Authorities target land and indigenous rights activism

Association

On 11th October 2017, indigenous and environmental rights defender Juan Caal Suram was detained after a judge issued an arrest warrant on 11th August. It was reported, however, that the authorities did not provide an arrest warrant. Caal Suram is a member of the Gremial de Pescadores Artesanales (Artisan Fishermen’s Guild), fighting to protect Maya-Q’eqchi' communities in El Estor, Izabal from contamination by nickel mining activities. On 27th May 2017, the activist, along with the community of El Estor, participated in a peaceful protest to block access to the premises of a mining company that is a cause of pollution in the community. The protest was violently repressed. The company - Compañia Guatemalteca de Niquel - then pressed charges for illegal usurpation of land, damage to private property and unlawful association. Caal Suram is currently under house arrest. 

On 8th November, Lilian Angelica Juarez, a leader of an indigenous women’s network, disappeared after taking a taxi in the country’s capital. She was found the next day beaten in a hospital. The attack has not yet been linked to her work, but there is an ongoing investigation to determine the causes of the attack. 

Local organisation UDEFEGUA released a report on the situation for human rights defenders in the country from January to October 2017. The report details an increase in the number of activists killed, with 49 activists murdered, compared to 14 murders in 2016. Thus far in 2017, there have been 328 acts of  aggression against HRDs and 72 against indigenous and land rights activists. According to the report, the causes behind these acts of aggression include the extractive industries, corruption and illegal armed actors.

Peaceful Assembly

A new draft law on terrorism could potentially restrict the right to peaceful assembly. The proposal punishes perpetrators with sentences ranging from 20 to 30 years in prison for any conduct that "threaten[s] the health, liberty or safety of people or property, affecting public buildings, roads, transportation, or any other service". Opinions of the law vary, especially after a national protest against corruption took place on 7th November, during which roads were blocked and businesses complained of profit losses.

After this national protest, Comité de Desarrollo Campesino (CODECA), the organisation behind the protest, reported several violations during the day. For example, Antonio Pérez de León was murdered when he left his house to participate in the protest. In addition, Vicente Calderón was run over by a car during the protest. The attacker was later arrested by police officers in the area.

After the protest, a group of private sector entities filed a report against CODECA with the Public Ministry for inciting crime and sedition.

The Ombudsman's Office monitored the protests to guarantee the protection of fundamental rights and announced that it will open an investigation into specific cases related to the protests.

Expression

On 11th November 2017, it was reported that journalist Jerson Antonio Xitumul Morales was arbitrary detained. Morales is a reporter with the media outlet Prensa Comunitaria and he had been covering the protests against the Guatemalan Nickel Company (referenced above) since early 2017. 

In a separate incident, on 7th September the Supreme Court of Justice authorised an investigation of Julio Juarez, a congressional representative accused of being the intellectual author behind the assassination of two journalists in 2015.

On 14th November, the Office of the Ombudsman released the results of an investigation after several journalists accused the communications office of the presidency of violating their right to access public information. The accusations included being prohibited from entering the presidential venue to interview public officials as well as being denied information. After the investigation, the Ombudsman concluded that there had been a violation to the right of freedom of expression and right to access public information, with José Alfredo Brito Ralón, Communications Secretary of the Presidency, the main person responsible for the violations.

It was also reported that on 17th September, radio host Humberto Culuc was threatened during his programme. It remains unclear at the time of writing why Culuc was threatened. In addition, on 28th October journalists Williams Mazariegos received a death threat, which according to him, is connected with his reporting on the unlawful use of public funds.

During the UN's Universal Periodic Review, five countries recommended that Guatemala implement a journalism protection programme that was initially promised by former President Molina.