Guatemala: Thousands of women take to the streets against femicides

In the August updates for The Violence of Development website we included a short report on the increase in the number of femicides in El Salvador during the COVID-19 pandemic. The same has been happening in Guatemala. On 10th October 2020 Al Jazeera published a report written by Sandra Cuffe  on the protests of women’s groups against the high incidence of femicides in Guatemala and on the 11th October TeleSur published a brief report on the protest action. We reproduce a summary of both reports below the photo.

Key words: femicide; femicide rates; Guatemala.

 

“The State must take more action. Woman are getting killed in this patriarchal  and misogynist system,” the organisers of the protests urged. [Telesur]

On Saturday 10th October Guatemala’s women’s organisations held a protest in several cities of the country, to reject the violence against women, which has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Dozens of women gathered outside the municipal building in the city of Quetzaltenango, head of the department of the same name, to pay tribute and demand justice for the women who have been raped, murdered, and disappeared in the last 20 years.

“We speak for the 4 women who disappear every day. We speak for all the 77,847 girls and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 who are already mothers,” the organisers stated.

“We speak for all the 12,188 women murdered in the last 20 years in the country. We speak for all the 55 women who call every day to denounce their aggressor. We speak for all the lives stolen, silenced, and extinguished of every girl, teenager, and woman in Guatemala,” the organisers explained.

Similar mobilizations took place in the capital, Guatemala City, Escuintla, Cobán, Teculután, among others, where there were songs, marches, and candles in memory of the murdered women.

More than 200 women were killed in the first eight months of this year in Guatemala and more than 3,000 women and girls have been killed since 2015, according to human rights groups tracking government statistics. The overwhelming majority of these cases remain unresolved.

The protests were sparked by the murder of social work student Litzy Amelia Cordón, 20, whose body was found in the municipality of Teculután where primary schoolteacher Laura Daniela Hernández had been murdered the week before.

The women also demanded the State’s commitment to guarantee women’s security and freedom, and “to strengthen the processes of reparative justice for girls and women victims of violence and femicide. The State must take more action. Woman are getting killed in this patriarchal and misogynist system,” they said.

More than 200 women were killed in Guatemala in the first eight months of this year. [Sandra Cuffe/Al Jazeera

How gangs can affect everybody

Gang culture in El Salvador

By Martin Mowforth

In April this year (2019), it was reported in El Salvador that municipal employees who provide local services such as rubbish collection in the town of Apopa had stopped work because of threats from local gang members.

The threats began with two gang members who threatened the fee collectors from the almost 2,500 market stall holders, from which the municipality gains between $1,200 and $1,500 each week. Threats were later extended to burial services at the local cemetery where work also stopped meaning that three families had to bury their relatives in other municipalities. Also affected were rubbish collection services and one crucial bus service.

Local mayor, Santiago Zelaya, organised a group of volunteers to collect the rubbish with accompaniment by the National Civil Police. Initially only three police patrols were granted and other services could not be guaranteed by police protection. Mayor Zelaya said, “In view of this situation with reduced municipal ability, we request that the security forces support the progress and development that the municipality has made.”

Rubbish mounting up in Apopa

It is believed that the gangs became short of money following the holiday period (December – February) and that the threats stemmed from their need to raise funds. Four gangs operate in Apopa (only 20 km from the capital San Salvador) where schoolchildren and students, as well as businesses, have to be extremely wary as they travel to and from their studies on account of the danger of approaches by gang members.

The Barrio 18 gang is thought to be responsible for the threats. The gang had an agreement with the previous mayor who is now languishing in jail along with several gang members.

Between the 1st January this year and the 25th February, fifteen assassinations were committed in Apopa, the same number as were committed during the whole of 2018.

On 30th January this year I participated in a visit to the Comunidad Romero, close to the town of Apopa. The visit was organised by the Centro de Intercambio y Solidaridad (CIS, Centre for Exchange and Solidarity), and our group discussed the problems of living there with a group of impressive young people who spend much of their time trying to avoid being approached and hassled by gang members. There is little work available and so young people who do not make the grade in school generally hang around on the streets where they are highly vulnerable to approaches by gang members.

The main street in Distrito Italia where the community is located, is run by the Barrio 18 gang on one side and by the Mara Salvatrucha on the other. Young people on their way to school or to get the bus to go into Apopa or San Salvador are particularly vulnerable to these approaches, and so many of the young people from Comunidad Romero have to go the long way round to avoid such contact.

Given the lack of employment opportunities and the lack of alternative forms of development, it is unsurprising that so many young adults join the migrant caravans in search of a future.

Sources:

  • La Prensa Gráfica, 14 April 2019, ‘Amenaza de pandilla en Apopa limita servicios municipales’ / ‘Gang threats in Apopa restrict municipal services’.
  • Daniel Torres (El Salvador Day), 14 April 2019, ‘Pandilleros no permiten que se recoja basura en Apopa’ / ‘Gang members stop waste collection in Apopa’.
  • Personal notes by Martin Mowforth from visit to Comunidad Romero, 30 January 2019.

Dina Meza, Honduran journalist and human rights defender, visits London

In December 2018, Honduran human rights worker Dina Meza visited London. Because of the danger of her work in Honduras, she is accompanied there by Peace Brigades International (PBI). Both Dina and PBI feature several times in ‘The Violence of Development’ website, for which she was interviewed in 2017 – see  https://theviolenceofdevelopment.com/dina-meza/

The following report by PBI explains her presence in London.

Dina Meza visits the UK

In December 2018 Dina Meza, a celebrated Honduran independent journalist, was invited to the UK to speak at the FCO’s Human Rights Day event. During her time in London Dina Meza met with the Minister for Human Rights; Lord Ahmad, All Party Parliamentary Group on Human Rights, as well as representatives of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to discuss the human rights situation in Honduras as well as restrictions on freedom of expression and attacks against journalists in the country. She also met with NGOs and donors.

“We are joined by Dina Meza. She is a journalist in Honduras who is working to defend freedom of expression and information. And in case Dina, and after meeting her this morning, I would add this, a modest lady, and if she fails to tell you this herself is that she was named by Fortune magazine as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders of 2018. Why? Because of her work in this sphere. Thank you Dina for being here.” – Lord Ahmad

Committed to defending freedom of expression and information, Dina has spent years investigating and reporting on human rights violations across the country. She is currently the Director of ASOPODEHU and the President of PEN Honduras, an organisation that supports journalists at risk. She is also the founder and editor of the online newspaper ‘Pasos de Animal Grande’, which provides information and legal support to at-risk professionals, students and journalists.

In April 2018 Fortune magazine selected her as one of the world’s 50 greatest leaders of 2018, highlighting her key role in bringing international attention to the assassination of activist Berta Cáceres, as well as the state violence surrounding Honduras’ volatile 2017 elections.

Dina works at incredible personal risk and has previously had to flee Honduras for her own safety. Due to the threats she faces she receives protective accompaniment from Peace Brigades International.

PBI UK
1b Waterlow Road
London, N19 5NJ

Tel/Fax: +44 (0)20 7281 5370
Email: admin@peacebrigades.org.uk

UK Charity Number: 1101016

2016 assassinations of environmental rights defenders in Guatemala

Context

2016 has witnessed an increase in fatal attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala. From January 1st to October 31st, eleven human rights defenders were killed and since October 31st, the killings have escalated, and by November 18th the total number of defenders killed came to 16. (The total for 2015 was 13.)

Environmental defenders

screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-12-13-14On 16th March, Walter Méndez Barrios (shown left) was shot and killed outside his home in Las Cruces. He was a well-known environmental rights defender, who tried to protect natural resources in communities in the Maya Biosphere Reserve. He was a founding member of the FPCR (Petenero Front Against Dams), formed in 2005 to defend land rights, water rights and other natural resources.
screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-12-13-44On 13th April, Benedicto de Jesús Gutiérrez Rosa, Juan Mateo Pop Cholom (shown left) and Héctor Joel Saquil Choc, all forestry engineers with the National Institute of Forests, were ambushed and shot to death by gunmen in a car around 2 pm as they were driving in Carcha, Alta Verapaz. They were returning home from a finca where they had been working for the day.
screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-12-13-46On 8th June, human rights defender Daniel Choc Pop (shown left) was killed by unknown individuals who shot him numerous times. He was an indigenous and campesino human rights defender from the community of San Juan Tres Ríos in Cobán, which he represented at the General Assembly of the Highlands Campesino Committee (CCDA). The CCDA is a national organisation committed to defending local water sources used by indigenous communities. There had been recent disputes over land ownership with owners of the Rancho Alegre estate
screen-shot-2016-12-27-at-12-14-15On 12th November, Jeremy Abraham Barrios (shown left) was shot to death. He worked as the Assistant to the General Director of CALAS (Centre for Environmental and Social Legal Action in Guatemala). CALAS is a human rights organisation based in Guatemala City and has been active in denouncing abuses committed by mining companies as well as in the protection of environmental rights. There was no prior indication that he had received any threats, although the organisation had received warnings.

Sources:

A variety of sources have been used in the compilation of the lists above. These include: Prensa Libre, Aquitodito, Cerigua, Radio La Franja, Front Line Defenders, Committee to Protect Journalists, NISGUA, UNESCO, Reporteros Sin Fronteras, Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC).

The GHRC’s ‘Preliminary 2016 Human Rights Review’ has been particularly helpful and this was the work of Imogene Caird and Pat Davis, to whom I am especially grateful. The GHRC’s website is: www.ghrc-usa.org/

MS-13 seeks truce with the government

Reproduced from LatinoLife

January 2017

This Latino Week

by: Jim McKenna

El Salvador gang requests government dialogue

One of El Salvador’s most prominent maras, MS-13 (Mara Salvatrucha), offered to dissolve itself as an organisation in return for government concessions. MS-13 stated that it wanted a dialogue on a range of matters, including political representation and amnesty. The government rejected the proposal, saying that it amounted to negotiations with criminals.

screen-shot-2017-02-27-at-13-56-16

Attempts to control the gangs of Central America is not a new development; with a 2012 truce in El Salvador failing within a year of its implementation. The main difference between 2012 and now was thought to be the promise of dissolution in exchange for government promises, which was previously not offered.

Central American gangs have historically been a problem, with U.S. deportation in the 1980s creating a situation where youth gangs would run rampant in society. Although the perceived importance of such gangs has declined in recent years, Central American cities still remain hotspots for violence, with an estimated 10 homicides a day in El Salvador this year.

Defending Rights Defenders

It is now almost a year since the Environmental Network for Central America (ENCA) hosted an event entitled ‘Defending Rights Defenders’ on board the Tattershall Castle, a boat moored on the River Thames. My apologies to all the readers of the TVOD website monthly updates that we have not managed to upload a report of the event until now. Anyway, better late than never.

ENCA was strongly supported by Peace Brigades International (PBI), OFRANEH (Black Fraternal Organisation of Honduras), the Guatemala Solidarity Network and the Nicaragua Solidarity Campaign. The event explored both the causes and potential solutions to the dangers of being a defender of land rights, environmental rights and human rights in Central America, attracted 140 people and provided a platform for discussion and solidarity.

The event was chaired by Doug Specht from the University of Westminster who introduced three speakers: Martin Mowforth, author of ‘The Violence of Development’ opened the talks with a contextual introduction to the northern triangle of Central America (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) where life for rights defenders is extremely dangerous. He cited research by the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL) and Global Witness that stated that since the 2009 military coup d’état in Honduras, 123 land and environmental activists have been murdered in that country with countless others threatened, attacked or imprisoned. The situation for rights defenders in El Salvador and Guatemala can hardly be described as any better than for Hondurans.

Following this introduction we were delighted to be joined by Aurelia Martina Arzú Rochez, vice-coordinator and spiritual guide of OFRANEH, who gave a powerful and personal account of living with the oppression of being an activist in Honduras. The Garífuna people are currently experiencing illegal takeovers of their ancestral lands by Canadian investors who are intent on developing a tourism industry that caters to wealthy foreign cruise passengers but which displaces and dispossesses the Garífuna people from their land. Moreover they suffer constant criminalisation by the authorities which are intent on protecting international investors rather than Honduran people.

More case studies of abuses of rights defenders from around the region were then presented. Following Aurelia and the other case studies, Emily Spence of Peace Brigades International took to the stage to explore ways in which rights defenders can be defended and supported through the work of PBI and other solidarity networks. The presentations were rounded off with a lively and interesting Q&A session.

While the presentations may have concluded on a sober note, the feeling of solidarity and the importance of pushing forward for new and better ways of living and fighting for rights was, quite literally, drummed home by the Pengenista samba-reggae drum band who capped off the evening with a lively range of dance and protest songs that got the whole room on its feet to join in celebration of what can be achieved when we engage in solidarity.

Below are just a few pictures and videos from the evening.

Aurelia Arzú

Aurelia with interpreter Sandra Young and Emily Spence of Peace Brigades International

The Pengenista samba-reggae drum band strut their stuff after the presentations


Video clips used in the presentations:

 

2016 assassinations of union and community rights defenders in Guatemala

Context

2016 has witnessed an increase in fatal attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala. From January 1st to October 31st, eleven human rights defenders were killed and since October 31st, the killings have escalated, and by November 18th the total number of defenders killed came to 16. (The total for 2015 was 13.)

Union members and community leaders

On 10th May, community leader Blanca Estela Asturias was shot to death in Villalobos, Guatemala. Two men approached her as she was at her newspaper stand at 6 am and shot her at point blank range. She had recently organised a protest to call for better water service and better maintenance of the community’s drainage system.

screen-shot-2016-12-28-at-08-29-49On 19th June at about 6 pm, Brenda Marleni Estrada Tambito (shown left) was driving through Zone 1 of Guatemala City when a vehicle drove up next to her. The occupants of the vehicle opened fire and killed her. She was a member of the Coalition of Workers’ Unions of Guatemala (UNSITRAGUA) and the sub-coordinator of the Legal Aid Commission within the union. UNSITRAGUA brings together workers’ unions from different industries, as well as self-employed workers and independent farmers. She was the daughter of lawyer Jorge Estrada, who is currently involved in investigating and assessing labour rights in several banana plantations in Izabal.

On 10th November, Eliseo Villatoro Cardona was riding home on his motorcycle when two pursuers, also on motorcycles, shot and wounded him. Despite his wounds, he tried to flee, but the gunmen continued to chase him and killed him. Villatoro Cardona was a member of the executive committee of the Organised Municipal Employees’ Union of Tiquisate (SEMOT) in Escuintla.

Sources:

A variety of sources have been used in the compilation of the lists above. These include: Prensa Libre, Aquitodito, Cerigua, Radio La Franja, Front Line Defenders, Committee to Protect Journalists, NISGUA, UNESCO, Reporteros Sin Fronteras, Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC).

The GHRC’s ‘Preliminary 2016 Human Rights Review’ has been particularly helpful and this was the work of Imogene Caird and Pat Davis, to whom I am especially grateful. The GHRC’s website is: www.ghrc-usa.org/

Indigenous Guatemalan Journalist Faces Charges after Reporting on Protest

The arrest of Maya K’iche’ journalist Anastasia Mejía exposes the Central American country’s ongoing assault on press freedom. Details of the arrest and its context are told by Iñigo Alexander in a report in the journal of the North American Congress on Latin America (NACLA). We are grateful to Iñigo for the story and to NACLA for permission to reproduce the article in The Violence of Development website. The original article by Iñigo Alexander can be accessed at: https://nacla.org/news/2020/11/01/indigenous-journalist-guatemala-press-freedom

Key words: Guatemala; Indigenous journalists; repression; guilt by association; lack of press freedom; self-censorship; SLAPPs.

Anastasia Mejía was released from jail to house arrest last week. (Carlos Choc, Prensa Comunitaria)

For 37 days, Maya K’iche’ journalist Anastasia Mejía was held in detention at a women’s prison on the outskirts of Quetzaltenango, a small city in Western Guatemala. The National Police detained Mejía on September 22 and charged her with sedition, aggravated attack, arson, and aggravated robbery. She now faces three months on house arrest, after local organisations raised funds to pay her bail. Mejía is the director of the local outlets Xol Abaj Radio and Xol Abaj TV.

Mejía’s case is symptomatic of the Guatemalan state’s troubled relationship with the press. She is the latest in a series of Indigenous journalists criminalized for their work. Many journalists have been arrested, threatened, and murdered. Public officials openly criticize journalists and consider them “guilty by association” for reporting on protest movements.

A month prior to her arrest, Mejía was working in the town of Joyabaj. The 49-year-old was reporting on protests against the mayor and his management of the Covid-19 crisis. Joyabaj vendors had gathered in opposition to mayor Florencio Carrascosa’s proposed relocation of the town’s market, which has been closed to deter the spread of the coronavirus. Protestors claimed the relocation would not prevent losses and was of no benefit to the businesses that relied on the market.

The mayor had also come under fire for alleged favouritism in the distribution of government support packages to alleviate the impact of the pandemic in the community. Tensions quickly boiled over, and the crowd of protestors raided the Joyabaj town hall, tossing furniture and documents onto the street and setting them ablaze.

All the while, Mejía stood by and reported on the events as they unfolded. Over the course of several hours, she live-streamed the protests on Xol Abaj TV’s Facebook page. This action lead to her unwarranted imprisonment.

Guilty by Association

“What we’ll often see is that rural or Indigenous reporters that are covering protests, confrontations, or conflicts will get lumped in with whatever actions are going on there, and then they’ll be facing ridiculous charges,” says Natalie Southwick, Central and South America Program Coordinator for the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Southwick says the Guatemalan government’s approach of deeming journalists guilty by association is a gateway to abuse its power and undermine national laws. “Defamation laws are a common way to use the legal system to go after journalists. This is a tactic that is not unique to Guatemala, but it’s used there more than we see in other countries,” says Southwick.

Guatemalan law stipulates that anyone arrested must receive an initial hearing on their case within 24 hours of their arrest. Mejía’s first hearing was on October 8, 16 days after her arrest.

The Joyabaj mayor and Mejía share a fraught history, which many believe is the driving force behind Carrascosa’s persecution of the journalist. In 2015, Mejía was elected as a councilor at the town hall, which Carrascosa has presided over as mayor since 2008. The pair share personal and political differences, with Carrascosa claiming Mejía attempted to oust him, while Mejía went as far as suing Carrascosa over suspicions of corruption.

Carrascosa is reported to have amassed 24 official complaints against him while serving as Joyabaj mayor, including cases of violence against women, illicit funding, embezzlement, and fraud.

The delayed hearing allowed the Joyabaj municipality to prolong Mejía’s time in detention. A series of obstacles emerged in Mejía’s path towards justice, from Covid-19 to missing legal accreditation from Carrascosa’s defense.

Mejía was due to testify via video from the detention centre in Quetzaltenango, though the court was not able to establish connection with the centre and the hearing was postponed until October 28, 36 days after her arrest.

Mejía arriving at the hearing on October 28, 2020. (Carlos Choc/Prensa Comunitaria)

The outcome of Mejía’s hearing echoes the troubled relationship between the Guatemala government, Indigenous communities, and the press.

The court hearing on October 28 upheld the charges against Mejía and ordered an investigation into the journalist. The judge placed Mejía under house arrest and imposed a 20,000 Guatemalan Quetzal ($2,567) bail, as well as denying her the right to practice journalism until the following hearing. The second hearing is scheduled for nearly three months from now, on January 11, 2021.

Additionally, Mejía was forced to spend the night at the men’s prison of Santa Cruz del Quiché, after the state penitentiary’s transport reportedly left her and fellow detainees behind. A day after the hearing, local organisations raised the funds to pay for her bail, and Mejía was released from the detention centre and placed under house arrest for the coming months.

State Attacks on the Press

Since 1992, 25 journalists and media workers have been killed in Guatemala, with the most recent fatality registered in February this year, when Bryan Guerra, a reporter at the cable news channel TLCOM, was shot dead in the city of Chiquimula. In 2019, the humanitarian organisation Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala registered 104 attacks against journalists. So far in 2020, the Association of Guatemalan Journalists has recorded over 110 attacks against members of the press.

“Freedom of speech is not a right exclusive to journalists, it’s a right of the people. If they silence the press, they silence the people,” says Miguel Ángel Albizures, President of the Association of Guatemalan Journalists.

Government disdain toward the press is by no means a new occurrence in Guatemala. The last Guatemalan President, Jimmy Morales, was openly hostile towards the press and often attacked publications and journalists critical of his administration, as well as intimidating journalists and barring them from press conferences.

His successor, Alejandro Giammatei, took office in January this year. Many Guatemalan journalists hoped he would usher in a new age of press freedom. Giammatei, however, has drastically fallen short of the mark, and many Guatemalan journalists believe he holds a tighter grip on the press than Morales did before him.

“People have always had hope [for a freer press], but it crumbles with the start of each new government,” says Albizures. “We’ve been waiting for a change for a long time, and the people were tired of Morales’ attitude towards the press.”

Shortly after winning the election, Giammatei labelled the news outlet Nómada as “specialists in discrediting,” as well as proposing a platform of centralized press releases, which would have enabled the government to filter and manage the flow of information. Nómada has since folded, citing financial instability, though its founder was also facing allegations of sexual misconduct.

Giammatei has also kept a close eye on journalists investigating his administration. In September, journalist Sonny Figueroa was arrested in relation to his reporting on government corruption. Previously, Giammatei had also demanded the investigative journalist Marvin Del Cid reveal who was telling him to investigate his administration.

“Since taking office Giammatei has held a direct attack towards the press, especially those outlets that don’t align themselves with the government’s agenda,” says Nelton Rivera, an investigative journalist at Prensa Comunitaria.

“The government is uncomfortable and annoyed that there is a right that allows citizens to learn, find out, and uncover information, which in turn allows them to make their own decisions,” says Rivera.

The Central American country is ranked 116th on the World Press Freedom Index, reflecting the government’s failure to protect its journalists and provide them with safe, free, and transparent grounds upon which to carry out their labour.

Indigenous Journalists Face Discrimination

Mejía’s Indigenous identity adds a layer of complexity to her case. The journalist is Maya K’iche’, an Indigenous group of 1.7 million in Guatemala, or 11 percent of the national population.

“The State of Guatemala was founded on three pillars which remain practically intact: discrimination, racism and exclusion,” Albizures says. “The fact that she’s Indigenous has a large part to play; it’s an eminently racist attitude which has resulted in her imprisonment.”

Indigenous communities across Guatemala face regular discrimination and independent, Indigenous media outlets are often victims of targeted attacks. Between 2016 and 2018, at least two Indigenous radio stations were raided and shut down due to licensing problems.

Radio holds a particularly important role among Indigenous Guatemalan communities, as it serves to preserve Indigenous languages and culture, and dedicates time to issues impacting their communities. These raids often result in arrests and subsequent criminal charges. In 2018, two female community reporters were arrested following a raid on four Indigenous radio stations.

Indigenous journalists often struggle to obtain the recognition and credibility of mainstream outlets, which in turn reduces the attention and protection they receive from industry peers and state bodies.

In 2016, the Guatemalan state attempted to implement a community media law to provide legal access and protection to broadcast outlets and safeguard Indigenous peoples’ right to produce free journalism. The proposed law was stalled before National Congress could vote on the measure.

Working within a small community also means that reporters are more exposed and easier to identify. Earlier this April, the Indigenous journalist Carlos Choc had his home robbed and equipment stolen in what is believed to be an attempt at intimidation.

“There are fewer resources in general going to these [Indigenous] regions, and when you have reporters that are actively documenting what’s going on, that puts an additional target on their back,” Southwick says.

As a result, Indigenous and community reporters often resort to self-censorship in order to avoid conflict or attacks, and also refrain from reporting instances of intimidation to avoid attention.

“There’s the perception that people who are reporting for these community outlets are inherently activists, instead of recognising that they’re journalists,” says Southwick. “They’re already facing the regular barriers that any journalists would face, on top of that — as members of communities that face discrimination — their works is often minimized or rejected.”

Mejía’s case is unfortunately unlikely to be the last of its kind in Guatemala. It is the culmination of a systematic based in impunity, intimidation, and discrimination. Even if the Guatemalan state grants Mejía her liberty, she and her colleagues will continue to face an uphill battle in the fight for a free press.

“Mejía’s case exemplifies the impunity of the judges, municipality workers, the mayor himself and public prosecutors, who make accusations they know they have no evidence for[1],” Rivera says. “It’s a way of applying a punishment not only to the person for exercising their role as a journalist, but also to society as a whole.”

Iñigo Alexander is a freelance journalist who focuses on social issues, Spain, and Latin America.

[1]  See the article on SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) in this Chapter of The Violence of Development website.

Nayib Bukele’s war on quality investigative journalism

Tim Muth

October 13, 2020

El Salvador Perspectives is a news and information site/blog focused on El Salvador. The primary focus is on news and politics, but you can also find articles here on culture, tourism, art, food and more. El Salvador Perspectives is the product of Tim Muth. Tim is a US trained lawyer who splits his time between El Salvador and Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the US. We are grateful to Tim for permission to reproduce his blog article in ‘The Violence of Development’ website. Tim’s blogsite can be found at: http://www.elsalvadorperspectives.com  and you can find the original of this article at: http://www.elsalvadorperspectives.com/2020/10/nayib-bukeles-war-on-quality.html

 

In the past decade, investigative journalists have uncovered important information for the Salvadoran people about the misdeeds of those in power.  Their reports disclosed the role of the government of El Salvador in negotiating a 2012 gang truce under president Mauricio Funes, revealed payoffs from both ARENA and the FMLN to the gangs for election support in the 2014 presidential election, reported on corruption in the office of the attorney general, uncovered the existence of extra-judicial execution squads within the security forces under president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, and more.

That valuable work at sites like El FaroRevista FactumGato Encerrado and FocosTV has continued under the current administration of president Nayib Bukele.  Journalists at traditional newspapers including El Diario de Hoy and La Prensa Gráfica have also been shedding light on dealings of government officials.   For instance, RevistaFactum revealed instances of nepotism in the hiring of government officials.  El Faro reported on early government spending from a secret account previously denounced by Bukele.  RevistaFactum asked who was funding trips by the head of the prison system to Mexico.  The various news outlets have also disclosed numerous instances of self-dealing by government officials in the purchase of COVID-relief provisions and PPE to deal with the pandemic.

To challenge any suggestion of wrongdoing in his administration, even before he assumed his office, president Nayib Bukele has spoken with derision about investigative journalism in the country.  From the megaphone of his Twitter account, Bukele has called journalists mercenaries bought by financial interests, the favorite “digital pamphlets” of the Legislative Assembly, throwing their reputations in the trash, to select just a tiny sample.  His words are picked up by his cabinet ministers and his enormous online following who then multiply the effect and repeat the smears in comments and retweets of any article approaching a criticism of Bukele or his government.

Bukele recently stepped up his attacks even more after El Faro published an article titled Bukele Has Been Negotiating with MS-13 for a Reduction in Homicides and Electoral Support.   The El Faro investigation relied on leaked prison system documents and interviews with sources in the administration and gang members.   It described a series of meetings between government officials and top gang leaders in the prison which allegedly has led to a reduction in homicides and potential gang influence in the 2021 elections.

As Bloomberg reported:

The president denies the reports and last month accused the newspaper of laundering money. El Faro director Jose Luis Sanz dismisses the accusation and audit as an attempt to silence the free press.

“Nayib Bukele wants to consolidate a political project and leave no space for pluralism, much less free speech and public questioning from independent newspapers,” Sanz said in an interview. “Freedom of expression in El Salvador is in critical condition.”

Warnings about erosion of press freedom

Bukele’s ever more strident attacks on the press, coupled with his willingness to employ tools of the state such as financial audits and suggestions of the existence of criminal investigations, have sounded alarm bells inside and outside El Salvador.

The Association of Journalists of El Salvador (APES) denounced Bukele’s actions in a statement:

The intention to stigmatize those media and journalists who do journalism – and who have thus revealed worrying cases of corruption, nepotism and arbitrariness in the current administration – is evident, and seeks to undermine the credibility of the non-aligned press to implant the official narrative as the only legitimate voice. This attitude, which criminalizes plurality of thought, not only undermines one of the constitutional duties of the presidency – seeking social harmony – but also strengthens an increasingly authoritarian path

During the first year of the Bukele administration which ended June 1, 2020, APES had tallied 61 assaults on press freedom by the government.  The abuse included attacks on APES itself.  That total has grown steadily since then.

Advocates for journalists around the world have spoken up with concern.  In an article titled International community stands in solidarity with El Faro as Salvadoran government attacks on independent press escalate, the LatAm Journalism Review on October 2 describes the mounting antagonism of the Bukele government towards the independent press in the country.

The Committee to Protect Journalists made its position known:

“President Bukele appears committed to continuing his anti-press rhetoric and spreading rumors in a campaign to damage El Salvador’s independent media,” said CPJ Central and South America Program Coordinator Natalie Southwick, in New York. “President Bukele and the government agencies in his administration should refrain from harassing journalists and must immediately clarify if there is an investigation into El Faro, and, if so, drop it immediately.”

Similarly, the jury of the prestigious Maria Moors Cabot Awards for inter-American journalism at Columbia Journalism School issued a statement:

The Cabot Jury is shocked and appalled to see the growing assault President Bukele and his administration are carrying out against freedom of the press and the rule of law in El Salvador.

The Inter-American Press Association wrote on its website:

The president of IAPA, Christopher Barnes and the president of the Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Roberto Rock, condemned the indirect censorship exercised by the “Executive Branch through fiscal tactics, with the intention of silencing El Faro and other independent media”.

Meanwhile hundreds of writers and journalists wrote a letter to the Organization of American States:

We consider it extremely serious that the President uses a national channel to announce an investigation against a press outlet, since the audits have not yet been completed and neither the Ministry of Finance nor the Prosecutor’s Office have notified the newspaper of any irregularity in their accounting or the existence of an investigation for these crimes.

All the events described here constitute an attack on freedom of the press and can only be aimed at delegitimizing and silencing the journalistic work of El Faro, which has been particularly uncomfortable for the Salvadoran government due to its investigations into corruption and the Bukele administration’s negotiations with illegal groups.

The attacks violate the institutional guarantees of a democratic state. The criminalization and stigmatization of the media and journalists seriously deteriorates the rule of law.

In just one year in power, Nayib Bukele has shown an authoritarian tendency that is expressed in his takeover of Congress with the military last February, his constant contempt for judicial sentences, his intolerance of any critical voice and his systematic attack on independent journalism that do media like El Faro.

They were joined by seven prominent international human rights organizations who together signed a letter which declared:

Given these facts, the signatory organizations express our deepest concern about the ongoing course of stigmatization and criminalization, against an independent media that performs a necessary function in any democracy. We defend the role that journalists play as human rights defenders, as their contribution is key the functioning of democracy.

 

Bukele’s Response

Bukele’s response to this criticism has deliberately echoed his ally in Washington, Donald Trump.  His attacks came to a crescendo in a nationally broadcast press conference on September 24 where he spent much of his time belittling investigations of his government and journalists.

Bukele repeatedly calls articles which are critical of him “Fake News.”   When it is asserted that he is endangering freedom of the press in the country, he argues that no one is exercising censorship and that news outlets continue to publish negative articles about him without being shut down.

Time and again Bukele asserts that the independent news outlets are only at the service of their financiers.  Bukele’s ad hominem attacks regularly include pointing out that Jorge Siman, one cousin in the prominent Siman family, was a founder of El Faro, while another cousin Javier Siman, is a critic of Bukele from within ARENA and the business community.  In Bukele’s telling, the Siman family as a whole represents big business interests which put profits over the well-being of the people and El Faro is one of its tools.  Bukele also made a similar attack on RevistaFactum, claiming it is controlled by Fito Salume, another prominent business figure (which Factum denies).  Bukele also suggests that there is something illicit in the fact that Revista Factum, El Faro, and Gato Encerrado have all received funding from philanthropist George Soros through the Open Society Foundation which provides grants to strengthen democracy, freedom of expression and accountable government.

Bukele asserts without proof that Hector Silva Avalos, one of the founders of RevistaFactum, received illegal cash payments from Mauricio Funes, and claims there is an open investigation against Silva Avalos.   Bukele used that September 24 broadcast to assert that El Faro was being investigated for money laundering, and his Minister of the Treasury has used an audit of El Faro to conduct a harassing inquiry into its donors, supporters and editorial processes.
 
The United States stands on the sidelines

Some members of the US Congress are also reacting with concern.  Democratic senators and members of the House of Representatives, led by Eliot Engel, Chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, sent a letter to Bukele stating:

We are alarmed by recent attacks against El Faro, one of Central America’s top independent, investigative outlets. El Faro’s first-rate journalism is well-respected not only in El Salvador but also throughout the international community…While disagreements between government officials and the media are bound to occur in any democracy, we believe that governments must always ensure full respect for press freedom.

Six Republican Congressmen wrote to Bukele to express concern over the  “slow but sure departure from the rule of law and norms of democracy.”   When asked, Bukele dismissed the letters from Washington as coming from a small group out of 535 members of Congress who had historic links to ARENA and the FMLN.

Gabriel Labrador of El Faro questions Bukele at Sept. 24 press conference about letter from US Congressmen

For its part, the US State Department has limited itself to commenting only that journalists do important work and independence of the press must be respected.   Meanwhile the US Ambassador to El Salvador, Ronald Johnson, has frequently been a willing participant in Bukele’s public relations machine, even recently tweeting out favorable public opinion polls and regularly referring to his close friendship with the Salvadoran president.

As an opinion piece on the Univision News site stated:

Bukele is a key ally of President Donald Trump, who he has called “ very nice and cool.” Last year, Bukele reached an agreement with the Trump administration that will allow the U.S. to send asylum seekers from other countries to El Salvador, one of the most dangerous countries in the world. Bukele has also publicly acknowledged taking the antimalarial drug hydroxychloroquine touted by Trump to combat coronavirus, despite warnings about its safety.

From Columbia Journalism Review,  In El Salvador, a beacon of truth under threat:

In normal times, serious US officials would recognize what’s at stake and stand up to defend El Faro, along with the other Salvadoran media outlets that have come under attack. There is, of course, no chance of that happening as long as Trump remains in power.

Ronald Johnson and Nayib Bukele on phone call with Donald Trump earlier this year

Meanwhile, national elections approach in El Salvador

In an editorial titled Bukele is a Threat to Journalism, the El Faro team wrote:

Over the last year we have seen orchestrated campaigns against journalists on social media; slander and direct mockery from Bukele directed at reporters covering his press conferences; attacks on digital media web servers; monitoring, and even threats, which we have not been able to directly attribute to the president, but have connected to his smear campaigns against journalists from El Faro and other media outlets. These are campaigns and lies that his ministers and deputy ministers spread with impunity.

The political ends of such campaigns are obvious.  El Salvador will soon have national elections for deputies to its Legislative assembly at the end of February.  The elections offer the possibility for Bukele to fully consolidate his power and to relegate the old guard parties ARENA and the FMLN to irrelevance.    For Bukele, any suggestions of flaws in his administration must be ruthlessly stamped out as just the complaints of “the 3%” or “los corruptos de siempre.”

Ironically, some of Bukele’s fiercest attacks against ARENA and FMLN politicians come from revelations in reporting done by the independent journalists he now derides.   The politician who rode into office on a platform of combating corruption, now rejects the work of journalistic watchdogs who would uncover that corruption.

So far, independent journalists in El Salvador continue their work in spite of Bukele’s actions.

 


For more than 2800 previous articles on all things El Salvador related, visit Tim Muth’s blog at: http://www.elsalvadorperspectives.com  and you can find the original of this article at: http://www.elsalvadorperspectives.com/2020/10/nayib-bukeles-war-on-quality.html