Two journalists killed, as civic space attacked by state, non-state actors

Association

Environmental and land rights activists in Guatemala continue to come under pressure from both illegal armed groups and state forces. In late December, rights group UDEFEGUA reported that between January and November 2016 14 activists were murdered and seven suffered assassination attempts. In total, UDEFEGUA identified 223 attacks on activists during this period - an average of 20 a month.

This trend continues in the early weeks of 2017. On 5th January, police evicted a peasant community from Finca Santa Inés in Alta Verapaz. The twenty evicted families had lived on this land before Guatemala's civil war forced them to leave. As the peace process took hold, they returned to their land butwere evicted four times. During their latest attempt to resettle, four community leaders (two men and two women) were arrested.

In separate developments, on 16th January, environmental activist Laura Vásquez Pineda was shot dead by unknown attackers who broke into her home. In 2013, Vásquez Pineda had spent seven months in prison on charges that were never substantiated, in connection with her activism in the San Rafael Las Flores Committee in Defence of Life and her participation in peaceful resistance against the San Rafael mining project. Following her release, she had faced a sustained campaign of stigmatisation and defamation.

Peaceful Assembly

Several protests on a number of issues took place in Guatemala over the past two months, with one concerning environmental and land rights issues violently repressed. On 17th January, an armed group opened fire on farmers and land rights activists protesting against a hydroelectric project in Huehuetenango. Sebastián Alonso, a 72-year-old local man, died after he was hit during the attack. According to the National Police, the same armed group also attacked police who tried to intervene.

On 21st January, a group of Guatemalan citizens demonstrated against corruption in the country’s capital. They protested in reaction to recent revelations involving high-ranking government officials. On the same day, a group of US nationals, most of them women, demonstrated in Guatemala City in solidarity with the Women's March and to reject the upcoming policy reversals in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s presidential inaugration.

On 24th January, health workers marched on the Presidential Square to protest against a series of large-scale layoffs that took place in the public health sector over the past month.

Expression

Two reporters were killed in Guatemala between late January and early February. On 19th January, journalist Manuel Salvador Trujillo was murdered in the Zacapa department. He had been given no protection after surviving a previous attack in November 2016. On 5th February, a 26-year old radio anchor, Vilma Gabriela Barrios, was found dead in Quetzaltenango. The previous day, she and her mother had been reported missing, but her mother was later found injured and taken to a hospital. Barrios' death has not been officially linked to her job as a journalist.

In separate developments, on 7th February, independent media assoication CMI Guatemala suffered a large-scale attack on its server. The same day, Guatemala's Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge De León Duque urged the national government to implement protection measures for journalists who work under extreme vulnerability, informing the public that several requests to that effect had been repeatedly made to President Jimmy Morales. The Ombudsman expressed his concerns about:

"the persistent vulnerability of journalists, in particular of those who conduct their activities in the interior of the country, where on top of the aggressions they suffer from some corrupt government officials they also face the scourge of drug traffic and organised crime. [...] The constant violence and threats [they face] are an indication of the increasing risks involved in the exercise of such an important profession."

On the other hand, there has been progress in the Public Ministry's probe of the 2015 murder of journalists Danilo Zapón López and Federico Salazar. On 26th January, three people were arrested under suspicion of acting as intermediaries between the intellectual and material authors of these murders.