In a May 18, 2018 statement, following the killing of four human rights defenders in ten days, the United Nations warned of a “deteriorating climate” for the defense of human rights in Guatemala. That warning was borne out, as three more defenders were killed in rapid succession, bringing the total number of defenders killed in the first half of 2018 to thirteen. This compares to four killed by the year’s midpoint in 2017 and ten killed the first half of 2016. The July 12 shooting of a peaceful resister of the El Escobal Mine, owned by Tahoe Resources, a U.S.-Canadian Company, marks this year’s fourteenth murder. On Friday, July 27, this year’s fifteenth Guatemalan human rights defender was killed. Juana Raymundo, a twenty-five year-old indigenous Maya Ixil coordinator of the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA), was abducted in Nejab, Quiche. Her body was found the following day with signs of torture.
The killings are occurring in tandem with government efforts to restrict space for civil society, according to human rights organizations in Guatemala. In an April 2018 analysis, the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) highlights a series of legislative initiatives and other actions underway that would ensure impunity and limit human rights.
The summary below incorporates UDEFEGUA’s most salient points regarding the shrinking space for the defense and exercise of human rights, with updates and supplemental information drawn from newspapers and other sources.
Actions by the Legislative Branch
A series of proposed laws have surfaced in the Guatemalan Congress which, if approved, would restrict freedom of expression and association and the right to due process. These initiatives include a bill that accords general amnesty to human rights violators accused of crimes during the internal armed conflict.
• National Reconciliation Law reforms (bill 5377) would extend amnesty for all crimes committed during the internal armed conflict, including crimes against humanity, such as genocide, torture, and forced disappearance. The bill violates article 117 of the Constitution, which establishes a prohibition on amnesty for such crimes, in accordance with international human rights doctrines. The law would enter into effect upon being passed, and would apply retroactively, as well; those already convicted of crimes against humanity committed during the internal armed conflict would be freed, and cases of transitional justice currently being mounted would be halted. Even with an appeal pending, the law would take effect until and unless it were ruled unconstitutional. In April, in an eight-page letter to the Guatemalan government, the president of the UN Working Committee on Forced Disappearances and the Special Rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparations, and guarantees of non-repetition expressed serious concern about the bill, which, they noted, “would establish a general amnesty” and thus “would constitute a serious and grave regression for the justice system, the state of law, and the struggle against impunity for grave violations of human rights in Guatemala.”
Current situation: The bill was ruled on favorably by the Legislative and Constitutional Issues Committee in Congress. An appeal has been lodged in the Constitutional Court.
• The Law Against Terrorist Acts (5239) includes stipulations that would make it possible to prosecute obstruction of traffic, a common protest tactic, as a terrorist act. The bill also defines as cyberterrorism the use of social media to criticize the government or to demand government action. The Law Against Terrorist Acts has been opposed by international journalist societies and decried by the UN High Commissioner on Human Rights and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The second reading of the bill was postponed after the Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression of the IACHR expressed concerns (see previous link). The bill was returned to committee, and the IACHR and the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office were invited to present their concerns.
Current situation: The bill received a favorable ruling in the committee and at the end of June passed the second of three readings.
• A bill containing reforms to Decree 02-2003, the Law on Nongovernmental Development Organizations (5257), attempts to limit the work of NGOs. The law would restrict the processing of international funds to NGOs working with any focus that was not determined to be strictly assistance. In the view of UDEFEGUA and various international organizations, the reforms would prohibit freedom of expression and freedom of action by NGOs and their personnel. The bill stipulates that, at most, fifteen percent of an NGO’s staff can be foreigners, even if they are legal residents. The bill, if passed, would have serious implications for human rights accompaniment organizations. More concerning is the fact that government institutions could effectively shut down an organization if they considered its work to fall outside their definition of “assistance.” The Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in Guatemala this spring released a document outlining the international human rights standards that relate to the issues the bill raises, pointing out that NGOs are key in the promotion, protection, and defense of human rights, as well as in the strengthening of democracy and rule of law. Two NGOs managed to obtain a provisional injunction from the Court of Constitutionality to prevent the second reading of this bill in Congress. Congress returned the bill to the Legislation and Constitutional Issues Committee to discuss reforms.
Current situation: The bill has now passed the second of three readings.
• Reforms to Decree 85-2002 (bill 5300) concern preliminary misconduct proceedings. The decree sets forth procedures to determine whether a public official’s immunity should be suspended so that he or she can face criminal charges. The bill, which presents reforms to the decree, would restrict the role of the Supreme Court in the preliminary proceedings process. The bill gives the prerogative to Congress to determine whether immunity should be suspended, rather than the courts. This bill, in UDEFEGUA’s opinion, is an effort to annul the proposal presented by CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office in 2015 and supported by civil society. An analysis of the bill and a mention of what it could mean for judges themselves—whose immunity or suspension thereof would be determined entirely by Congress—is here.
Current situation: The bill was approved in the Legislative and Constitutional Issues Committee. It reportedly has broad support and could quickly pass.
• Reforms to the Penal Code (5266) would create ambiguous criminal law provisions aimed at gangs, but which could be used to prohibit or delegitimize other forms of social organizing.
Current situation: The bill has passed the second reading.
Actions by the Judicial Branch
Criminalization of human rights defenders has increased dramatically in 2018, according to UDEFEGUA. Criminalization refers to the use of the judicial system to lay baseless charges against human rights defenders, seriously affecting their freedom and their safety. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in its 2017 country report, explains that criminalization has involved “improper use of criminal charges such as incitement to commit a crime or abduction or kidnapping, filing of judicial proceedings and protracted alternative measures to incarceration, groundless arrest warrants, arbitrary arrests and pretrial detention for the purpose of criminalizing their activities as human rights defenders.” In Guatemala, 166 cases of criminalization were reported last year, and the rate has held steady in 2018.
A common practice in cases before the judicial system is to delay trial and require remand prison (pretrial detention) for accused human rights defenders. The case of Abelino Chub Caal is emblematic. He had to ask that his case be passed up to a High Impact Court because the court in Izabal refused to accept a request, made by both the prosecution and the defense, to discontinue the case for lack of evidence. The court decided instead to continue it and to keep Caal in jail “so that he will not cause problems.”
Actions by the Executive Branch
According to UDEFEGUA, it is in the executive branch that an anti-human rights ideology is most evident. Not mentioned by UDEFEGUA, which published its analysis prior to these events, but worthy of note are President Jimmy Morales’ verbal attacks on Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, who requested and received protective measures for the IACHR last November, and on the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA), which suffered two additional attacks following his comments (see annex on murders in 2018). UDEFEGUA in its analysis points to several specific actions the executive branch has taken:
• Weakening the Institute for the Analysis of Attacks on Human Rights Defenders
The institute, formed in 2008, is tasked with assessing patterns of human rights violations and making recommendations. Coordinated by the Ministry of the Interior, and with representation of other government branches, such as the Public Ministry, it is composed also of representatives of human rights organizations, including UDEFEGUA. The human rights, press, and labor organizations who participate in the Institute for the Analysis of Attacks against Human Rights Defenders temporarily suspended their participation on April 24, citing unacceptable changes under the new Minister of Interior, Enrique Degenhart Asturias. (Former Interior
Minister Francisco Rivas was asked by President Jimmy Morales to resign last year, along with his deputy ministers, after one of the deputy ministers appeared at a press conference alongside CICIG head Ivan Velasquez and then-Attorney General Thelma Aldana.) Since the new Interior Minister took office, the Ministry’s representative to the institute, who coordinates the sessions, has changed twice, the phone line for emergencies hasn’t worked, and an online chat group that defenders considered vital to early risk detection and protection has been shut down. Instead of reporting violations and requesting support through Whatsapp, defenders wanting to request support for an investigation or for security must now file that request with personnel from the Ministry of the Interior. In UDEFEGUA’s view, that change not only limits the possibility of assistance in high risk situations but also establishes monitoring of the investigative action.
• Delaying implementation of a Public Policy to Protect Human Rights Defenders
In 2016, representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, the Ministry of Labor, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Attorney General’s Office, and the Criminal Section of the Judiciary pushed for a Public Policy to Protect Human Rights Defenders, to be coordinated by the Presidential Human Rights Commission (COPREDEH) and overseen by the Human Rights Ombudsman. In 2017 this initiative scarcely advanced.
• In terms of public reparations and historic memory, the government is failing in two central regards, according to UDEFEGUA. The government is stalling the activities of the National Compensation Program and attempting to close the National Police Archives. The government, according to UDEFEGUA, has gutted the budget of the National Compensation Program. Since 2012 the government has been diminishing the budget and questioning the need for this program; but since 2017, the budget is at almost zero and the activities of the program have stalled. In various processes of amicable solution, reached before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the government had agreed to provide collective, holistic reparations; yet the government remains unresponsive. If a general amnesty law is approved, the National Compensation Program would certainly be shut down, and dozens of cases, failing to have been resolved as agreed, would pass to the Inter-American Court.
The National Police Archive is a source of documentary evidence in many investigations of grave human rights violations committed during the internal armed conflict and such evidence has already led to convictions. The archive was operating with funding from the international community and had been placed under the Ministry of Culture and Sports. At the beginning of 2018, citing a need to resolve some administrative problems, the Ministry did not sign any contracts and reportedly tried to suspend all operations. According to UDEFEGUA, the Ministry tried to fire all the personnel and close the historic archive. Some of the staff decided to continue working on a volunteer basis to prevent the possible destruction of the archive. The conflict has not yet been resolved; the Ministry reportedly later agreed to pay staff through June.
Guatemala: Fifteen Human Rights Defenders Murdered in 2018
Fourteen human rights defenders have been murdered to date this year in Guatemala. The escalation in killings has raised alarms, prompting expressions of concern from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Amnesty International and other international organizations, and the US Embassy. The murders are outlined below:
Ronal David Barillas Diaz—coordinator of communities affected by the sugarcane agro industry: Barrillas Diaz was shot to death at 5:30 AM as he opened his newspaper and quesadilla stand. The assassin opened fire without a word. He was a member of the Environmental Committee that had begun a dialogue with the sugar industry in the municipality of Taxisco, in the department of Santa Rosa. He had repeatedly denounced practices that the sugar industry was carrying out that were polluting the area.
Antonio Cruz Jimenez—member of the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA) in El Progreso, Jutiapa: Cruz Jimenez was on his way to a protest with friends against the nationalization of electrical power when a truck ran him over. He died of injuries to his head and chest. The protest was to call for President Jimmy Morales’ resignation as well, and for the resignations of members of Congress. At a CODECA protest last November, another person was rammed by a truck but escaped death.
Ángel Castillo Cifuentes and Luis Alfredo de León Miranda, both journalists, were tied hand and foot and shot in the head, according to reports from the Center to Protect Journalists. Their bodies were found by sugarcane workers in a field outside of Santo Domingo, Suchitepéquez. Castillo Cifuentes was a correspondent for Nuestro Diario, De León Miranda worked for Radio Coatepeque.
Crisanto Garcia Ohajaca, member of the indigenous community of Morola, Camotan, in Chiquimula, and a relative of the president of the Coordinating Committee of Communities and Associations for the Holistic Development of the Ch’orti’ People: Garcia Ohajaca was shot to death as he participated in a religious service in the local Catholic church. Three armed men entered the church, and the assassin targeted Ohajaca.
Luis Arturo Marroquin Gomez, a member of the leadership of the Campesino Development Committee, was shot to death by two unknown men who entered the bookstore where he was making copies to take to a CODECA meeting in San Luis Jilotepeque, Jalapa. One day earlier the mayor of San Pedro Pinula had harshly criticized Marroquin Gomez during a public event, saying he was tired of his denunciations. On April 20 during a speech on the Day of the Fallen Soldier (comments are 7 minutes 15 seconds into the speech) and on May 2 during a demonstration of airport market sellers, President Jimmy Morales criticized CODECA directly, in a similarly harsh manner, that has been characterized by human rights organizations as hate speech. The president said CODECA was a criminal organization.
Jose Can Xol, a member of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), was shot to death in Coban, Alta Verapaz, in the early morning as he and three neighbors when to work the fields of a friend. His companions identified the assassins as workers with the Chilte Cooperative.
Mateo Chaman Pauu, a member of the CCDA in Alta Verapaz, was found dead on the outskirts of the San Juan Tres Rios community. His body showed signs of torture and he had been shot in the back. He had left in the evening to get food for his family and never returned.
Luis Armando Maldonado, founder of the Manos Campesinos organization, was shot to death in the capital of Huehuetenango by two unknown men on a motorcycle. He was part of the Quetzaltenango Social Ministry of Land.
Ramon Choc Sacrab, an indigenous authority of the Ixloc San Pedrito community in Coban, Alta Verapaz, and a member of the CCDA, was stabbed by to death an assassin who, using a machete, cut both of his ears and his jugular vein.
Alejandro Hernandez Garcia, a member of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands, and Florencio Najera, also a member of the CCDA, were killed as they were returning to their homes in the town of Los Cerritos, Canton Valencia, Jutiapa, at about 11:00 PM. They were both hacked to death with machetes.
Francisco Munguia, community vice-presidente of the village of Divosadero, Xalapan, Xalapan, Jalapa was leaving his work as a bricklayer to attend to his small orchard when he was attacked and seriously wounded by an assailant wielding a machete. He was found by a boy, having already lost consciousness. He died in the ambulance. He was a member of the Xinca indigenous group and had belonged to CODECA for five years.
Ángel Estuardo Quevedo, a member of the Peaceful Resistance of Casillas, Santa Rosa, was gunned down as he rode his motorcycle on the road between the towns of El Salitre and El Tecolote. He was shot six times and was pronounced dead at the scene. Via Twitter, Rafael Maldonado, director of the Center for Legal, Environmental, and Social Action of Guatemala (CALAS) , noted that Quevado was a “member of the peaceful resistance against the imposition of the criminal project of the San Rafael Mining Company and an active participant in the ongoing peaceful protest in front of the Constitutional Court.” The project he was opposing is known as the El Escobal Mine, run by Minera San Rafael, a subsidiary of the British Columbia-incorporated Tahoe Resources, headquartered in Reno, Nevada. According to reports, he is the ninth opponent of the mine murdered in the last eight years.
Juana Raymundo, a twenty-five year-old indigenous Maya Ixil member of CODECA’s recently formed political arm, the Movement for People’s Liberation, was abducted. She was a coordinator of CODECA in Nebaj. She worked as a nurse and had been expected to go to the departmental capital to turn in some work reports. Her father became concerned when he called her cell phone that Friday afternoon and found that it had been turned off. Her body was found the next day on the banks of a creek between Nebaj and the community of Acambalam Marks on her body indicated that she had been tortured.
Peace Brigades International is an international NGO that supports human rights and promotes nonviolence. Founded in 1981, PBI sends teams of international observers to areas of conflict and repression to provide protective accompaniment to human rights defenders whose lives and work are under threat.