The Guatemalan Human Rights Commission
(GHRC) was founded in 1982 at the height of the 36 year long Guatemalan war. The
Commission documents and monitors human rights violations and attempts to
defend those whose human rights are under threat. It also carries out advocacy
work on behalf of rights defenders and lobbies for policy change both in
Guatemala and the USA. To find out more about the work of the GHRC, go to: http://www.ghrc-usa.org/
The GHRC report is entered into the
TVOD website in Chapter 9 under the sub-heading of ‘Emergency in Guatemala’.
This sub-heading refers to the emergency experienced in Guatemala during 2009
when work on the writing of ‘The Violence of Development’ book began. The fact
that this present GHRC report was produced in 2018/2019 exposes the fact that
Guatemala is in a constant state of emergency and the Guatemalan oligarchy and
elite – in the words of the report – “remain
strong and poised to keep power at any cost.”
2018 Emergency Delegation
Observes Violent Targeting of Land Rights Defenders
From July 12-16, 2018, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission
(GHRC/USA) coordinated an emergency delegation to Guatemala after the
international community was alerted to intensified violence and a series of
murders targeted at human rights activists and Indigenous land defenders. The
delegation, made up of human rights and justice advocates from the USA, Canada
and Guatemala, travelled to the eastern and north-eastern departments of
Jalapa, Chiquimula and Alta Verapaz, as well as Guatemala City. The group met
with organised communities, national organisations, researchers, state
institutions and political prisoners, many at risk for defending human rights,
their territory, land and water. This report summarizes the first-hand accounts
of serious human rights violations reported to the group during the delegation.
Some key observations the group documented:
● The string of assassinations that inspired the delegation were
not isolated incidents but are part of an ongoing trend of systemic violence
and targeted attacks against defenders and territorial leaders.
● The delegation repeatedly heard about the lack of access to
justice for crimes committed against Indigenous community members, while at the
same time how local prosecutors and judges move swiftly to protect local,
national and international economic interests.
● The actors behind the dispossession and pillage of Indigenous
territories, which led to genocide for economic gain, remain strong and poised
to keep power at any cost. Since the delegation ended, the targeted violence
that Indigenous campesinos, or farmers, and land defenders face has only
intensified. Despite the violent land evictions and murder noted here and well
documented by Guatemalan and international human rights organisations, there have
been no arrests for the crimes outlined in this report. In fact, campesino
organisations we visited during the delegation continue to be attacked, their
members killed while more defenders have been criminalized.
In January 2019, President Morales tried to unilaterally and
illegally cancel the mandate of the UN-mandated International Commission
Against Impunity (CICIG), in an effort to attack the rule of law and democratic
institutionality. That same month, Transparency International released a report
showing that the Guatemalan government was perceived to be one of the most corrupt
countries in the Americas. On January 30, Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas
noted in his 2018 report to Congress that “with more corruption, there are
fewer human rights.” Impunity coupled with corruption have left grassroots
Indigenous organisations, communities and families without justice.
Our delegation heard how agribusiness and mining companies are
responsible for the dispossession of water, forests and lands of Indigenous
communities. Not only are these activities resulting in less land for
subsistence farming and food crops, contributing to increased malnutrition and
poverty, they are major contributors to exacerbating the climate crisis.
Throughout the delegation, we heard that for many Guatemalans, especially young
adults and youth with few opportunities and no access to basic rights like
health care, education and food, migration to the USA is their only option.
Based on the delegation’s observations, we urge the US government to:
● Take measures to support the Constitutional Court and the Human
Rights Ombudsperson’s Office.
● Openly show its support for CICIG and its legal right to
continue its works until its mandate ends in September 2019.
● Support efforts of the Public Prosecutor’s Office to
investigate, prosecute and sanction those responsible for the murders of land
● Urge the Attorney General to end the malicious prosecution of
land defenders, which has led to an alarming number of political prisoners in
Guatemala in recent years.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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/
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
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
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].
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
January 14, Alejandro Giammattei assumed the presidency of Guatemala.
Guatemala’s human rights community is concerned. Here are key points to keep in
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.
promised to expand and promote extractive industries that displace the
livelihood and provoke forced displacement of rural and indigenous
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.
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.
protesting the inauguration were illegally detained and apparently
beaten. A judge ordered their release this morning and an
investigation into police aggressions.
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].
Relief in Sight:
Alejandro Giamattei appears to be a new face backed by the same old criminal
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.”
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.
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
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.
appointees promote impunity, weaken the justice system
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
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
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
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.
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.
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
trials in three countries show extrajudicial killings happened under
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.
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
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
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.
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
Squads Connect Politicians and Drug Traffickers
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.
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
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.
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 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.
Entrevistamos recientemente al defensor Abelino Chub Caal, conversamos sobre su historia de criminalización, sus recomendaciones y sobre cómo los Estados y las empresas pueden evitar estos hechos.
Abelino, las comunidades Q’eqchi y la expansión de la palma aceitera
En su Guatemala natal, Abelino Chub Caal ha trabajado para la Fundación Guillermo Toriello durante más de una década. Abelino ha apoyado a comunidades indígenas con procesos legales para el reconocimiento de sus derechos territoriales e impulso de proyectos autosuficientes de agricultura sostenible.
En los últimos dos años, su vida, las de las comunidades que él busca proteger y la de su propia familia se han puesto cuesta arriba.
Esta historia comienza en el año 2016, cuando dos empresas de agronegocio intentaron expandir su producción de banano a la de palma aceitera. Para hacer eso, decidieron utilizar tierra donde comunidades indígenas Q’eqchi alegaban haber vivido por siglos y por lo tanto, haber adquirido derecho sobre el territorio ancestral indígena. De acuerdo con Abelino, antes de introducir sus nuevos cultivos y comenzar a sembrar, las empresas no consultaron integralmente las comunidades que vivían allí.
Aquí es donde Abelino empieza a hacer parte de esta historia. Como parte de su trabajo con la Fundación Guillermo Toriello, él intermedió las conversaciones entre las comunidades que vivían en la zona y las empresas de agronegocio que tenían como objetivo expandir su producción.
Los cargos de usurpación agravada, incendio y asociación ilícita fueron entonces presentados en contra de él. Se alegó que Abelino había organizado miembros de las comunidades para incendiar la plantación de palma aceitera en la finca Plan Grande, donde vivían comunidades Q’eqchi, y de provocar un enfrentamiento contra la policía.
El 4 de febrero del 2017, Abelino fue detenido mientras celebraba su cumpleaños con su esposa y sus dos hijos. Él permaneció en custodia esperando por su juicio por más de dos años. En abril de 2019, tras haber presentado evidencia de no haber estado en la zona el día del incendio, Abelino fue absuelto de todos los cargos durante su juicio. La Corte concluyó que los cargos de Abelino deberían ser desestimados, y comentó que “el Derecho Penal había sido utilizado para criminalizar la conducta del acusado.”
Estuve en la cárcel por más de dos años, por un crimen que no he cometido.
“Pero cuando estás en la cárcel, no importa si eres culpable o no, simplemente eres tratado como un criminal. Compartes la prisión con sicarios, asesinos, ladrones. Estuve bajo el mismo techo que un militar condenado por su participación en una masacre contra pueblos indígenas, durante la guerra civil. Esto es injusto y es uno de los daños psicológicos que te causa la cárcel.”
Este patrón, donde Estados y empresas poderosas utilizan la legislación penal en contra de aquellos que cuestionan sus acciones, no es nuevo.
Ataques desde todos los lados
Abelino identifica la criminalización como una de las estrategias utilizadas en Guatemala para silenciar a quienes se resisten a los desalojos forzosos, al acaparamiento de tierras y a la contaminación producto de la construcción de represas, la explotación de minas y la expansión de plantaciones de palma aceitera o de caña de azúcar.
“En 2007, una empresa minera canadiense desalojó a 100 familias de El Estor, cerca de la costa del Pacífico de Guatemala. Personas resultaron heridas, y mujeres de la comunidad fueron violadas durante el desalojo, pero esas violaciones nunca fueron investigadas en Guatemala.” – alega Abelino.
Él continúa su relato: “En 2009, fuerzas de seguridad de la empresa dispararon a varias personas de la comunidad de Las Nubes. El líder comunitario Adolfo Ich Chamán fue asesinado durante este evento.” La empresa negó haber estado involucrada en los desalojos forzados o con la muerte de Adolfo Ich Chamán.
Abelino dice que ésta no es la primera vez que las personas Q’eqchi se enfrentan a este tipo de ataques:
“En 2011, presencié los despiadados desalojos de 732 familias indígenas Q’eqchi de sus tierras en el Valle de Polochic, donde posteriormente fueron plantados cultivos de azúcar para la producción de biocombustibles. Una persona murió, varias resultaron heridas y cientos fueron desplazadas de sus hogares. Sus ranchos y cultivos fueron quemados.”
Tras el desalojo de las familias Q’eqchi en el Valle de Polochic, la oficina de la organización para la cual Abelino trabaja, la Fundación Guillermo Toriello, fue allanada y equipos que contenían información confidencial fueron robados. Abelino y miembros de la FGT creen que este incidente no fue un simple allanamiento, sino una represalia por su intento de apoyar a las víctimas de los desalojos.
Los efectos de la criminalización se expanden
La persecución penal de Abelino no sólo lo perjudicó, sino que su propia comunidad lo sintió a lo largo del tiempo y la distancia.
Durante los dos arduos años que estuvo en la cárcel, se preocupaba constantemente por su familia y su bienestar. Su horario de visita era limitado y sus familiares dependían de otros miembros de la familia para sobrevivir. “Cuando querían visitarme, tenían que empezar a hacer fila frente a la prisión desde las 3 de la mañana; y si tenían suerte, me veían alrededor de las 10 de la mañana. Algunos días los devolvieron a la casa sin haberme visto, porque se había terminado el horario de visita”.
Pero probablemente la peor parte fue la incertidumbre: el sistema seguía posponiendo las audiencias y el juicio y, por lo tanto, no tenía idea de cuándo podría demostrar mi inocencia ni cuándo sería liberado.
El papel que deberían jugar las corporaciones y los gobiernos
Los lugares donde hay recursos naturales, son inevitablemente perseguidos por aquellos que buscan explotarlos con ánimo de lucro. El modelo económico vigente en Guatemala depende en gran medida de la extracción y exportación de recursos agrícolas y naturales. Este modelo ha promovido la concentración de la tierra por parte de los sectores más acaudalados, frecuentemente desplazando las poblaciones pobres fuera de sus tierras y provocando altos niveles de violencia.
Si bien las personas defensoras son blanco de ataques físicos y legales como estos, a menudo impulsados o provenientes de las empresas, Abelino ve con buenos ojos a aquellas personas que operan de manera ética, apoyando a la comunidad y al entorno en general.
“Nosotros no estamos en contra de las corporaciones, pero nos oponemos a aquellas que desalojan a las personas de sus tierras y dividen a las comunidades con total impunidad. Nos oponemos a las empresas que no respetan el derecho a la vida y la forma en que las comunidades se organizan. Como mínimo, ellas deberían consultarnos y respetar los tratados internacionales.”
Las empresas y quienes las financian no son las únicas que deben actuar. Los gobiernos, tanto a nivel nacional como internacional, deben tomar medidas decisivas para exigir rendición de cuentas a empresas e inversores.
Después de casos como el de Abelino y de ver los asesinatos de personas defensoras de la tierra y el medio ambiente quintuplicarse en Guatemala en 2018, el gobierno debe tomar medidas urgentes para apoyar y proteger a las personas defensoras que protegen su tierra y el medio ambiente del colapso climático que se aproxima a un ritmo vertiginoso.
Otros gobiernos – como los del Reino Unido, Estados Unidos, la Unión Europea y otros países – deberían introducir normas claras sobre debida diligencia, que garanticen que sus empresas, que invierten y extraen en el extranjero, no generen ganancias a expensas de la libertad o de la vida de las personas.
La lucha continúa
Abelino ahora es libre, pero su lucha, y la lucha de otras personas defensoras, aún están lejos de terminar.
Si bien él ha sido absuelto, la criminalización continúa, permitiendo que las grandes empresas generen ganancias a costa de la explotación de tierras indígenas y causen una destrucción severa al planeta en ese proceso. La comunidad Q’eqchi de Palo Grande todavía está en riesgo de ser desalojada. Abelino teme que esto podría ser inminente.
A pesar de haber sido criminalizado, Abelino nunca pensó en darse por vencido, y cuando se le pregunta qué hará ahora, dice:
Seguiré denunciando todos los problemas que afectan a las comunidades. Al igual que otros defensores de la tierra y del medio ambiente, no trabajo para mí, sino para proteger los derechos de las comunidades que han sido abandonadas por el Estado.
Comparte este caso para demostrar solidaridad y apoyo a Abelino.
Insight Crime’s report on: ‘Guatemala’s Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla’ (15 December 2016) is written by Steven Dudley. Along with many other Insight Crime reports, it is an essential read for anyone who wishes to keep up-to-date with happenings in Guatemala and anyone wishing to understand the extent, depth and implications of corruption and impunity in Guatemala.
Insight Crime is a Foundation that is dedicated to the study of the principal threat to national and citizen security in Latin America and the Caribbean: organised crime. It seeks to deepen and inform the debate about organised crime in the Americas by providing the general public with regular reporting, analysis and investigation on the subject and on state efforts to combat it.
The evolution of the organised crime wave that started last year in Guatemala reached a boiling point yesterday. Gun fire attacks on buses and killings of bus drivers in several strategic locations in the capital virtually paralysed Guatemala City. It was a very well organised plan of attack, … Guatemala City has over 4 million inhabitants, it is severely overcrowded and congested by too many cars …
Yesterday, the local radio stations were reporting the attacks and the citizens of the capital started to have a feeling of being under siege by unstoppable crime. Rumours started to circulate and disinformation transmitted by the radios started to create a sense of panic in the population. Calls were made to local radio stations demanding the military to be put on the streets to bring order and for the government to impose a state of emergency.
The strategy of assassination of drivers of the public bus system started before the presidential elections in 2007. Some sectors accused one of the presidential candidates, ex-general Otto Pérez Molina, of being the brains of that particular strategy to create insecurity and fear in the population. (The accusation has not been documented or confirmed.) …
In his message last night, broadcast on national television, President Alvaro Colom stated that the events that occurred yesterday are part of a strategy to destabilise the government. He insisted that it is a reaction of organised crime to the security actions taken by the government. …
There are unconfirmed theories that the military and its usual sympathisers, certain power sectors of the country, want to establish military presence to control the security situation as soon as possible. …
There are other theories that claim that the publication of the police files from the period of the civil war – when the police were under the control of the military – is causing concern among the people who then ruled the country officially and unofficially (1960 – 1996). The recent declassification of military files covering some operations during the same time period and the creation of a Presidential Commission to declassify more military files is making some people extremely nervous. …
So, the question is: are yesterday’s events of violence, reporting of the media and demands for military presence, just a coincidence, or were they orchestrated?
 In November 2011, Otto Pérez Molina was elected President of Guatemala and assumed power in January 2012
This is a slightly fuller text version of Box 9.2 (p. 173) in the book. In particular this website version provides more information about the sources that may be consulted for further information about the subject.
It was a murder that spawned a macabre YouTube sensation and threatened to topple Guatemala’s government. Hitmen shot dead Rodrigo Rosenberg, a lawyer, in Guatemala City soon after he recorded a sombre video blaming his imminent assassination on President Colom.
Rosenberg was thought to be in a suicidal state, following the assassination of his close friends Khalil Musa and his daughter Marjorie Musa, the recent death of his mother and separation from his wife and children. He had been investigating the deaths of the Musas and had been romantically involved with Marjorie Musa.
An investigation by the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) involved 300 officials and analysed more than 100,000 telephone calls and many videos, CCTV recordings, photographs and documents. Rosenberg had contracted his cousins Francisco José Valdés Paíz and José Estuardo Valdés Paíz to hire a hitman to carry out the murder of a supposed extortionist who was blackmailing Rosenberg. The identity of the target was allegedly unknown to the Valdés Paíz brothers, but they are now seen as the masterminds of the murder and are currently avoiding arrest. The machinations involved in the scheme would be of great fascination to dramatists, conspiracy theorists and fantasists, but are far too complex to be detailed here.
Ultimately the hit was carried out by a group led by Willian Gilberto Santos Divas, a former member of the police. Rosenberg was shot three times in the head, once in the neck and once in the back. In September 2009, nine suspects, including members of the police and military, were arrested for the murder.
The CICIG investigation concluded that the lawyer, in a state of depression over personal problems and angry with the government, sacrificed his own life in an elaborate sting. Rosenberg made the video knowing that two days later assassins he had hired would ambush him near his home. He apparently hoped the video would render him a martyr.
The Head of CICIG, Carlos Castresana, said they had found no evidence to link the President to Rosenberg’s death.
CICIG (2010) ‘Caso Rosenberg: Resultados de la Investigación’, Guatemala City, United Nations CICIG, 12 January 2010.
Rory Carroll (2009) ‘Lawyer in YouTube murder plot video hired his own assassins – UN’, The Guardian, London, 14 January 2010.
Danilo Valladares (2009) ‘Guatemala: Police, Military arrested for lawyer’s murder’, IPS, 14 September 2009.
Julie Chappell (UK Ambassador to Guatemala) (2010) ‘The Rosenberg Assassination and Justice in Guatemala’, UK Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 13 January 2010.
Moon Travel Guide (2010) ‘Rosenberg planned his own execution, UN commission says’, 14 January 2010: www.moon.com/blogs/guatemala/ (accessed 24.01.10).
Gilberto López (2010) ‘La frase lapidaria, ……’, Semanario Universidad, www.semanario.ucr.ac.cr/index.php/mainmenu-mundo/ (accessed 10.01.10).
Martin Barillas (2010) ‘Guatemala: murdered lawyer planned his own death’, Spero News, 12 January 2010, www.speroforum.com/a/25412/ (accessed 24.01.10).
Central American Politics (2010) ‘Rosenberg orchestrated his own murder?’, 12 January 2010, http://centralamericanpolitics.blogspot.com/2010/01/ (accessed 24.01.10).
Elected at the end of 2011, General Otto Pérez Molina was inaugurated as President of Guatemala in early 2012. After training at Guatemala’s National Military Academy, the School of the Americas and the Inter-American Defence College, Pérez Molina served in the Guatemalan army’s special forces known as the Kaibiles which are described by Wikipedia as “notoriously brutal” and by the Commission for Historical Clarification (Comisión para el Esclaracimiento Histórico, CEH) as “a killing machine”.
He later became director of military intelligence and inspector-general of the army, but during the 1978 – 1982 period of slaughter in the Guatemalan countryside he served as a major in the Ixil Triangle in the El Quiché department of Guatemala. It was here that acts of genocide were routinely committed against local Mayan populations. These acts were documented by the United Nations sponsored Truth Commission which reported on war crimes and acts of genocide committed during the 35 years of internal conflict and which found that the military had been responsible for 93 per cent of the 660 massacres which took place during the conflict. Over a half of all the massacres took place in El Quiché department and many of these took place in the Ixil Triangle where Pérez Molina was in charge of counter-insurgency at a time when 80 – 90 per cent of the villages were razed.
The Truth Commission was unable to name individuals involved in the slaughter, but a letter of allegation sent in July 2011 by three human rights defenders to the United Nations accused Pérez of involvement in genocide and torture committed in El Quiché during the Guatemalan war. Pérez has always denied any wrongdoing during the war and is proud of his record, particularly his involvement in the peace process negotiations. Despite this involvement in the peace process, investigative reporter Allan Nairn has demonstrated the links between the operations of the Guatemalan death squads at the same time (1994) as the G-2 Intelligence Unit was headed by Pérez Molina. Prosecutors, however, have declined to pursue actions against him on the grounds that the evidence is believed to be slim.
In his election campaign, Pérez tried to reach out to indigenous groups and to emphasise his progressive and reforming side, despite his promises to crack down on violent crime and drug traffickers with an ‘iron fist’.