Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war ended in 1996. The conflict, particularly the military government’s “scorched earth” policy, had left around 200,000 killed or disappeared, the majority indigenous Guatemalans. A UN truth commission, the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission, found that acts of genocide had been committed against the indigenous population. Although it is more than two decades since the end of the conflict, the rule of law remains weak in Guatemala. Around 16 murders take place every day, and with around 98% impunity, the vast majority go unpunished. Human rights defenders working to secure respect for human rights and accountability for past crimes are particularly at risk in this climate, as are those resisting mining and other large-scale development projects in rural areas.
PBI first operated a project in Guatemala from 1983-1999, which closed following the Peace Accords. Unfortunately, the human rights situation soon began again to deteriorate, and local organisations asked PBI to return. The current project opened in 2003. PBI now accompanies around 10 organisations nationwide with 10 international volunteers based in Guatemala City. The organisations and social movements we accompany are searching for the truth about Guatemala's civil war, for compensation, reconstruction and respect for the war's victims; they are fighting against the repression of defenders of human rights, and raising issues concerning environmental degradation and access to land.
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2015 was marked by a political and institutional crisis in Guatemala that broke out following a criminal investigation, driven by the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) and the Public Ministry (MP), against a network of state and non - state high-level officials allegedly involved in corruption and tax evasion. As a result of these investigations, and because of the social and popular mobilization demanding, among other things, the resignation of policymakers and debugging of the legislative and judicial body, representatives of senior government resigned from their positions. Among these highlights, the then Vice President Roxana Baldetti and then President Otto Perez Molina,resigned after being charged with conspiracy, passive bribery, and other charges.
As part of this political crisis and the uprising of voices demanding a thorough reform of the Guatemalan political system, elections were conducted throughout the country for officers of the Executive and Legislative branches as well as for mayors of 338 municipalities. Social organizations noted the existence of illegalities in the process by some political parties, and the existence of violence in some jurisdictions and lack of voting rights in others1. Jimmy Morales, the Front National Convergence, was the winner of the second round of presidential elections, held on October 25, 2015. Different analysts and representatives of civil society have pointed out the connections of the new president and his party to retired military officers who have been linked to harassment committed during the internal armed conflict2 and the structure of the former ruling party, the Patriotic party.
In the field of human rights, several sectors of civil society, including indigenous movements have expressed doubts about the willingness of the new government to engage in dialogue to resolve existing conflicts. The same doubts arise about the will to resolve the historical demands of the population (land, decent housing, health and education) and respect the rights of ethnic, sexual and gender diversities. One of the uncertainties of various social sectors, and specifically women, is whether the campaign or the program of the new government will address the issue of access to land ownership for women. Landlessness prevents women access to other resources and services, such as credit and technical assistance, which may require land be offered as collateral. Similarly, they are excluded from most state programs of productive investment and technical assistance.3
Looking ahead over the next four years, social movements are calling for Guatemala to enforce the reforms identified in the mobilizations of the election period. These broad draft reforms will not be easy to implement, because profound changes are required on the political, economic and social level.
PBI accompanies groups that carry out exhumations of clandestine mass graves, as well as lawyers and human rights organizations threatened and harassed for their work challenging impunity for past human rights violations, including the Human Rights Law Firm (BJDH), an internationally renowned law firm whose lawyers have represented victims in many emblematic cases of human rights violations in Guatemala. The work of the BJDH’s lawyers has resulted in landmark decisions that have improved access to justice for many more victims of past and current human rights abuses. The price has been a life under constant threat.
Against a background of entrenched impunity and political violence, the BJDH has achieved some remarkable victories, including in 2009 the first successful case condemning forced disappearance, and in 2011 the conviction of four soldiers for their role in the notorious 1982 Dos Erres massacre, in which more than 250 villagers were murdered in cold blood by a specialist army unit. Their biggest achievement to date was achieving a sentence for genocide in the first ever genocide case to be heard in a Latin American courtroom, against former President Efraín Rios Montt and leading military commanders. The BJDH work on legal proceedings relating to massacres committed during the internal armed conflict and other cases of past and current human rights violations.
Currently, we accompany the lawyers of the Human Rights Law Firm (BJDH) in the case of the burial of the Spanish embassy in 1980, where they represent the Rigoberta Menchú Foundation. In August 2010 we began the accompaniment of lawyer and human rights defender Edgar Pérez Archila in his work defending justice and battling impunity. He works on legal proceedings relating to massacres committed during the internal armed conflict and other cases of past and current human rights violations. We have specifically accompanied him during his work on criminal prosecutions relating to the following: the forced disappearance, torture and extrajudicial execution of the guerrilla commander Efraín Bámaca Velásquez in 1992; the massacre of the community Las Dos Erres in 1982; the massacre of the community of Río Negro in 1982; and the prosecution for genocide that has been pending before a number of Guatemalan tribunals.
Defending Land Rights, Culture, and Natural Resources
The concentration of ownership of land, and lack of acknowledgment of ancestral land rights is one of the main problems affecting indigenous people in Guatemala and was a root cause of the armed conflict. These days organizations continue to expose the negative impact of illegal exploitation of forestland and natural resources, as well as defending the rights of communities affected by mega-projects (open air mining, hydroelectric projects, oil extraction, etc). Groups, efforts, and individuals currently receiving PBI accompaniment in Guatemala:
- Cunén Communities’ Council
The Council was established at the first communities’ assembly in San Siguán. It consists of 22 directly elected members from eight micro-regions of Cunén. One of the main focuses of the Council’s work is the defence of their land and natural goods. In October 2009 they organised a community consultation on mining exploitation and on the construction of hydroelectric plants, among other mega-projects, planned for the Municipality. PBI observed part of the preparation process as well as the consultation itself, in which approximately 19,000 people from 71 communities voted against the aforementioned projects. We began our accompaniment of the Council in February 2010, due to the security risks faced by persons actively promoting the right to land, territory and natural resources in the region.
- Defence of the Macizo del Merendón
PBI has accompanied the process of defending the Macizo del Merendón ecosystem from 2008, when it began it's accompaniment to the Association for the defense of the Granadillas Mountain (APMG), which lasted until October 2013. In July 2013, several churches, organizations, peasant communities, Indigenous Ch'orti 'of Zacapa and Chiquimula and municipalities in the region constituted the Ecumenical Coordination for the Defense of Macizo del Merendón. From the beginning, PBI has provided its constant observation during their activities.
People who work for the defense of their economic, social and environmental rights, have faced various types of persecution and threats, including judicial proceedings against them. These proceedings were dismissed, when they denounced the illegal logging trade and initiated a process of permanently social auditing the licenses granted for the logging of trees in the private farms in the highlands.
- ‘New Day’ Chortí Campesino Central Coordinator
New Day’ Chortí Campesino Central Coordinator is part of the Agrarian Platform, working in several municipalities in East Guatemala (including Jocotán, Chiquimula, Camotán, Olopa and San Juan Hermita), in the department of Chiquimula. It trains and informs rural communities on issues relating to the rural economy, the environment, rights and land, in coordination with other organisations in the region.
In 2006, New Day became aware of the planned construction of three hydroelectric plants in two of the department’s municipalities: the projects El Puente and El Orégano in Jocotán and the project Caparjá, in Camotán. They form part of the largest project of the Electrical Interconnection System for Central American Countries (SIEPAC). As part of its work, the organization has shared this information with communities in the area, enabling the evaluation and analysis of the environmental effects and impact on local economies that these, and other development projects planned for the region, may have. They carried out this work in relation to the project initially known as ‘Dry Canal’, then the ‘Technological Corridor’, and most recently as the ‘Interoceanic Corridor of Guatemala’ (ICG), which is intended to link the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Guatemala. This in turn forms one part of the most ambitious regional plans produced under the Mesoamerican Project (successor of the Plan Puebla-Panama, PPP).
Members of New Day say the lack of information provision to, and consultation of, Chiquimula’s communities by public institutions is a constant source of conflict. Community authorities have therefore been present at meetings and discussions with the Guatemalan firm, Las Tres Niñas S.A., which seeks to implement the El Orégano hydroelectric plant project. They have highlighted the need to consult local inhabitants before implementing megaprojects in the area. In 2012, in addition to the court summons issued to community members of Las Flores, Jocotán, the firm has sent several letters to various organizations and international community actors in Guatemala, portraying community actors and the social organizations that work in the area in a negative light.
PBI has accompanied New Day since 2009. Several members of the association have received threats and attacks, including death threats and intimidatory acts, as a result of their work with the communities.
- Peaceful Resistance of La Laguna
In November of 2015 we initiated accompaniment of the Peaceful Resistance of La Laguna, in the municipality of San Pedro Ayampuc, department of Guatemala. This resistance began with a sit-in in the area on April 4 this year. This sit-in initiated to express disagreement with the installation of an electricity distribution and a high voltage station belonging to the Colombian energy company, Transportadora de Centroamérica S.A. (TRECSA), which aims to provide energy to the 20 mining projects that operate around the town. In late 2014, a community consultation was held regarding the project. The majority rejected the proposed works; around 530,000 people voted against the project. In contrast, only 30 people were in favor. The main concerns of the Resistance are potential environmental and health impacts, such as deforestation, decreasing water supplies, and pollution of the environment with harmful chemicals. The Resistance demands that state and municipal authorities cancel the license awarded to TRECSA, granted in 2011.
- Peaceful Resistance of La Puya, San José del Golfo, and San Pedro Ayampuc
Since 2010, residents of the communities of San José del Golfo, and San Pedro Ayampuc have been undertaking actions of peaceful resistance to state their disagreement with the gold extraction project called “El Tambor” Progreso VII Derivada. This extraction project is currently owned by Kappes, Cassiday & Associates, a company from the United States, that acts through the local subsidiaries Exploraciones Mineras de Guatemala S.A. and Servicios Mineros de Centro América. The local residents specifically demand a community consultation before construction of the mine starts. They also urge an independent environmental impact study, due to doubts about the accuracy of the current study which was carried out by the company itself and concerns about the reduction of access to water, its contamination, as well as damage to fauna and to the whole ecosystem once the mine starts functioning.
From the beginning, the Peaceful Resistance of the Puya has been confronted with threats and aggression, such as the attempted murder against one of its members, Yolanda Oquelí in June 2012. Several of its members have been subject to defamation and legally unfounded accusations, related to their involvement with the Resistance. On the 23rd of May 2014, the Resistance Camp blocking the mine entrance of El Tambor since 2012, was violently evicted. One year later, commemorating the suffered eviction, and for not having received a response to the request of May 2014 for a dialogue round-table with the President of the Republic, the Resistance blocked vehicles from entering the mine. According to information provided by members of the Resistance, in the early morning of May 26th 2015, approximately 200 elements of the riot police arrived to unblock access with excessive force and aggression.
- UVOC (Verapaz Union of Peasant Organisations)
UVOC is an indigenous and campesino organization which focuses on defending and enabling access to land for campesino people in the departments of Alta and Baja Verapaz. Amongst other activities, UVOC offers advice to numerous rural communities on land ownership, accompanies communities on activities involving the protection of their land, and participates in formal discussions on related matters. The organization ensures these discussions are tailored carefully, to squarely confront the well-documented land disputes and agrarian conflict in the region.
PBI has accompanied UVOC since 2005, after its members experienced serious threats and intimidatory acts. Carlos Morales, UVOC coordinator, and members of communities which form part of the Union have been subjected to death threats, and various forms of intimidation and persecution, on several occasions. In addition to the Rural Development Law, UVOC publically demands an end to evictions and violence in the region, led by State and non-governmental actors. The Union monitors agrarian issues, and has warned of a deteriorating situation in many localities since the beginning of 2012. In February 2012, PBI drew the international community’s attention to concerns about the atmosphere UVOC has to conduct its work in. Threats are made to its members and several communities the organisation accompanies and supports in the region, in particular the community of La Primavera (in the municipality of San Cristóbal, Alta Verapaz) and San Miguel Cotojax (on the municipal and departmental border of Panzós, Alta Verapaz, and El Estor, Izabal).
1 Convergence for Human Rights, Apuntalemos Democracy, Guatemala, September 8, 2015.
2 See the following articles: Comedian advised by military wins first round in Guatemala , Prensa Libre, 07.09.2015; Rodrigo Veliz, Jimmy appeals to the old policy: ex PAC and military in the Altiplano , Wanderer, 10.13.2015; Luis Solano, the security chief Jimmy Morales and the story of two farms , Independent Media Center of Guatemala, 10.23.2015; CERIGUA Cabinet of Jimmy Morales, unknown , Guatemala, 26.10.2015.
3 Oswaldo Ical Jom, the issue is not touched on campaign: women owners , October 21, 2015, Nómada