2018: a lethal year for land and environmental defenders in Guatemala

Association

As previously reported by the CIVICUS Monitor, the environment for human rights defenders in Guatemala is becoming increasingly hostile. Guatemalan civil society organisation UDEFEGUA documented that between January and 8th June 2018, 13 activists had been killed in Guatemala, and 135 were subject to attacks. That figure has since increased to 18 killed since the beginning of 2018. A statement released by several UN human rights experts on 9th August confirmed that 11 of these HRDs were killed between 9th May and 27th July 2018 alone. The following two cases illustrate the kinds of circumstances that have led to these killings:

  • Ramon Choc Sacrab died on 2nd June, two days after he was stabbed by two men while leaving a peaceful demonstration. The activist participated in a demonstration on 30th May that demanded justice for the murder of three of his colleagues from Comité Campesino del Altiplano - CCDA.  Choc Sacrab was a member of the Mayan Q’eqchi’ people and he had been receiving death threats because of his activism in defense of land and environmental rights of the community. Because of the threats, he was granted protection by the State. 
  • A day later, on 3rd June, social leaders Florencio Nájera and Alejandro Hernández were murdered after they left a meeting of the organisation Comite de Desarrollo Campesino - CODECA. The attack happened in the central region of Jutiapa where there are constant land disputes with private companies. On 8th June, in the region of Jalapa, another representative of CODECA was murdered. Francisco Munguia was stabbed with a machete.

These land disputes prompted the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to express its concern over the situation faced by vulnerable communities in Guatemala that are being displaced from their ancestral lands. On 18th June, the IACHR granted precautionary measures to the Maya Q’ueqchi community because of the heightened risk they are facing due to the expulsion from their lands and the precarious situation in which families there are being placed as a result.

The statement released on 9th August by UN human rights experts issued a statement expressing concern over:

"[T]he increase in killings, attacks and other acts of intimidation against human rights defenders in Guatemala, amid restrictive legislative and political attempts to curtail their work."

The Ombudsman, Jordán Rodas Andrade, expressed his concern regarding the lack of attention that the Government of Guatemala is giving to the situation of HRDs in the country. In a letter dated 21st June, he described how he requested a meeting with President Jimmy Morales to discuss this situation, and the meeting was delegated to the Ministry of Government Enrique Degenhart. When the Ombudsman arrived at the meeting along with CSOs representatives, the meeting was cancelled.

In a positive development, local CSOs highlighted the creation of an investigation protocol in the Public Ministry which is especially focused on HRDs. The protocol contains specific parameters and methods through which investigations should be conducted after an attack on a HRD.

In May 2018, Guatemalan CSOs rejected proposed amendments to Act 5257 that regulates CSOs in the country. The organisations believe these amendments undermine freedom of association because they give discretionary power to the Executive to shut down and confiscate an organisation's assets.

Peaceful Assembly

On 3rd July 2018, communities of the central town of San Juan Sacatepéquez of Guatemala reported that at least 75 hooded men attacked them while they held a peaceful demonstration to reject the presence of a cement plant in their community. The plant is the property of the Cementos Progreso company. The community stated that the men were armed and at least 17 members of the community were injured. 

Expression

There have been a number of incidents connected to the freedom of expression in Guatemala over the past two months. On 20th June, two journalists from broadcaster Guatevision were robbed while waiting to cover a protest that was heading towards the US Embassy. Two men riding a motorcycle pointed a gun at them and stole their cell phones, cameras, broadcasting devices and memory sticks. 

In a separate development, a criminal court decided to try Marcos Oswaldo Azurdia for the murder of journalist Manuel Salvador Trujillo in January 2017. The Special Unit of Crimes against Journalists of the Prosecutors’ Office says it has an anonymous confession from someone that helped identify Azurdia as being responsible of this attack.

On 19th July, a court decided to close the case against Jerson Xitumul Morales after the Prosecutor’s Office requested it to do so. As previously reported on the Monitor, Morales is a journalist from Prensa Comunitaria who had been legally harassed for over a year when a criminal case was open against him. He was accused of threatening and illegally detaining another person. Civil society organisations claimed that this case was brought a result of Morales' work reporting land conflicts between indigenous communities and private companies.