While the world watches the historic case against the generals Efraín Ríos Montt and José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity, indigenous peoples and human rights defenders are suffering persecution very similar to that perpetrated in the 1980s.
During the internal armed conflict, Mayan peoples in Guatemala were persecuted, displaced and brutally massacred. At the same time, union leaders, students, catechists and peasants – those who spoke out to defend their rights – were disappeared and systematically assassinated by the State. This violence was carried out as part of a government strategy to maintain an economic system that benefited a small minority of elite families, leaving the indigenous majority marginalized and in conditions of poverty. The State tried to justify its tactics by labeling these citizens as “internal enemies” who threatened Guatemala’s stability.
This history of violence and repression continues today. As large-scale “development” projects are imposed without consultation or the consent of those affected and displacing families and contaminating their land, indigenous peoples and peasant communities are again fighting against economic and social inequality and demanding that their vision of development be respected.
As these movements grow stronger, so too does the violence against them. Defenders who reject the government’s neoliberal development policies are again facing accusations of being “terrorists”, internal enemies, and a threat to national security. Some are victims of threats, assassination attempts and extrajudicial executions, while others have been jailed under false criminal charges, becoming the nation’s first generation of political prisoners.
Social movements in defense of land and territory have grown out of communities’ own histories, values, cultures and cosmovisions; they respond to concrete and devastating impacts of mining projects, monoculture agriculture crops, and large-scale hydroelectric dams on their lands. But the government does not pay attention to the legitimate concerns of these communities and instead accuses them of being manipulated or bought-off by international organizations. This racist attitude continues to prevail in Guatemala while the voices of the indigenous and peasant populations are ignored.
Guatemala’s human rights situation has deteriorated since the beginning of 2013, and a series of recent attacks has caused alarm, both nationally and internationally. In a recent statement, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission expressed “profound concern about this pattern of attacks against communities, their leaders and other human rights defenders.”
On the night of January 17, the main office of the Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences (AVANCSO) was broken into. This social research center focuses on issues of rural development, extractive industries, and historic memory. To break in, unidentified persons sedated the security guard and then stole computers and important documents. The investigation by the authorities has not advanced.
On January 24, Daniel Pascual, leader of the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC), and two representatives of Peace Brigades International were attacked and threatened on the road to San Antonio Las Trojes, San Juan Sacatepéquez. They were visiting at the request of the community in order to learn about the conflict generated by the construction of a mechanical well. In response to the attack, the municipal authorities of San Juan Sacatepéquez, strongly aligned with economic interests in the area, accused Daniel Pascual and Peace Brigades of being destabilizing forces in the community.
On February 25, Tomas Quej, leader of the community of Calihá, Alta Verapaz, left his community for Coban after receiving a telephone call in which he was told to appear before the Coban court. His family heard nothing from him until February 28, when he turned up dead from bullet wounds. Quej was a member of the People’s Council of Tezulutlán Manuel Tot, which has done work in defense of land rights. To date, the case of his assassination has not been solved.
On March 8, Carlos Antonio Hernández, union member and community leader, was assassinated by two individuals on a motorcycle. Days before the attack, he had received death threats by telephone in relation to his environmental activism in Camotán, Chiquimula. Hernández was also a member of the Camoteca Campesino Association, member of the Executive Committee of the National Union of Guatemalan Health Workers and the Political Committee of the Front for National Struggle.
On March 15, Rubén Herrera was detained. Herrera was a member of the coordinating body of the Departmental Assembly of Huehuetenango for the Defense of Natural Resources and the Council of Western Peoples. His detention occurred in the context of community opposition to a hydroelectric dam project in Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango, and after the Public Prosecutor dismissed similar charges against 11 Barillas residents who were jailed for up to seven months before being released for lack of evidence.
The night of March 17, four Xinca leaders from Santa María Xalapán were kidnapped after returning from a referendum in the community of El Volcancito, San Rafael Las Flores, Santa Rosa. Hours later, Rigoberto Aguilar and Roberto López escaped from their captors. But on the morning of March 18, Exaltación Marcos Ucelo, Secretary of the Xinca Parlament, was found dead with signs of abuse. That night, Roberto González was released by his captors. The referendum was the most recent step in a two-year fight to oppose the mine. Nevertheless, on April 3, the Guatemalan government approved the Canadian company Tahoe Resources’ license to extract gold and sliver, without having concluded the investigation of the acts of violence, or waiting for judicial rulings on the complaints filed by people who will be affected by the mine.
On April 8, Daniel Pedro, community leader from Santa Eulalia, was kidnapped in Santa Cruz Barillas. Pedro is a member of the Huehuetenango People’s Assembly (ADH). He was active in struggles against the hydroelectric dam in Barillas, as well as logging in Huehuetenango which has displaced indigenous communities. His body was found on April 17.
On April 11, 26 community members were detained during a peaceful protest in San Rafael Las Flores, Cuilapa Santa Rosa. They were protesting the approval of the mining license of San Rafael, Escobal 1 Mine. Their detention was allegedly illegal, since the protesters were on private property by permission of the owner when security forces entered without a search warrant. Moreover, the arrests were made at 4 p.m. and the detained weren’t taken before a judge until 11 p.m., in violation of due process. A number of men and women were injured by the tear gas used by the police, who also confiscated 15 vehicles belonging to protest participants. On April 15, after giving their testimony, the charges against the 26 people were dropped and they were released.
Aside from these cases, the Guatemala Human Rights Defender Protection Unit (UEDEFEGUA) has registered 76 aggressions against defenders so far in 2013. Tragically, these acts rarely result in proper investigation or prosecution of those responsible, contributing to a dangerous environment of impunity.
The Guatemalan authorities must do more to investigate cases of assassinations, threats, and attacks against human rights defenders and bring the perpetrators to justice. In order for long-term change to occur, concrete action must be taken to prevent future violations. The international community also has an important role to play in supporting and protecting these brave defenders, and must continue to promote judicial independence and the rule of law.
As Guatemala begins to chip away at impunity for egregious human rights violations of the past, we must ensure that cycles of repression and violence do not repeat against current-day activists working to create a more just and inclusive society.
The Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC) is a non-profit, grassroots, solidarity organization dedicated to promoting human rights in Guatemala and supporting communities and activists who face threats and violence. GHRC documents and denounces abuses, educates the international community, and advocates for policies that foster peace and justice.