Guatemala, May 2013

The purpose of this “Alert” is to draw attention to, and share our concerns regarding the intensification and severity of attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala, the defamation and disparaging of social movements, and the trend in bringing criminal charges against those who form part of, or support them, be they individuals, organizations, or campesino and indigenous communities.

In January 2013 we reported on the serious assaults, threats and persecution against those campaigning for respect for the economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights, as well as the rights of indigenous populations. We expressed concern that the situation was even worse in areas where there is opposition to planned or current public-private investment projects, especially where free, prior and informed consent has not been sought from the communities affected [1].

We would like to reiterate these concerns, given the upsurge in violent attacks against communities, civil society organizations, and individuals in many parts of the country who question the exploitation of natural resources through mega-projects and demand that, above all else, the state insures respect for human rights. Our concerns are exemplified by specific cases where projects based on the exploitation of mines, minerals, water sources, timber, crops (among others), are in the planning or implementation stages.

On 8th March, Carlos Hernández was assassinated in the department of Chiquimula, in east Guatemala. He was a human rights advocate, a social and trade union leader, and he played a highly active and visible role in many civil society organizations both at the local and the national level [2]. Other human rights defenders working in the region in defense of territory and natural resources have also reported receiving death threats. Amongst these is the Reverend José Pilar Álvarez Cabrera, a member of the Lutheran Church in Guatemala (ILUGUA), and members of the Association for the Protection of the Mountain Las Granadillas in Zacapa and the Campesino Collective Chortí Nuevo Dia in Chiquimula. Carlos Hernández and Reverand Álvarez, as well as others from the organizations mentioned, have been victims of criminalization, which have included defamations and unsubstantiated criminal charges being levied against them (which were dismissed as unfounded within months by a judge).

Members of the community of Las Flores, Jocotán, have also been victim of these types of attacks as a result of them requesting that community land be registered collectively (as opposed to small parcels being registered individually). This is at odds with the preferences of private investors in the hydroelectric plant in Río Grande, and other public-private projects planned in the area.

In the same region, since the beginning of the year, members of the community and civil society organizations in the municipality of San Rafael las Flores, Santa Rosa, have been attempting to obtain details of the mining project named El Escobal, carried out by the mining company, San Rafael S.A –a subsidiary of Tahoe Industries Inc, a Canadian company. In April the government of Guatemala granted the company a license to begin working the silver mine [3], despite calls for a formal community consultation. Last year, serious assaults against members of the community were reported. These attacks have continued and intensified throughout 2013. Criminal charges have been brought against members of the community, and they have been subject to smear campaigns, calculated to de-legitimize their peaceful protest activities. In April, a peaceful protest camp was set up on private land, with the permission of the land owner, near the entrance to the mine. On April 26, the police attempted to forcefully evict those at the encampment, injuring several people in the process, and detaining 26 protesters. The detainees were shortly released due to lack of evidence in support of any of the charges against them. At the end of April, there was a clash between police and armed individuals in San Rafael Las Flores, Santa Rosa, and Xalapán, Jalapa, resulting in two deaths, several wounded on both sides. The protesters also received threats, were subject to physical attacks, and were intimidated by armed non state actors.

On April 27, the mine's private security fired against a group of protesters who were withdrawing from the area after participating in a peaceful demonstration. Six people were injured, three were hospitalized, two of which had bullet wounds. Alberto Rotonda, head of the mine's security, was later arrested for ordering the

As we have seen in the past in similar situations, the Government responded by declaring a “State of Exception” [4] (akin to "martial law") in the region. As this measure was not approved by Congress, the Decree implementing the “State of Emergency” never formally came into force. Shortly afterwards on 9th May a “State of Prevention” [5] was declared. This temporarily restricted constitutional rights and guarantees in the municipalities of San Rafael Las Flores and Casillas, Santa Rosa, Jalapa, and Mataquesquintla, Jalapa.

In addition to these serious attacks (the particulars of which, at the time of writing, are still being investigated by the authorities), we are also concerned that a State of Emergency might be declared in other regions as an attempt to prevent community consultations taking place and suppress social protests in areas where large economic investments are planned or are in operation. These projects often entail the occupation of land and exploitation of natural resources, so it is with concern that we note that this method might be used in areas where the local population has not been consulted in relation to these projects, notwithstanding that they feel they might be affected by the actions of the national or international companies carrying out these projects.

The State of Emergency officially declared at the beginning of May 2012 in Barillas, Huehuetenango, and was in place for two and a half weeks. It was viewed as an attempt to suppress human rights activism by Guatemalan civil society organizations and national and international human rights organizations. The 10 people detained during the State of Emergency in Barillas for several months without charge, were eventually released due to lack of evidence to substantiate any of the allegations made against them on behalf of the hydroelectricity company, Hidro Santa Cruz, a Guatemalan subsidiary of Hidralia Energía, Spanish company. However, Rubén Herrera, member of the Assembly of Pueblos of Huehuetenango in Defense of Land [6], was detained on 15th March 2012, and he remains in prison (though his release was provisionally ordered on 30th May).

In April, in Santa Eulalia, Huehuetenango, Daniel Pedro Mareo was murdered. Both Rubén Herrera and Daniel Pedro Mareo were key players in movements in defense of land rights, natural resources, the upholding of economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights, as well as the rights of indigenous populations.

Serious threats and attacks similar to those mentioned above continue in Alta Verapaz and Izabal against individuals or whole communities, who or which refuse to abandon their land in the face of tremendous pressure from armed groups and others representing the interests of non state entities. These communities and their members face death threats, violent attacks, unfounded criminal accusations amongst other things. This is apparent in the community of La Primavera, located in the municipality of San Cristobal, and the community of San Miguelito Cotoxjá, located in the Polochic Valley, municipality of El Estor, department of Izabal. In April in San Miguelito, there was an attack against one of the community who had to be hospitalized. Members of the community managed to apprehend two of the aggressors, and alerted the authorities. However, the police refused to enter San Miguelito in order to transport the suspects to a detention facility, nor did any other state authorities arrive in San Miguelito to investigate the crime, or provide any form of protection to the community against further attacks.

The escalation of repression and violence against human rights defenders in rural areas is framed within a context of ever increasing tension at the national level due to the ongoing genocide trial. The trial, which opened on 19th March before a Guatemalan tribunal, is against two former members of the Guatemalan military high command: ex de facto president, José Efraín Ríos Montt, and ex chief of intelligence, José Mauricio Rodriguez Sánchez. On 10th May, the Tribunal condemned Ríos Montt of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Ixil Maya ethnic group between 1982-1983, and sentenced him to 80 years in prison. Rodríguez Sánchez was acquitted of all charges. However, the Constitutional Court (CC) ruled on May 20th that part of the trial would have to be repeated, rendering the ruling void.

In relation to the genocide trial, the Counter-Terrorism Foundation (FCT) and other non state entities have leveled very serious allegations against activists and human rights defenders, which is viewed as part of a campaign to discredit and smear human rights defenders through defamation. It is also seen as an attempt to instill fear in human rights defenders and foster an atmosphere of criminalization of those who are participating in, or are in favor of there being a genocide trial. The defamation campaign has been carried out, in part, through the publication and widespread distribution of three magazines throughout the month of May. In these publications, the FCT accuses several prominent human rights defenders and human rights organizations working in Guatemala of various criminal offenses.

Equally worrying was a publication which appeared in May on the internet, published anonymously, that defames human rights defenders in such a way that raises concerns for their safety. Judges, magistrates, activists, lawyers (such as Edgar Pérez Archila), and other officials involved in the genocide trial, all appear on this list. Others mentioned include members of embassies (including ambassadors themselves), and various other members of the international community, including Nobel Peace Prizer winner Rigoberta Menchú. This publication is seen as a threat to the safety of all involved in the genocide trial, including the members of the Ixil Maya ethnic group who participated in the trial [7].

We have witnessed ever increasing efforts to discredit international and national accompaniment, and smear campaigns directed against those in the international arena showing solidarity or assisting in efforts to promote the defense of human rights in Guatemala. We interpret these actions as direct attempts to discredit and weaken the human rights movement, and to make human rights defenders, organizations and communities feel more vulnerable.

Given the concerns raised, we REQUEST that the international community draw its attention to these situations, and take steps to implement measures designed to protect human rights defenders, social and civil society organization and communities facing serious threats and attacks, particularly in rural areas. We also request that special attention be paid to situations where constitutional rights and guarantees are limited, such as in States of Emergency. The international community has a fundamental role in this regard in ensuring that attacks such as those mentioned here do not go unpunished or unreported.

We also request that diplomatic missions in the states where transnational corporations operating in Guatemala are registered do all they are able to prevent these conflict situations from arising, monitor respect for human rights in the regions where these companies operate, and protect those who receive threats or are attacked on the basis of their campaigning for respect for economic, social, cultural, and environmental rights, and the rights of indigenous populations.

We request that continued close attention be paid to the genocide trial. Given the importance and severity of the crimes in question, and the impact the trial is having, it is the right and the obligation of Mankind to be aware and concern themselves with the protection of those who face threats, defamations and false accusations. We consider it necessary that all protection mechanisms available to protect those mentioned above be put in place.

We appreciate your attention and support.
Guatemala Project - Peace Brigades International (PBI)

[1] PBI Guatemala, “Forced evictions and economic investment projects without consultation: Concerns and requests directed to the international community for protection of human rights defenders”, 16.01.2013.

[2] For example, the National Union of Health Workers in Guatemala, the “Frente Nacional de Lucha” (FNL), and the Coordination of Grass Roots, Indígenous, Religious, Unions, and Campesino Organizations in the East (COPIISCO). In the municipality of Camotán, he formed part of the Camoteca Campesino Association, an organization which PBI accompanied between 2009 and 2012. Here is a link to a press release issued by PBI following the murder of Carlos Hernandez.

[3] For further information, see the Tahoe Resources Inc website, and the Committee for the Defense of Life and Peace in San Rafael Las Flores website.

[4] State of Exception” is an umbrella term for five different levels of “martial law”, varying in severity in terms of the rights and freedoms restricted. Out of the five categories of “States of Exception,” the “State of Emergency” is one of the most restrictive.

[5] A “State of Prevention” is slightly less restrictive than a “State of Emergency.”

[6] He faces accusations (brought against him by the company) of inciting violence, making threats, raiding properties, kidnapping, terrorism, unlawful imprisonment, arson, acts calculated to undermine the peace and security of the nation, and valdalising public utilities.

[7] Comunicarte, “Solicitamos protección ante difamación, amenazas e incitación a delinquir realizada a través de artículos, libelos, anónimos y declaraciones de organizaciones de extrema derecha”, Guatemala, 23.05.2013