cuc Choc.

4. GHRC and civil society organizations denounce the removal of supreme court justices in El Salvador

GHRC and other civil society organizations denounced the May 1 decision by El Salvador’s Congress to dismiss the Attorney General, as well as five Supreme Court justices. This is contrary to the law and constitutionally mandated separation of powers.

5. US will Increase Humanitarian Aid and Food Assistance to Central America

On April 26th, Vice President Harris announced an additional $310 million in U.S. government support for humanitarian relief and to address food insecurity in the Northern Triangle. 

The funds will come from USAID, along with the Departments of State, Defense, and Agriculture. USAID will provide $125M to deliver emergency food assistance and mitigate the impacts of drought and the COVID-19 pandemic. The Department of State will provide $104M to protect refugees, asylum seekers and displaced persons. The Department of Defense will provide $26M to increase its partnership activities in the region, education, health, and disaster relief. 

Along with this $255M in humanitarian funds, $55M will be distributed to address the immediate food shortage needs of marginalized groups. The Department of Agriculture will provide $25M to strengthen the agricultural sector and finance impoverished Guatemalan farmers, and $30M to expand meals and literacy programs for children in Guatemala and Honduras.

GHRC Accompanies Environmental Human Rights Defender, Julio Gómez

Human Rights Defender Julio Gómez Will Face Trial 

On April 23, the GHRC team was with human rights defender Julio Gómez Lucas as appeared in court in Huehuetenango for a hearing on unsubstantiated charges related to a protest in 2017. Gómez, an indigenous Maya Chuj leader, faces several charges filed by Generadora San Mateo, the company behind two hydroelectric projects in the region and a subsidiary of Energía y Renovacion, S. A. His criminalization is one more incident of intimidation against him. Since 2014, he has suffered threats and violence, and in 2019 he was detained and tortured by members of a neighboring community who are reported to be supporters of the hydroelectric projects and employees of the company. The company is financed by the private arm of the Inter-American Development Bank, IDB Invest, as well as the Central American Bank for Economic Integration and a Canadian financial intermediary. The charges against Gómez form part of a pattern of intimidation of leaders defending land and the environment noted by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner on Human Rights in its 2020 report.

Gómez, who was a delegate representing thousands of community members in negotiations with the government, was arrested in January of last year, a day after President Alejandro Giammattei visited Gomez’ home community of San Mateo Ixtatán. Accompanied by hundreds of police and military, the president announced “the return of the State to the north of Huehuetenango,” which he said would support the Acuerdo por la Paz y el Desarrollo de San Mateo Ixtatán (Plan for Peace and Security for San Mateo Ixtatán). Arrested and detained, Gómez was charged with illegal demonstration and incitement to commit a crime, as well as other supposed crimes later dropped by the prosecution. The acts allegedly took place during a protest against the two hydroelectric plants on November 13, 2017. During the demonstration, a National Civil Police station was attacked and patrol cars were reportedly damaged. Although there are witness testimonies presented by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, in which they mention that the same company had called for an alleged meeting on November 13, as well as photographs and videos of the demonstration exist, Gómez is not pictured in them and no reliable evidence links him to any crime.

An arrest warrant was issued for the defender in June 2018, though he was not informed of the warrant or his alleged crimes, and the warrant was not carried out until eighteen months later, in January 2020. Demands by more than forty-five groups, including GHRC, for the immediate dismissal of the unsubstantiated charges, the safety of Gómez while in custody, and an investigation into the arbitrary nature of Gómez’ detention were ignored; Gómez was detained in January and placed under house arrest soon after in February 2020. 

Peaceful Resistance of the Microregion of Ixquisis

The Resistencia Pacifica constantly “face threats, violence and sexiual harrassment, intimidation, surveillance, physical attacks, constant campaigns of defamation, stigmatization, and slander in local and national media.”

In 2017, more than 75 attacks, killings and accounts of harassment against Peaceful Resistance members were recorded.

The Company Asks for Change of Date and Location

Gómez’ intermediate stage hearing–the stage of the criminal process in which evidence is admitted or rejected–was scheduled for January 26, 2021, a year after his arrest, and was held in Santa Eulalia, Huehuetengo. The hearing was suspended before being completed, however, and the companies’ attorneys asked to have the hearing moved to the capital of the Huehuetenango department, claiming that they felt intimidated by “members of communities against development of the northern region of Huehuetenango” and that there were “young men strategically located on corners outside the courthouse with cell phones ready for immediate communication.”

This tactic, explains one of Gómez’ lawyers, Robel Toledo, is part of the company’s commitment to malicious litigation against Gómez. An appeal by the defense to prevent the move was denied. 

The Judge Rejects Gomez’ Defense Arguments

Along with representatives of the Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights, the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), and ACOGUATE, the GHRC team in Guatemala was in Huehuetenango on April 23 to observe the hearing. GHRC also submitted a letter of recommendation in support of Gómez, highlighting our history with him and his extensive work peacefully leading his community. Police and security forces heavily guarded the entrance and the hallways of the courthouse. 

At the top of the hearing, Gómez’ lawyer, Natalio Rivera, raised several procedural issues, including the question of whether the Generadora San Mateo company should be the plaintiff in the case. Rivera argued that the crimes that Gómez allegedly committed are described as damage to the civil police, not the company. He claimed that if the charges against Gómez were to be pursued, the state should file them, not a private company. The judge ultimately rejected the argument, allowing the company to remain the plaintiff. 

The Public Prosecutor’s Office presented the charges against Gómez, claiming that witnesses identified Gómez at the protest; though all those who carried out the violence were hooded and faces couldn’t be seen, these witnesses, according to the prosecution, identified Gómez by his height and voice. The supposed witnesses, according to the prosecutor, allege he was carrying a loudspeaker, a gun, a rock, and a stick. Witnesses reportedly claim to have seen him from a hilltop, though the hilltop in question was more than 500 meters away from the site of the violence. One of these witnesses claimed to have met Gómez in Guatemala at a time when Gómez was not in Guatemala but was living in the United States. 

The evidence presented, a photo album from the incident, does not show Gómez committing the crimes and he cannot be identified in any of the images. Furthermore, no evidence was presented to suggest he was armed. Based on the many ambiguities, contradictions, and lack of evidence, the defense requested the judge to dismiss the case and requested Julio Gómez’ immediate release.

Despite the arguments from the defense, the judge, who could be seen sleeping at various points during the defense’s argument, ruled that sufficient evidence of Gómez’ participation in the 2017 incidents existed.The judge thus declared the opening of the trial of Julio Gómez on charges of incitement to commit a crime and unlawful demonstration and assembly, removing the crime of being armed which was always a false accusation. He scheduled the trial to begin with a hearing in Huehuetenango on May 7 of this year.

GHRC is concerned about the increasing use of criminalization as a tactic to silence indigenous leaders engaged in the defense of their land, resources, and human rights. We will continue to accompany Julio Gómez and call attention to his case as one more example where repression rules, not the law.

Constitutional Court and Human Rights Update: 3/20 – 4/16

New Constitutional Court Excludes Elected Anti-Corruption Judge

The new Constitutional Court (CC) judges were sworn in on Tuesday, April 14. Missing from the group is Gloria Porras, who has served 10 years on the court and is a critical figure in the fight for justice and against corruption. Porras’ reelection for her next 5 year term was blocked by an unjust ongoing legal challenge against her. The case, one of 53 attempts to stop her work against corruption since 2015, is related to the CC’s involvement in stopping the removal of the Swedish ambassador by President Jimmy Morales in 2018.

GHRC’s Guatemala City director, Isabel Solis, signed a joint letter to the Guatemala Congress outlining the illegality of blocking the seat of an elected judge based on their rulings in a court case.

The new composition of the CC is very concerning and could lead to grave results on future human rights cases that pass through the court.

The three judges who were sworn in include: 

  • Dina Ochoa; dubbed the ‘judge of impunity’ by the former Anti-Corruption commission, CICIG.
  • Layla Lemus; the former chief of staff for President Alejandro Giammattei.
  • Roberto Molina Barreto; former vice presidential candidate for Zury Ríos, the daughter of Guatemalan dictator Ríos Montt

You can find a more comprehensive background on the elected judges from Peace Brigades International.

Raid and Intimidation Attempt of the Indigenous Peoples’ Law Firm

The offices of the Indigenous Peoples’ Law Firm (BPI) were broken into and robbed over the weekend of March 20 – 21. BPI is well known for accompanying cases for indigenous humans rights and land defenders. GHRC awarded BPI the Alice Zachmann Human Rights Defenders Award in 2018 and continues to work closely with the firm as a key partner. 

Wendy Geraldina Lopez, lawyer and director of PBI, explained to the press that the details of the raid are evidence that the attack was a targeted assault and attempt to intimidate the organization. The doors of the office were broken down, all of the computers and security camera recordings were stolen, legal files on current cases were damaged, the sign labeling the PBI offices was destroyed.

Despite the destruction of tools fundamental to their work, Lopez affirmed that “they have not taken away our desire to continue fighting… we will continue to defend the fundamental human rights of every person who requests our help.”

Court Suspends Bernardo Caal’s Hearing

Bernardo Caal Xol, a Q’eqchi Maya and human rights defender, has been imprisoned since 2018 on crimes that he did not commit. On April 5, the Supreme Court suspended his hearing, using the excuse of an unexplained recusal of judges. The court justified the hearing’s postponement on grounds of the recusal of judges without further explanation. 

Bernardo has been defending access to water for the local indigenous community in his municipality of Santa María de Cahabón since 2015. Hydroelectric projects on the rivers of Oxec and Cahabón have dried the waterway that the local Q’eqchi community depends on. Additionally, these dams generate electricity that the Q’eqchi don’t have access to. As a result, the locals are left with serious negative social and environmental impacts from the presence of these hydroelectric projects. Bernardo and the Q’eqchi people mobilized in 2015 to peacefully resist the construction of the OXEC hydroelectric project in their area. They demanded the company comply with their right to a consultation prior to the construction of the dam to address their concerns. The Supreme Court supported the Q’eqchi people’s demands. As a result, Bernardo was targeted with smear campaigns that have been used to stigmatize the efforts of human rights defenders. In 2018, Bernardo was convicted of illegal detention and theft despite the lack of evidence and subsequently sentenced to seven years and four months in prison. 

On March 22, 2021, Alianza por la Solidaridad delivered a petition with 30,000 signatures for Bernardo’s release to the Barcelona City Council, requesting their support. GHRC has signed the petition and we continue to call for the immediate release of Bernardo Caal Xol. Additionally, GHRC continues to financially assist Bernardo and his family as he makes an effort to defend the environmental and land rights of the Q’eqchi people from behind bars.

Human Rights Defender Killed in Jalapa

On Sunday April 11th, 2021, Emilio Aguilar Jiménez was fatally shot at his home in El Duraznal, Xalapán, Jalapa. Emilio was a member of the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA), an indigenous-led grassroots human rights organization that aims to improve living and working conditions for farming and indigenous groups. Emilio was a member of CODECA for six years and a recognized human rights defender in his community. 

Since 2018, over 20 CODECA members and leaders have been killed. CODECA has called for the immediate investigation into the murder of Emilio Aguilar Jiménez. 

Guatemala News Update: October 27 – 31

IACHR Hearings on Guatemala

At hearings at the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights on Tuesday in Washington, DC, Guatemalan organizations discussed access to justice and the legacy of the internal armed conflict, as well as the situation of human rights defenders, militarization and judicial independence.

In addition, the IACHR has expressed concern about the excessive militarization of Guatemala. The organization points to the presence of the military in schools, civilian security squadrons, and the use of martial law. In response, the Guatemalan government has denied the existence of militarization in the country and claims that the army only supports the police in security matters if the situation requires it.

Inter-American Court of Human Rights Finds Guatemala Guilty of Failing to Investigate Activist’s Death

The Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACtHR) announced that it found Guatemala guilty of failing to investigate the death of human rights defender Florentin Gudiel Ramos. The court also determined that the government failed to provide adequate protection for his daughter, Makrina Gudiel, who is also a human rights activist. The State has failed to comply with eleven similar rulings in other human rights cases, prompting the IACtHR to declare Guatemala in contempt of court in August 2014.

Makrina visited the US this year as part of GHRC’s Spring Speaker’s Tour. Read more about Makrina’s fight for justice here.

Guatemalan Officers Face Sexual Slavery Charges in Historic Trial

Guatemalan activist and feminist Luz Mendez writes about another historic case moving forward in Guatemala. On October 14th, Guatemala’s High Risk Court ruled that two army officers would be charged for sexual crimes perpetrated against Q’eqchí women at the military outpost of Sepur Zarco. These crimes were committed over a six-year period between 1982 and 1988. The trial is the first for sexual slavery during armed conflict that has been presented in the country where the acts took place, and could establish an important precedent in ending impunity for crimes of sexual violence.

Guatemala News Update: August 18-22

House burning in 9 de Febrero. (Photo: Konga)

House burning in 9 de Febrero. (Photo: Konga)

Hundreds evicted and three killed in conflicts over hydroelectric dam

An agreement signed between the mining company Hidro Santa Rita and President Otto Pérez Molina on July 30 resulted in a violent eviction in Monte Olivo, Cobán, Alta Verapaz. 1,600 police were mobilized in response to the subsequent protests resulting in dozens of arrests and injuries, as well as the deaths of three campesinos in Semococh. Several indigenous organizations reported that police officers instigated the conflict that led to the extrajudicial killing of the three men. There was reportedly no consultation with the communities that would be affected by the project’s installation prior to the agreement’s signing.

Chixoy Dam protesters demand reparations or return of land

Around 350 people from the community La Campana in Chicamán, Quiché blocked the main entrance to the Chixoy Dam, demanding economic reparations or the return of their land from the dam’s operators, the National Electrification Institute (INDE). With the help of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office and other mediators, the protesters agreed to dialogue with INDE and have left the site of the dam.

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News Update: June 22-July 1

March in memory of disappeared victims of the Civil War

On June 30, the same day as National Army Day, HIJOS (Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice against Forgetting and Silence) held their fifth annual peaceful march in the Historic Center of Guatemala City. The roughly 500 protesters hold the army accountable for the 45,000 people that disappeared during the war.

Land rush for sugarcane leaves thousands without land

Due to the increasing demand of bio fuel throughout Europe and the US, sugarcane has become an increasingly popular crop. Because of this, many companies are buying up land in Guatemala that was once used by corn farmers. Since they cannot afford to match the rent offered by sugarcane companies, many small-scale farmers are being forced to move, which is what happened in the Polochic Valley in 2011. As of May, nearly 1 million people were involved in over 1,400 land disputes in Guatemala.

Increase in attacks against human rights defenders

According to the Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge de León Duque, there has been an increase in attacks, assassinations and threats against human rights defenders this year. Four have been assassinated and nearly 500 reports of aggression have been registered. Many believe that the increase has to do with the recent genocide trial of Ríos Montt because it raised the profile of human rights defenders on a national level.

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News Update: May 31-June 12

OAS 43rd General Assembly

The Organization of American States had its 43rd General Assembly in Antigua, Guatemala. In attendance were 28 chancellors and 500 representatives from member countries, as well as 80 permanent observing countries. The main topic of discussion was drugs, though there were no major developments or changes in policy.

Pérez Molina and Kerry’s Bilateral Meeting

US Secretary of State John Kerry and President Otto Pérez Molina met and discussed the United States’ migration reform and the situation of Guatemalans in the United States.  Molina expressed many worries; for example, how to stop deportations of Guatemalan migrants and that Guatemala should be involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

Ontario Securities Commission Is Investigating Tahoe Resources

Tahoe Resources, a Canadian mining company, is being investigated by the Ontario Securities Commission in relation to the six people shot outside of the Escobal mines on April 27. It is reported that six of Tahoe’s employees have been implicated in the crime based on phone taps from the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor’s Office. As heard in court, Tahoe’s security director, Alberto Rotondo, ordered the murders of the protestors. The Justice and Corporate Accountability Project asked the Ontario Securities Commission to investigate Tahoe Resources claiming that the mining company had downplayed and hidden what their workers had done.

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