Seven years after the government and former guerrillas signed the last of a series of peace accords ending Guatemala's 36-year civil conflict, the nation continued its struggle with a legacy of massive human rights violations and impunity.
As relations between the government and the local press became more hostile, the number of attacks and threats against journalists increased significantly in 2003, making Guatemala one of the most dangerous places in the Americas to work as a journalist. That, along with a general increase in crime and violence during an election year, added to the tense political environment.
Although Guatemalan journalists express their views freely, many suffer retaliation for what they publish. Journalists who report on such sensitive topics as human rights, government corruption, and crime faced death threats and harassment by politicians, drug traffickers, and organized crime groups. The situation is even more difficult for provincial journalists, who are often pressured by local politicians.
During the run-up to the November 9 general elections, attacks and threats against journalists intensified. In one of the most serious incidents, José Rubén Zamora, publisher of the Guatemala City daily elPeriódico and a former CPJ International Press Freedom Award recipient, was attacked at his home on June 24 by a group of men who held him and his family for two hours. The men put a gun to Zamora's head and told him they were going to execute him. They also told Zamora they knew his family's routine and would kill them if he reported the attack. According to Zamora, an underground group with government connections may have been responsible for the incident.
On July 24 and 25, followers of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, founder of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party, held violent protests in several areas of the capital, Guatemala City. The protesters, who were armed with sticks and machetes – and, according to some reports, firearms – burned tires, threw stones at buildings, and erected barricades to demand that Ríos Montt be allowed to run for president. The Constitutional Court twice rejected Ríos Montt's candidacy in the 1990s because Article 186 of the Guatemalan Constitution bars coup leaders and former dictators from running for president.
Some protesters turned their wrath against journalists who were covering the protests, threatening, harassing, and attacking them. Reporter Héctor Ramírez died from a heart attack after being assaulted and chased by protesters. Despite the violence, the police did not act to disperse the protesters. Subsequently, Ramírez's family filed a criminal complaint against President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, Ríos Montt, and several government ministers and high-ranking FRG officials, accusing them of being responsible for the journalist's death.
Prompted by these numerous press freedom abuses, CPJ sent a delegation to Guatemala in October. In meetings with journalists from several media outlets, CPJ Americas Program Coordinator Carlos Lauría and Research Associate Sauro González Rodríguez confirmed the existence of a threatening climate for the press there. In addition, the delegation found that the lack of concrete results in investigations of attacks against journalists has reinforced the climate of impunity that prevails in the country.
The CPJ delegation also met with human rights activists, staff from the U.N. Verification Mission in Guatemala, and government officials. During one of the meetings, Marco Antonio Cortez, the Attorney General's Office's special prosecutor for crimes against journalists and trade unionists, told CPJ that because of the July violence and the Ramírez family's criminal complaint, he had asked the Supreme Court to initiate preliminary proceedings (antejuicios) against President Portillo, Ríos Montt, and senior officials to determine if their immunity can be lifted so they can be tried as private citizens. The proceedings had not yet begun at year's end.
In a press conference held at the conclusion of its mission, CPJ urged the government to speak publicly in support of press freedom, to end the impunity surrounding the threats and attacks against journalists, to investigate intimidation by armed underground groups, and to dismantle those groups. CPJ also called on presidential candidates to refrain from making statements that could be interpreted as license to attack journalists covering the elections.
Meanwhile, President Portillo maintained that the media have diversified and grown during his four years in office. But he continued to accuse the local press of ignoring his achievements and of serving the interests of local oligarchs. "There are some powerful people who feel they own the country, who have companies, who have banks, who have farms, who have television programs, who have newspapers.... They disrespect the people, they disrespect politicians, they disrespect peasants," Portillo stated in an October 17 speech.
The ownership of Guatemalan media is highly concentrated. Media tycoon Remigio Ángel González, a Mexican national, controls the broadcasting media. Through front companies, González owns all four of Guatemala's network television stations, which violates constitutional provisions against both monopolies and foreign ownership of the media. González, who also owns a leading radio network, wields enormous influence over Guatemalan politics. According to local press reports, González is so powerful that political candidates often try to secure his endorsement before the elections because they know he controls all the TV stations and can determine how much airtime they receive.
A few economically powerful business groups own the country's leading dailies: the more serious papers Prensa Libre, Siglo Veintiuno, and elPeriódico, as well as the tabloids Nuestro Diario and Al Día. Human rights groups and some journalists criticize the print media for being too focused on events in the capital, Guatemala City, at the expense of developments in the interior of the country. Some sectors of the population, particularly peasants and indigenous peoples, are routinely excluded from the news agenda.
Two years after the murder of radio journalist Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz, no one has been tried for the crime. Alegría, who was murdered in September 2001 outside his home in the Caribbean port city of Puerto Barrios, hosted an afternoon call-in show that often discussed corruption and official misconduct. The three men allegedly hired to kill Alegría remain in jail awaiting trial. In September 2003, a judge ordered the detention of FRG parliamentary deputy David Pineda, who is accused of masterminding the murder, after the Supreme Court of Justice lifted his immunity from prosecution.
2003 Documented Cases – Guatemala
MAY 13, 2003
Pablo Efraín Rax Chub, "La Noticia"
Rax, director of the news program "La Noticia" on Radio Cobán, a radio station based in Alta Verapaz Department, received several anonymous phone threats in May.
Rax received the first threatening call on his cell phone on May 13. He could not identify the caller, who had a masculine voice, spoke fast, and hung up quickly. Because the phone number showed as unavailable, Rax could not trace the incoming call. The caller told Rax to "watch out and stop talking about things you should not be talking about." Ten days later, he received another threatening phone call with a similar message. On May 30, a caller told Rax that they were following his every step. Rax believes that the same person made all three phone calls.
The journalist does not suspect anyone in particular but believes that the threats might be linked to news reports on "La Noticia." According to Rax, the show – which leases its 6 a.m to 7 a.m. time slot from Radio Cobán – had reported in early May on the discovery by police of several hidden airplane runways in Alta Verapaz that were apparently used by drug traffickers.
In addition, "La Noticia" had criticized a government agency for allegedly using public employees to post political propaganda in support of the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG). The radio show also covered a million-dollar swindle at the Guatemalan Social Security Institute in which some high-ranking members of the FRG were implicated. Rax told CPJ that the program's news reports did not mention anybody by name.
In early June, Rax filed a complaint about the threats before the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), which monitors compliance with the peace agreements that ended Guatemala's civil war in 1996.
Alberto Sandoval, Radio Tamazulapa
Sandoval, director of Radio Tamazulapa, based in the city of Jutiapa, Jutiapa Department, received a threatening phone call during the run-up to the November 9 presidential and legislative elections at around 7:25 a.m. while the journalist, who hosts and produces a morning and an afternoon news program, was on the air. The caller said, "We are going to shoot you dead, stop talking against our candidate." A radio operator who was taking listener calls did not allow the threatening call to go on the air.
Sandoval does not know who was behind the threat but believes that it came from local politicians, their relatives, or people close to them. He linked the threat to comments he had made on air after political campaigning in Jutiapa began on May 15. According to Sandoval, he questioned an election poll that the coalition of opposition parties, Gran Alianza Nacional (GANA), said it had taken to determine which of its candidates was the most popular. After GANA leaders announced that Basilio Cordero had won the poll, Sandoval alleged that the poll had never been taken and that GANA leaders planned to arbitrarily nominate Cordero as their candidate for mayor. During the program, rival candidates called in to say that no poll had been held.
Sandoval explained that he did not file a complaint about the threats because he had received threats before and the local authorities had not taken his complaints seriously. He added that he had received a call from Marco Antonio Cortez, the Attorney General Office's special prosecutor for crimes against journalists and trade unionists.
MAY 16, 2003
Edgar René Sáenz, "Somos de hoy"
Sáenz, who hosts the call-in radio show "Somos de hoy" (We Are of Today) in the city of Sololá, the capital of Sololá Department, was threatened by unidentified individuals. According to the journalist, at around 1 p.m., an unidentified man came to him, said hello, and told him to "watch his back." The man added that Sáenz was going to have problems because of the issues he was discussing on his program. The man then left, and Sáenz never saw him again.
Starting on June 12, Sáenz began receiving threatening phone calls, usually at around 11 p.m. or 1 a.m. The caller, who had a masculine voice, said, "Son of a bitch, your time is gonna come."
Besides hosting the radio program, Sáenz works as a correspondent in southwestern Guatemala for the dailies Prensa Libre and Nuestro Diario, as well as for the radio network Emisoras Unidas. He said he has been working as a journalist for more than 30 years. "Somos de hoy," a 3-year-old program that airs on Thursdays from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m., covers issues of local interest and is based on its listeners' opinions, according to Sáenz. The radio program leases its time slot from Radio Xocomil Estéreo.
Sáenz linked the threats to comments he had made on his radio show, rather than to his work for other media outlets. In statements made in his program, Sáenz had said that Sololá's deputy mayor, who took over the city's management after the mayor resigned to run as a parliamentary deputy, was not concerned about protecting the community's environment. In addition, he had criticized the municipal government, which is headed by the ruling Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (UNRG), for allowing private individuals to take over municipal property. Sáenz also discussed cases of medical malpractice at Sololá's National Hospital. On June 12, after he reported on such a case at the hospital, a nurse was fired, he said.
Sáenz believes that the threats could have come from either municipal officials or staff at the hospital.
On June 13, Sáenz filed a complaint with the Attorney General's Office, as well as with the regional office of the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA). Sáenz claims that local authorities have not taken the threats seriously because he did not have any evidence or witnesses.
JUNE 23, 2003
Luis Barillas, Prensa Libre
Barillas, who works as a correspondent for the Guatemala City daily Prensa Libre in the town of Rabinal, in the central department of Baja Verapaz, was threatened and attacked.
At around 6 p.m. on June 23, Barillas received a threatening phone call. The caller said that it was the first "peaceful" call and that he'd better shut up. The next day, at around 6:45 p.m., he received another phone threat. The caller said, "You are going to die. It may take weeks or months, but you are going to die." Barillas could not tell whether the two calls came from the same person but said they were both masculine voices.
On July 4, at around 4 a.m., a small explosive was thrown into his backyard. The explosion did not cause any material damage or injuries. The same day, Barillas traveled to Guatemala City under police protection. On July 5, Barillas' father called him and told him his sister, who also lives in Rabinal, had received anonymous death threats.
In addition to working for Prensa Libre and the daily Nuestro Diario, Barillas is also the host and director of the news program "La Voz de la Parroquia" (The Voice of the Parish), broadcast Monday to Saturday from 11 a.m. to 12 p.m. by the Catholic radio station Radio San Pablo.
Barillas linked the threats and the attack to his coverage of a June 14 campaign rally held by Efraín Ríos Montt, the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) candidate for the November 9 presidential elections, in Rabinal. Ríos Montt was forced to suspend the rally when peasants, some of whom had lost relatives to political violence during the country's civil war, pelted him and his supporters with stones and sticks. Barillas covered the incident live for his radio station, taped interviews with protesters, and took pictures. Over the following days, he discussed the incident on his news program.
JUNE 24, 2003
José Rubén Zamora, elPeriódico
Zamora, publisher of the daily elPeriódico, told CPJ that at around 8:30 a.m., a heavily armed group of 11 men and one woman, who identified themselves as investigators from the Public Prosecutor's Office, invaded his house and held him, his family, and domestic employees for two hours.
The attackers took Zamora's wife, the couple's three children, and two domestic employees into a room. Then the men put a gun to Zamora's head, took him to another room, and, while pointing guns to his head and to his chest, told him he was going to be executed. After asking Zamora several questions, the attackers took him back to the bedroom where his family was, his eyes blindfolded and his hands tied. Zamora's youngest son, 12, was hit in the ribs, and his oldest son, 24, was hit in the head when they tried to defend their father.
Before leaving at around 10:30 a.m., the men took Zamora's credit cards and three collectible handguns. The attackers then told Zamora that they knew his family's routines and were going to kill them if he reported the attack. The last man who left Zamora's house demanded that Zamora pay him 200,000 quetzales (US$25,000) for having "restrained" the other men. The man also said that he did not know why Zamora criticizes "people at the top" and that Zamora was "screwing up a lot."
Zamora told CPJ that he has published numerous articles, including one dated June 23, arguing that even though Guatemala has had free elections, there is a parallel power structure comprising a network of former military officers. The journalist believes that these people may be responsible for the attack on his family.
JUNE 29, 2003
Carmen Judith Morán Cruz, Cerigua
Morán, correspondent for the news agency Centro de Reportes Informativos sobre Guatemala (Cerigua) in Salamá, capital of the central department of Baja Verapaz, was threatened by an unidentified individual after she returned from a monthly training meeting with other Cerigua correspondents in the capital, Guatemala City.
At around 9:30 p.m., Morán received a threatening phone call at home from a caller with a masculine voice who said, "You are back. This is just to tell you that you have 24 hours to resign from Cerigua. I ran out of patience because of the things you publish there."
The caller also told her that on June 21, she had "escaped" because she did not go to Guatemala City's Universidad del Valle, where she takes teaching classes every Saturday. Morán told CPJ that on June 21, she did not travel to Guatemala City because it was a university holiday, but that every Saturday morning she leaves Salamá for the university.
Ten minutes after the first call, the caller phoned again and repeated the threat, adding that if she did not obey, Morán and her children would suffer the consequences. A third threatening call came on July 3, at around 7:40 p.m. The caller claimed to be watching her and said that because she didn't obey the orders, someone from her family would be killed. Morán believes that the same person made all three calls.
The journalist does not attribute the threats to anybody in particular but believes that they were issued by someone who is familiar with her daily routine. She said the threats could have been in retaliation for the reports she filed for Cerigua.
According to Morán, she has covered the work of the Association for the Integral Development of Victims of Violence in the Verapaces Maya Achí (ADIVIMA), which has exhumed clandestine graves in and around the municipality of Rabinal, where civilians were massacred in 1981 during the country's civil war.
Morán also told CPJ that she had filed a report on a June 14 campaign rally held by Efraín Ríos Montt, the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) candidate for the November 9 presidential elections, in Rabinal. Ríos Montt was forced to suspend the rally when peasants, some of whom had lost relatives to political violence during the civil war, pelted him and his supporters with stones and sticks.
In addition to her work for Cerigua, Morán hosts the radio program "Yo elijo mi futuro" (I Choose my Future), which is broadcast every Friday from 8 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Radio Uqul'tinamit. The program focuses on women's participation in community affairs, offers advice on how to vote, and discusses health and land access issues.
JULY 24, 2003
Juan Carlos Torres, elPeriódico
Héctor Estrada, Guatevisión
Donaldo González, Emisoras Unidas
Torres, a photographer at the daily elPeriódico; Estrada, cameraman at the TV station Guatevisión; and González, a reporter at the radio station Emisoras Unidas, fled after protesters chased them and doused them with gasoline in a failed attempt to burn the journalists, who were covering a demonstration in support of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in the capital, Guatemala City.
According to several sources, the riots erupted across Guatemala City in the wake of the Supreme Court's July 20 decision granting two opposition parties an injunction temporarily barring former dictator Ríos Montt from running for president in the upcoming November 9 elections. A later ruling allowed Ríos Montt to run for the presidency.
Héctor Ramírez, a reporter for Guatemala's Channel 7 television station and Radio Sonora, died from a heart attack after fleeing from attackers who were beating him while he was covering the protests, according to autopsy results.
Ríos Montt's supporters flooded the city from rural areas, wearing masks and carrying sticks, and targeted journalists who were covering the protests. Torres, Estrada, and González escaped before being burned. The protesters destroyed Torres' camera and smashed González's motorcycle, sources told CPJ. None of the three were seriously injured. According to CPJ sources, government authorities and the National Police did little to control the angry mobs.
Héctor Ramírez, Channel 7, Radio Sonora
KILLED – CONFIRMED
Ramírez, a reporter for Guatemala's Channel 7 television station and Radio Sonora, died from a heart attack after fleeing from attackers who were beating him while he was covering protests in the capital, Guatemala City, according to autopsy results.
On July 24, riots broke out across Guatemala City in the wake of the Supreme Court's July 20 decision granting two opposition parties an injunction temporarily barring former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt from running for president in the upcoming November 9 elections. A later ruling allowed Ríos Montt to run for the presidency.
Ríos Montt supporters, known as the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco, also allegedly attacked other journalists in different areas of the capital, sources told CPJ. "It was crazy, the mob was completely out of control," Haroldo Sánchez, news director for Guatevisión television station, told CPJ.
According to CPJ sources, government authorities and the National Police did little to control the angry mobs.
OCTOBER 26, 2003
Posted: October 29, 2003
Freddy López, Prensa Libre
Alberto Ramírez, Prensa Libre
Emerson Díaz, Prensa Libre
Mario Linares, Prensa Libre
Former paramilitary fighters kidnapped reporters López and Ramírez, and photographers Díaz and Linares, all of the Guatemala Citybased daily Prensa Libre, in the town of La Libertad, in the northwestern department of Huehuetenango.
According to CPJ sources, the former paramilitary forces – whom the Guatemalan military organized to fight for the government during the country's 36-year-old civil war, which ended in 1996 – demanded that the government pay them for their services.
On October 26, at around 11 a.m., López and Díaz went to Huehuetenango to cover a campaign rally by former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who is running for president for the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front. On the way to the rally, the reporters were abducted at a checkpoint illegally guarded by former paramilitary members protesting the government's failure to pay them.
The forces beat the reporters after abducting them, according to Prensa Libre. Carlos Contreras, the journalists' driver, fled the scene and called the paper. Ramírez and Linares were later sent to the area, together with two workers from the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman in an effort to win the journalists' release. Soon after the journalists arrived near where their colleagues had been kidnapped, they identified themselves as journalists and were immediately captured by the ex-paramilitaries. The two human rights workers managed to escape.
The former paramilitaries requested a meeting with Huehuetenango Governor Carlos Morales to express their demands. In the early 1980s, the Guatemalan government organized the paramilitaries to fight alongside government soldiers against leftist rebels during the civil war, during which about 200,000 people were killed. The paramilitaries were officially disarmed in 1995, but many have refused to surrender their weapons and continue to be accused of serious human rights violations.
On October 27, Gonzalo Marroquín, the director of Prensa Libre; Human Rights Ombudsman Sergio Morales; and the director of the local human rights group Centro de Acción Legal para los Derechos Humanos (Center of Legal Action for Human Rights) Frank La Rue, flew to the area in an attempt to negotiate with the former paramilitaries.
The next day, the journalists were freed after the government of President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera promised to compensate the ex-paramilitaries.
SEPTEMBER 24, 2003
Posted: September 26, 2003
Juan Castillo, Nuestro Diario
Eduardo Martínez, Nuestro Diario
Marvin Del Cid, Prensa Libre
Esbin García, Prensa Libre
Francisco González, Siglo XXI
HARASSED AND THREATENED
Journalists from three Guatemala City-based dailies – Nuestro Diario's photographer Castillo and reporter Martínez; Prensa Libre's reporter del Cid and photographer García; and González, a reporter from Siglo XXI – were harassed and threatened during a campaign stop by former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt in the city of Ixcán, in the northern department of Quiche.
According to CPJ sources, during a campaign rally held by the ruling Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), residents of Ixcán who supported the former dictator began fighting with a group of activists that were protesting against Ríos Montt.
While the two photographers and three reporters were trying to get images and interview those involved in the confrontation, supporters of Ríos Montt hurled stones and threatened the journalists. Castillo had his camera smashed while the other journalists were pushed and threatened. None of the journalists was seriously hurt during the incident, Gonzalo Marroquín Godoy, director of Prensa Libre told CPJ.
The angry mob threatened to kill and burn the journalists, blaming them for the confrontation. "We are going to kill you, douse you with gasoline, and burn you," Ríos Montt supporters shouted, according to Prensa Libre. Police eventually arrived on the scene and escorted the journalists to a safe area.
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