January 25, 2019

Institutional Crisis in Guatemala Worsens

The institutional crisis in Guatemala reached a critical point on January 7th when the government unilaterally terminated the agreement with the United Nations for the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), giving officials a period of 24 hours to leave the country. The Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sandra Jovel, communicated the decision to UN General Secretary Antonio Guterres. Click here to read PBI Guatemala's latest update on the institutional crisis and more.

Guatemalan Congress Attempts to Approve Global Amnesty Law

On January 18, the Guatemalan Congress approved in a first reading a law that would grant amnesty to perpetrators of crimes against humanity. The law, known as Bill 5377, would also apply retroactively, meaning those who have been convicted of such crimes could be released from prison. The Congress will have to approve the law in two more readings before it is passed to the president for final approval. In the first reading, 83 members of Congress approved the draft law.

 “Guatemala has been condemned by the Inter-American Court on 27 occasions,” the organizations noted, “of which more than half correspond to incidents occurring during the internal armed conflict.” The organizations noted that these sentences had been handed down due to the Guatemalan state’s inability to procure justice for hundreds of people who were tortured, disappeared, or assassinated. “In this sense, the investigation, criminal trial, and sentencing of those responsible for these types of crimes would be seriously hampered by the disposition of amnesty,” the organizations said, “which would represent a failure to comply with what has been ordered in the Inter-American sentences and the obligations that Guatemala has undertaken in ratifying various international treaties.”

On January 22, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet warned that the modification of the National Reconciliation Law of Guatemala would have dire consequences for Guatemalan society: “The National Reconciliation Law, in its current form, has been used by national courts in a number of emblematic cases addressing grave human rights violations,” Bachelet said. “This amendment, if passed, will represent a drastic set-back to accountability and the rule of law in Guatemala. At the same time, it will gravely endanger the progress made by the country to grapple with the legacy of the civil war and to prevent further violence.” Bachelet noted that the proposed change to the law is the latest in a series of initiatives undermining the important achievements made by Guatemala in the fight against impunity.

Human Rights Defender with the Campesino Development Committee Murdered

Defino Augustin Vidal, a member of the board of directors of human rights defenders in the town of Ingenio and a member of the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA), was murdered on January 21 at around 3:00 PM in the municipality of San Pedro Pinula, in Jalapa. He was driving a van when heavily armed men intercepted him, shooting him to death and then burning the vehicle. He had a legal case filed in the courts against him by ENERGUATE. None of the eight killings of CODECA members last year has been successfully investigated or prosecuted. CODECA believes the murders were carried out by organized crime, with the complicity of government officials.

Guatemalan President Again Defies Orders of Constitutional Court

On January 16, Guatemalan Vice President Jafeth Cabrera confirmed that the executive branch would not heed the most recent order of the Constitutional Court overturning the ending of the operations of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The Court has repeatedly ruled that the president lacks the authority to unilaterally end the commission’s mandate. The agreement that established CICIG has the status of an international treaty. President Morales has repeatedly defied various rulings of the Constitutional Court related to CICIG. The mandate of CICIG was set to expire in September 2019, but on January 7, President Jimmy Morales declared that the agreement was over. Taking emergency measures for their safety, the commission’s international staff left the country.

Torres and McGovern Lead 45 Members of Congress in Call for End to Aid

In a January 17 letter to President Trump, sponsored by Representative Norma Torres and Representative Jim McGovern, 45 members of Congress expressed concern about President Morales’ actions in Guatemala. “During the past several months,” the letter begins, “the Guatemalan government has undertaken a series of actions that have undermined the rule of law in that country. These actions risk progress made through the US Strategy for Engagement in Central America, a multi-year US investment in improving governance, security, and prosperity, funded with strong bipartisan support. We are deeply concerned that, absent a strong US response, the current government’s pattern of anti-democratic behavior will continue to escalate, and that Guatemala will descend into lawlessness.” The lawmakers asked President Trump to publicly condemn the Guatemalan government's blatant disregard for the rule of law and urge the government to change course; suspend assistance for, and equipment transfers to, the central government of Guatemala (the suspended assistance, lawmakers said, should be redirected to non-governmental programs that directly benefit the Guatemalan people); utilize the authority provided in the Global Magnitsky Human Rights and Corruption Accountability Act to hold corrupt Guatemalan government officials accountable through travel and financial sanctions; and strongly and publicly support human rights defenders and civil society organizations throughout the country in their exercise of fundamental rights.

Prominent Human Rights Defender Helen Mack is Surveilled and Intimidated by Armed Men

On January 17, after participating in an event in Zone 9 of Guatemala City, prominent human rights defender Helen Mack was followed to a restaurant by four armed men, who videoed and photographed her and her family members. Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas expressed his support for Helen Mack, as well as for Jose Ruben Zamora, the president of the Guatemalan daily El Periodico. Zamora, along with his wife, was followed and photographed on January 11 at a restaurant in Zone 13 of Guatemala City, where the couple was meeting with friends. Jordan Rodas and the Pro-Justice Movement have called on the Public Ministry to investigate the incidents, which, according to Helen Mack, indicate the dictatorial attitude of the current government, which is dominated by former military officials who seek to perpetuate impunity.

NPR Report Points to Killings of Indigenous Rights Defenders as Destabilizing Factor in Guatemala

In a report on January 22, National Public Radio’s Maria Martin highlighted the increasing violations against indigenous human rights defenders in Guatemala. The report notes that President Jimmy Morales refused to meet with indigenous leaders last summer, as killings of indigenous rights leaders reached nearly unprecedented post-war levels. Interviewed for the piece, Jo-Marie Burt, a professor at George Mason University and a senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, warned that the US public should also be concerned about the situation in Guatemala: "It literally feels like it's on the edge of the precipice and just over that precipice, you're staring back at [in] the 1970s ... and you're staring at [a] massive violation of human rights." She went on to add, “It's no surprise that we see ... tens of thousands of Guatemalans fleeing the country going into Mexico trying to get to the United States to flee a country that is in free-fall — where there are no guarantees and there is no security.”