2016 assassinations of union and community rights defenders in Guatemala


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.


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/

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:


Honduran lawmakers seek to permanently ban abortion

By Pamela Machado, February 2021

We are grateful to Pamela, a Brazilian journalist, for her summary of the situation faced by women in Honduras.

Key words: abortion ban; Honduran National Congress; hypermasculinity; femicide.


More threats to the lives of women in Central America: On January 21st, legislators in Honduras voted on an amendment to permanently ban abortions in the country. Honduras already has a full ban on abortions; the new proposal aims to make it hard to be overturned – ever.

The bill was put forward by the Deputy for the ruling National Party, Mario Pérez, on the grounds that abortion is “a practice against human nature”. In the proposed bill, any changes to abortion rights would require a three quarters majority vote, which is higher than usual.

The amendment will have to be ratified by the Congress in a year, but it is widely regarded as a mere formality. Only 27 of the 128 seats in the Honduran Congreso Nacional are held by women.

The move in Honduras came shortly after Argentina became the largest country in Latin America to legalise abortion after decades of campaigning by women’s rights movements. There is little doubt that the bill in Honduras represented a backlash to the victory in Argentina.

Just a few days later, on January 25th, the Honduran Women’s Day, hundreds of women took to the streets of Tegucigalpa to protest against the bill. ‘We have nothing to celebrate,’ said Ana Cruz from the women’s rights organisation Asociación de Calidad de Vida to news agency EFE, “we are here to demand that they respect our rights.”

Latin American countries are amongst the worst in the world in safeguarding women’s rights, and Central America has a particularly dire reputation when it comes to access to contraception and safe abortion. Beyond Honduras, El Salvador and Nicaragua also have a complete ban on abortion. In El Salvador women can face up to 40 years in prison for any attempts to end pregnancy or even suffering miscarriage. It is reported that 18 innocent women are held currently in prison in the country for alleged ‘abortion-related’ crimes.

Women in Latin America not only bear the burden of social tensions but also suffer from a culture that reveres hypermasculinity and conservative politics. Banning abortions only serves to increase stigma and worsen women’s health conditions as they are left with dangerous options to terminate pregnancies. According to data from the World Health Organisation, 3 out of 4 abortions in Latin America are deemed unsafe.

The collective Somos Muchas says that around 8,600 women were taken to a hospital due to complications of unsafe abortion in Honduras in 2017. The group gathered hundreds of signatures internationally in a call to oppose the bill.

In addition to unsafe conditions for abortions, women in Honduras also struggle with high rates of femicides. In 2020, approximately 300 women were victims of femicide in Honduras.


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.


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.

Honduras most dangerous country for environmental activists

By Anastasia Moloney

BOGOTA (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Honduras is the deadliest place for environmental activists with scores of Hondurans killed defending land rights and the environment from mining, dam projects and logging, a campaign group said on Monday.

Between 2010 and 2014, 101 activists were murdered in Honduras, the highest rate per capita of any country surveyed in a report by Global Witness, although the overall number was greatest in Brazil.

Globally, killings of environmental activists reached an average of more than two per week in 2014, up 20 percent from the previous year, the report said.

A man looks for usable items in a dumpsite on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, April 17, 2015. | Reuters/Jorge Cabrera.

A man looks for usable items in a dumpsite on the outskirts of Tegucigalpa, April 17, 2015. | Reuters/Jorge Cabrera.

Latin America fared worst, accounting for nearly three quarters of the murders – with 29 deaths reported in Brazil, 25 in Colombia and 12 in Honduras.

“Historically there has been very unequal land distribution in Latin America which has caused conflict between local and foreign companies and communities,” Billy Kyte, campaigner at Global Witness, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

“Governments in Latin America are by no means taking this problem seriously. Impunity levels are also very high so perpetrators of crime get away with it,” he said.

The report found 40 percent of environmental defenders killed last year were indigenous people caught on the frontline as they tried to defend land and water sources from companies in an escalating scramble for natural resources and land.

“Many indigenous groups lack clear land titles to their land and suffer land grabs by powerful business interests,” the report said.

Honduran activist, Martin Fernandez, said he was forced to flee for safety to Brazil for three months in 2012 after he received telephone death threats and was followed by cars with black tinted windows near his work and home.

“We live in fear, in fear of constant attack. I and many colleagues have had to live in exile,” Fernandez, head of the Movement for Dignity and Justice, a Honduran land rights group, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.

He said Honduran and foreign companies were exploiting indigenous lands and clearing forests, particularly in the northern Yoro province where the Tolupan indigenous group live, to make way for dam construction and mining projects.

In its report, Global Witness said the Honduran government hoped to attract $4 billion in mining investments and recently freed up 250,000 hectares of land for new mining projects.

With the world’s highest murder rate, Honduras is struggling to contain drug-fuelled gang violence and organized crime. The government did not respond to requests for comment on the Global Witness report.

Heightened dangers faced by environmental activists in Honduras are likely to be raised next month at the Geneva-based United Nations Human Rights Council when the country’s rights record comes under review.

(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney; Editing by Rosalind Russell)

10 femicides in first 11 days of August 2020 in El Salvador

By Martin Mowforth

Key words: femicide; ECLAC/CEPAL; El Salvador; ORMUSA.

According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), femicide is not simply the murder of females but rather the killing of females by males because they are female. It is a form of terrorism that functions to define gender lines, enact and bolster male dominance, and to render women chronically and profoundly unsafe.

According to the Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean, femicide is expressed in absolute numbers and rate per 100,000 women. National laws differ, but it is referred to as femicide, feminicide or aggravated homicide due to gender.

El Salvador has the highest rate of femicide in Latin America. On 13th August 2020 La Prensa Gráfica reported that ten women were murdered in the first eleven days of August, one of these being a minor.

Silvia Juárez, a representative of the Organisation of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA), warned others to be alert to the dangers of violence against them: “In May we had ten cases of violent deaths throughout the whole month, but in these first days of August we already have the same number. It’s extremely dangerous as some of these women were assassinated in their houses.”

ORMUSA gave a total of 65 women assassinated from the beginning of the year to the 5th August, although the Salvadoran Attorney General said that 47 of these were femicides. The Attorney General lamented the deaths and urged the authorities to take a more active role in increasing the personal security of women and to eradicate the acts of hatred that cause this aggression against women.


United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC, or CEPAL by its Spanish initials): oig.cepal.org/en/indicators/femicide-or-feminicide

Andrea Rivas and Javier Urbina, 13 August 2020, ‘Reportan 10 asesinatos de mujeres durante agosto’, La Prensa Gráfica, San Salvador.

Beatriz Calderon and Juan Carlos Díaz, 5 Agosto 2020, ‘Dos mujeres fueron asesinadas en Usulután’, La Prensa Gráfica, San Salvador.

Wikipedia, ‘Femicide’, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Femicide

2016 assassinations of environmental rights defenders in Guatemala


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.


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/

Another murder in the murder capital of the world

carlos-mejia-orellana-2Carlos Mejía Orellana killed

Information from Rights Action (info@rightsaction.org), 13 April 2014

Radio Progreso has reported that Carlos Mejía, a member of its staff, was murdered last night in El Progreso, Honduras. In 2009, Carlos had received precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights due to threats that he had received. Radio Progreso issued this statement:

“Carlos was a beneficiary of precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and therefore we demand that the State of Honduras through the relevant institutions investigate the facts and that this crime does not go unpunished.”


Nicaragua’s abortion ban

Prepared by Alice Klein.

Latin America generally has strict abortion laws, but Nicaragua is one of the few countries in the world to outlaw therapeutic abortion; that is ‘the termination of pregnancy before fetal viability in order to preserve maternal health’.[1] This includes when the mother’s or baby’s health and/or life is at stake.

Nicaragua’s ban came into force in October 2006, supported by the FSLN (Sandinista Front for National Liberation) who made a cynical alliance with conservatives in order to woo the Catholic Church in the run up to national elections.[2]

In November 2007, the Ortega government added criminal sanctions to the law. The Penal Code stipulates prison sentences for girls and women who seek an abortion and for health professionals who provide health services associated with abortion.[3] This includes sanctions for doctors and nurses who treat a pregnant woman or girl for illnesses such as cancer, malaria, HIV/AIDS or cardiac emergencies where such treatment is contraindicated in pregnancy and may cause injury to or death of the embryo or foetus.

It even goes as far as punishing girls and women who have suffered a miscarriage, as in many cases it is impossible to distinguish spontaneous from induced abortions. Indeed, Human Rights Watch say the most wide-ranging effect of the ban is the surge in fear of seeking treatment for pregnancy-related complications, such as hemorrhaging.[4]

Amnesty International says the ban is endangering the lives of girls and women, denying them life-saving treatment, preventing health professionals from practicing effective medicine and contributing to an increase in maternal deaths across the country.[5] The human rights group says that according to official figures, 33 girls and women died in pregnancy between January and June 2009, compared to 20 in the same period in 2008.

Despite attempts by the country’s feminists to campaign against the ban, President Ortega’s government has responded by attempting to silence them.[6] In September 2008, the Nicaraguan government launched ‘Operation No More Lies’ against NGOs it accused of embezzlement, money-laundering and subversion. It said the organisations’ promotion of human rights, gender equality and poverty reduction were “modern-day trojan horses” and a rightwing plot to destabilise the administration.

The following month, authorities raided the offices of the Communications Research Centre (CINCO) which works with the Autonomous Women’s Movement (MAM). Their work is financed by eight European governments and administered by Oxfam UK.[7] It aims to promote “the full citizenship of women,” but Ortega’s wife Rosario Murillo called it “Satan’s fund” and “the money of evil.”[8]

Murillo has since formed her own women’s group and penned a manifesto titled ‘The ‘Feminist’ Connection and Low Intensity Warfare’ in which she characterises feminists as oligarchs, counterrevolutionaries, and well-paid agents of imperialism.[9]

Critics have described these actions as a further sign of intolerance and authoritarianism by the once-revolutionary Ortega.[10]

[1] Emedicine obstetrics and gynaecology, http://emedicine.medscape.com/article/266440-overview (Accessed 11/08/09)
[2] ‘The government war on women’s rights in Nicaragua’, http://www.socialism.com/fsarticles/vol30no1/nicaragua.html (Accessed 11/08/09).
[3] Amnesty International (2009) ‘The total abortion ban in Nicaragua: Women’s lives and health endangered, medical professionals criminalized’, Amnesty International, New York.
[4] Human Rights Watch (2007) ‘Over their dead bodies: Denial of access to emergency obstetric care and therapeutic abortion in Nicaragua’, Human Rights Watch, New York.
[5] Op.cit. Amnesty International.
[6] See note 2.
[7] Rory Carroll (2008) ‘Oxfam targeted as Nicaragua attacks ‘trojan horse’ NGOs’, The Guardian, 14/10/08.
[8] Roger Burbach (2009) ‘Et Tu Daniel? The Sandinista revolution betrayed’, NACLA March/April: 33-43.
[9] Interview with Nicaraguan feminist Helen Dixon in Managua, July 2009.
[10] Op.cit. Burbach.

FNL members assassinated, 2009 – 2011

This table also appears, slightly amended, in the book as Box 9.4 (page 184).

24 October 2009 – Victor Galvez shot 32 times as he left his office in Malacatan, San Marcos.

13 January 2010 – Evelinda Ramírez shot and killed in the municipality of Ocos – see Chapter 4.

29 January 2010 – FNL member Pedro Garcia shot and killed while driving home.

17 February 2010 – FNL leader in San Marcos Octavio Roberlo shot 16 times from a passing car while closing his store in the bus terminal.

21 March 2010 – Three community leaders who had denounced Unión Fenosa, Carlos Noel Maldonado Barrios, Leandro Maldonado and Ana María Lorenzo Escobar, killed by gunshots and machete wounds in the municipality of Ocos.

22 March 2011 – Head of the local committee for the nationalisation of energy, Santiago Gamboa, shot and killed by Guatemalan soldiers during protests in the town of Las Brisas.