Crackdown on protesters: at least one person killed and several injured
As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the political landscape in Guatemala has been tainted by ongoing attacks on the rule of law and attempts to manipulate the outcome of the 2023 general elections through the judicial system.
On 29th September 2023, the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad, FECI) conducted its fourth raid operation on the Supreme Electoral Tribunal’s (TSE) headquarters, the highest electoral body in the country. The Seventh Criminal Judge requested the raid and ordered the seizure of the official lists certifying the results of the August 2023 elections. According to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, approximately one hundred police officers forcibly handled boxes of vote tallies from TSE magistrates. Additionally, the police interfered with the work of the journalists covering the incident.
Two days before, the Office of the Attorney General requested the Guatemalan Supreme Justice Court to lift the immunity of TSE magistrates for allegedly committing crimes of fraud, breach of duty and abuse of authority. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed deep concern about these sustained attempts to undermine the electoral process:
These events are the latest in a long list of very worrying actions taken in the last few weeks, which - taken together - appear designed to undermine the integrity of the electoral process and undercut the rule of law more generally […]. Reports of harassment and intimidation against electoral officers and elected officials, including the President elect and Vice-President elect, are especially disturbing. - Volker Türk, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights.
On 13th October, the Secretary General of the Organization of American States (OAS) announced the establishment of a Mediation Mission aimed at facilitating dialogue between the government of President Giammattei and representatives of the ancestral indigenous authorities of the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán. In its statement, the Mission “rejects and condemns any act that threatens the integrity of the electoral process, its results and the transition process that will conclude on January 14, 2024, when President-elect Bernardo Arévalo and Vice President-elect Karin Herrera will take office.”
Historic national strike met with violence
In October 2023, a new wave of protests emerged in response to a series of legal proceedings initiated by the Attorney General’s Office against the TSE and Seed Movement party. According to reports, the demonstrations across the country have been peaceful and have allowed the passage of ambulances and perishable goods in many locations.
On 2nd October, the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán—a Maya K’iche’ Indigenous authority and one of the oldest governing structures in the country—alongside other indigenous authorities, initiated an indefinite national strike to demand the resignation of Attorney General María Consuelo Porras, FECI’s Prosecutors Rafael Curruchiche and Cinthia Monterroso, and Judge Fredy Orellana, whom they accuse of attempting to manipulate the election results.
The national strike has been supported by unions, students, farmers, medical professionals, human rights organisations, and others from civil society. “We do not come to represent any political party; the moment is about defending democracy on behalf of indigenous peoples,” said Luis Pacheco in front of the Public Prosecutor’s Office in Guatemala City.
On 4th October, Community Press Kilometer 169 (Prensa Comunitaria Kilómetro 169) reported instances of police repression in the Quetzal Port area, Escuintla department, involving riot police and truck drivers assaulting protesters. Alida Vicente, the authority of the Indigenous Municipality of Poqomam in Palin Escuintla, said that the Escuintla Commissioner authorised the use of violence to disperse citizens, resulting in injuries. On the same day, in Guatemala City, a group of people covering their faces with masks arrived at the headquarters of the Public Prosecutor’s Office to forcibly evict hundreds of people who were holding a peaceful sit-in to demand the resignation of the Attorney General.
#ParoNacional ✊🏿 Fuerzas antimotines comienzan a reprimir a ciudadanos en Escuintla para desalojarlos de la toma de Puerto Quetzal.— Prensa Comunitaria Km169 (@PrensaComunitar) October 5, 2023
La Asamblea de los Pueblos de Escuintla denuncian la violencia del Ministerio de Gobernación y que la PNC rompió con los acuerdos alcanzados esta… pic.twitter.com/lXnznEOJgQ
On 5th October, tens of thousands of protesters marched peacefully across the country. A few days later, on 9th October, the EFE news agency reported at least 120 road blockades throughout the country and over 200 people gathered at one of the Attorney General’s residences to demand her resignation in person. On the day, Attorney General Consuelo Porras described these public demonstrations as “illegal” and called on the Guatemalan government to act against largely peaceful protesters.
According to reports, some unidentified and masked men threw rocks against windows, prompting the anti-riot police to respond by deploying tear gas to disperse the protest in front of the Palace of Culture, the former governmental headquarters. At least twelve people were detained across the country. Concurrently, the outgoing President Alejandro Giammattei affirmed that "the blockades [were] illegal” and that “these acts were attributed to shock groups or infiltrators.” The President further declared that the blockade calls threatened the democratic order and expressed his intention to arrest the protest leaders.
Demonstrations escalated after President Alejandro Giammattei’s message on 9th October. There were reports of at least 130 road blockades in the following days, with protests occurring on the 12th, 13th and 16th.
On 16th October, one protester was killed and four people were injured during clashes in the western town of Malacatán, western Guatemala. The police arrested eleven people in the incidents near the military barracks in that region. A statement revealed that "approximately 50 people, armed with firearms, sticks, and stones, participated in the incident with the intent of forcibly removing the protesters.” Following this, the Minister of Interior David Napoleón Barrientos resigned. This resignation also happened after the Public Prosecutor's Office accused him of “disobedience.” The accusation stemmed from his alleged failure to clear blockades and protests that had persisted for 15 days.
Within this context, the Constitutional Court issued at least three decisions restricting the right of peaceful assembly. For instance, on 18th October 2023, the Constitutional Court affirmed that some non-peaceful protests might amount to crimes against humanity for “causing the extermination of civilians” in the wake of “situations involving the destruction of facilities and water reserves.”
Following this, several human rights organisations stressed that the Constitutional Court has labelled the mass protests in Guatemala as involving violence and unlawful acts, thereby authorising the use of force to restore public order. In particular, the organisations noted that only isolated incidents of violence have been reported.
🚨#Comunicado #Guatemala 🇬🇹 La Red Voces del Sur rechaza la orden de “restituir el orden público” emitida por la Corte de Constitucionalidad solicitando asegurar la “integridad física de los trabajadores y usuarios” del Ministerio Público, en un plazo no mayor a 6 horas. pic.twitter.com/uqfH6ilc63— Voces del Sur (@VDSorg) October 19, 2023
On 30th October, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and its Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression expressed their concern at various attempts to delegitimise and frighten protesters in Guatemala, as well as about the Constitutional Court decision aimed at restricting the right to protest in the country. Also, they noted that “the legitimate demands and discontent of the people have been peacefully expressed in social rallies, road blockades, and other acts of protest on public spaces and before the facilities of State institutions.”
#Guatemala La RELE registró la sentencia de la Corte de Constitucionalidad que insta a restituir el orden público durante las protestas, y advierte sobre el impacto severo que esta decisión puede tener en el derecho a la #LibertadExpresión en un momento trascendente para el país. pic.twitter.com/FQpsY7GjtB— Relatoría Especial p/la Libertad Expresión (CIDH) (@RELE_CIDH) October 18, 2023
At the end of October, protesters demonstrated mostly in Guatemala City, temporarily lifting nationwide roadblocks. Additionally, high-ranking officials of the Guatemala police engaged in negotiations with indigenous leaders to ensure peaceful protests.
Journalist killings prompt urgent call for justice
On 11th August 2023, two journalists, Edin Frangeli Alonso López and Hugo Rolando Gutiérrez Alonzo, were tragically shot in the Retalhuleu department of Guatemala by unknown individuals, as reported by “La Hora” a Guatemalan newspaper. This incident occurred after the journalists covered an alleged femicide case. Both served as administrators for the Facebook page "White Horse News" (Noticias Caballo Blanco), which has about 34,000 followers and focused on reporting on matters of general interest to the community.
According to an alert from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), a journalist based in Retalhuleu, who, for safety reasons, requested anonymity when communicating with the CPJ, revealed that Alonso and Gutiérrez had informed their colleagues about the threats they had received. However, they had not initiated the formal process of filing formal complaints. The CPJ stated that “Guatemalan authorities must thoroughly investigate the killings of both journalists and determine if they were targeted for their work.”
By August 2023, three journalists had been killed in Guatemala by acts of violence. As previously documented by the CIVICUS Monitor, in March 2023, journalist Eduardo Fernando Mendizabal Gálvez was murdered on the outskirts of Guatemala City.
On 24th August 2023, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights’ Office of the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression (SRFOE) condemned the killing of two journalists and called on Guatemalan authorities to swiftly prosecute and bring the perpetrators to justice: “This Office reiterates its call to the State of Guatemala to increase efforts to prevent violence against the press and media workers, and urges the State to investigate the facts in accordance with international standards on the matter.”
Assault on freedom of expression continues
According to Community Press Kilometer 169 (Prensa Comunitaria Kilómetro 169), there has been a noticeable increase in the frequency of attacks against journalists this year. As of September 2023, at least 215 incidents were reported. Among these, there are 39 cases of judicial harassment, 49 instances of restrictions on public information, 29 cyberattacks, 13 physical assaults, and four journalists have been displaced.
Additionally, throughout the Guatemalan electoral period, at least 96 incidents were reported, most of them linked to restrictions on public information.
Killings of social leaders
On 4th October, unknown individuals killed Doris Lisseth Aldana Calderón, a trade union leader of the Izabel Banana Workers Union (Sindicato de Trabajadores Bananeros de Izabal, SITRABI). She was travelling home from work in the banana producing area in Northern Guatemala. According to Banana Link, an organisation that advocates for fair and equitable production and trade in bananas, Aldana was “one of two trade union representatives at her workplace, BANDEGUA, a subsidiary of Del Monte. The other was dismissed in early September.”
As reported in 2023 by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Guatemala is one of the top ten worst countries in the world for working people. There is a “prevailing atmosphere of repression, physical violence and intimidation against workers and trade unionists continued to constrain their activities in 2023.”
#Guatemala 🇬🇹:La Confederación Sindical Internacional protesta enérgicamente contra el asesinato de la compañera Doris Lisseth Aldana, destacada dirigente sindical del Sindicato de Trabajadores Bananeros de Izabal @colsiba— ITUC (@ituc) October 6, 2023
Carta enviada al Presidente de la República de… pic.twitter.com/rf6ISjrahR
A few weeks later, on 28th October, Noé Gómez Barrera, a Xinka leader and human rights defender, was fatally shot. Gómez played a key role as a leader and organiser of peaceful demonstrations during the National Strike. The Xinka Parliament denounced his murder and called for an investigation, as well as for an end to the criminalisation and violence targeting Xinka leaders and human rights defenders.
On 30th October, the IACHR urged Guatemalan authorities to conduct an investigation with due diligence into the circumstances surrounding Gómez’s death. Additionally, the OAS and Delegation of the European Union to Guatemala condemned both killings.
Violence against women human rights defenders
On 30th October 2023, the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) published its concluding observations (CEDAW/C/GTM/CO/10) on Guatemala. The CEDAW was alarmed about attacks, gender-based violence and killings, intimidation, stigmatisation, criminalisation, illegal detention, and defamation campaigns targeting “journalists and media workers, unionists, indigenous women environmental activists, women advocating for the rights of lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women.”
Similarly, it expressed specific concerns over cases of reprisals against women human rights defenders serving in judicial functions. The committee cited the cases of Virginia Laparra, a former prosecutor, and Claudia Gonzalez, a former member of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), as examples. Laparra and Gonzalez had worked to promote the rule of law, fight corruption, and bring impunity to an end in Guatemala.
The CEDAW urged the Guatemalan State “to protect all women human rights defenders from any attacks, gender-based violence, harassment, intimidation and other reprisals for their legitimate work, and prosecute and adequately punish perpetrators of such violent acts, including public officials, and to ensure that women human rights defenders and activists can freely carry out their legitimate work and exercise their rights to freedom of expression, peaceful assembly and association.”