In the August updates for The Violence of Development website we included a short report on the increase in the number of femicides in El Salvador during the COVID-19 pandemic. The same has been happening in Guatemala. On 10th October 2020 Al Jazeera published a report written by Sandra Cuffe on the protests of women’s groups against the high incidence of femicides in Guatemala and on the 11th October TeleSur published a brief report on the protest action. We reproduce a summary of both reports below the photo.
Key words: femicide; femicide rates; Guatemala.
On Saturday 10th October Guatemala’s women’s organisations held a protest in several cities of the country, to reject the violence against women, which has risen during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Dozens of women gathered outside the municipal building in the city of Quetzaltenango, head of the department of the same name, to pay tribute and demand justice for the women who have been raped, murdered, and disappeared in the last 20 years.
“We speak for the 4 women who disappear every day. We speak for all the 77,847 girls and adolescents between the ages of 10 and 19 who are already mothers,” the organisers stated.
“We speak for all the 12,188 women murdered in the last 20 years in the country. We speak for all the 55 women who call every day to denounce their aggressor. We speak for all the lives stolen, silenced, and extinguished of every girl, teenager, and woman in Guatemala,” the organisers explained.
Similar mobilizations took place in the capital, Guatemala City, Escuintla, Cobán, Teculután, among others, where there were songs, marches, and candles in memory of the murdered women.
More than 200 women were killed in the first eight months of this year in Guatemala and more than 3,000 women and girls have been killed since 2015, according to human rights groups tracking government statistics. The overwhelming majority of these cases remain unresolved.
The protests were sparked by the murder of social work student Litzy Amelia Cordón, 20, whose body was found in the municipality of Teculután where primary schoolteacher Laura Daniela Hernández had been murdered the week before.
The women also demanded the State’s commitment to guarantee women’s security and freedom, and “to strengthen the processes of reparative justice for girls and women victims of violence and femicide. The State must take more action. Woman are getting killed in this patriarchal and misogynist system,” they said.
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.”
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.
- 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.
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.
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.
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The following is a brief summary of an article published in September 2008 in NotiCen which offers news and analysis of international political matters as they manifest themselves in Central America and the Caribbean.
A tourism project of astounding proportions is rising up out of the ashes of the grandiose but defunct Plan Puebla Panama (PPP), replaced by Plan Mesoamerica – see Chapter 7. The tourism project was proposed for the Petén, Guatemala’s largest and most remote department. President Alvaro Colóm proposed an archeological park extending some 22,500 sq km across this, Central America’s largest, forested wilderness. The park would include both El Mirador, a giant ruins considered the cradle of the Mayan civilisation, and Tikal, the gem of the Mayan classic period.
Some of this vast area has been raped, turned into cattle ranches, denuded of the forests that could not be seen for the trees whose value as illegally felled timber has spelled their doom. It also necessitates the eviction of subsistence campesino families and would include a large area of the Petén which is lawless and in which forest is clear-felled with impunity for cattle grazing. Additionally, the area is used as a major trans-shipment route by drug smugglers. The Guatemalan NGO Trópico Verde refers to those responsible for the illegal felling as ‘narco-cattle ranchers’.
Carlos Albacete, Co-Director of Trópico Verde, said that the organisation first denounced the situation in 2006 and has documentation showing that, in at least five cases, lands within the Laguna del Tigre park were illegally deeded to persons linked to narco-trafficking. In the Mirador area of the central zone of the Mayan Biosphere Reserve, the group has documentary evidence of state lands taken over by drug traffickers that were subsequently robbed of their timber and turned to grazing. After Trópico Verde made its charges, authorities nullified the titles, but they did not act against the drug traffickers. “They don’t mention that, to get the deeds issued, they had to bribe lawyers and officials, or that in Laguna del Tigre so far 40 small planes used to transport cocaine from Colombia to Guatemala have been found,” added Albacete.
The full article on which this summary is based is accessible on the ENCA website
I am grateful to Sandra Cuffe and to the progressive organisation Toward Freedom for permission to reproduce this article here. Although the article refers to environmental defenders in many parts of the world, it is also relevant to Central America where the abuses and threats suffered by environmental defenders are as bad as or worse than those suffered elsewhere in the world.
It could be your morning coffee, your bananas, your sugar, or the palm oil found in approximately half of all packaged products at your grocery store, including breakfast cereals. Land and environmental defenders were killed in record numbers last year, and for the first time, agribusiness is tied to more killings than any other sector, according to a report published Tuesday by Global Witness, a London-based NGO (https://www.globalwitness.org/en/campaigns/environmental-activists/at-what-cost/).
The organisation documented 207 killings of land and environmental defenders in 22 countries around the world in 2017, a slight increase from 2016. However, the number of people killed while protesting large-scale agriculture in 2017 more than doubled.
“For the first time, agribusiness surpassed mining as the most dangerous sector to oppose, as 46 defenders who protested against palm oil, coffee, tropical fruit and sugar cane plantations, as well as cattle ranching, were murdered in 2017,” noted the authors of ‘At What Cost?’, the Global Witness report.
Last year also saw a rise in massacres, many of which were linked to agribusiness conflicts. Global Witness documented seven cases in which more than four land and environmental defenders were killed. In Brazil, three massacres had a combined death toll of 25, more than 40 percent of the total 57 defenders killed last year – the most killings Global Witness has ever recorded in any country.
In the Philippines, killings of activists and community leaders skyrocketed. “President Duterte’s aggressively anti-human-rights stance and a renewed military presence in resource-rich regions are fuelling the violence. Almost half of the  killings in the Philippines were linked to struggles against agribusiness,” according to the report.
On the southern island of Mindanao, an indigenous village leader engaged in a heated struggle against the expansion of a coffee plantation, and four of his relatives, and two other residents were all killed by soldiers on December 3. The government claimed the deaths were the outcome of fighting between the army and leftist guerrilla forces, but there was little evidence to support the claim. Between the government’s announcement that it would earmark more lands for industrial plantations and the increased militarization of Mindanao, killings of locals opposing land grabs are unlikely to cease.
Global Witness identified several root causes underlying threats to defenders, regardless of whether cases are tied to agribusiness, mining, logging, or other activities. Corruption and impunity are on the list, but so is the failure to recognise customary or collective land rights and secure land tenure. Failure to seek the free, prior and informed consent of affected communities also underpins the violence, according to the organisation.
“Local activists are being murdered as governments and businesses value quick profit over human life. Many of the products emerging from this bloodshed are on the shelves of our supermarkets,” said Ben Leather, a Senior Campaigner at Global Witness.
A United Nations intergovernmental working group continued to work on its draft of a binding international instrument concerning transnational corporations, but at the moment, most international guidelines concerning business and human rights are just that: guidelines. They’re voluntary. Products are sometimes labelled ‘sustainable’ by industry-led groups regardless of the facts on the ground.
Sugar and palm oil linked to violence and killings can be ingredients in all kinds of everyday products. Amnesty International traced palm oil from Indonesian plantations with reported human rights abuses to nine multinational food and household corporations with dozens of brands.
“We invite consumers to join us in campaigning alongside defenders, taking their fight to the corridors of power and the boardrooms of corporations. We will make sure their voices are heard,” said Leather.
Whether they are linked to conflicts over agribusiness or extractive industries, killings are at the extreme end of the spectrum of violence and harassment against land and environmental defenders.
Criminalization, death threats, sexual assault, and intimidation are everyday occurrences in many parts of the world.
Franklin Almendares is all too familiar with targeted intimidation. The head of the National Centre for Rural Workers (CNTC), he had been meeting with representatives from other Honduran land rights organisations this past February to discuss land struggles and the ongoing political crisis in the country, and there was much to talk about.
It was after midnight by the time he left the meeting. There was almost no traffic in Tegucigalpa at that time of night, but Almendares did not make it more than three blocks from the meeting when a vehicle suddenly crashed into his. Due to past attacks against him, Almendares opted to keep driving, but the other vehicle maneuvered around to the front of his, blocking his path. Two of the four men got out, pulled Almendares from his vehicle, frisked him for a weapon, and searched his bag.
“The only thing they robbed was my agenda,” Almendares told Toward Freedom. It was not the first time this had happened to him. “I’ve had my agenda stolen four times,” he said.
A police patrol truck had suddenly appeared a few minutes after the incident and officers tried to convince Almendares to get in and accompany them to search for the perpetrators. He declined, and the police officers did not bother to take notes, ask for details, or even inspect vehicle damage before leaving.
Almendares decided to go to the police station downtown to file a formal report, but he was intercepted along the way by a different police patrol truck, this time with both police and military personnel aboard. They knew who he was and what had happened. Fearing for his safety, Almendares declined their offer to accompany him and quickly took off for home, making sure he wasn’t followed. Regional CNTC leaders also face frequent intimidation, threats, and attacks.
“At CNTC we’re in a permanent state of crisis,” said Almendares. “Lands are being handed over for monoculture crops, dams and mining.”
Thousands of campesinos have been criminalized, and both public security forces and paramilitary groups have been attacking communities defending their lands, he said. Between the increasing concentration of power since the 2009 coup d’état and the fiercely contested re-election of President Juan Orlando Hernández last November, Almendares expects things to get even worse, and he is not alone.
The new Global Witness report addressed Honduras in its review of trends in 2017. The group documented four killings of land and environmental defenders in the country, a sharp drop from the 14 in 2016. However, Honduras still had the second most killings per capita in 2017, after seven consecutive years with the notorious distinction of holding the lead. Despite a drop in killings, repression of human rights defenders in general increased, as did attacks, the report authors noted.
In neighbouring Guatemala, killings have shot up drastically this year. To date in 2018, at least a dozen land and environmental defenders have been killed, and most of them were indigenous. According to the Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), the first eleven killings this year included five Campesino Development Committee (CODECA) members, three members of the Campesino Committee of the Highlands (CCDA), a Maya Chorti community leader, a Quetzaltenango social pastoral land group affiliate, and a member of the Coordination of Communities Affected by Sugar Cane Agribusiness.
“In 2018, it’s possible to predict a greater risk, not just due to the political and social context but also because the cost of attacking a defender has greatly dropped due to the inaction, tolerance, complicity and behaviour of the state, opening the door for state and non-state actors to consider that impunity will be guaranteed if they act against [defenders],” UDEFEGUA noted in a report published earlier this year.
This month, on July 12, another Guatemalan defender was killed. Ángel Estuardo Quevedo, a community leader from Casillas, Santa Rosa, was shot several times in broad daylight. He was an active participant in the powerful regional resistance movement to Tahoe Resources’ Escobal mine, and was involved in coordinating the rotation of residents participating in protest actions.
Locals from several municipalities in the area have been working together for more than a year to maintain an ongoing roadside protest in Casillas to block mine traffic and stop mine production. The movement also maintains a round-the-clock presence outside the Constitutional Court in Guatemala City pending a ruling concerning the mine.
For years, community leaders, activists and residents organised in opposition to the Escobal mine have been killed, attacked, jailed, and threatened. Miguel Ángel Payeras is one of the countless Casillas residents who experienced repression last year, when police attempted to violently evict the roadside protest camp in order to escort fuel to the mining project.
“They came with the intention of fighting with us,” Payeras told Toward Freedom in an interview last year. “They shot tear gas at people running away.”
A diabetic with vision and leg issues, Payeras uses a wheelchair and was unable to flee. Police dragged him away in his chair, and the foot in which he has no feeling was dragged along underneath the footrest, hitting his ankle over and over. Despite the repression, people regrouped and others poured in from nearby communities and other municipalities to maintain the protest camp and the selective roadblock to prevent mining operations. The resistance has continued every single day since.
If the first half of this year is any indication, the next annual Global Witness report could very well reveal that Guatemala took over as the country with the most per capita killings of land and environmental defenders in 2018. Despite the life-and-death stakes, defenders are not backing down.
“We’ll be here until the mine is shut down,” said Payeras. “If they kill me, I’ll die in the struggle.”
Sandra Cuffe is a freelance journalist based in Honduras. You can find her on twitter at @Sandra_Cuffe or read more of her work on her website at sandracuffe.com
Toward Freedom (https://towardfreedom.org/) is an organisation that has been offering a progressive perspective on world affairs since 1952.
The report on the need for Mayan resistance to the Oxec (and other) hydroelectric projects – also reported in this month’s additions to The Violence of Development website – is supported here by a teleSUR report on violence suffered by one of its journalists investigating the illegal logging and other damages done by the Oxec hydroelectric project.
teleSUR, 24 August 2018
Rolanda de Jesús García Hernández was filming the consequences of alleged illegal logging by a hydroelectric company when men threatened her with machetes. A teleSUR correspondent in Guatemala, the Indigenous Mayan K’iche journalist Rolanda de Jesús García Hernández, was attacked and robbed of her equipment while reporting on a hydroelectric project and illegal logging by unknown attackers who threatened to kill her.
García and another teleSUR correspondent, Santiago Botón, were summoned by the Q’eqchi’ community authorities of Sacta, on Cahabón’s riverside, to investigate illegal logging believed to be connected to the Oxec hydroelectric project. García travelled there to meet with local authorities, who accompanied her investigation on August 21 .
García, with community leader Francisco Tec, walked for an hour to reach a community on Sacte mountain which has been severely affected by logging. Once there, they interviewed locals and filmed some of the affected areas for a T.V. reportage.
“The people were very worried; we interviewed them on the stop, as part of my job,” García told a press conference on Friday. “I managed to film some images, some shots with the locals. At the other side we saw there were some employees from the Oxec company. After a few minutes, they started yelling at us.”
The employees then approached the reporting team and tried to take the cameras. They then shouted sexually suggestive threats at García in Spanish.
The reporting team decided to leave the area, but got separated. García stopped at a small river, where she was surrounded by six men who threatened her with machetes.
#UltimaHora Trabajadores de hidroeléctrica Oxec, retienen a periodista Rolanda de Jesús García, junto a comunitarios de Seacté del municipio de Cahabón, Alta Verapaz. La periodista se encontraba realizando una nota periodística cuando fue retenida. @mingobguate @MPguatemala pic.twitter.com/Vi4zQVN3aK
— Santiago Botón 🇬🇹 (@SantiagoteleSUR) August 21, 2018
“Employees of the Oxec Hydroelectric detained the journalist Rolanda de Jesús García, along with community members of Sacte in the Cahabón municipality, Alta Verapaz. The journalist was doing her journalism work when detained.”
García sent a text message just after 3 p.m. local time, saying: “In Cahabón, just informing you I’m in an ugly place, they want to take the camera away.” The attackers then seized the camera and threw it into the river.
“Our boss gets mad when someone enters his private property,” one of the men told García, stressing that the group knew who she was and where to find her. After threatening to rape and kill her then throw her body into the river, the men finally released García when she promised never to return. The incident has been reported to police.
People living on the Cahabón river say erosion and flooding have increased dramatically with the illegal logging allegedly related to the Oxec hydroelectric company, but the government is ignoring their plight.
“We can’t remain silent, it’s important to denounce this truth,” García said. “We’ve been the witnesses of several arrests and criminalization against the leaders, and now the press is being persecuted.”
“Temo por mi vida, me advirtieron que sabían quien era y le tomaron fotos y video. Me amenazaron y dijeron que el archivo estaba con su patrón” – Rolanda García Hernández corresponsal de Telesur pic.twitter.com/EBFEF41SYm
— PrensaComunitaria (@PrensaComunitar) August 24, 2018
“I fear for my life. I was warned they know who I am and took pictures and video of me. I was threatened and I was told their boss would have the files” – Rolanda García Hernández, teleSUR correspondent.
Guatemala’s social leaders, especially those involved in human rights and environmental issues, are often criminalized by the government and private companies whose economic interests are at stake, occasionally resulting in murder.
García said: “It would seem like it’s a confrontation between brothers and sisters, but we know this persecution comes from groups that are behind all these actions because when the communities try to speak to the cameras, the radios, to denounce, what they immediately receive is persecution. We’re also at risk.”
Several Guatemalan and international alternative media outlets and human rights groups are standing in solidarity with García, condemning the attack and demanding the Public Ministry prevent such assaults on freedom of speech.
The Oxec Hyodroelectric has denied any responsibility for the incident or having knowledge of García’s journalistic work.
The following report from the Centre for International Environmental Law (CIEL, ciel.org) outlines the importance of the use of law in the struggle to defend those who defend their land, environment and rights. We are grateful to CIEL for allowing reproduction of this summary through their Creative Commons License.
Last month, the landmark Escazú Agreement entered into full force. It’s the first regional environmental agreement in Latin America and the Caribbean, and the first-ever agreement to include specific provisions for the protection of environmental human rights defenders.
It specifies the rights of defenders, including their right to freedom of expression, free movement, and peaceful assembly. It includes transformational measures that obligate States to ensure every person can access information on environmental matters, while guaranteeing public participation in decision-making and access to justice.
These provisions are especially critical now, because the number of defenders killed in the region and worldwide has steadily increased over the last few years. According to a report by Front Line Defenders, 264 human rights defenders were killed in the Americas in 2020. That’s an average of five people killed every week.
The pandemic has only made matters worse: criminalisation, harassment, and reprisals against human rights defenders intensified last year. A Colombian organisation, Programa Somos Defensores, reported that in the first six months of 2020, there was a 61% increase in the number of defenders killed in Colombia compared to the same period the previous year. And the current situation of fragility and conflict in the country has intensified the violence against all residents. The Escazú Agreement has the power to reverse this trend and save lives.
But a game-changing milestone like this doesn’t happen overnight, and it doesn’t happen in isolation. Together with partners, CIEL has been an advocate for environmental democracy in Latin America and the Caribbean for three decades. Now that the Agreement has come into force, we must make sure it is meaningfully implemented. For the treaty to work, governments and companies must recognise the rights of Indigenous Peoples and local communities to be properly informed and consulted about development projects that will impact them and participate in decisions about what happens to their environment. CIEL has been advocating for this through monitoring and community accompaniment for decades, and with partners, we’re ready to put this new treaty to work for people and the planet.
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.)
|On 17th March, Mario Roberto Salazar Barahona (shown left), director of Radio Estéreo Azúcar, was killed in Asunción Mita (department of Jutiapa), as he waited in his car for change after buying a coconut at the roadside. Gunmen pulled up beside him on a motorcycle and opened fire.
|On 8th April, Winston Leonardo Túnchez Cano (shown left), a broadcaster on Radio La Jefa, was shot and killed by men on a motorcycle while he was shopping for groceries in Escuintla.|
|On 30th April, journalist Diego Salomón Esteban Gaspar (shown left, 22 years old and a leading reporter on Radio Sembrador, was killed by three men who intercepted him on his motorcycle in the village of Efrata (department of Quiché). The director of the radio station had been receiving threats since 2015.|
|On 7th June, journalist Víctor Hugo Valdéz Cardona (shown left) was shot and killed in the streets of Chiquimula by two individuals on a motorcycle. Víctor was the director of Chiquimula de Visión, a cultural television programme that had been showing for more than 27 years.
|On 25th June, journalist and radio reporter Álvaro Alfredo Aceituno López (shown left) was shot by unidentified assailants on the street where the Radio Ilusión station is located in the city of Coatepeque. He was director of the station and the host of a programme titled ‘Coatepeque Happenings’.
|A month after Álvaro’s murder, his daughter, Lindaura Aceituno, was shot and killed by men on a motorcycle as she was driving her daughter to school. After the first shooting, one of the men got off the motorcycle and approached and shot her again to ensure she was dead.|
|On 6th November, journalist Hamilton Hernández and his wife, Ermelinda González Lucas (shown left), were assassinated in Coatepeque while returning home after covering an event. Hamilton was a journalist for the cable station, Punto Rojo. The two had been married for only a few months.
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/
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 Faro, Revista Factum, Gato 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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
“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,” 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.
 See the article on SLAPPs (Strategic Lawsuits Against Public Participation) in this Chapter of The Violence of Development website.