Guatemala: suppression and intimidation of human rights defenders is the norm

May 11, 2014

For the weekend a longer read: On 22 April 2014, human rights defender Dr Yuri Melini in Guatemala discovered that intimidating text had been painted on his front gate. The text names the member of the police provided as personal security to the human rights defender since an assassination attempt was made against him. Yuri Melini is the Director of the Centro de Acción Legal, Ambiental y Social de Guatemala (CALAS) – Legal, Environmental and Social Action Centre of Guatemala. CALAS is an organisation working for the strengthening of environmental issues, community participation and respect for the collective rights of indigenous communities in relation to environmental concerns. The human rights defender was awarded the Front Line Defenders Award in 2009. The human rights defender has previously faced harassment, intimidation, defamation and an attempt on his life as a result of his human rights work, see:  [Last year eighteen human rights defenders were assassinated, a 72-percent increase over 2012, even as the country’s general murder rate has decreased.]

To place this incident in context one should read the report by Patricia DAVIS published in Eurasia Review of 28 April 2014:  “GUATEMALA: SUPPRESSING DISSENT AT HOME AND ABROAD – ANALYSIS”

After a lengthy introduction concerning the ad personam attack by Guatemalan President Molina on Tim Rieser, majority clerk on the Senate State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee (for blocking military aid), the article dives into the numerous human rights problems in the country. 

Suppressing Dissent at Home

The steps the Guatemalan government is taking to stifle dissent are careful and calculated. Last year the government filed 61 unsubstantiated criminal complaints against human rights defenders, holding some leaders for months on charges ranging from usurpation to terrorism. Most of those targeted were indigenous leaders defending their land from transnational companies that are erecting large-scale mining projects, plantations of sugar cane and palm oil, and hydroelectric dams without the consent of communities. Indigenous leader Roberto González Ucelo, for example, president of the Xinca Parliament in a community in eastern Guatemala, which has been opposing a mining operation, had an arrest warrant pending against him for seven months. Guatemala’s interior minister, Mauricio López Bonilla, accused him openly of being a hired assassin, a drug trafficker, and a terrorist. A court dismissed all charges for lack of evidence. Ruben Herrera, a community organizer opposing a hydroelectric dam, was detained on frivolous charges for nearly two months.

Journalists, too, have been sued, for charges ranging from slander and extortion to insulting the president. José Rubén Zamora, a respected journalist in Guatemala who edits one of the major dailies and who in 1995 won a Committee to Protect Journalists International Press Freedom award, has spoken in the Guatemalan media about the campaign of intimidation he insists the president and vice-president are behind. “I know their script well,” he said in an October 2013 interview. “There are five steps: Attempt to bribe. If that fails, financial strangulation. If that fails, campaigns of character assassination, using all the means, and if that is not very effective, law suits, and finally, direct physical assaults.” Step four has been tried and discarded. In November, the president sued Rubén Zamora but then, facing international pressure, later dropped the suit.

Zamora believes Pérez Molina may now be planning his assassination. Politically motivated murder isn’t rare in Guatemala—four journalists were assassinated in 2013. Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla claimed that their killings were over personal matters, although investigators had established no motives.

Human rights defenders not subjected to lawsuits were still widely denounced in various media as Marxists, communists, and terrorists. The Guatemalan government has taken no action to tamp down these accusations, which the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has termed hate speech. Confronted with this fact, the Guatemalan government told the Inter-American Commission it fully intended to the respect freedom of the press.

Last October a group of Guatemalans representing various organizations went before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to denounce the campaign of intimidation, defamation, and criminalization directed at human rights defenders by pro-military groups, private enterprise, and the government. The human rights representatives noted that the government rarely investigates attacks on human rights defenders—only 2 percent of such attacks are ever prosecuted. They also told the Inter-American Commission that after the recent assassinations of some human rights defenders, a government official had said, “They got what they deserved.”

As if to prove the human rights defenders’ point, Interior Minister Bonilla—himself a former army officer—told Chamber of Industry members that the human rights defenders who had traveled to Washington to present that complaint before the Inter-American Commission were extortionists and black-mailers, no better than the gang members that held up urban buses. He later clarified his remark, saying what he meant was that “there are people who are attacking the governability of the country.”

Claudia Samayoa, director of the Unity for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, told Spain’s Noticias de Gipuzkoa, “Unfortunately we have had state violence now for the past two years, and it’s the very government itself that is attacking journalists and human rights defenders.” In an email exchange, she explained, “I am referring to the criminalization but also to the actions from the army and the police in the framework of the constant stigmatization that the president and minister of the interior are carrying out.”

Attacks on Judges

This interesting chapter is left out as the post is becoming too long. Suffice to say that the picture is grim with regard to respect for the independence of the judiciary as well as state control over the bar association (see inter alia:


Escalation of Violence

The violence against human rights defenders so far this year includes four murders. Two trade union leaders were killed in January. A 16-year-old girl and her father, both anti-mining activists, were gunned downby unknown assailants in April. The girl, Topacio Reynoso, died from her wounds.

In January, the body of indigenous leader Juan Tuyuc was found by the roadside. He had been run over, shot several times, and beaten. According to his sister, well-known human rights advocate Rosalina Tuyuc, Juan had been arrested prior to the discovery of his corpse on the roadside. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern and called for an investigation. The Guatemalan government insisted Tuyuc died as a result of the “accident” and was neither shot nor detained previously—and accused the Inter-American Commission of using “conjectures” and “unsubstantiated information.” The government further criticized the Inter-American Commission: “We hope that in the future the Commission will base its public communication in the most scientific and true fashion possible,” not on versions presented by family members and human rights organizations.

As its rebuke to the Inter-American Commission indicates, the Guatemalan government’s plan to stifle dissent includes separating the international community from Guatemala’s human rights defenders, leaving its version of events as the sole account. Accompaniment projects such as Peace Brigades International and the Network in Solidarity with Guatemala, as well as other international human rights organizations, have themselves become a target for smears and threats. Last October, the minister of the interior announced a “warning” for all foreigners on tourist visas in Guatemala. “It doesn’t matter what flag you come under, if you’re ecologists, human rights defenders, whatever outfit they want to put on. We will not permit their involvement in the internal affairs of Guatemala.” The minister argued that, according to intelligence reports, foreigners were participating in social protests and “inciting people to commit crimes against private property and the authorities.”

In a report, Peace Brigades notes an ever-increasing effort to discredit international accompaniment, including smear campaigns against those assisting in efforts to promote the defense of human rights. “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.”

Patricia Davis is former director of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA and co-author, with Dianna Ortiz, of The Blindfold’s Eyes: My Journey from Torture to Truth.


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