Continuing emergency in Guatemala, 2019

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: 

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.”

GHRC 2018 Emergency Delegation

Delegation Observes Violent Targeting of Land Rights Defenders

Full Report Here.

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 defenders.

● 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.

Read the full report here.

Organised crime, including drug traffickers, linked to repressive Guatemalan president and government

Rights Action
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

Guatemala President Jimmy Morales stepping off a plane owned by recently arrested
presidential candidate Mario Amilcar Estrada Orellana

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.

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.

GUATEMALA’S PRESIDENTS: Same old corruption

A summary by Martin Mowforth – see sources below.

On 14th January [2020] 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’.

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’.

You couldn’t make it up – IV: Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei

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.

Dear Friends,

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]. 

Many Thanks,

Annie Bird

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.

Agaisnt all odds: The Criminalisation of Land Rights Activists in Guatemala

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:

Versión español:


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)


Estamos agradecido a Global Witness por su autorización para reproducir su blog de 13 de enero este año (2020) en español y en inglés.

Versión inglés:

Versión español:

Palabras claves: Guatemala; criminalización; derechos territoriales; expansión de palma africana; Indígena Q’eqchi; empresas de agronegocio; desalojos forzosos; Fundación Guillermo Toriello.


En 2018, nuestro informe anual sobre los asesinatos de personas defensoras de la tierra y el medio ambiente adoptó un nuevo enfoque: por primera vez, analizamos más de cerca la estrategia de criminalización y cómo es utilizada por los Estados y las empresas por igual para silenciar y atacar a las personas defensoras.

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.

Guatemala – a state of emergency?

The following is a slightly fuller version of the text that appears in Box 9.1 (p. 172) of the book.

The following extracts were taken from Guatemala News, 25 March 2009 and can be retrieved from

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[1], 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?

[1] In November 2011, Otto Pérez Molina was elected President of Guatemala and assumed power in January 2012

Guatemala’s Mafia State and the Case of Mauricio López Bonilla

By Steven Dudley, Insight Crime

15th December 2016

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.

The link to access the report is at:

The report is a little longer than the majority of the reports and articles included here in  and so only the link to the report is given here.

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.

Killings of Defenders Increase Sharply

The Violence of Development website has used reports and data from the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC) on numerous occasions in the past; and we are grateful again for their permission to reproduce their summary of killings and attacks on Guatemalan defenders of land environment and human rights during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Restrictions put in place to contain COVID-19 over the past several months, including constraints to free movement and assembly, did nothing to stop attacks on human rights defenders. In fact, such attacks increased as government and private actors appear to have taken advantage of the relative isolation of defenders and their restricted access to human rights monitoring bodies and the courts.

At least eight land and territory defenders were killed between June and August. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in September issued a statement of concern about the escalation in killings, urging the Guatemalan government to protect defenders and investigate these murders thoroughly, considering as the motive the victims’ work in the defence of land and territory.

On June 6, indigenous Q’eqchi leader and Mayan traditional medicine specialist Domingo Choc Che was burned alive in San Luis, Petén, after being accused of witchcraft. Two days later, Alberto Cucul Cho, an environmental defender in Alta Verapaz, was murdered as he travelled to the  Laguna Lachuá National Park where he worked as a park ranger. On June 15, Medardo Alonzo Lucero, a defender of indigenous rights and territory and a member of the Ch’orti’ community La Cumbre, in Olopa, Chiquimula, was murdered. On June 23, Fidel López, a member of the Campesino Development Committee (CODECA), was killed in Morales, Izabal.

On July 20 Abel Raymundo, a land and territory defender in Lelá Chancó de Jocotán, Chiquimula, was murdered. On August 10, French citizen Benoît Maria, who had dedicated many years to the defense of Guatemala’s indigenous peoples, was murdered. On August 11, Misael López Catalán, a community leader and CODECA member in Jalapa, was murdered, making him the eighteenth CODECA member killed in the last two years. Five days later, Maya Q’eqchi indigenous leader Carlos Mucú Pop was assassinated in the community of Santa Rosa, Sayaxché, Petén. In addition, community leader and pastor Carlos Enrique Coy has been missing since August 3rd. To date this year, fourteen human rights defenders have been murdered, at least one woman defender among them.

Violence against women defenders of land and territory is a constant, as GHRC’s Guatemala City office director Isabel Solis points out in a recent radio interview. Find it in Spanish here.

Extractive industries affect indigenous women especially. Violence in the area of large-scale development projects increases, including sexual violence. Poverty often increases as well. For example, in the area surrounding the Guatemalan Nickel Company’s Fenix mine – one of the largest in Central America – which is illegally operating in Izabal, poverty has risen, not diminished. “People who work for these companies believe the tale of development,” Isabel points out the interview. “It doesn’t exist. It’s just a form of entering to rob.”

“We have to rise up and defend ourselves and denounce any group, including banks, that finance these corrupt groups. We have asked the World Bank not to continue financing extractive industries. They are killing indigenous peoples. A way to recover our power as peoples,” as Isabel explains, “is to defend what we have and recover what has been taken.”

3321 12th Street NE, Washington, DC 20017

Guatemala’s worst year on record for human rights in 21st century

The April 2023 report of the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC)[i] recorded 2022 as the worst year so far for human rights in this century. The Violence of Development website is grateful to the GHRC for its generalised permission for the reproduction of its information. The GHRC April 2023 report is reproduced below.


Reports Confirm 2022 as the Worst Year on Record for Human Rights in this Century

The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) presented its Human Report for 2022 on March 23, 2023. The report, titled “Revenge as State Public Policy: Guatemala in Serious Democratic Crisis,” points to the breakdown of human rights conditions in Guatemala. For 2022, UDEFEGUA registered 3,574 attacks against defenders, three times higher than the 1,020 reported in 2021 and the highest ever recorded in the 23-year history of the organization. According to UDEFEGUA Director  Jorge Santos, in today’s context, “anyone who is considered an opponent of the regime is persecuted.”

The report uses the term “revenge strategies” to describe a public policy implemented by the current administration to punish and silence all dissident voices. Tactics included harassment, intimidation, defamation, and violence against defenders. UDEFEGUA identified criminalization as the most common form of attack, with 1,737 cases registered. The report describes a pattern within criminalization cases that begins with defamation on social media and ends with the mounting of spurious charges that often lead to imprisonment or exile. According to the report, justice sector workers, transitional justice advocates, journalists, and environmental defenders were the most heavily targeted sectors. Defenders also suffered harassment, intimidation, physical attacks, and, in extreme cases, murder.

On March 20, the US State Department released its own report on the human rights situation in Guatemala that reflected similar patterns of abuse described by UDEFEGUA. The State Department illustrated key issues, like arbitrary detention, severe problems with the judiciary, violent attacks against Indigenous communities, the persecution of journalists and judicial sector workers, and widespread impunity. It cited the cases of Carlos Choc, José Rubén Zamora, and Virginia Laparra as examples of these state-sponsored violations of human rights. Other cases mentioned included violence against Indigenous communities, where the report mentioned the attack on Q’eqchi human rights defenders and spiritual leader Adela Choc Cruz. Last May, armed assailants held Cruz hostage and threatened to burn her alive. In a meeting with GHRC’s emergency human rights delegation, Cruz explained that the attack was likely linked to her involvement in the anti-mining movement in El Estor.

UDEFEGUA makes the case that these attacks aim for the complete takeover of the State and the consolidation of a dictatorial regime. The Giammattei administration, according to UDEFEGUA, has launched a successful takeover of all governmental institutions, stacking them with pro-impunity allies. For Brenda Guillén, of UDEFEGUA, this State co-option is driving the human rights crisis. “The conditions of the country have generated an increase in violence against human rights defenders,” she stated. UDEFEGUA called upon the international community to support Guatemalan civil society, asking for stronger sanctions against the corrupt actors in both the State and private sector driving this crisis.

Further Attacks on Judicial Sector Workers Draw International Condemnation   

On Thursday, March 16, at six in the morning, police and Public Ministry officials arrived at the home of former prosecutor Orlando Salvador López, raided his residence, and arrested him. López is accused of “abuse of authority” for allegedly taking on work as a notary public and lawyer in 2019 while still employed as a prosecutor. Five days later, on March 21, López appeared before the Fifth Pluripersonal Court of First Criminal Instance, Drug Activity, and Crimes against the Environment of Guatemala for his initial hearing. The judge ruled to send him to trial, placing him under house arrest.

López formerly served as head of the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office, where he helped build the prosecution for critical transitional justice cases like the Ixil Genocide and the Creompaz case. His work throughout the years has made him a target of pro-military factions within Guatemala, most notably the Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT), which incidentally is a plaintiff in this case. Following López’s arrest, head of the FCT Ricardo Méndez Ruiz celebrated on Twitter, accusing Lopez of “the illegal capture of our war veterans.” FCT, working hand in hand with the Public Ministry’s Office, has led the charge to punish honest judges and prosecutors, nearly 30 of whom have been forced into exile.

Human rights groups denounced his arrest, interpreting it as yet another politically motivated attack. According to Deputy Director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch Juan Papier, this case exemplifies “a pattern of persecution against prosecutors and judges who investigated corruption and human rights violations in Guatemala.” The Observatory, the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA), and the Centre for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) echoed concerns, calling his criminalization “an act of retaliation for the essential work he carried out as head of the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office to put an end to impunity for the serious human rights violations committed in the framework of the Internal Armed Conflict.”

Days later, the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) announced its plans to take legal action against former Commissioner of the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) Francisco Dall’Anese. From 2010-2013, Francisco Dall’Anese led the CICIG from 2010-2013, overseeing investigations into high-level corruption. He was succeeded by Iván Velásquez, who also faces investigations from the FECI. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk condemned the move, stating, “It is particularly concerning that administrative and criminal proceedings are being used in apparent reprisal against those involved in investigating and prosecuting cases of corruption or serious human rights violations.”

In a statement, he shared his concerns over the deterioration of rule of law and democracy in Guatemala, citing clear patterns of criminalization against judicial sector workers and potential candidates. In reference to the refusal to register candidates Thelma Cabrera and Jordan Rodas for the People’s Liberation Movement (MLP), he said, “The right to participate in public affairs, including the right to vote and to stand for election, is an internationally recognised human right.” He called upon the State of Guatemala to allow judges and prosecutors to work freely without fear of reprisal and ensure free and fair elections.

Judge Grants Convicted Former Vice President Qualified House Arrest

Eva Recinos–judge of High-Risk Court B–granted former Guatemalan vice president Roxana Baldetti qualified house arrest on March 13. To receive treatment for alleged back pains, Recinos ruled to permit Baldetti to leave Santa Teresita Detention Centre four times a week. Baldetti was convicted last December, along with former president Otto Perez Molina, for fraud and conspiracy charges; the court sentenced her to 16 years. Despite efforts from the prosecution to have these treatments conducted inside the detention centre, Baldetti will be allowed to return home. Judge Recinos did not establish concrete conditions nor time limitations for Baldetti’s therapies.

Meanwhile, the former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) in Quetzaltenango, Virginia Laparra, continues to suffer in prison, where authorities regularly deny her access to prompt medical attention. Laparra developed a uterine disease after spending the last year imprisoned and urgently needs surgery. Despite requests from her legal team starting in December, prison authorities have denied her permission to leave the prison to receive treatment. Instead, surgery is planned for some time in May, but an exact date has not been set.

Bicameral Resolution Commends Environmental Defenders, Calls for Stronger Protections

On March 29, Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Raúl Grijalva introduced a bicameral resolution to support environmental defenders worldwide. The resolution acknowledges defenders’ critical role in protecting the environment, combating climate change, and supporting democracy. In the context of rising violence against defenders, it calls upon the US to stand with those most at risk and serve as a leader in implementing robust protection strategies. “We must support environmental defenders worldwide who are exercising their fundamental rights of free expression and association to demand a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. They are risking everything to protect the environment and their human rights, and we should be doing all we can to support and protect those efforts,” stated Senator Merkley.

Recognising Latin America as the most dangerous region for human rights defenders, with 1,179 defenders killed since 2012, the resolution includes examples of emblematic cases in the region. Notably, it mentions defenders from Q’eqchi communities in El Estor, which face “defamation, violent evictions, harassment, and assault by the Guatemalan National Civil Police Force for peacefully protesting the operations of the Fenix mine and growth of palm plantations on their territory.”

The resolution lays out suggestions for the US government to better support defenders, such as creating positions within the State Department and USAID dedicated to protecting defenders, requesting more robust transparency and accountability from both USAID and the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to ensure that projects do not harm Indigenous communities and environmental defenders, and using the United States’ voice and influence in international financial institutions to ensure that funds are not given to any entities that have perpetrated violence against the environment and its defenders. The resolution is also supported by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Alex Padilla (D-CA), and Ben Cardin (D-MD).

María Consuelo Porras, Guatemala’s Attorney General Person of the Year in Organised Crime and Corruption

The Organised Crime and Corruption Reporting Project (OCCRP) annually bestows the award ‘Person of the Year in Organised Crime and Corruption’ on those who have done most to bolster corruption and the political collusion that accompanies it. OCCRP is one of the few outlets equipped to investigate these key enablers of corruption. 

Since 2012, they have bestowed this annual award on those who’ve done the most to bolster corruption and the political collusion that accompanies it. In the past, this dubious honour has been given to colourful despots, but this year, their panel of judges voted for a dry bureaucrat who has eviscerated the rule of law in Guatemala.

Why Porras Won: Guatemala’s attorney general made international headlines earlier this year when she oversaw efforts to prevent president elect Bernardo Arévalo from assuming office, including suspending his political party and raiding the election commission.

People tend to think of failed states as being solely run by authoritarian strongmen. But today’s autocrats are often careful to not disavow democracy. Instead, they undermine its framework, including elections, the judiciary, and state institutions. Key to that strategy are people like Porras — bureaucrats who corrupt the democratic process while maintaining the illusion of normality.

Other Guatemalan corruption

(There is no shortage of it.) We are grateful to the OCCRP for their regular bulletins on crime and corruption around the world which give us a source of information normally hidden from public view in the Central American countries. Specific credit is given by the OCCRP as:

Credit: James O’Brien/OCCRP

by Jonny Wrate (OCCRP) and Bill Barreto (No Ficción)

15 December 2023

OCCRP website:

Central American Development Bank’s Role in Guatemala’s Odebrecht Scandal

An investigation by prosecutors — including testimony from a former minister at the centre of several corruption scandals — indicates a loan from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (CABEI) may have been a key part of the Brazilian construction company’s bribery scheme.

Key findings

  • A former Guatemalan minister told anti-impunity prosecutors that he was aware bribes were offered to a CABEI director to get help securing favorable conditions for a loan to Odebrecht.
  • The former minister has since claimed that he never made a statement to prosecutors and that his testimony had been fabricated to generate conflict, but Guatemala’s anti-impunity authorities — and three sources close to the Odebrecht case — confirmed that the former minister did in fact give the testimony.
  • Reporters could not find documentary evidence that the bribe described by the minister was ever made. But an investigation by anti-impunity authorities in Guatemala found that money from CABEI’s loan to Odebrecht was allegedly used to pay bribes to the former minister and two other politicians.
  • CABEI included a clause dictating that the Guatemalan government must hire Odebrecht when it first approved the loan, then later agreed to multiple changes that added millions of dollars to the contract.
  • The minister also claimed that CABEI gave preferential treatment to a Guatemalan construction company in a related loan.

The Odebrecht corruption case has been a fixture of headlines for years in Guatemala, where the scandal-plagued Brazilian construction company was forced to repay over $17 million to the government after admitting that it bribed officials to gain a lucrative contract to renovate a major highway.

But another player in the case has largely escaped public scrutiny: the highway’s major financier, the Central American Bank for Economic Integration, or CABEI.

The bank provided the key loan to Odebrecht that allowed the project to move forward, agreeing in 2011 to lend almost $120 million to finance the longest section of Central American Highway 2, which would link El Salvador to Mexico.

Along the way, it overrode its own procurement rules to insert a clause in its loan agreement mandating that Odebrecht must receive the contract to build the highway, without the normal bidding process. Later, Odebrecht paid out millions in bribes directly from the money CABEI disbursed, according to an investigation by a UN-backed anti-corruption commission.

“Much of the corrupt diversion of funds from [CABEI’s] loans continues to be unaddressed due to the opaque and secretive policies that the bank applies to civil society groups and justice institutions that seek to know their final destination,” said Manfredo Marroquín, the president of Transparency International’s Guatemalan chapter, Acción Ciudada

The Guatemalan minister accused of personally receiving the largest chunk of the bribe money, Alejandro Jorge Sinibaldi Aparicio, turned himself in in 2020 after four years on the run. He then made an explosive statement to prosecutors that also accused a CABEI official of conspiring with Odebrecht to make sure the highway contract would be favorable to the company.

Credit: James O’Brien/OCCRP

by Jonny Wrate (OCCRP) and Bill Barreto (No Ficción)

15 December 2023


You couldn’t make it up – I – the case of Rodrigo Rosenberg

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: (accessed 24.01.10).
Gilberto López (2010) ‘La frase lapidaria, ……’, Semanario Universidad, (accessed 10.01.10).
Martin Barillas (2010) ‘Guatemala: murdered lawyer planned his own death’, Spero News, 12 January 2010, (accessed 24.01.10).
Central American Politics (2010) ‘Rosenberg orchestrated his own murder?’, 12 January 2010, (accessed 24.01.10).