Observatory for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders Annual Report 2003 - Guatemala

Reprisals against GAM

Assassination of Mr. Diego Xon Salazar115

On 3rd April 2003, Mr. Diego Xon Salazar, a member of Mutual Support Group (GAM, Grupo de Apoyo Mutuo), an organisation founded by relatives of victims of human rights abuses in Guatemala, was abducted by armed men from his home in Comanchaj, in Chichicastenango Department. His body was found on 5th April. Before his abduction, Mr. Diego Xon Salazar had complained to the authorities about threats he had received. At end-2003, the outcome of the enquiry, if any, was unknown.

GAM members harassed116

On 7th April 2003, five armed men entered the home of Mr. Mario Polanco, a member of GAM, and Mrs. Nineth Montenegro, a congresswoman and GAM founder. The men arrived at the home saying they had a package for Mr. Polanco and the housekeeper opened the door. After interrogating him about Mr. Polanco's activities, they searched the house and took computer data and documents. Household appliances were also stolen, apparently to make the raid look like an ordinary robbery.

Mr. Mario Polanco had just returned from the Commission on Human Rights in Geneva, where he had denounced the human rights situation in Guatemala and the lack of protection for people who denounce the groups that continue to commit human rights abuses with impunity.

GAM filed a complaint with the Public Prosecutor's Office, the National Police, the Office of the Human Rights Prosecutor and the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), but there has been no enquiry and the stolen articles have not been recovered. Despite the presence of police officers close to his home, Mr. Polanco's security remains precarious.

GAM harassed117

On 4th June 2003, while GAM was celebrating its 19th anniversary, a group of armed men fired shots in the air outside a GAM office located in zone 12 of Guatemala City. The incident was reported to the authorities but there was no enquiry. On 10th June 2003, one of the vehicles used by GAM for its programme of assistance for disappeared persons was stolen.

Reprisals against the office of the Human Rights Prosecutor

Assassination of Mr. José Israel López López118

On 11th June 2003, Mr. José Israel López López, a lawyer and assistant to the Office of the Human Rights Prosecutor (PDH, Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos), left his office in Chimaltenango Department to drive to Guatemala City in a vehicle belonging to the PDH. At around 8 p.m., in zone 6 of the city, he was murdered by men who shot him while he was driving. Mr. López López was a renowned criminal lawyer who had only started working for the PDH a short time before he was murdered, but who was known for his work in human rights training. The murder could be a consequence of the much more active role played by the PDH in the past year, particularly the proposal to investigate illegal groups and clandestine security apparatuses. The instigators of the crime have not been identified and at end-December 2003, the enquiry had not produced any results.

Staff of the PDH threatened119

On 19th June 2003, a group of unidentified persons attempted to enter the home of Mrs. Thelma Peláez, a district judge in charge of the enquiry into the murder of Mr. José Israel López López.120 She was warned to "be careful with her investigations". On the same day, another group of individuals came to her home posing as electricians and left the following message: "stop your investigation or you will get a surprise".

On 23rd June, a group of individuals went to the family home of the judge's driver in San Marcos and asked about his itinerary for the coming week. The driver's wife said she did not know his schedule and the individuals told her to pass on the following message: "Tell the judge to stop investigating the death of López". Mrs. Thelma Peláez considers this to be the clearest warning. She only recently joined the unit and the only case that she is investigating in her new position is that of Mr. López. Several days later, using the same strategy as before, the individuals once again entered Mrs. Peláez's home and left the following message: "Be careful with your investigation".

Mr. Sergio Morales, human rights prosecutor, asked the attorney general, Carlos de León, to take the necessary steps to guarantee the security of Mrs. Peláez and her staff.

Since January 2003, 16 of the 31 assistants to the PDH have been harassed. Four of them have received serious threats. They are Mr. Élmer Guerra from Jutiapa, Mr. Waldemar Barrera from Zacapa, Mr. Alex Toro from Chiquimula and Mr. Luis Ramos from El Naranjo in Petén. Messrs Guerra and Barrera received constant threats after denouncing human rights abuses perpetrated by the army, the National Civil Police (PNC) and the Anti-Narcotics Analysis and Information Service (SAIA). Mr. Toro, an auxiliary in Chiquimula, was threatened when he was working in Huehuetenango after denouncing abuses of migrants' rights. At end-December 2003, the outcome of any enquiries into these incidents was unknown.

PDH head office raided121

On 26th August 2003 at dawn, individuals broke into the Office of the Human Rights Prosecutor (PDH), ransacked it and took computers and diskettes. To humiliate the employees, the individuals defecated in the office.

These incidents could be linked to the work of the Prosecutor's Office, particularly the denunciation of the implication of government members in human rights abuses. The prosecutor is expected to publish a report on the violence during the "Black Thursday" demonstrations (24th July 2003).

Several employees have received threats, in particular the prosecutor Mr. Sergio Fernando Morales, who received a telephone call instructing him "don't get involved in what doesn't concern you". Similar thefts have occurred in the Offices of the Human Rights Prosecutor in Izabal, Escuintla, Petén, Baja Verapaz and Zacapa.

Staff from the investigation unit for human rights defenders pursued122

On 23rd January 2003, Mrs. Tatiana Morales Valdizon, special prosecutor for human rights defenders, and members of the technical staff of the Public Prosecutor's Office (Ministerio Publico), were followed by several vehicles, when they were returning from the village of Chocón where they met witnesses as part of an investigation into the activities of former members of the Department of Anti-Narcotics Operations (DOAN, Departamento de Operaciones Anti-narcóticos). They managed to lose their assailants and reported the incident to the National Civil Police (PNC). The situation has caused serious concern at the Prosecutor's Office, a unit set up specially in May 2002 after the visit of Hina Jilani, Special Representative of the United Nations Secretary-General on Human Rights Defenders, whose mandate is to investigate violations committed against human rights defenders.

Members of the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation threatened123

Between 26th July and 8th August 2003, employees of the Rigoberta Menchú Tum Foundation (FRMT, Fundación Rigoberta Menchú Tum), in particular its director and founder, Mr. Gustavo Meoño Brenner, were harassed by armed men in uniform from a private security agency, who stationed themselves outside the organisation's office. This surveillance reached such a point that the security agents positioned themselves in front of the office at 7 a.m., when Mr. Meoño Brenner arrived, and remained there until 7 p.m. On 6th August 2003, eight different agents took it in shifts to ensure 12-hour presence. On the same day, a complaint for intimidation was filed with the Public Prosecutor's Office, requesting an enquiry and that the people responsible be prosecuted. On 7th August, the same complaint was filed with the Human Rights Prosecutor.

On 8th August 2003 at around 7 a.m., Mrs. Rigoberta Menchú Tum, president of the foundation, was followed from her home to the foundation's office by a white pick-up truck, which tried to crash into her vehicle during her journey. On 10th August 2003 at around 9:25 p.m., Mr. Francisco Menchú, in charge of security at the foundation, was assaulted by individuals in a white taxi. The incident occurred after he had parked Mrs. Menchú's car. Two individuals got out of the taxi and placed a gun to his head and another gun in his mouth and forced him to get into the taxi. Inside the taxi, they struck him several times and attempted to take his weapon from him.

On the same day, between 9:55 p.m. and 11 p.m., Gustavo Meoño and Francisco Menchú received two anonymous telephone calls. In the first, they heard a man laughing. Two minutes later, in another call, the same voice left the following message: "Stop causing trouble because we know who you are, where you live and we'll soon be joining you".

The FRMT works to defend the rights of and development for indigenous people, to promote justice and combat impunity. In 1999, it opened a case for torture, genocide and terrorism against several Guatemalan army officers and civilians, including Efraín Ríos Montt, congressional president and former presidential candidate. The FRMT is constantly threatened and intimidated. On 29th April 2002, one of its members, Mr. Guillermo Ovalle de León, was murdered.124

Human rights defenders threatened125

On 12th August 2003, an unidentified group sent a letter to several civil society organisations, discrediting and insulting the work of NGOs and threatening many defenders with death, in particular Rigoberta Menchú Tum, representatives of the Civic Front for Democracy (Frente Cívico por la Democracia) and journalists. The words of the letter were the following: "pseudo human rights organisations are leeches, inventing lies to keep their comfortable office jobs. (...) We warn you again to stop your little game because you will pay with your life and anyone who says or writes lies will die with you".

Mr. Bruce Harris trial126

Mr. Bruce Harris, Regional Director of Latin American Programmes of Casa Alianza, must answer charges of defamation, perjury and slander brought by Susana Luarca de Umaña, a lawyer and the wife of the President of the Supreme Court of Guatemala, Ricardo Umaña. At a press conference in 1997, Mr. Harris spoke about several lawyers involved in dubious practices in connection with international adoptions in Guatemala. In its ruling of 10th February 1999, the Constitutional Court stated that "only journalists are entitled to freedom of expression in accordance with Article 35 of the Constitution of Guatemala" and refused the request that the trial be heard before a jury. If convicted, Mr. Harris could be sentenced to five years' imprisonment in the trial that began on 16th August 2002 in the 12th Criminal Court. In September 2002, Mr. Harris cited the incompetence of the court, an argument that was rejected.

In December 2003, the court notified its decision to proceed with the charges against Mr. Harris and set the hearing for 22nd January 2004.

Mary Robinson, former United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights expressed her concern at the restrictive interpretation of freedom of expression used in Mr. Harris's case. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights has taken on the case against the State of Guatemala for violation of the right to free speech and equality before the law. The ruling is expected in early 2004.

[Refworld note: This report as posted on the FIDH website (www.fidh.org) was in pdf format with country chapters run together by region. Footnote numbers have been retained here, so do not necessarily begin at 1.]

115. See Urgent Appeal GTM 001/0403/OBS 019.

116. See Urgent Appeal GTM 001/0403/OBS 019 and GTM 002/0603/OBS 028.

117. See Urgent Appeal GTM 002/0603/OBS 028.

118. Idem.

119. See Urgent Appeal GTM 002/0603/OBS 028.1.

120. See Urgent Appeal GTM 002/0603/OBS 028.

121. See Urgent Appeal GTM 002/0603/OBS 028.2.

122. See Press Release of 12nd February 2003.

123. See Urgent Appeal GTM 003/0803/OBS 038.

124. See Annual Report 2002.

125. See Open Letter to the Authorities of 14th August 2003.

126. See Annual Report 2002.


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