In recent publications, PBI has highlighted the increase in attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala, in particular against those engaging in the defence of economic, social, cultural rights, and the rights of indigenous people in areas where large-scale investments or development projects are being planned or implemented [1]. In addition to these attacks, we would like to express our growing concern at the trend of detaining and initiating legal proceedings against members of civil society organizations, social movements as well as rural and indigenous communities who are simply demanding compliance with recognized human rights standards. In this regard we would like to draw special attention to the situation that has been unfolding over the past few weeks in San Juan Sacatepéquez.

Background: Since 2006 the Guatemalan company Cementos Progreso S.A. has been working on the San Juan Project which includes the construction of a cement factory on land located in several communities in the area, namely San Gabriel Buena Vista, San José Ocaña and San Antonio Las Trojes I and II.. Since, the communities affected by the project have persistently opposed the construction of the plant and demanded information in relation to the same. They have sought recognition and respect of the opinions of the Mayan Kaqchikel communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez, as well as the compliance with various human rights conventions recognised in Guatemala and part of the International Human Rights framework [2].

On 6 July, Mariano Camey Car, Lorenzo Car Hernández and Margarito Camey Zet, all members of the Twelve Kaqchikel Communities of San Juan were detained [3]. These arrests came the day after a peaceful protest march which took place in San Juan Sacatepéquez and in which they participated alongside members of various other communities and social organizations from all around Guatemala. The march was part of their continued peaceful resistance to the aforementioned Cementos Progreso cement plant, the construction of which was inaugurated on the same day of the march (5 July) [4]. In this march just as in several previous activities the communities also expressed their opposition to the construction of the so-called “Anillo Regional”, a high-way project on which the affected communities were not consulted [5].

The detainees, who are current or former community authorities or delegates stand accused of events that took place in 2011 [6]. At their first court hearing on 7 July, three out of four of the charges (conspiracy, coercion, and making threats) were dropped due to lack of merit. Nonetheless, the judge ordered that a case be opened against them for the crime of aggravated trespass, giving the Public Prosecutor’s office three months to investigate the allegations [7].

In addition to this, the communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez have received information suggesting that arrest warrants have been issued against three other community leaders who have also taken part in the peaceful community resistance against the construction of the cement plant and other projects entailing the exploitation of natural resources that affect the population of San Juan Sacatepéquez, which has not been consulted nor properly informed with regards to these plans.

The aforementioned issuing of arrest warrants, detentions and indictments are part of a growing trend of legal action being taken against members of organisations, social movements and communities working for the compliance with human rights obligations in similar situations throughout the country. In particular we are concerned that the bringing of charges often arises out of participation in peaceful protest activities related to the planning and implementation of large scale economic investments. Although these arrest warrants are based on events that occurred several years ago, they are only now being executed, at the same time as the above mentioned mega projects are being initiated. This has the effect of limiting the social and political space for human rights advocacy and peaceful protest activities against human rights violations.

PBI has maintained international presence and monitored the human rights situation in San Juan Sacatepéquez since 2008. In December 2009, PBI began accompanying the Twelve Kaqchikel Communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez. This grassroots movement brings together residents of the communities in the area who play an active role in promoting, defending and campaigning for the respect of economic, social, cultural rights as well as the rights of indigenous people. Between 2008 and 2012, PBI has issued four Alerts and published a study to draw the international community’s attention to the human rights situation in the area, the threats as well as the risks faced by the human rights defenders [8]

In light of our above mentioned concerns, PBI urges the international community to pay special attention to the human rights situation in San Juan Sacatepéquez, and use all measures at their disposal to protect the human rights defenders working in the area. In particular we call on the members of the international community in their dialogue with Guatemalan authorities and public institutions:to:

  • stress the respect and guarantee of the human rights of the communities and its members,

  • ensure compliance with due process and respect for the rights of those accused and detained,

  • promote the right to defend human rights and other linked rights, such as the right to organise and protest as part of social movements,

  • support the actions of authorities and other public institutions to ensure adequate administration of justice, particularly in situations such as San Juan Sacatepéquez, where communities and social movements have reported receiving threats as well as falling victim to attacks and criminalization of their peaceful protests.




[1] For further information or for a copy of the Alerts published in January and May see the "recent news" section of the PBI website.

[2] See the PBI study, "Business Investment and Human Rights: Lessons Learned from a Conflict. The Case of the Maya Kaqchikel of San Juan Sacatepéquez”, case study, Guatemala, November 2012. 

[3] See the press release, “Las Doce Comunidades Organizadas y en Resistencia de San Juan Sacatepéquez”, San Juan Sacatepéquez, Guatemala, dated 06.07.2013.

[4] The official ceremony to inaugurate the construction of the cement plant in San Gabriel was held on 19 July with various public authorities attending. The Twelve Communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez held another rally with wide participation, and issued a statement on 22 July (Chiquín, C., "Las Flores en Resistencia de San Juan Sacatépequez," Prensa Comunitaria, Guatemala, 22.07.2013) in San Juan Sacatepéquez demanding respect for the right of indigenous communities to be consulted. 

[5] On 22 May public authorities inaugurated the construction of the “Anillo Regional” as part of the government's infrastructure program. This highway is to link several municipalities from Santo Domingo Xenacoj (Sacatepéquez) to Pachalum (Quiché). In addition to not having been consulted, the communities of San Juan Sacatepéquez have publicly opposed the project considering it as serving only private interests. See Rivera, N., “Anillo regional aumenta la conflictividad en San Juan Sacatepéquez”, Prensa Comunitaria, Guatemala, 25.05.2013. 

[6] In October 2011 there were widespread community meetings and protest activities that continued over several days in relation to access and use of community land in Santa Fe Ocaña for harvesting lumber.. Members of the community have requested that the license for felling trees be revoked, and that an environmental impact study (taking into account the views of community members) be carried out. In response to these peaceful protests, the owner of the property in question accused six community members of aggravated trespass and of assaulting the workers on his land.

[7] In the Guatemalan Penal Code, the crime of "aggravated trespass" is set out in article 259 as follows: "The crime of violently interfering with the rightful possession or ownership of property shall be punishable by up to three years' imprisonment."

[8] These Alerts can be found on the PBI Guatemala website.