Covering events from January - December 2003

Human rights abuses in Guatemala reached levels not seen for many years. Among the principal targets were those involved in challenging the impunity enjoyed by those responsible for widespread massacres and other atrocities during Guatemala's 30-year civil conflict. Those at risk included human rights defenders, legal personnel, journalists and land activists defending the rights of indigenous communities. The run-up to the first round of elections in November 2003 saw a further steep rise in political violence. There was little progress in bringing to justice those responsible for human rights abuses or in eliminating the structures responsible for past and current abuses.


It was widely believed that a major contributory factor in the upsurge in political violence and repression that characterized President Alfonso Portillo's administration (2000-2003) was the control exercised by General Efraín Ríos Montt behind the scenes. General Ríos Montt, a founder member of the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG), Guatemalan Republican Front, was head of state during one of the most repressive periods of the Guatemalan army's rural counter-insurgency campaign in 1982 and 1983. During 2003 he faced lawsuits both in Guatemala and abroad in connection with army-led massacres carried out while he was head of state, which the UN-sponsored Comisión para el Esclarecimiento Histórico (CEH), Historical Clarification Commission, judged had constituted genocide. Despite provisions in the Constitution barring those who gained office through a coup from contesting the presidency, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled in July that General Ríos Montt could stand as the FRG candidate in the presidential elections. This resulted in heightened tension and sparked off further violence and abuses. There were numerous incidents of political violence in advance of the first round of presidential elections in November. General Ríos Montt failed to make it through to the second round in December, which passed off without major incident and resulted in the election of Óscar Berger of the Gran Alianza Nacional (GANA), Great National Alliance, as President.

Failure to tackle impunity

President Portillo failed to deliver on repeated promises to implement the human rights elements of the 1996 Peace Accords, which ended the civil conflict, or the recommendations of the CEH created under the Accords.

Little progress was made in resolving specific high-profile human rights cases. The few convictions for human rights abuses obtained in the Guatemalan courts, often after long and courageous struggles by relatives or local human rights groups, faced continuing appeals or were reversed. Witnesses and others involved in the cases remained at risk of further abuses.

In October, the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), Presidential High Command, the military intelligence structure involved in human rights abuses during the country's armed conflict and implicated in high-profile human rights cases, was abolished, to be replaced by a civilian agency. There were continuing concerns, however, that few steps had been taken to ensure effective civilian oversight and accountability.

Civil patrols, responsible for grave abuses while serving as the army's civilian adjuncts during the conflict years, remobilized and held violent demonstrations demanding compensation for their wartime service. Human rights groups and government officials opposing their demands were threatened.

Payments were subsequently made to them by President Portillo's government. However, despite the CEH recommendation, comprehensive reparations for the victims of violations by army and civil patrols had not been agreed by the end of 2003.

Agreements reached through the Inter-American system regarding reparations for specific past abuses were generally not implemented. Neither were significant steps taken to meet human rights conditions set by the May 2003 Consultative Group meeting of major donor countries and institutions.

In March, the government signed an agreement to establish a commission to investigate clandestine structures responsible for attacks on human rights defenders, lawyers, journalists and others. The Comisión para la Investigación de Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad (CICIACS), Commission to Investigate Illegal Armed Groups and Clandestine Security Apparatus, which came about as a result of lobbying by local human rights organizations, was due to be established in 2005 as soon as Congress had approved several important legal reforms.

  • In May, the 2002 conviction of an army officer for ordering the extrajudicial execution of anthropologist Myrna Mack in 1990 was overturned. The court ruled on the institutional responsibility of the EMP, an issue not argued by either side, rather than the actions of the individual officer, and acquitted him. An appeal was pending at the end of the year.
  • In October, the Constitutional Court rejected the 2002 reversal of guilty verdicts passed in 2001 against three military officers for the extrajudicial execution of Bishop Juan José Gerardi. The Bishop was killed in 1998, two days after presenting the Guatemalan Roman Catholic Church's findings on abuses during the conflict years. One of the three officers convicted in 2001 was murdered in prison in January 2003, allegedly as he was about to implicate other officers in the murder. In October, Erick Urízar Barillas became the 14th witness to the Bishop's death to be killed. An appeal in this case was pending at the end of the year.
  • Suits for genocide and crimes against humanity filed in Guatemala and abroad against the former governments of General Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) and Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) continued to be accompanied by intimidation and reprisals against the human rights organizations and forensic experts involved in the cases. In March, two workers at the Centro para la acción legal en derechos humanos, Centre for Legal Action in Human Rights, Mario Minera and Héctor Amílcar Mollinedo Caceros, were repeatedly followed by suspicious individuals and in September, the group's legal director, Fernando López, received a written death threat. Staff of the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala, Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, and their relatives were subjected to repeated intimidation.

Abuses against human rights defenders

Virtually every major Guatemalan human rights organization suffered abuses. No one, however prominent, was immune.

  • Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchú was verbally harassed and manhandled by FRG supporters in October when she went to the Constitutional Court to challenge the Ríos Montt candidacy.
  • In September, Eusebio Macario, co-founder of the indigenous rights organization Consejo de Comunidades Étnicas: Runujel Junam (CERJ), Council of Ethnic Communities: We are all Equal, was killed by unidentified assailants. A week earlier he had met indigenous villagers to advise them of their right to reparations for conflict-related abuses.

Abuses against lawyers and judges

Several special prosecutors assigned by the Public Prosecutor's Office to investigate abuses against human rights defenders and the judiciary, as well as national and regional staff of the Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos (PDH), Human Rights Procurator's Office, were threatened and attacked.

  • In June, José Israel López López, an indigenous activist, lawyer and PDH worker in Chimaltenango Department, was shot and killed by unidentified assailants in Guatemala City. He had been investigating military abuses and attacks against other human rights defenders and indigenous survivors also working on such cases. Several other prominent members of the Mayan community have been killed in recent years. Lawyers, judges, prosecutors and witnesses involved in high-profile human rights cases and initiatives to combat impunity continued to be subjected to abuses.
  • In April, unidentified assailants in Zacapa Department attacked Special Prosecutor Manuel de Jesús Barquín Durán, who had been assigned to investigate abuses and corruption allegedly committed by officials in neighbouring Izabal Department. His bodyguard was seriously injured in the attack.

Journalists attacked

Journalists targeted because of their human rights reporting included Prensa Libre columnist Marielos Monzón, who received anonymous threats after publication of her articles on the 2002 kidnapping, killing and decapitation of indigenous leader and lawyer Antonio Pop Caal. The threats intensified at the beginning of the year following her coverage of the initiatives by Graciela Azmitia both in Guatemala and through the Inter-American human rights protection system to establish responsibility for the 1981 "disappearance" of family members, including her "disappeared" sister who was pregnant at the time. After intruders raided her home in March, Marielos Monzón fled abroad.

Abuses against environmental activists

In July, armed men forced their way into the Guatemala City home of environmental activist Norma Maldonado, threatening occupants, destroying data and taking film and other materials relating to the Mesa Global de Guatemala, Guatemalan Global Alliance. The Alliance works with Guatemalan and Mexican environmentalists to publicize concerns about feared adverse effects of the proposed Free Trade Area of the Americas and the Central American infrastructure development project, Plan Puebla Panamá.

Election campaign violence

At least 16 political leaders were killed and many others attacked in violence connected with the election campaign. Many more suffered threats and intimidation. However, the most dramatic incidents occurred in July when crowds, armed with machetes and clubs, were apparently trucked into the capital by the FRG and then led by party officials in violent attacks against individuals and institutions including the Constitutional and Supreme Courts and the Supreme Electoral Tribunal. Journalists were also targeted; radio reporter Héctor Ramírez suffered a fatal heart attack after being pursued by a mob.

Abuses arising out of land conflicts

The government's failure to implement the land-related elements of the Peace Accords and the deteriorating economic situation of Guatemala's rural poor contributed to widespread unrest in the countryside and continued violent disputes over land tenure. Numerous activists defending their communities against land claims by large landowners or agricultural corporations have been killed in recent years.

  • Several land activists from the Lanquín II community, Morales, Izabal Department, were killed in 2003. The killings occurred in the context of a dispute between the community and cattle ranchers, apparently supported by local officials, trying to acquire banana plantation lands.

Violence against women

Many of Guatemala's foremost human rights groups were set up by women seeking "disappeared" relatives or campaigning for justice for extrajudicially executed family members. They remained prominent in combating impunity for abuses, including the widespread rape perpetrated against non-combatant indigenous women during the conflict, and campaigning for reparations for abuses and faced constant threats, intimidation, and attacks including rape, by those opposed to their activities.

In 2003 women's rights defenders drew attention to alarming levels of violence against women in the post-conflict period, including domestic violence and the deaths of hundreds of women who had been subjected to various forms of sexual violence before they were killed.


Numerous people died in mob lynchings. These were commonly portrayed as the result of communities' frustration at the failure of the law to deal adequately with real or perceived human rights violations and ordinary crimes. However, there were claims that villagers were being manipulated and incited to attack targeted individuals whom local politicians or the security forces wished to have eliminated. The instigators of many of these lynchings were reported to be former members of the Civil Patrols.

Death penalty

Death sentences continued to be passed for a range of common crimes. More than 30 people remained on death row at the end of the year; however, no executions took place.

International concerns

The grave human rights situation provoked increasing expressions of concern and international missions of inquiry to the country. In September the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed concern at the deteriorating human rights situation, while the UN extended the mandate of its observer mission, MINUGUA, for an additional year. In September it was announced that an expanded office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala from 2004 would monitor human rights and provide targeted technical assistance.

AI country visits

AI delegates visited the country in March and June to collect information on human rights, including on economic, social and cultural rights, and to assess the risks facing human rights defenders. Delegates raised concerns with government officials.

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