This situation of instability and uncertainty in this area has severely impacted processes of defending human rights in the country, with increased risks for the people who defend them, especially those working on issues of land and territory. In 2018, the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit (UDEFEGUA) recorded 391 attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala.
UN human rights experts have warned about the increase in homicides, attacks and other acts of intimidation against human rights defenders in Guatemala with legislative and political attempts to restrict their work. The experts have pointed out in particular the concern that the frequency and severity of attacks may have repercussions on the entire population, sending a message that there are dangerous consequences if human rights are defended, especially given that these crimes often go unpunished.
Likewise, after a visit to Guatemala in August, the International Land Coalition, Front Line Defenders and Civicus noted the systematic pattern of repression in the country, affecting defenders of land in particular. This coincides with information from UDEFEGUA, which reports that those defending the right to a healthy environment (land, territory and natural resources), and the collective rights of indigenous peoples, are the most frequently attacked. PBI also published an Alert about this situation.
Particularly alarming is the rise in the number of assassinations of human rights defenders, at the end of 2018 UDEFEGUA has registered 26.
Confirming the trend of the past few years, most attacks reported by UDEFEGUA in 2018 have been cases of criminalization (defamation, prosecution, arbitrary and illegal detention). According to UDEFEGUA, criminalization has increased with no effective actions taken by the courts or the public prosecutor’s office to prevent or stop it. In the courts, judges have only taken actions that prolong the proceedings, order pre-trial detention – even when the charges do not warrant this – and extending the time the human rights defender spends in jail. In light of this, the PDH stated in a press conference that the Ministry of the Interior has failed to take action with respect to the criminalization of human rights defenders and asked the MP (Public Prosecutor) to investigate not just the material but the intellectual authors.
One of the most significant cases of criminalization at the national and international level involves Q’eqchí’ human rights defender Bernardo Caal Xol, for his opposition to the Oxec I and II in Santa María Cahabón, Alta Verapaz. On 9 November 2018, he was sentenced to seven years and four months in prison. In a press release on 19 December 2018, UN experts called the conviction of the Q’eqchí’ leader “an apparent attempt to silence and discredit the legitimate exercise of the rights of the indigenous community.” They added that “this is not an isolated case; There are numerous members of indigenous communities who are being criminalized in Guatemala for defending their traditional lands and resources against large-scale development projects that cause environmental damage.” They reminded the government that criminal investigations must be independent and impartial, and urged it to ensure the effective protection of indigenous human rights defenders, noting that that business enterprises have an independent responsibility to respect human rights. PBI monitored this case by accompanying the Human Rights Law Office, which has been handling Bernardo Caal’s defense and that of the Peaceful Resistance of the Communities of Cahabón, of which Caal is a member.
Finally, UDEFEGUA points out that 23% of the attacks reported by UDEFEGUA were against human rights defenders playing an important role in transforming attitudes about their own diverse realities. According to the PDH’s 2018 Annual Report on the Circumstances of the Activities and the Human Rights Situation, this statistic indicates how highly vulnerable women are in an environment in which men predominantly work. In addition to the men, women human rights defenders are frequently targeted by smear campaigns and efforts to stigmatize them. This also involves the filing of unfounded legal complaints, as well as illegal and arbitrary detention. This situation creates an extra burden for women in most cases, because they have the additional responsibilities of supporting and caring for the family, the organization and the community.
Regarding the role of the State, in outgoing Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana approved a "Protocol for the Investigation of Crimes Committed Against Human Rights Defenders." In 2018, the Office for the Analysis of Attacks on Human Rights Defenders did not allow for the participation of civil society and the Public Policy for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders is currently stalled.
The situation described above, along with the complicated socio-political scenario in the country, make it essential to continue the international presence and observation activities.