The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) presented its Human Report for 2022 on March 23. The report, titled “Revenge as State Public Policy: Guatemala in Serious Democratic Crisis,” points to the breakdown of human rights conditions in Guatemala. For 2022, UDEDEGUA registered 3,574 attacks against defenders, three times higher than the 1,020 reported in 2021 and the highest ever recorded in the 23-year history of the organization. According to UDEFEGUA Director Jorge Santos, in today’s context, “anyone who is considered an opponent of the regime is persecuted.”
The report uses the term “revenge strategies” to describe a public policy implemented by the current administration to punish and silence all dissident voices. Tactics included harassment, intimidation, defamation, and violence against defenders. UDEFEGUA identified criminalization as the most common form of attack, with 1,737 cases registered. The report describes a pattern within criminalization cases that begins with defamation on social media and ends with the mounting of spurious charges that often lead to imprisonment or exile. According to the report, justice sector workers, transitional justice advocates, journalists, and environmental defenders were the most heavily targeted sectors. Defenders also suffered harassment, intimidation, physical attacks, and, in extreme cases, murder.
On March 20, the US State Department released its own report on the human rights situation in Guatemala that reflected similar patterns of abuse described by UDEFEGUA. The State Department illustrated key issues, like arbitrary detention, severe problems with the judiciary, violent attacks against Indigenous communities, the persecution of journalists and judicial sector workers, and widespread impunity. It cited the cases of Carlos Choc, José Rubén Zamorra, and Virginia Laparra as examples of these state-sponsored violations of human rights. Other cases mentioned included violence against Indigenous communities, where the report mentioned the attack on Q’eqchi human rights defenders and spiritual leader Adela Choc Cruz. Last May, armed assailants held Cruz hostage and threatened to burn her alive. In a meeting with GHRC’s emergency human rights delegation, Cruz explained that the attack was likely linked to her involvement in the anti-mining movement in El Estor.
UDEFEGUA makes the case that these attacks aim for the complete takeover of the State and the consolidation of a dictatorial regime. The Giammattei administration, according to UDEFEGUA, has launched a successful takeover of all governmental institutions, stacking them with pro-impunity allies. For Brenda Guillén, of UDEFEGUA, this State co-option is driving the human rights crisis. “The conditions of the country have generated an increase in violence against human rights defenders,” she stated. UDEFEGUA called upon the international community to support Guatemalan civil society, asking for stronger sanctions against the corrupt actors in both the State and private sector driving this crisis.
Further Attacks on Judicial Sector Workers Draw International Condemnation
On Thursday, March 16, at six in the morning, police and Public Ministry officials arrived at the home of former prosecutor Orlando Salvador López, raided his residence, and arrested him. López is accused of “abuse of authority” for allegedly taking on work as a notary public and lawyer in 2019 while still employed as a prosecutor. Five days later, on March 21, López appeared before the Fifth Pluripersonal Court of First Criminal Instance, Drug Activity, and Crimes against the Environment of Guatemala for his initial hearing. The judge ruled to send him to trial, placing him under house arrest.
López formerly served as head of the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office, where he helped build the prosecution for critical transitional justice cases like the Ixil Genocide and the Creompaz case. His work throughout the years has made him a target of pro-military factions within Guatemala, most notably the Foundation Against Terrorism (FCT), which incidentally is a plaintiff in this case. Following López’s arrest, head of the FCT Ricardo Méndez Ruiz celebrated on Twitter, accusing Lopez of “the illegal capture of our war veterans.” FCT, working hand in hand with the Public Ministry’s Office, has led the charge to punish honest judges and prosecutors, nearly 30 of whom have been forced into exile.
Human rights groups denounced his arrest, interpreting it as yet another politically motivated attack. According to Deputy Director for the Americas at Human Rights Watch Juan Papier, this case exemplifies “a pattern of persecution against prosecutors and judges who investigated corruption and human rights violations in Guatemala.” The Observatory, the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA), and the Center for Human Rights Legal Action (CALDH) echoed concerns, calling his criminalization “an act of retaliation for the essential work he carried out as head of the Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office to put an end to impunity for the serious human rights violations committed in the framework of the Internal Armed Conflict.”
Days later, the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) announced its plans to take legal action against former Commissioner of the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) Francisco Dall’Anese. From 2010-2013, Francisco Dall’Anese led the CICIG from 2010-2013, overseeing investigations into high-level corruption. He was succeeded by Iván Velásquez, who also faces investigations from the FECI. UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk condemned the move, stating, “It is particularly concerning that administrative and criminal proceedings are being used in apparent reprisal against those involved in investigating and prosecuting cases of corruption or serious human rights violations.”
In a statement, he shared his concerns over the deterioration of rule of law and democracy in Guatemala, citing clear patterns of criminalization against judicial sector workers and potential candidates. In reference to the refusal to register candidates Thelma Cabrera and Jordan Rodas for the People’s Liberation Movement (MLP), he said, “The right to participate in public affairs, including the right to vote and to stand for election, is an internationally recognized human right.” He called upon the State of Guatemala to allow judges and prosecutors to work freely without fear of reprisal and ensure free and fair elections.
Judge Allows Convicted Former Vice President Qualified to Receive Medical Treatments from her Home
Eva Recinos–judge of High-Risk Court B–granted former Guatemalan vice president Roxana Baldetti partial house arrest on March 13. To receive treatment for alleged back pains, Recinos ruled to permit Baldetti to leave Santa Teresita Detention Center four times a week. Baldetti was convicted last December, along with former president Otto Perez Molina, for fraud and conspiracy charges; the court sentenced her to 16 years. Despite efforts from the prosecution to have these treatments conducted inside the detention center, Baldetti will be allowed to return home. Judge Recinos did not establish concrete conditions nor time limitations for Baldetti’s therapies.
Meanwhile, the former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) in Quetzaltenango, Virginia Laparra, continues to suffer in prison, where authorities regularly deny her access to prompt medical attention. Laparra developed a uterine disease after spending the last year imprisoned and urgently needs surgery. Despite requests from her legal team starting in December, prison authorities have denied her permission to leave the prison to receive treatment. Instead, surgery is planned for sometime in May, but an exact date has not been set.
Bicameral Resolution Commends Environmental Defenders, Calls for Stronger Protections
On March 29, Senator Jeff Merkley and Representative Raúl Grijalva introduced a bicameral resolution to support environmental defenders worldwide. The resolution acknowledges defenders’ critical role in protecting the environment, combating climate change, and supporting democracy. In the context of rising violence against defenders, it calls upon the US to stand with those most at risk and serve as a leader in implementing robust protection strategies. “We must support environmental defenders worldwide who are exercising their fundamental rights of free expression and association to demand a clean, healthy, and sustainable environment. They are risking everything to protect the environment and their human rights, and we should be doing all we can to support and protect those efforts,” stated Senator Merkley.
Recognizing Latin America as the most dangerous region for human rights defenders, with 1,179 defenders killed since 2012, the resolution includes examples of emblematic cases in the region. Notably, it mentions defenders from Q’eqchi communities in El Estor, which face “defamation, violent evictions, harassment, and assault by the Guatemalan National Civil Police Force for peacefully protesting the operations of the Fenix mine and growth of palm plantations on their territory.”
The resolution lays out suggestions for the US government to better support defenders, such as creating positions within the State Department and USAID dedicated to protecting defenders, requesting more robust transparency and accountability from both USAID and the Development Finance Corporation (DFC) to ensure that projects do not harm Indigenous communities and environmental defenders, and using the United States’ voice and influence in international financial institutions to ensure that funds are not given to any entities that have perpetrated violence against the environment and its defenders. The resolution is also supported by Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA), Cory Booker (D-NJ), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), Alex Padilla (D-CA), and Ben Cardin (D-MD).