In the August updates for The Violence of Development website we included a short report on the increase in the number of femicides in El Salvador during the COVID-19 pandemic. The same has been happening in Guatemala. On 10th October 2020 Al Jazeera published a report written by Sandra Cuffe on the protests of women’s groups against the high incidence of femicides in Guatemala and on the 11th October TeleSur published a brief report on the protest action. We reproduce a summary of both reports below the photo.
Key words: femicide; femicide rates; Guatemala.
On Saturday 10th October Guatemala’s women’s organisations held a protest in several cities of the country, to reject the violence against women, which has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dozens of women gathered outside the municipal building in the city of Quetzaltenango, head of the department of the same name, to pay tribute and demand justice for the women who have been raped, murdered, and disappeared in the last 20 years.
“We speak for the 4 women who disappear every day. We speak for all the 77,847 girls and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 who are already mothers,” the organisers stated.
“We speak for all the 12,188 women murdered in the last 20 years in the country. We speak for all the 55 women who call every day to denounce their aggressor. We speak for all the lives stolen, silenced, and extinguished of every girl, teenager, and woman in Guatemala,” the organisers explained.
Similar mobilizations took place in the capital, Guatemala City, Escuintla, Cobán, Teculután, among others, where there were songs, marches, and candles in memory of the murdered women.
More than 200 women were killed in the first eight months of this year in Guatemala and more than 3,000 women and girls have been killed since 2015, according to human rights groups tracking government statistics. The overwhelming majority of these cases remain unresolved.
The protests were sparked by the murder of social work student Litzy Amelia Cordón, 20, whose body was found in the municipality of Teculután where primary schoolteacher Laura Daniela Hernández had been murdered the week before.
The women also demanded the State’s commitment to guarantee women’s security and freedom, and “to strengthen the processes of reparative justice for girls and women victims of violence and femicide. The State must take more action. Woman are getting killed in this patriarchal and misogynist system,” they said.
By Martin Mowforth
Key words: Honduras; foreign troops; Southcom; migration prevention; counter-terrorism; Olivia Zúñiga Cáceres; civil unrest.
1,000 Israeli troops to Honduras
In May this year a multilateral treaty between Honduras, Israel and the United States saw the deployment of 1,000 Israeli soldiers to Honduras to train the Armed Forces of Honduras and the National Police. The treaty was forged between Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo during the inauguration of Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro.
The main mission of the troops is to train for border protection to prevent migrants fleeing Honduras to the USA, but they will also offer training in the fight against drug trafficking, investigation and counter-terrorism. (It may be a forlorn hope that they will unearth and expose the terrorism practised by the US forces in Honduras against so many Latin American nations.) The 1,000 troops will be stationed with the Joint Task Force of the US at the Soto Cano air base in Palmerola, the largest US military base in Latin America.
The presence of Israeli soldiers is part of a bilateral cooperation agreed between the two countries and signed before Honduras transferred its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Another agreement between the two countries (signed in 2016 and for a period of ten years) commits Honduras to purchasing a million dollars’ worth of arms and military equipment and the repowering of ships and planes.
Olivia Zúñiga Cáceres, a deputy from the Partido Libertad y Refundación (Liberty and Refoundation Party), explained that the 2009 post-coup government “began to make military agreements where the Honduran army would receive more training, and it is all paid for with the taxes of the Honduran people, so that all of the general budget that was destined for health, education and public services is reduced.”
Zúñiga Cáceres (who also happens to be one of the daughters of the assassinated leader of COPINH, Berta Cáceres) went on to describe the Israeli armed forces as: “specialists in genocide, specialists in torture, which they do against the Palestinian people.”
300 US troops to Honduras
Another Southern Command (Southcom) brigade of US Navy and Marine soldiers arrived in Honduras at the beginning of June to “improve disaster response and other crisis situations”.
As Popular Resistance.org writes, “Southcom has been a controversial actor in Latin American politics for many years since its founding as a force to defend US interests at the Panama Canal. The commander of Southcom, US Admiral Craig Faller, has intimated that the force could be re-oriented for intervention in Venezuela …”
It is interesting to note that this new deployment of forces coincides with widespread civil unrest in Honduras. The protests of health and education workers have grown into broader demonstrations against government corruption and neoliberal economic development policies such as privatisation and deregulation. It also coincides with US efforts to persuade northern triangle countries’ governments (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) to prevent the waves of migrants that have chosen over the last nine months to leave the failed state that is Honduras.
- Telesur, 6 May 2019, ‘1,000 Israeli Soldiers To Arrive in Honduras to Train Troops, Police on Border Protection’
- Popular Resistance.org, 22 May 2019, ‘”This Is A War Against The Honduran People”’
- Criterio, 3 June 2019, ‘Masiva protesta de médicos y docentes pese a división orquestada por el gobierno’
- Rights Action, 3 June 2019, ‘Honduran Presidents linked to drug-trafficking & money laundering since US & Canadian-backed coup ousted Honduras’ last democratic government’
- Public Sector Finance, 7 June 2019, ‘Protests in Honduras continue over public sector reforms’
- Telesurenglish.net, 8 June 2019, ‘300 US Southcom Troops Arrive in Honduras to Teach ‘Humanitarian Assistance’’
- School of The Americas watch (SOAW), 12 June 2019, SOAW News
June 7, 2019
We are grateful to Rights Action for reproducing in June 2019 an analysis made by Insight Crime in April 2019. Details of Rights Action and Insight Crime are given at the end of this article.
Key words: organised crime; drug trafficking; President Jimmy Morales; International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG); illicit campaign finance; corruption.
US Drug Probe Lands Guatemala President in Hot Water
by Parker Asmann, April 25, 2019
Controversy is swirling in Guatemala after evidence emerged showing that President Jimmy Morales used a helicopter owned by a presidential candidate recently arrested in the United States on drug charges — a case that has turned up the heat significantly on the Central American nation’s head of state.
President Morales, who will be replaced after elections this year, reportedly used a helicopter owned by candidate Mario Amilcar Estrada Orellana for official business in January 2018 and possibly on at least one other occasion, Prensa Libre reported. Morales claimed in an April 23 press release that the helicopter was contracted by his government with a company called Maya World Tours, which brokers helicopter flights.
However, a legal representative for Maya World Tours said that the company never provided the use of Estrada’s helicopter to Morales, and that the president used the aircraft through some other arrangement, according to Prensa Libre.
Just last week, US authorities arrested Estrada, a former presidential candidate with the centre-right National Change Union (Unión del Cambio Nacionalista — UCN) political party, on drug and firearms charges. Estrada allegedly sought millions in campaign funds from Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel in exchange for facilitating the group’s drug trafficking activities.
Despite his arrest, Morales stated that neither he nor his country’s intelligence officials had any idea that Estrada was engaged in drug trafficking. A 2011 US embassy cable, later released by WikiLeaks, dubbed Estrada’s UCN a ‘narco party’. Estrada and his party were also investigated in 2015 for alleged illicit campaign financing and links to drug trafficking.
Morales confirmed that he met with Estrada April 2 of this year at a finca owned by the candidate in southeast Jalapa department, Soy 502 reported. The announcement came after another presidential candidate, Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope (Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza — UNE) party, raised questions about the encounter in an April 22 tweet.
After “insistent” requests from Estrada, according to Morales, the two talked about the transition process if Estrada were to win the upcoming June election — and nothing else. “I have no problem in saying it, because I have done it in a transparent way,” Morales said.
Other associates of Morales and his National Convergence Front (Frente de Convergencia Nacional — FCN-Nación) political party are also alleged to have links to Estrada and the UCN.
Ernesto José Degenhart Asturias, the brother of Guatemala Interior Minister Enrique Antonio Degenhart Asturias, is running for congress on the UCN ticket. Degenhart has been at the heart of Morales’s battle to weaken the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), which is investigating Morales for alleged illicit campaign financing during his 2015 presidential run.
A number of other shadowy officials with links to the Morales administration are also connected to the UCN or running for various government positions on behalf of the political party this election season.
InSight Crime Analysis
The United States government has played a bizarre role in backing President Morales’ efforts to undermine investigations carried out by the CICIG and Attorney General’s Office into the alleged criminal conduct of Morales and his political party. However, the Estrada investigation by US authorities has returned attention to Morales — even as he continues his attacks on the CICIG.
US Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) is the key supporter of Morales’ drive to quash Guatemala’s anti-graft unit. He has halted US funds for the CICIG — which accounts for just under half of the commission’s budget — due to its alleged role in helping prosecute a Russian family in relation to a scheme to fabricate identification documents. Those allegations, however, were shown to be unfounded and lacking any evidence. Yet Rubio alleged that the CICIG was manipulated or possibly even working with the Russian government in prosecuting the family.
While Rubio and other powerbrokers have hobbled the CICIG from abroad, Morales has waged a war against its prosecutors at home. Morales ousted CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez from the country and later ordered the expulsion of the rest of the commission’s agents. In January 2019, he terminated the agreement that founded the CICIG altogether, putting the country on the brink of a constitutional crisis.
Whether Morales’ links to Estrada will force the US government to reconsider its relationship with Guatemala and its embattled president is impossible to infer, according to Mike Allison, a Central America expert and the head of the political science department at the University of Scranton. “It’s tough to predict when the US government will work with people ‘known’ to be corrupt and when it won’t,” Allison said.
Indeed, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo praised Morales and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for their cooperation on security last year. At the same time, some of Hernández’s family members are alleged to be “large-scale drug traffickers.” Previous US administrations also worked with the likes of disgraced former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina until he was arrested along with his former vice president, Roxana Baldetti, on corruption charges.
However, support for Morales may be waning in some US government circles. Kimberly Breier, the United States’ Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, is reportedly not going to meet with President Morales and Foreign Affairs Minister Sandra Jovel during her upcoming tour through the Northern Triangle region.
“Without increased pressure from the United States and the international community, I don’t see Guatemalan authorities moving against Morales,” Allison said. However, “it’s somewhat more likely that if there is evidence behind the allegations against Morales, those charges could be pursued in US courts.”
Rights Action is a non-profit organisation incorporated in the U.S. and Canada. Founded in the U.S. in 1995, Rights Action grew out of Guatemala Partners that, itself, was created from the merger of PEACE for Guatemala and Guatemala Health Rights Support Project, both founded in 1983. https://rightsaction.org/
InSight Crime is a foundation dedicated to the study of the principal threat to national and citizen security in Latin America and the Caribbean: Organized Crime. www.insightcrime.org/
The following report comes from TeleSur:
Published 19 October 2019 Telesur
Hondurans called for the resignation of Juan Orlando Hernandez after a U.S. federal court convicted his brother of drug trafficking.
Hondurans on Friday took to the streets to demand the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH) after the New York Federal Court found his brother, Tony Hernandez, guilty on charges of drug trafficking, use of weapons and lying to authorities.
“We call on all our militancy to total, organized and permanent nationwide mobilization by performing peaceful but firm and forceful protests,” said former president Manuel Zelaya, who is the Freedom and Refoundation Party (Libre) coordinator.
Besides asking the United States to suspend all aid to the Hernandez administration, Zelaya asked to give the Honduran people a “democratic government” and fair laws.
During the trial of Tony Hernandez, the U.S. jury heard testimony from drug traffickers who claimed that politician JOH used their money to finance his campaigns on at least two occasions.
This alleged fact, which Hondurans had long been denouncing, triggered protests against a president who began his second presidential term on January 27, 2018 amid accusations of electoral fraud.
Honduras: having the background with shout ‘Out with JOH’, the night was spent with the Hondurans protesting against the narco-government and the tyrant JOH repressing the people. In Honduras, politics and drugs are the same thing.
After Zelaya’s call, protests began to spread throughout the country. On Friday afternoon, Hondurans blocked roads that led to cities such as Yarumela, La Ceiba, San Pedro Sula and Cortes.
The protests would gradually acquire more forceful expressions. On Friday night, access roads to the headquarters of the Honduran government were closed. Meanwhile, the number of burning barricades increased in the streets and highways.
Former presidential candidate Salvador Nasralla called for the installation of a transitional government, which would be chaired by him until the winner of the 2021 elections takes office.
The rejection of President JOH happened even in the least expected places and moments. During a sports program broadcasted on television, the host railed against Hernandez whom he described as a “drug trafficker”, emphasizing that the ruling National Party lawmakers are “cockroaches.”
The Violence of Development website has included numerous articles condemning the state of Honduras for the violence of its armed forces, its gangsterism and links with drug trafficking. Here on his ‘Two Worlds’ blog site, John Perry outlines the results of a recent court case in New York which confirms the Honduran government as a fully-fledged narco-state that uses gangster tactics to enforce its ‘policies’.
The article was originally posted in: London Review of Books , plus comments.
The Two Worlds blog can be found at: https://twoworlds.me/ We are grateful to John Perry for permission to reproduce the article here.
Key words: Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH); Donald Trump; drug trafficking; drug cartels; electoral fraud
By John Perry
October 23, 2019
Donald Trump said last year that migrant caravans, mainly of Hondurans, were coming to the US from ‘shithole countries’. But now he says that the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, is doing a ‘fantastic job’.
Trump and JOH recently reached an agreement declaring Honduras to be a ‘safe place’ for asylum seekers trying to reach the US. JOH also promised to help the US tackle transnational criminal organisations. He’s well placed to do this. Last November, his brother Tony was arrested in Miami and accused of drug trafficking and possessing illegal weapons. At his trial in New York, which concluded last week, the jury found Tony Hernández guilty. He faces at least 30 years in prison for bringing 200,000 kilos of cocaine into the US between 2004 and 2018, in packets often stamped with his own initials.
In an imprudent tweet two days before the verdict, the US Embassy in Tegucigalpa praised the Honduran government for joining the US in ‘the fight against drugs’. In August, however, JOH was accused of accepting $1.5 million in drug money for his 2013 re-election campaign.
One of the witnesses in the trial of Tony Hernández was Alexander Ardón, identified as a drug trafficker five years ago. He has confessed to involvement in 56 murders. He told the court in New York that the Mexican cartel boss ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán, sent to prison for life by a US court in July, visited Honduras twice and paid JOH $1 million in protection money. Ardón said that he had himself paid $4 million in bribes to JOH and his predecessor, Porfirio Lobo. Lobo’s son was convicted of trafficking in the US last year and his wife has just been imprisoned for fraud.
In a separate case, JOH’s cousin was indicted for trafficking in the US in September. JOH responded on Twitter that those testifying against him are liars and ‘confessed murderers’.
The prosecution concluded that drug traffickers ‘infiltrated’ and ‘controlled’ the Honduran government.
A trafficker who gave evidence, Chang Monroy, was asked why he had previously lied about knowing Tony Hernández. ‘I was scared,’ he said, ‘because I’m like other drug traffickers that are violent, but no other drug trafficker has a brother that’s the president of a country that controls the police and the military.’
Witnesses alleged that Tony Hernández had arranged the murder of two of his rivals, in one case by a former death squad member who was later promoted to head of the Honduran police. A cartel that Hernández was linked to, Los Cachiros, has carried out at least 78 assassinations. The victims include three journalists.
The emergence of the narco-state of Honduras began with the military coup of June 2009. In elections contrived to validate the coup (and approved by Hillary Clinton when she was secretary of state), Lobo became president in 2010. JOH succeeded him in 2014. The constitution was changed in 2015 to allow a president to serve more than one term, and JOH stood again in 2017. The election was riddled with fraud, but Trump still congratulated him on ‘a close election result’.
Following Tony Hernández’s conviction in a US court, any previous US president would have distanced himself from JOH. Trump, however, is untroubled by criminal behaviour and his judgments are based on electoral calculation: is his base more worried about drugs coming into the US, or Central American migrants? With more than 240,000 Hondurans apprehended at the US border so far this year, Trump backs a foreign president who acts tough. He’ll ignore the poverty and violence that drive the migrants to leave their homes: instead, he’ll continue to support the policies that produce them.
By Karen Spring, Honduras Solidarity Network
17 November, 2019
We are grateful to Karen Spring and the Honduras Solidarity Network for permission to include this article in The Violence of Development website. Karen is the partner of Edwin Espinal who was held in Honduran jails as a political prisoner. The article gives the reader an idea of how difficult life can be for human rights defenders in current-day Honduras.
Key words: Honduras; political prisoners; human rights defenders; criminalization of protest; state-sponsored drug trafficking; President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH).
It has been three months since Edwin Espinal was released from La Tolva prison. I haven’t written anything publicly due to being exhausted for, while Edwin was in prison, I felt like I ran a 1.5-year marathon with little time to sit down, reflect, and absorb what was going on around me.
Thank you to the people who have supported Edwin’s case, my human rights work in Honduras and this belated update from Honduras.
In the three months since his release, Edwin has been recovering, speaking to media, attending the legal hearings and meetings related to the cases of the other political prisoners, spending a lot of time with family, and planning our future.
Edwin continues to have a permanent, loud, ringing sound in his ear. We are told it is tinnitus but still feel we need to see another specialist that can run further tests. Edwin developed the problem in prison after complaining of an ear infection that was never treated. The ringing sound not only interrupts his sleep or other moments of rest or quiet, but also generates a lot of frustration and anger.
It reminds him of the whole experience in La Tolva, being denied medical treatment, the unjust way he was detained, and as he often says, “the way the government wanted to make me suffer.”
The mental health impact could possibly be worse than the actual physical problem. He frequently gets headaches that he says are linked to the noise in his ears and asks me sometimes to put my head up against his to see if I can hear the loud ringing in his ears. But it is internal and I hear nothing.
Every week, Edwin goes to the courthouse to sign a ledger that is supposed to show to the Honduran judiciary that he has not left the country and that he is still present to face the charges against him. His court date is set for May 14 and 15, 2020.
As for myself, I continue my work supporting the other political prisoner cases. Within the first 6 months following the 2017 electoral crisis, all were released except five including Edwin. Now, only one political prisoner remains in jail; over 170 people still face charges and are forced to sign regularly at courthouses around the country. I am also doing human rights work related to the criminalization of people awaiting trial. Some are being harassed continuously by Honduran military and police.
One young man who was arrested for participating in protests during the 2017 electoral crisis, and who spent four months in the maximum-security El Pozo prison, has been forced into hiding. Military soldiers and police – with their faces covered, carrying heavy weapons including illegal weapons like AK-47s – have shown up four times at his small house to either raid it, when he is not home, or just stand outside to intimidate him. He reports that a red Toyota pick-up truck with tinted windows and no license plate is frequently seen parked on his street. Out of fear, the young man has since fled his home.
Many people face this type of intimidation and are forced to hide, or move frequently. They fear they will be killed.
The Honduras Solidarity Network is assisting this gentleman and others to raise their profiles to deter the government from harassing them further and to make all the details of the harassment known publicly.
On November 11, Edwin, Raúl, members of the National Committee for the Freedom of Political Prisoners and myself, travelled to the city of El Progreso for political prisoner Gustavo Cáceres’ trial. It was suspended last week after two witnesses, called by the Honduran government, did not appear. As a defence strategy, Gustavo’s lawyers asked him to testify before the judges.
When Gustavo took the stand, the judges asked him to state his ID number, address, and birthdate. He shrugged and could not answer completely, due to his disability. Many people in the courtroom teared up as Gustavo attempted to give his version of the events related to his detention. He was arrested while crossing a bridge where a protest was taking place.
When stopped by the police, they put a black bag over his head (a method of torture used by the police to generate fear and attempt to elicit confessions) and took him to the police station. Gustavo told the court in an honest and sincere way, but in broken sentences, that he was close to the protest; he was trying to cross the blocked bridge to go to work. Meanwhile, the police officers that arrested him, contradicted each other, including testifying that Gustavo was arrested in two different places and based on different reasons.
In early October, I attended half of
the trial of Juan Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernández (brother of President Hernández) in
New York. I posted summaries of the trial on my blog aquiabajo.com so people
could follow the case.
As a result of my attendance at the trial and being closely monitored by the Honduran government, another defamation campaign circulated against me on October 18, 2019, claiming that I was paying people $200 each to protest outside the New York trial and that I received funding from a convicted drug trafficker who is also in jail in the US.
These campaigns are dangerous and have become a common tactic of the Honduran government to try to discredit human rights defenders and create security problems for them. This is another reason that I have not written much as both Edwin and I are aware of the exceptionally difficult security situation that we are in in Honduras, particularly given the current political context.
State-sponsored drug trafficking
Since Tony Hernández was found guilty
on 4 counts of drug and weapons smuggling and lying to federal authorities, the
environment in Honduras has been eerie and dangerous.
As the Canadian and US government insist that the governments in Venezuela, Nicaragua, Cuba, and now to a degree, Bolivia, are drug traffickers and dictators, it is outrageous to hear absolutely nothing from Canadian and US authorities regarding the drug conviction of Tony Hernández in New York and the role that President Juan Orlando Hernández continues to play in enabling and participating in drug trafficking.
Now, weeks after this conviction, military, police, and other government institutions are terrorizing the Honduran population so they do not protest.
One Honduran journalist has reported that since the conviction, 11 people linked to the President and the President’s brother’s drug cartel have been murdered, likely to stop them from testifying against them. Human rights and social movement leaders have been kidnapped and tortured, and in some cases, brutally killed. Their bodies are dumped off at the side of a road, which is a strategy to terrorize the population.
There have also been 51 massacres in different parts of the country so far this year and often involve individuals dressed in police or military uniforms getting out of unmarked vehicles, open firing at groups of young people in public areas, and then fleeing the scene. The massacres and lack of investigations into why and who committed them, send a cold chill through communities and the entire population in Honduras. However, smaller groups of people still take to the streets to protest this corruption when demonstrations are organised.
Hondurans are well aware that Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) is scared and feeling insecure about his control over the Presidential Palace because he has been exposed as a co-conspirator in the drug case against his brother. They believe that while JOH remains in power, it is less likely that the US will ask for his extradition. Hondurans also understand that JOH is not only protecting his political power as President but also his and his brother’s drug cartel interests. Evidence brought forward in the NY trial reveals that their involvement in drug trafficking has converted them into one of the major suppliers of cocaine to the US through the infamous and now-imprisoned Mexican drug trafficker, Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman and the large, Mexican-based Sinaloa cartel. As one cooperating witness said in the New York trial when asked why he was scared to testify against Tony Hernández, “All drug traffickers are dangerous and violent, but none [as much as] the brother of the President of a country that can control the military and the police.”
Edwin and I await an end to this fearful time. We are deeply grateful for the support we continue to receive from our community of Simcoe County that advocates for his freedom, the freedom of all political prisoners, and for human rights in Honduras. Thank you!
Honduras Solidarity Network
Honduras: 15 women murdered in first two weeks of 2020
From Democracy Now, 15 January 2020
In Honduras a new report by the Violence Observatory at the
Honduran National Autonomous University says that at least 15 women have been
murdered in the first 14 days of this year. Violence against women, LGBTQ
people, indigenous leaders and environmental activists has skyrocketed in
Honduras under the US-backed government of President Juan Orlando Hernández. Honduran
media reports that another migrant caravan has congregated in San Pedro Sula
and is preparing to head northwards, as violence and poverty continue to push
Hondurans to flee the country.
El Salvador: 17 assassinations in one weekend
From a report by Beatriz Calderón in La Prensa Gráfica, 15 January 2020
After a period of relatively low homicide numbers which has marked the early part of Nayib Bukele’s presidency, the director of the National Civil Police (PNC) Mauricio Arriaza Chicas described the weekend of the 11th and 12th January as ‘atypical’ and very different from the the average figure of 2.7 assassinations that the government announced during the previous week. Six people were assassinated on the Saturday and another eleven on the Sunday. Monday 13th also turned out to be a murderous day with another six assassinations. In total 56 people were assassinated during the first 15 days of January. Moreover another 65 – 70 people have disappeared in that same time period, although Arriaza Chicas suggested that these were accounted for either by them having lost their phones or having gone away with their partners.
Arriaza Chicas also gave the comparative figures for 2018 and 2019: 2019 – 2,383 assassinations.
A summary by Martin Mowforth – see sources below.
On 14th January  Alejandro Giammattei took over as President of Guatemala from Jimmy Morales.
Guatemalan civil society groups pressured authorities to arrest President Jimmy Morales for corruption during the few hours of the 14th January between the handover to the new President and the swearing in of Morales as a representative on the Central American Parliament (Parlacen). During those few hours his immunity from prosecution lapsed and only during that time could he be arrested.
Morales and more than a dozen outgoing congressional representatives face allegations of corruption and other crimes. Unlike most previous presidents, Morales was keen to join Parlacen in order to retain his immunity from prosecution. The timetable for the swearing in to Parlacen was suddenly advanced in order to limit the time available to bring about any such arrest or prosecution.
Most of the investigations into political corruption were initiated by the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). CICIG was formed in 2007 and exposed networks of corruption that had been entrenched in state institutions. CICIG investigations led to the resignation and arrest in 2015 of then-President Otto Pérez Molina and many in his administration. With the campaign slogan ‘neither a thief nor corrupt’ Morales won the election just weeks later, but he turned against CICIG after he, his relatives and his party were named in connection with investigations in 2017. In 2018 he refused to renew CICIG’s mandate and later barred CICIG’s head commissioner Iván Velasquez from the country.
President Giammattei represents the extreme right wing of politics and was backed by a group of hard-line former military officers who opposed the peace process which brought an end to Guatemala’s 36 year war. Amongst other things, he has no intention of bringing CICIG back but has vowed to bring back the death penalty. His only other experience of public political service was as Director of the Penitentiary System during which time he was denounced by human rights organisations for the high number of extrajudicial executions of prisoners.
Giammattei has promised to promote the extractive industries which, as experience shows us, cause forced displacement of rural and indigenous populations. He is also linked to the Foundation Against Terrorism which uses malicious prosecution to prevent defenders of human rights, land rights and environmental rights from pursuing investigations into, denunciations of and prosecutions of those who abuse these rights.
Under the heading ‘President Alejandro Giammattei appears to be a new face backed by the same old criminal networks’, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC) has produced an in-depth analysis of human rights concerns regarding Giammattei’s forthcoming presidency. A pdf of this analysis can be found here: [pdf version here].
Rights Action, 14 January 2020, ‘Changing of military-backed regimes in Guatemala’. This includes an article by Sandra Cuffe, ‘Guatemalans demand arrest of outgoing president for corruption’. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2020/01/guatemalans-demand-arrest-outgoing-president-corruption-200114001457754.html
Telesur, 14 January 2020, ‘Guatemala: Giammattei takes office in a poor, insecure country’.
GHRC, 15 January 2020, ‘No relief in sight: President Alejandro Giammattei appears to be a new face backed by the same old criminal networks’. www.ghrc-usa.org
If you read the following litany of crimes, abuses, death squad activities and much more, you won’t be surprised to hear that Guatemala’s human rights community is concerned about the country’s future under the presidency of Alejandro Giammattei. The following report by the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC) reads like a political corruption and organised crime novel, but this one is based on real life in Guatemala. I am grateful to the GHRC for permission to reproduce their report here and in particular to GHRC Director Annie Bird who wrote the introductory letter which accompanies the report.
I suppose that it shouldn’t really be a surprise given that gangsters and gangsterism now dominate the politics of the western world.
Yesterday, January 14, Alejandro Giammattei assumed the presidency of Guatemala. Guatemala’s human rights community is concerned. Here are key points to keep in mind.
- Four trials in Guatemala, Switzerland and Spain have demonstrated that police death squads killed inmates during Giammattei’s term as National Prisons Director – his only previous experience in public office. Other convictions show the same death squads were involved in violent disputes between drug traffickers, indicating the prison killings could be attributed to similar motives. While his direct participation has not been proven, this is a concerning precedent to what could happen under his watch as president. Related trials are ongoing, though prosecutors and judges are under attack.
- Giammattei has promised to expand and promote extractive industries that displace the livelihood and provoke forced displacement of rural and indigenous communities.
- At least two key cabinet appointments are active members of the Foundation Against Terrorism, which uses malicious prosecution to promote impunity for human rights abuses. On the day of the inauguration, Daniel Pascual, Coordinator of the Campesino Unity Committee, began trial on slander charges – a violation of freedom of speech, this process places the defender in danger, and is marred by procedural anomalies.
- Giammattei has promised to dissolve the Presidential Security Secretariat (SAAS), a civilian security agency created to comply with the peace accords, and instead has focused on strengthening the National Security Council. He has promised to appoint retired military officers active during Guatemala’s genocide to almost all key security positions.
- Students protesting the inauguration were illegally detained and apparently beaten. A judge ordered their release this morning and an investigation into police aggressions.
Below please find an in depth analysis of human rights concerns surrounding Giammattei’s inauguration [pdf version here]. Also please see GHRC’s analysis of the August 11, 2019 run off elections [pdf version here], the June 16 general elections [pdf version here], and the Constitutional Court decisions to bar candidates Zury Rios and Themla Aldana [pdf version here].
No Relief in Sight:
President Alejandro Giamattei appears to be a new face backed by the same old criminal networks
January 15, 2020
President-elect Alejandro Giammattei took office yesterday in Guatemala City. He was never expected to win. After three unsuccessful presidential bids, Giammattei made the runoff Presidential election in August by just one percentage point and only after three candidates had been eliminated through legal actions. His only experience in public office was a 2004-2008 stint as National Prisons Director. In 2010, he was charged with the extrajudicial execution of seven inmates under his watch. Though others indicted on related charges were convicted, charges against Giammattei were eventually dismissed by a judge who was later sanctioned as a result of unrelated corruption charges.
Giammattei comes to the presidency backed by a group of hard-line former military officers reportedly associated with the sector that opposed the peace process that ended Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. Many are also associated with industries that extract resources from rural communities – often with US, Canadian and European investment – a sector Giammattei has pledged to promote. Some are active members of organisations that have promoted dozens of malicious lawsuits intended to stop the work of public prosecutors, judges, experts, and human rights defenders who contribute to ending impunity for corruption, ongoing human rights abuses, and crimes against humanity carried out during Guatemala’s civil war.
Giammattei won 13.9% of the votes in the June 16, 2019 general election, taking second place to former first lady Sandra Torres’ 25.53%. He came in just 2.5% ahead of Thelma Cabrera – the highest polling indigenous presidential candidate ever, who reported very serious problems during her campaign, including murders of party leadership – and just 1% ahead of a career diplomat. Giammattei then won the August 11th run-off with just under 58% of votes.
The same day, Giammattei announced most of the members of his cabinet, but didn’t divulge the names of key security appointments. Then, during an October 25 regional security conference in El Salvador, retired Air Force General Roy Dedet announced who would be appointed Secretary of Defense, Interior Minister, and the National Security Council. Though Giammattei confirmed the announcement days later, the fact that such an important announcement was made while Giammattei was visiting Taiwan left Guatemalan news analysts speculating that Dedet was the power behind the presidency.
What Peace Accords?
A key player in Giammattei’s campaign, Dedet announced that he would become Giammattei’s National Security Advisor, and that he was in charge of the presidential transition. He attributed authorship of the new administration’s security strategy to former General Gustavo Adolfo Díaz López, best known for leading a failed coup in 1988 of hard-line officers opposed to the peace process, the ‘Mountain Officers’. Guatemalan press reported that, when asked if the appointment of former military officers to public security positions was a violation of the 1996 Peace Accords, Giammattei replied, “What peace accords? The peace accords have been violated.”
The war has not ended for networks of military officers active during the genocide. Not only do they undermine democracy in order to maintain impunity for the most heinous crimes against humanity imaginable, but they continue to exploit the spoils of war, concessions to water and mineral rights, and land titles obtained through corruption and violence. Thousands of residents of rural communities seeking respect for their land and resource rights are targeted by false prosecutions that violate their fundamental rights, while political opposition has been targeted in killings bearing the hallmarks of death squad operations.
On January 6, an umbrella organisation of associations of former military officers actively working to achieve impunity for appalling crimes made a statement denouncing the date as the four year anniversary of the “cowardly” arrest of 18 military officers on crimes against humanity charges related to the CREOMPAZ and Molina Theissen cases. The organisation voiced support for Giammattei, and echoed his assessment that the peace “agreements have been violated” but went on to elaborate, “by terrorist criminals and that have served as a political, ideological flag for the perverse persecution against the military, military commissioners and civil self-defense patrollers.”
The expected National Security Council appointments include former military officers with terrible human rights records and credible allegations of close relationships with members of organised crime networks. The proposed Interior Minister, charged with overseeing law enforcement, is former general Edgar Godoy Samayoa. Press reports he has been a close associate of one of the most notorious organised crime figures in Guatemala, Luis Francisco Ortega Menaldo – during the campaign, Giammattei used a helicopter registered to a company owned by Ortega Menaldo. The anticipated Vice Minister of Security Elmer Anibal Aguilar Moreno has been criticised in the press for his close relationship to members of the Zeta crime syndicate.
Dedet himself was named during the trial of three military officers convicted of Bishop Juan José Gerardi’s 1998 murder. Bishop Gerardi was killed following the publication of the Catholic Church’s truth commission that reported atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 36-year civil war. A witness testified that Dedet, a member of then President Álvaro Arzú’s Presidential Guard (Estado Mayor Presidential – EMP), coordinated protection for Captain Byrón Lima Oliva, convicted of the murder in 2001 alongside his father Coronel Byrón Lima Estrada and intelligence Sargent Obdulio Villanueva. All three convicted murderers were fellow members of Arzú’s EMP. Byrón Lima grew to influence significant control of the prisons through corruption networks. In October 2017 prosecutors requested removal of former president Arzú’s immunity so he could face corruption charges for facilitating ‘phantom salaries’ from Guatemala City’s municipal budget to imprisoned Byrón Lima Oliva and Obdulio Villanueva’s widow; Villanueva was beheaded in jail in 2003. The request was initially denied. Arzú died before the prosecutor’s appeal was reviewed.
The EMP was a military institution responsible for protecting the president. Considered the power behind the presidents, in compliance with the 1996 peace accords, the EMP was closed, replaced by the SAAS in 2003. In 2008 the National Security Council (CNS) was created. Comprised of top-level security related presidential appointees, it assumed many of the functions of the defunct EMP. The CNS maintained a low profile, but gained visibility on September 4, 2018 when the administration of President Jimmy Morales announced the CNS had barred Iván Velasquez – then Commissioner in charge of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) – entry into Guatemala, a move the Constitutional Court ruled illegal. In December Giammattei announced his intention to close the SAAS.
Giammattei’s appointees promote impunity, weaken the justice system
Guatemalan press also reports that Dedet and Godoy are both active members of the Foundation Against Terrorism, an organisation which has used its influence within the judiciary to promote malicious, false prosecutions of human rights defenders – and even internationally acclaimed public servants such as prosecutors with the Office of Special Prosecutor for Human Rights. Many defenders have spent years in preventive detention or have pending arrest warrants, illegal reprisals for their efforts to use the justice system to prosecute human rights abuses.
Just yesterday, the day of the inauguration, the trial began of internationally renowned land rights defender Daniel Pascual on slander charges promoted by the Foundation, a case which the International Federation for Human Rights has called an infringement on freedom of expression that places the human rights defenders at risk, noting procedural anomalies in the process. The charges against Pascual stem from a press conference following a January 2013 violent attack against him in which Pascual cited incendiary publications by the president of the Foundation Against Terrorism as contributing to the attack.
In another prominent case, the chief prosecutor in charge of Guatemala’s internationally renowned Human Rights Prosecutors Office, Orlando López was removed from his position, arrested and held in prison after the Foundation Against Terrorism formally joined in the prosecution of a traffic accident. The Foundation’s participation in the case is illegal as it bears no relevance to its mandate.
After the Foundation’s involvement, the treatment of the case showed irregularities. López led the January 6, 2016 arrest and prosecution of 18 former military officers on charges of crimes against humanity, and also led the prosecution of Efraín Ríos Montt on genocide charges. López had been subjected to many previous attempts of malicious prosecution by the Foundation; his colleague, the Chief of the Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), CICIG’s national counterpart, has been subject to approximately 80 complaints, as have many of their colleagues, judges, forensic experts and human rights defenders. López’s case is expected to go to trial early this year.
Reorganisation and weakening of State agencies that protect human rights and combat impunity is another tactic that has been aggressively pursued by the administration of outgoing president Jimmy Morales and it is feared that Giammattei will continue along this path. The Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights is being divided into three smaller prosecutors’ offices, a measure that could weaken the office. This office has been key not only to prosecution of crimes against humanity, but also resolving malicious prosecution of rights defenders. Other key institutions targeted include the Constitutional Court, the Supreme Court, the office of Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) Jordán Rodas, the Secretariat of Peace charged with implementing the 1996 peace accords, and the Peace Archives from the former police headquarters.
In the most notorious institutional change, the Morales administration ended CICIG’s mandate on September 3, 2019, after attempting an illegal, summary closure. While FECI is expected to continue prosecutions started under CICIG, it is greatly weakened without the presence of CICIG. Many important cases are currently being prosecuted by FECI, including one that involves Giammattei.
Four trials in three countries show extrajudicial killings happened under Giammattei
In one of CICIG’s first prosecutions, on August 9, 2010 an arrest warrant was issued against Giammattei on charges of extrajudicial execution related to violent deaths in the Pavón prison on September 25, 2006 while he was the National Director of the Penitentiary System. His then assistant and three police officers were arrested that day, but Giammattei, apparently alerted, had requested political asylum days before in Honduras’ embassy in Guatemala. His request was denied, so on August 13, 2010 he was taken into detention on the Mariscal Závala military base.
Giammattei was held until May 11, 2011 when judge Carol Patricia Flores dismissed charges against him and the four others in the same indictment, citing a lack of evidence. Two of the three police officers were later convicted on related charges. Just a few months later, Judge Flores lost, but later recovered on appeal, immunity from prosecution on charges of money laundering, illegal enrichment and breach of duty in an unrelated case but was sanctioned.
In the same case arrest warrants were issued for National Police Director Erwin Sperinsen who fled to Switzerland, then Interior Minister Carlos Vielman fled to Spain, and the former Deputy Director of the National Police, Javier Figueroa, fled to Austria. All requested political asylum. Each country refused extradition, but instead conducted trials in Switzerland, Austria and Spain.
Former National Police Director Erwin Sperinson was convicted and sentenced to 15 years in Swiss prison for his role in the September 2006 murder of seven inmates. Vielman and Figueroa were acquitted in Spain and Austria respectively. Observers note that Swiss prosecutors conducted the most thorough investigation, whereas Austrian and Spanish prosecutors did not travel to Guatemala. The Spanish court found that extrajudicial executions had occurred in Pavón but Vielman’s involvement was not proven. Four police officers were convicted for those killings in Guatemala on August 8, 2013, including Police Director, Victor Hugo Soto Dieguez.
Vielman returned to Guatemala in April 2017. On October 29, 2018 he was arrested and charged in the murders of two escapees and one bystander, and the torture of two escapees, all distinct cases from those tried in Spain, but connected to the same death squads. Judge Claudette Dominguez charged Vielman in the torture case but not the murders, granting him conditional release on bail. That case is pending trial, prosecuted by FECI. Judge Dominguez’s independence has been questioned in other high-profile human rights cases. Most recently her ruling to dismiss charges of mass rape by civil patrollers against indigenous Achi Maya women during the civil war was overturned on appeal by the victims.
Death Squads Connect Politicians and Drug Traffickers
The Pavón Case was just one in a series of killings that prosecutors attribute to death squads operating with the knowledge of top-level government security appointees between 2005 and 2007. Evidence suggested specific inmates were targeted, that killings were not the result of excessive force during clashes. Subsequent killings by the same death squads suggest the motives may have been disputes between drug networks; they happened as the Zetas moved into Guatemala; control of prisons is critical to drug networks.
The death squads were led by Victor Soto Dieguez, convicted in the Pavón case, and also allegedly by Victor Rivera, a Venezuelan security advisor to Interior Minister Vielman who first came to Central America to collaborate with the CIA in the Contra supply operation. Rivera and Soto allegedly played a role in the February 20, 2007 murder of three Salvadoran representatives to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN), and their driver. Guatemalan congressman Manuel de Jesús Castillo Medrano was convicted of the murders in 2010. An arrest warrant is pending for former Salvadoran congressman, Roberto Silva, who allegedly ordered the killings. Four police officers associated with Rivera and Soto were arrested as material authors in the case in 2007, but they were murdered in preventative detention just three days after their arrest.
Manuel Castillo was murdered in prison this past December 16, 2019. Roberto Silva, his alleged accomplice, was deported to El Salvador from the United States on January 8, 2020 after fighting deportation since 2007. He faces corruption and money laundering charges in El Salvador, and the PARLACEN murder charges in Guatemala. On January 13, 2020, Giammattei claimed he had learned of a plan to assassinate him during yesterday’s inauguration, a scheme he related to Castillo’s murder.
While Giammattei’s direct involvement in extrajudicial executions during his term as National Prison Director was never proven, it has been proven in courts in Switzerland, Spain and Guatemala that death squads killed inmates under his watch. The appointments he has announced for key security positions, men who justify the most extreme degradation of human life, give rise to serious concern that more atrocities could happen during his term as president.
We are grateful to Global Witness for permission to reproduce their blog of 13th January this year (2020) in both English and Spanish.
English version: https://www.globalwitness.org/en/blog/against-all-odds/
Key words: Guatemala; criminalisation; land rights; palm oil expansion; indigenous Q’eqchi; agribusiness companies; forced evictions; Guillermo Toriello Foundation.
In 2018, our annual report on killings of land and environmental defenders took a new focus: for the first time, we looked more closely at the tool of criminalisation, and how it is used by states and businesses to silence and attack defenders.
We recently interviewed the defender Abelino Chub Caal to learn about his experiences of criminalisation, his recommendations on how states and businesses can stop this happening, and what must happen next.
Abelino, the Q’eqchi community and the expansion of palm oil on their land
For over a decade Abelino Chub Caal has worked in his native Guatemala for the civil society organisation the Guillermo Toriello Foundation, supporting indigenous communities with legal processes to have their land rights recognised, and driving forward self-sufficient sustainable agriculture projects.
Over the last two years his life, the lives of the communities he works to protect and the lives of his own family have been turned upside down.
This story starts in 2016, with two agribusiness companies that were looking to expand from bananas into palm oil. To do that, they wanted to use land which indigenous Q’eqchi communities claimed to have lived on for centuries and had ancestral rights to. But according to Abelino, the companies did not consult fully with the communities living there, before rolling out their new crops and starting to plan their projects.
This is where Abelino enters. In carrying out his work for the Guillermo Toriello Foundation, he looked to mediate the conversation happening between communities living in the area, and the agribusiness companies looking to expand into their area.
Criminal charges of aggravated trespass, arson and illicit association were then brought against him. It was claimed that Abelino had previously organised members of the community to burn oil palm trees which had been planted on land at the Plan Grande estate where the Q’eqchi community lived, and of provoking a confrontation against the police.
Abelino was arrested on 4 February 2017, while celebrating his birthday with his wife and two young children. He remained in custody awaiting trial for more than 2 years. In April 2019, having produced evidence that he was not even in the area on the day of the fire, he was acquitted of all charges at his trial. The Court concluded that Abelino’s charges should be dismissed, and commented that “criminal law was being used to criminalise the defendant’s conduct.”
I was in jail for more than two years, for a crime that I hadn’t committed.
“But when you are in jail, it doesn’t matter if you are guilty or not, you are simply treated as a criminal. You share the prison with hitmen, assassins, robbers. I was under the same ceiling of an Army man who was convicted for his involvement in a massacre against indigenous people, during the civil war. This is unjust, and is one of the psychological damages that being in jail gives you.”
This pattern – where states and powerful businesses use the criminal law against those seeking to challenge them – is not a new one.
Attacks from all sides
Abelino identifies criminalisation as only one of the strategies used in Guatemala to silence those that resist forced evictions, land grabs and pollution from dams, mines, and palm oil or sugar plantations.
“In 2007, a Canadian mining firm evicted 100 families from El Estor, near Guatemala’s Pacific coast. People were injured and women from the community were raped during this eviction, but these rapes were never investigated in Guatemala”, he alleges.
He goes on with his account: “In 2009, security guards from the company shot various people from Las Nubes community. The community leader Adolfo Ich Chamán was killed during this event.” The company denied involvement with any forced evictions or with the death of Mr Chamán.
Abelino says it is not the first time the Q’eqchi people have faced these kinds of attacks:
“In 2011, I witnessed some ruthless evictions by the police of 732 Q’eqchi indigenous families from their land in the Polochic Valley, which was later planted with sugar crops for biofuels. One person died, several were injured and hundreds displaced from their homes. Their shacks and crops were burnt down.”
Following the eviction of Q’eqchi families in the Polochic Valley, the organisation Abelino works for, the Guillermo Toriello Foundation, suffered a serious break-in, with equipment containing sensitive information stolen. Abelino and members of the Foundation believed this incident was not a burglary, but a reprisal for their attempt to support the victims of evictions.
The ripples of criminalisation spread wide
The criminal prosecution of Abelino did not just harm him, but was felt by his own community over distance and time.
During two arduous years in jail, he was constantly worried about his family and their well-being. His family’s visiting time was limited and they had to rely on other family members to survive. “When they wanted to visit me, they had to queue in front of the prison at 3am, and if they were lucky, they would see me at around 10am. Some days, they were sent home without seeing me, because the visiting time was over.
But probably the worst part of it all was the uncertainty: the system kept postponing the hearings and the trial, and therefore I had no clue about when I would be able to prove myself innocent nor when I would be released.
The role that corporates and governments must play
Where there are natural resources, those looking to exploit them for profit inevitably follow. The economic model in Guatemala relies heavily on agricultural and natural resource extraction and export. This model has directed land concentration toward the wealthy, pushing poorer communities off their land and fuelling violence.
But while defenders are targets of evictions and legal attacks like these, often driven by or at the hands of businesses, Abelino still welcomes corporations that operate in an ethical way and that are supportive of the community and the wider environment.
“We are not against corporations, but we oppose the enterprises that evict people from their land and divide communities with total impunity. We oppose businesses that do not respect the right to life and the way communities organise themselves. They should at minimum consult us, and respect the international treaties.”
Businesses, and those that fund them, are not the only ones who need to act. Governments, both nationally and internationally, must take decisive action to hold businesses and investors to account.
Following cases like Abelino’s and a fivefold increase in killings of Land and Environmental defenders in Guatemala in 2018, the government must take steps now to support and protect defenders protecting their land and our global environment from rapidly escalating climate breakdown.
And other governments – like those in the UK, US, EU and beyond, should introduce proper due diligence rules that mean that their companies, investing and extracting abroad, are not making money at the expense of human lives or freedoms.
The fight continues
Abelino is now free, but his fight, and those of others, is still far from over.
Whilst he has been acquitted, criminalisation of community activists still continues, enabling big businesses to profit from indigenous land and risking severe destruction of the planet in the process. The Q’eqchi community from Palo Grande is still at risk of being evicted. Abelino fears this could be imminent.
Despite suffering criminalisation, Abelino never thought of giving up, and when asked what he is going to do next, he says:
I will carry on uncovering all the problems affecting the communities. Like other land and environmental defenders, I don’t work for myself, but to protect the rights of communities that have been abandoned by the State.
Show your support and stand with Abelino by sharing this case as far and wide as possible. And keep up to date with our campaign news on protecting land and environmental defenders. (Global Witness)