Last Updated: Friday, 27 May 2016, 07:47 GMT

Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Guatemala

Publisher International Federation for Human Rights
Publication Date 18 June 2009
Cite as International Federation for Human Rights, Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2009 - Guatemala, 18 June 2009, available at: [accessed 27 May 2016]
DisclaimerThis is not a UNHCR publication. UNHCR is not responsible for, nor does it necessarily endorse, its content. Any views expressed are solely those of the author or publisher and do not necessarily reflect those of UNHCR, the United Nations or its Member States.

Political context

Since he was elected on November 4, 2007, President Álvaro Colom Caballeros has faced complex and tangible challenges, such as violence of all kinds, impunity and challenges in relation to environmental issues and land ownership. Progress were made through Government reforms and signs of a willingness to solve these problems, as demonstrated by the ratification of the Optional Protocol to the United Nations Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment on June 9, 2008. However, the positive effects of such actions remain to be seen.

President Colom also launched the "100-Day Plan" (Plan Cien Días), which was implemented from January 15 to April 24, 2008 and aimed at the country's poorest municipalities – consisting mostly of indigenous peoples – chosen on the basis of indicators of extreme poverty. The plan's objective was to create 700,000 jobs and build 200,000 houses. The initiative turned out to be overly ambitious and, at the end of the 100 days, the expected outcomes had not been achieved. The initiative was also criticised by some for being designed with excessive optimism. The reforms also concerned the national civilian police, with the aim of identifying and dismissing corrupt officers, but the expected effects were not witnessed in this area either.1

The genocide that took place in Guatemala between 1960 and 1996 continued to have after-effects, due to the widespread impunity that prevails in the country. As of the end of 2008, the crimes committed during the genocide indeed remained unpunished.2 This impunity for past crimes not only violates the victims' rights to know the truth and to receive justice and reparation, but also impedes a "purge" of State bodies and institutions, in particular the armed forces, as well as punishment of persons responsible for grave human rights violations (genocide, crimes against humanity and torture). This led to a wave of extreme violence that has continued to increase, with the crimes committed nowadays also enjoying an almost total impunity, a situation condemned by, among others, several United Nations institutions.3

The Government took measures to fight impunity for current crimes, but the results remain to be seen. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG),4 established in August 2007, continued its mission of fighting and investigating impunity and corruption5 in close and strengthened cooperation with various State institutions. The Commission's work could contribute to significant progress in investigations, as long as the Public Ministry cooperates in the criminal investigations and prosecutions, and the Congress adopts the necessary reforms for the Commission to function efficiently.6

The level of violence in Guatemala nevertheless remained high in 2008, especially from August.7 The violence mainly stemmed from organised crime, clandestine security groups and juvenile gangs of Central American origin coming from the United States (the so-called "maras").8 Violence against women also remained at a very high level. According to the Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (Unidad de Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala – UDEFEGUA-Guatemala), 6,228 cases of various types of assaults on women were registered in 2008, making the use of the term "feminicide" widespread.9

Criminalisation of social protest worsened in 2008.10 On several occasions, the Government actually declared "states of prevention" (estados de prevención) – situations governed by the Law on Public Order (Leyde Orden Público).11 The rights of union members and workers were gravely violated without those violations being investigated. In this context, some multinational fruit companies have been employing for several years local firms to cultivate their plantations. However, these local companies often resort to anti-union practices, leading to an increase in violence against union members in Guatemala.12 Some of these social protests were related to problems of land ownership and abusive exploitation by multinational companies, which often affected the rights of indigenous peoples. The indigenous populations were on several occasions the victims of violent police raids as well as of criminal proceedings. The Government organised national negotiations in April between peasants and the authorities in order to deal with this situation. At the end of 2008, the negotiations were moving forward, but without the participation of the municipalities affected by violence.

After visiting Guatemala in February 2008, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders called attention to human rights defenders' low level of protection and to the high degree of repression against defenders of economic, social and cultural rights in particular.13 One month prior to the visit, in January 2008, the Ministry of the Interior, in cooperation with the Prosecutor General's Office, had created the Institute for the Analysis of Attacks Against Human Rights Defenders (Instancia de Análisis de Ataques contra Defensores de Derechos Humanos), which processes complaints of attacks against human rights defenders. The Institute has been at the origin of some coordination and confidence, which has led to certain results. Although these results remained weak insofar as the Public Ministry did not prosecute the perpetrators, they were strong in the sense that they constituted a step towards better protection for human rights defenders under attack.

Assassinations and harassment of trade union leaders

2008 was yet another period of serious violations against trade unionists in Guatemala. According to UDEFEGUA, 47 attacks against union members were recorded, the highest number of attacks ever on this category of defenders in the country. In addition, three union leaders defending workers' rights were assassinated. On March 2, 2008, Mr. Miguel Ángel Ramírez Enríquez, Co-founder of the Union of Banana Workers of the South (Sindicato de Trabajadores Bananeros del Sur – SITRABAN), was assassinated in the department of Escuintla, on the Olga María plantation, which is owned by the multinational Chiquita Brands. Eight months earlier, a group of workers had decided to form the union, which was legally registered. However, through its security service, the company began a series of harassment and intimidation acts against the workers and their families, including detaining several members and 12 trade union leaders and forcing them to quit their jobs. At the end of 2008, the assassination had still not been investigated. On May 13, 2008, Mr. Sergio Miguel García, the National Health Workers' Union (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores de la Salud de Guatemala – SNTSG) Coordinator for malaria eradication, was assassinated by unknown assailants in the department of Izabal. Five months earlier, his predecessor in the same position had died in similar circumstances. A first investigation was conducted after the assassination, but the Public Prosecutor's Office did not take any action on that case. Moreover, on September 21, 2008, Mr. Israel Romero Ixtacuy, Secretary General of the Union of the Retalhuleu Municipal Electricity Company Workers (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Eléctrica del Municipio de Retalhuleu), was shot in the head at a meeting with other union leaders. The investigation into Mr. Ixtacuy's murder was conducted with support from the Special Prosecutor for the CICIG. At the end of 2008, however, those responsible had still not been identified.

Serious violations against defenders of the environment and of the rights of indigenous peoples in relation to the conflict on land ownership and exploitation

In 2008, six cases of attacks on defenders of the environment and five cases of attacks on defenders of the rights of indigenous peoples were recorded. On March 31, 2008, a nun from the San Marcos diocese was threatened by persons who told her to convey a death threat to Monsignor Álvaro Ramazzini, Bishop of the diocese. Monsignor Ramazzini is a prominent figure in the fight for indigenous peoples' rights as well as for the protection of their land and the environment.14 In January 2008, he expressed his content with the result of the September 2007 municipal election, which was won by the Sipakapense Civic Committee (Comité Civico Sipakapense – CCS), an organisation advocating peaceful defence of the land and environment from mining. At the end of January 2005, Monsignor Ramazzini had already been victim of an assassination attempt due to his support in favour of peasants in the region in their fight against mining development. Furthermore, on August 1, 2008, an attempt was made on the life of Mr. Amilcar de Jesús Pop, a lawyer, notary and President of the Association of Mayan Lawyers and Notaries (Asociación de Abogados y Notarios Mayas). Mr. Amilcar de Jesús Pop supports 60 community leaders in San Juan Sacatepéquez in their fight for protection of natural resources from the projects of a large cement company. Worse still, on August 7, 2008, Mr. Antonio Morales López, a member of the Farmers' Unity Committee (Comité de Unidad Campesina – CUC) and leader of the defence of indigenous peoples' rights, was assassinated in the Huehuetenango department. Mr. Morales López was a notorious defender of indigenous peoples' rights and the environment, and was particularly opposed to open-pit mining projects in the department.

Human rights defenders who tried to mediate in conflicts were often accused of defending criminals, supporting terrorism and inciting violence. The accusations were made by farms owners and companies (especially mining companies) and sometimes civil servants of the judiciary system, and put the defenders' lives at risk. Most of those defenders are community defenders who fight for their rights against large companies and transnational corporations. To that extent, the case of Mr. Carmelino López and Mr. Eswin Ranferí López is worth mentioning. Both are members of the Nueva Florencia Farm Workers' Union (Sindicato de Trabajadores de Finca Nueva Florencia) who were unlawfully dismissed in 1997 along with other workers after forming a union. On January 5, 2008, Mr. Carmelino López and Mr. Eswin Ranferí López were arrested by four armed and hooded security guards of the Nueva Florencia farm, allegedly for bringing a cow to the farm and thereby violating the orders of the owner, who had forbidden peasants to own livestock. They were released the following day at 4 pm, but the Nueva Florencia farm administrator, Mr. Patricio Tunchez Ocampo, has been constantly harassing them in order to make them withdraw the complaint they lodged with the Public Ministry against him and the owner of the farm. The case was reported to the Public Ministry, but the latter did not take any action.15

Ongoing threats against defenders who fight against impunity

Persons who dared to fight against impunity and advocate justice, either within organisations or by virtue of positions in the judiciary system, received continuous threats throughout 2008. Thirty-nine cases of attacks against human rights defenders fighting against impunity were recorded. On May 19, 2008 for instance, members of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala – FAFG) received death threats via email. Among the members were Mr. Fredy Peccerely, Executive Director, Mr. José Suassnavar, Deputy Director, Mr. Omar Bertoni Girón, Head of the Forensic Anthropology Laboratory, and Ms. Bianka Peccerely, the Director's sister and the Laboratory Coordinator's wife. The threats came after a photo of an exhumation carried out by FAFG in Plan de Sánchez was published, in connection with an article in the Prensa Libre about the investigation led by Judge Cojolún, which was about to send testimonies to Spain. Judge Eduardo Cojolún, who has been compiling the testimonies of victims and experts in accordance with a Letter Rogatory issued by Judge Santiago Pedraz of the Spanish National Court (Audiencia Nacional Española),16 also received death threats, in particular on May 20 and June 12, 2008. In addition, on June 12, 2008, the Judge's two bodyguards were relieved from their duties, officially because they needed "a holiday". They were replaced following Mr. Cojolún's protests.

Urgent Interventions issued by The Observatory in 200817

Name of human rights defenders / NGOsViolationsIntervention ReferenceDate of Issuance
Mr. Carlos Enrique Mancilla GarcíaActs of intimidation / AssaultUrgent Appeal GTM 001/0108/OBS 002January 10, 2008
Mr. Miguel Ángel Ramírez EnríquezAssassination / ThreatsUrgent Appeal GTM 002/0308/OBS 035March 7, 2008
Monsignor Álvaro RamazziniDeath threats / HarassmentUrgent Appeal GTM 003/0408/OBS 045April 3, 2008
Mr. Carlos Enríque Cruz HernandezAssassinationUrgent Appeal GTM 004/0508/OBS 072May 2, 2008
Mr. Danilo MéndezHarassmentUrgent Appeal GTM 004/0508/OBS 072May 2, 2008
Mr. Sergio Miguel GarcíaAssassinationUrgent Appeal GTM 005/0508/OBS 083May 16, 2008
Mr. Jorge de Jesús Mérida PérezAssassinationUrgent Appeal GTM 006/0508/OBS 087May 21, 2008
Mr. Fredy Peccerely, Mr. José Suassnavar, Mr. Leonel Paíz, Mr. Omar Bertoni Girón and Ms. Bianka PeccerelyDeath threats / HarassmentUrgent Appeal GTM 007/0507/OBS 055.1May 22, 2008
Urgent Appeal GTM 007/0507/OBS 055.2July 31, 2008
Sons and Daughters for Identity and Justice Against Oblivion and Silence (Hijos y Hijas por la Identidad y la Justicia y en contra del Olvidio y el Silencio – HIJOS)Death threats / HarassmentUrgent Appeal GTM 007/0608/OBS 109June 25, 2008
Mr. Eduardo CojolúnThreats / Fear for the safetyOpen Letter to the authoritiesJune 26, 2008
Ms. María Marti Domingo, Ms. Fabiana Ortiz Sales, Mr. Aparicio Pérez and Mr. Rafael GonzálezArbitrary detention / Death threatsUrgent Appeal GTM 008/0708/OBS 114July 4, 2008
Mr. Amilcar de Jesús PopAssassination attempt / Death threats / HarassmentUrgent Appeal GTM 009/0808/OBS 134August 13, 2008
Mr. Antonio Morales LópezAssassination / HarassmentUrgent Appeal GTM 009/0808/OBS 142August 25, 2008
Mr. Yuri MeliniAssassination attemptUrgent Appeal GTM 011/0908/OBS 148September 8, 2008
Mr. José Israel Romero IxtacuyAssassinationUrgent Appeal GTM 012/1008/OBS 162October 9, 2008
Mr. Miguel Arturo Albizures PedrosaAssassination attempt / HarassmentUrgent Appeal GTM 013/1108/OBS 183November 7, 2008
Ms. Ruth del Valle Cóbar and Mr. Miguel Ángel AlbizuresSearch / HarassmentUrgent Appeal GTM 014/1108/OBS 191November 14, 2008

1 See Group of Mutual Support (Grupo de Apoyo Mutual – GAM), Informe No 12 sobre la Situación de Derechos Humanos y Hechos de Violencia al Mes de Diciembre 2008, December 2008.

2 In January 2008, the Spanish National Court (Audiencia Nacional) decided to continue its investigation into crimes such as genocide, torture, assassinations and unlawful imprisonment against Guatemalan civilians. In addition, on March 10, 2008, the first trial for enforced disappearance began against a former military superintendent for events that took place between 1982 and 1984.

3 For instance, after a visit to Guatemala in February 2008, the UN Special Representative of the Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders stressed the high degree of violence in the country, commenting that 98% of offenses remained unpunished. See United Nations Press Release, February 20, 2008.

4 The Commission was created with the aim of investigating and dismantling criminal organisations responsible not only for committing organised crime in Guatemala, but also for paralysing the judiciary system through its infiltration of State institutions. The CICIG has a renewable mandate of two years, and is also charged with reinforcing the penal system and giving recommendations on the development of policies aiming at countering criminal organisations.

5 See International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Informe: un Año Después, September 2008.

6 The CICIG presented two specific reform proposals. The first one relates to the Law on Arms and Ammunition, the Law on the Action of "Amparo", the Law on the Privilege of "Antejuicio", the Criminal Procedure Code and the Law Against Organised Crime, as well as regulations reforms. The second proposal, which should be presented in early 2009, suggests reforms of the disciplinary system of the Public Ministry, the national civilian police and the judiciary, as well as reforms to prevent trafficking of migrants and help prosecute corrupted civil servants.

7 This coincided with the appointment by the Ministry of Interior (Ministerio de Gobernación) of a person who promoted democratic security policy and tried to purge the Ministry of Interior and the national civilian police, which provoked reactions from organised crime. According to GAM, the total number of violent homicide victims in 2008 was 3,305, representing little change from 2007, when it was 3,319. See GAM, Sin Cumplimiento de las Palabras de Álvaro Colom, Informe sobre la Situación de los Derechos Humanos y Hechos de Violencia al Mes de Diciembre 2008, December 2008.

8 Institutional impunity is considered as a mechanism of tolerance of many of these manifestations of violence, especially of some clandestine security groups and organised crime groups. These two types of groups have infiltrated the Supreme Court, the Public Ministry and State institutions and can work from within these, making it difficult to investigate them. At the beginning of the 1980s, the prominent gangs "Mara Salvatrucha" and "18" were formed in Los Angeles, California, by a large number of young Central American immigrants. They were subsequently displaced and are now fighting in Central America.

9 On May 15, 2008, the Law Against Feminicide and Other Forms of Violence against Women came into force, after being approved by Guatemala's Congress on April 9. The efficient implementation of the law would help fight impunity of violence against women in Guatemala and consequently lead to a decrease in such violence.

10 This is exemplified, among others, by the increase in assaults on union members in 2008.

11 See Article 138 of the 1985 Constitution of the Republic of Guatemala. The state of prevention limits constitutional rights by suspending the articles related to freedom of action, arrest, interrogation of detainees and prisoners, freedom of movement, freedom of assembly, freedom of thought, the right to carry arms and the regulation of strike among State employees. After being ordered by the President, the state of prevention must be approved by the Congress in order to be valid.

12 See International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Report, Guatemala: los Sindicatos Impulsan la Lucha contra la Impunidad, March 2008.

13 See United Nations Press Release, February 20, 2008.

14 Monsignor Ramazzini is known for supporting community referendums in the San Marcos region, denouncing the negative effects of extractive industries, defending the rights of indigenous peoples and peasants, and participating in the debate about reforms to the Law on Energy and Mining.

15 See UDEFEGUA, Informe sobre la Criminalización del Movimiento Social, July 7, 2008.

16 On January 16, 2008, the Spanish National Court issued an order stating that it had decided to proceed with the investigation of crimes such as genocide, torture, assassinations and unlawful arrests against Guatemalan civilians, mostly Mayans. The decision was made after the Constitutional Court of the Republic of Guatemala rejected on December 14, 2007 the extradition of Mr. Ángel Aníbal Guevara Rodríguez, former Defence Minister, and Mr. Pedro García Arredondo, former Head of the police, to Spain.

17 See the Compilation of cases in the CD-Rom attached to this report.

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