UDEFEGUA’s 2018 Preliminary Report Highlights Closing of Space for Human Rights

In a recently released report analyzing the human rights situation in Guatemala from January through September of this year, the Guatemalan Unit for the Defense of Human Rights (UDEFEGUA) notes a “closing of space for the defense of human rights arising from a strategy developed more than a year ago.” This closing of space, according to UDEFEGUA, is reflected in the backward steps taken on public policies meant to protect human rights agreed to as part of the Peace Accords—for example, the paralysis of the National Reparations Program and attacks against the Historic National Police Archive, which contains evidence that has been and can be used in trials of war crimes perpetrators. UDEFEGUA also points to the weakening of women’s rights and indigenous women’s rights institutions in the light of rising religious fundamentalism and actions by members of the Guatemalan Congress.

The replacement of Interior Minister Francisco Rivas last March with Enrique Degenhart marked the beginning of a dismantling of all the advances in terms of the professionalization of the National Civil Police, according to UDEFEGUA. Officers trained in the fight against impunity, as well as officers trained in anti-kidnapping, anti-narcotics, and human rights have been fired. The Institute for the Analysis of Attacks on Human Rights Defenders is currently without any representation from civil society, and the discussion of a public policy for the protection of human rights defenders is at a standstill.

In May, UDEFEGUA notes, President Jimmy Morales said that his enemies included the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA) and the campesino movement, which had come out to protest against him. “This allowed the beginning of selective assassinations of the indigenous and campesino leadership of the country,” UDEFEGUA points out. By September of this year, at least 22 human rights defenders had been assassinated, most of them indigenous and environmental rights defenders. Three attempted assassinations were reported.

Norma Torres Introduces Act Requiring Sanction of Those Undermining the Rule of Law

US Representative Norma J. Torres (D-CA) on December 13 introduced the Guatemala Rule of Law Accountability Act. The act would require the US president to impose sanctions on individuals who have undermined the rule of law in Guatemala. The sanctions would include asset blocking and the denial of visas.

“After decades of civil war,” Torres stated, “the Guatemalan people have fought hard and sacrificed a great deal to establish the rule of law. Progress has been slow, and recently, it has been threatened by a small group of individuals, whose only priority is protecting themselves from prosecution. These bad actors have dismantled the leadership of the National Civilian Police, disobeyed the rulings of the Constitutional Court, sought to remove a US-funded anti-corruption commission, and even used US-provided Jeeps to intimidate US embassy and United Nations personnel. Sadly, the Trump Administration’s response to these provocations has been to put its head in the sand. That is a grave mistake. Strengthening the rule of law is the key to a more prosperous and secure Guatemala, where young people can see a future for themselves. Allowing the rule of law to disintegrate is a recipe for instability and a growing humanitarian crisis at our borders.”

The bill would impose financial and travel sanctions on individuals who have undermined Guatemala’s justice system. It would also ensure that any future defense equipment transferred to Guatemala could be reclaimed by the United States government if it is misused. Torres, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee and the Rules Committee, earlier this year introduced H.R. 5501, the End Corruption in the Northern Triangle Act. A portion of that bill requires the Secretary of State to send Congress a list of corrupt officials in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala; the list requirement was adopted as Section 1287 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2019, which President Trump signed into law on August 13, 2018. Last year, the bipartisan resolution she introduced with Rep. John R. Moolenaar (R-MI) to reaffirm the United States Congress’s commitment to fighting corruption in Central America was unanimously approved by the House of Representatives. The resolution states that efforts to fight corruption must remain at the center of US policy in Central America, that the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) are important contributions to these efforts, and that the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador should cooperate with MACCIH, CICIG, and the Attorneys General of the region.

US House Foreign Affairs Committee Calls for Respect of Constitutional Court

In a December 12 statement, Representative Eliot L. Engel (D-NY), Ranking Member of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, and Representative Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), the Chair Emeritus of the Committee, called for the independence of the judiciary to be maintained and denounced the intimidation of judges and prosecutors in Guatemala. “As longtime advocates for democracy and the rule of law in Central America, we call on all Guatemalan political actors to preserve the independence of the judiciary and particularly that of the country’s Constitutional Court. We reject all efforts to intimidate judges and prosecutors, many of whom have dedicated their professional lives to tackling complex drug and human trafficking cases in a very difficult environment. Finally, we urge a transparent, merit-based selection process for Supreme Court and Appeal Court judges next year.”

The statement, which follows on a critique by CICIG chief Ivan Velasquez of the manner in which judicial appointments to the Supreme Court and the Court of Appeals are made, comes days after the Constitutional Court reaffirmed that CICIG chief Ivan Velasquez cannot legally be prevented from entering the country. The practical impact of the ruling is unclear. Interior Minister Enrique Dengenhart, when asked by the Guatemalan press if the instructions to the Mexican Institute of Immigration had changed, said, “Nothing has changed, the instructions are still the same.” Asked if the ruling of the court would be complied with, he said he couldn’t put forth an opinion on the issue unless the person in question were at the border attempting to enter.

Velasquez has been leading CICIG from outside the country since President Jimmy Morales made clear last September that he would not be allowed to re-enter Guatemala. In September, the Constitutional Court issued an order to President Jimmy Morales to allow the re-entry of Velasquez. Morales said he would not obey an illegal order. In early December the court struck down the immigration order banning Velasquez.

Tensions had simmered since 2016, when CICIG began assisting the Public Ministry in an investigation of tax evasion by the president’s brother and son. In 2017, CICIG and the Public Ministry accused President Morales of illegally financing his presidential campaign and asked that his immunity be lifted. In late August 2018, as a congressional committee selected at random—the majority of whom were opponents of Morales—began investigating the lifting of his immunity, Morales took action to impede and limit CICIG’s work.

Constitutional Court judges have faced continual pressure. In mid-November, a group of members of Guatemalan Congress stated they were preparing a bill for the population to decide, through a Popular Consultation, whether to dissolve the Constitutional Court (CC). At the moment, according to PBI Guatemala, there is insufficient support for such a referendum.

US Company Sues Government for Supporting Rights Related to Mine

A US-based mining company, Kappes, Cassiday, and Associates, filed arbitration on December 11 before the International Centre for Settlement of Investment Disputes, charging the Guatemalan government with violating the provisions of the Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The company, which owns the gold mine known as El Tambor, northwest of Guatemala City, began operations without a license and on the basis of questionable environmental studies. As those affected by the mine, which is expected to degrade the quality and limit the quantity of water available to the population, mounted a protest in 2012, violence ensued: Human rights defender Yolanda Oqueli was shot and wounded. The people of the area, known as La Puya, blocked access to the mining company and were violently evicted by police in 2014. They have returned and maintain a permanent presence. In addition, they filed a law suit against the company, which is now before the Constitutional Court. The court has not yet issued a ruling. But a lower court did require the company to halt operations. It is this order—the suspension of operations—that the company, by means of its CAFTA lawsuit, seeks to redress, demanding a sum of $300 million.

Deputy Minister of the Interior Flees, Charged with Extrajudicial Killings and Torture

At the end of October 2018, the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity, with the support of CICIG, executed fourteen search warrants and four out of five arrest warrants in a case of extrajudicial executions and torture carried out by a parallel criminal structure operating in the Ministry of the Interior from 2004 to 2007. The fifth arrest warrant has not been executed; the accused, Kamilo José Rivera Gálvez, who until recently was Vice Minister of the Interior, abruptly resigned and fled into hiding.

The case centers on escaped prisoners killed and/or tortured by a death squad operating out of the Ministry of the Interior in 2005, when nineteen prisoners escaped from the prison known as El Infiernito. The Ministry of the Interior launched a plan to recapture the escapees. The criminal structure used public infrastructure and resources to locate them, and once they were located, a death squad of the Ministry of the Interior and the National Civil Police executed the detainees. Some of those who were not executed were tortured. Former Minister of the Interior Carlos Roberto Vielmann was arrested, accused of leading the structure and participating directly in acts of torture. The high profile of the people implicated in the case has resulted in a fierce disinformation campaign aimed to undermine the Special Prosecutor’s Office, the Attorney General’s Office, and CICIG.

Former Military Officer Convicted for Dos Erres Massacre

In November 2018, former Guatemalan military officer Santos Lopez Alonzo, a member of the Army’s elite Kaibil force, was sentenced to 5,160 years in prison for his role in the Dos Erres massacre. The massacre was carried out in the Peten in 1982, during the internal armed conflict. Lopez Alonzo was found guilty of the murders of 171 people and was found responsible for crimes against humanity against 201 victims. He was sentenced to thirty years for each of the deaths, and another thirty for crimes against humanity.

Human Rights Ombudsman’s Budget Cut by Seventeen Percent

The Guatemalan Congress has cut the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office budget by 20 million quetzals ($2,587,600). Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas had requested an increase for next year, from the current budget of Q120 million to 145 million. Instead, Congress cut the budget to 100 million. The office, which includes 33 auxiliary offices throughout the country, will have funding to operate only until October of next year, Rodas said. An additional auxiliary office, planned for Alta Verapaz and Izabal, will not be established. United Nations Rapporteur for Human Rights Defenders Michel Forst on November 23 tweeted, “I am concerned about the significant cut to the budget of the Human Rights Ombudsman, which is conducting essential work in the country. I hope it isn’t a reprisal based on the actions the Procurator is carrying out for the guarantee of human rights and human rights defenders.”

ILAC Identifies Failure to Implement Peace Accords as a Factor in Rising Social Conflict

The International Legal Assistance Consortium (ILAC), an organization of international rule-of-law practitioners that work with national partners in fragile and conflict-affected countries to identify priority justice sector issues and support reforms, points out in a recent report that the UN-backed CICIG has achieved impressive milestones in promoting accountability and transparency that can stand as a precedent for the entire region. However, the report notes, the broader commitments to social justice and rule of law made in the 1996 Peace Agreement remain largely unfulfilled. “This has left many of the root causes of the conflict essentially unaddressed,” according to the report, “including pervasive poverty, racism, corruption, inequality, institutional weakness and conflict over land. Moreover, these conflict factors have not simply remained salient during the past two decades but have grown more complicated, intractable and destabilizing.” ILAC highlights the conflict over land. “The Peace Agreement committed the country to a conciliatory approach, based on the adoption of agrarian laws and tribunals that would provide redress to those who lost their land during the conflict and protect the rights of indigenous peoples and small farmers. However, these measures were never implemented and pressures on land have grown dramatically during recent years in light of government policies to encourage large-scale investment in monoculture agriculture, extractive industries, and hydroelectric power. Those trying to defend their land are now victimized rather than protected by the justice system, facing criminalization for attempting to remain in their homes and lack of redress for violent evictions.”

Many key land-related legal reforms have not been carried out, ILAC observes, most notably the commitment to create a national land registry, which is considered essential for giving rural landholders legal security. Other outstanding pledges include passage of an agrarian law, review of the status of idle lands and lands illegally acquired during the armed conflict, and establishment of legal security for land held communally by indigenous communities. As a result, nearly 1,500 land conflicts remain unresolved.

CICIG Head Ivan Velasquez Wins Alternative Nobel

CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez Gómez received the 2018 Alternative Nobel Prize for “his innovative work in exposing abuse of power and prosecuting corruption, thus rebuilding people’s trust in public institutions.” The Right Livelihood Award Foundation granted this recognition, which Velasquez received in Stockholm, Sweden in November. The award is given to “courageous people and organizations offering visionary and exemplary solutions to the root causes of global problems.” On receiving the prize, Velásquez said, “Corruption is a crime against humanity and human dignity. The fight against it is the fight for a dignified life for all people, and especially those who are marginalized.” The organizers of the event noted that Commissioner Velásquez had promoted a “model of local and international legal action, unique in history and a point of reference for other countries that have faced similar challenges. The cooperation with former Attorney General Thelma Aldana and the institutions they have represented has led to several high-profile criminal investigations, including the corruption case known as “The Line” (La Línea), which includes more than 60 prosecutions and the arrest of then-president Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president Roxana Baldetti. Former Attorney General Thelma Aldana was also honored. “Aldana and Velásquez have played a crucial role in shaping a defining era in Guatemalan history,” the award committee said, “while also rebuilding trust in public institutions. As a consequence, they have faced a sustained resistance and have endured a great personal risk. Their courageous and exemplary work has so far resulted in more than 60 criminal structures identified, more than 310 convictions, and 34 proposed legal reforms.”

See PBI Guatemala’s Monthly Information Bulletin for more news on Guatemala and PBI’s accompaniment work there.

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