In spite of increasing pressure from the United States and other countries, Guatemala’s top officials have continued their assault on independent prosecutors and judges. In addition, recently a report was released illustrating the corrupt practices that one of Central America’s largest nickel mines, located in El Estor, Izabal, has engaged in, with the cooperation of various sectors of the Guatemalan government. These practices have included making regular payments to the National Civil Police, plying other officials, apparently including judges, with gifts, surveilling, bribing, dividing, and co-opting leaders of communities affected by the mine, strategically planning a “consultation” that would give mine owners the results they desired, and hiding their knowledge of sediment leaks into Lake Izabel. In response to the unchecked corruption in Guatemala and the intensifying human rights crisis, GHRC and 17 other nongovernmental organizations have written a letter to Scott Nathan, head of the Development Finance Corporation, asking the DFC to reassess its investment plans in the country. Led by GHRC and the Latin America Working Group, the letter was sent to Scott Nathan on March 17.
Public Ministry Presses for the Removal of Judge Erika Aifán’s Immunity
Attacks on judicial sector workers include continuing efforts to remove the judicial immunity of esteemed judge Erika Aifán, of the High Risk Court D. Rafael Curruchiche, current head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI), filed a motion for the removal of Aifán’s judicial immunity on January 13, the latest in a series of efforts to remove her immunity. At a hearing, which began on March 4 and ended on March 9, Aifán faced charges of abuse of authority related to her alleged authorization of illegal investigative procedures in the 2020 Parallel Commissions case.
Supporting Aifán outside the hearing room on March 9 was US Ambassador William Popp, as well as ambassadors of the European Union, the United Kingdom, and Switzerland. Judge Ronaldo Chávez–investigative judge tasked with overseeing the pretrial process–rejected calls from the Guatemalan Judges Association for Integrity and international organizations to make the hearing public in accordance with international human rights instruments and the principles of transparency and publicity laid out in articles 14 and 30 of the Guatemalan Constitution. Kerry Kennedy, head of the Robert F Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights, traveled to Guatemala to show support for Aifán and met with her outside of the courtroom. Kennedy tweeted, “Judge Erika Aifán is a hero. She is being persecuted in retaliation for her work combating corruption in Guatemala . . . I am proud to stand with her.” The International Observatory on Guatemala called for the “presence of the press and national and international observers during the hearing” and demanded that Judge Ronaldo Chávez act with objectivity, impartiality, and transparency during the hearing.
Judge Rodoldo Chávez, who is now evaluating the evidence, will send his recommendation regarding the removal of Aifán’s immunity to the Supreme Court, if he determines that no further investigation is warranted. The Supreme Court will vote on the matter. A number of the Supreme Court magistrates are implicated in the Parallel Commissions case, which Aifán was overseeing.
The State Department recognized Aifán as a woman of courage in 2021 for her fight against corruption, and in January 2022 the State Department condemned the attempt to remove her immunity as “a blatant effort to obstruct investigations into corruption and an affront to the integrity of Guatemala’s highest courts.”
According to Aifán, the outcome of losing her judicial immunity would pose a major threat to her physical safety. Speaking of the High Risk Court judges, who have suffered various threats, she explained, “Our lives would be in grave risk the moment we are removed from office.” In addition, her removal threatens the advancement of anti-corruption cases and judicial integrity in Guatemala.
State Department Condemns Attacks on Anti-Corruption Attorneys Awaiting Trial in Prison
In the wake of the systematic arrests and detention of anti-corruption attorneys in the past month, the US State Department in a March 8 statement expressed deep concern about “Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ continued, brazen attacks on Guatemala’s justice system through politically motivated arrests and detentions of current and former public servants fighting corruption. The reports of repeated, uncommon delays in arraignment hearings, the withholding of information to defense counsels, refusals to hold hearings publicly, and leaks of sealed case details to online entities raise serious concerns regarding the fairness of these proceedings. In addition to the arrest of at least six former and current anti-corruption prosecutors, other prosecutors have been forced to flee the country and efforts continue to remove the immunity of additional anti-corruption judges and prosecutors. We are also alarmed that procedural delays often place public servants in the same facilities with those they have helped investigate or convict, leading to serious risks to their safety.” Calling on the Guatemalan government to respect the human rights of all individuals, including by guaranteeing fair trials and ensuring the personal safety and fair and transparent treatment of all justice sector actors, the State Department noted that “Guatemalan Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ efforts to target anti corruption and other prosecutors follow a disturbing trend of corruption and the weakening of democratic institutions and processes in Guatemala.”
Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) director Jorge Santos echoed the concerns of the State Department regarding the detained prosecutors’ safety, reiterating that “there is no prison in the country that has guarantees for the protection and life of people, and in the case of former prosecutors there is a greater risk.”
Former FECI anti-corruption prosecutors Aliss Morán and Paola Escobar, who were arrested in mid-February, were detained in Mariscal Zavala prison until their hearing in mid-March, when a judge dismissed the charges against them for lack of merit. Even after being ordered released on March 11, the women were kept in prison for two additional days; the judge refused to sign their release papers because, he said, it was a Friday afternoon and he would have to extend his work hours to do so. The prosecutors were forced to remain in prison until the judge returned to work on March 14.
Leily Santizo, the former head of CICIG who was detained on February 10th, and Siomara Sosa, a former FECI prosecutor detained on February 15th, were finally released on March 8th from Mariscal Zavala prison on Q10,000 (approximately $1300) bail. Their arraignment hearings had been suspended seven times. Judge Geisler Pérez placed them under house arrest until their intermediate hearings, which are set for July 28th.
The preliminary hearing for Virginia Laparra, former head of FECI office in Quetzaltenango, was heard behind closed doors on March 3rd after being suspended six times. Sergio René Mena Samayoa determined that she would have to face charges and sent her to pretrial detention in Mariscal Zavala prison. On March 12 a judge denied her request for alternatives to pretrial detention.
Numerous solidarity protests have taken place against the detention of the prosecutors in the past week, drawing attention to the danger under which anti-corruption champions live.
The Guatemalan Convergence of Human Rights deemed the attack on anti-corruption actors “a brutal and ruthless hunt” and called for the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras, FECI head Rafael Curruchiche, and head of the Prosecutor’s Office for Internal Affairs, Juan Jose Mendizabal. They called for the criminal prosecution of the same officials, for abuse of authority and prevarication, and added that the judges who had lent their services in this effort should also be prosecuted, along with the president of the Foundation Against Terrorism, for his attack on two of the accused as they were in a hearing.
Six prosecutors with FECI resigned in February, the most recent being Amy Girón Rodas, who announced her resignation as a FECI prosecutor on February 22, to take effect on March 11.
At least three have fled Guatemala since January 1, citing concerns for their safety: Carlos Antonio Videz Navas; Rudy Herrera, for whom an arrest warrant has been issued; and Lorenzo Bolaños Sánchez.
Data Leak Reveals Mining Company Suppressed Consultation
A leak to international journalists of 8 million documents from the Swiss-Russian mining conglomerate Solway and its Guatemalan subsidiaries has shed light on the mining company’s strategies to repress opponents of the mine and ensure support from Guatemalan police and governmental authorities. The machinations of the company running the open-pit nickel mine in El Estor, Izabal, have been fully detailed through Forbidden Stories–a network of over 65 international journalists–who accessed the massive data leak, revealing the aggressive and illegal tactics employed by the company.
Email correspondence confirms that the legally mandated “consultation” that took place at the end of last year was manipulated in favor of a positive result for the mine. In 2019, the Constitutional Court ordered the suspension of all mining activities until a consultation with the impacted communities was carried out. Evidence from the leak showing record profits for the company from 2019-2021 confirmed that the mine never stopped operating, in direct violation of the Constitutional Court ruling from 2019. Moreover, Solway manipulated the consultation in its favor, bribing community leaders and specifically planning who would participate. In a document titled “Participation Communities,” Solway tracked their “strategic donations” to community leaders in the area; $34 thousand in donations were funneled through the Polochic Fisherman’s Association to create pro-mining allies. According to bank records and invoices obtained through the leak, the company started regularly donating to community leaders in 2020 through a foundation called Raxché. To carry out the consultation, Solway hand-picked which communities would participate in meetings, specifically excluding groups like the Fisherman’s Guild for being anti-mine. One folder spelled out how the consultation would be carried out, including a list of the 46 communities hand selected by the company, listed as 29 in favor, 5 opposed, and 12 neutral.
Emails sent between Solway officials reveal that the company employed counter-insurgency style tactics against anti-mine community members and journalists covering the conflict. One email thread detailed a plot for the “destruction of their methods of subsistence” in which company employees planned to pay local criminals to burn the cardamom crops of a community, Las Nubes, whose land the company wanted in order to expand.
The head of security for Solway subsidiary Pronica, Roberto Zapeda, has a Masters degree in Advanced Strategic Studies with a Specialization in Security and Defense, and he maintains a direct relationship with the Army School of Intelligence. One of the strategies he suggested to weaken opposition to the mine was to plant criminal charges against leaders to discredit them so that they would lose support.
Solway employees also engaged in the surveillance of journalists and community leaders. In a file labeled “key photos” were dozens of photos of journalist Carlos Choc, in various settings such as driving his truck through El Estor, carrying out a reporting trip in March 2019, and walking with lawyer Rafael Maldonado to his court hearing in nearby Puerto Barrios. As a journalist with the Prense Communitaria, Choc became a target after documenting the death of a protester killed by company security in 2017. International journalists investigating the mine were also surveilled by Solway, sometimes by drone. Documents reveal that Solway made audio and video recordings of community leaders’ private discussions, such as those of members of the Fishermen’s Guild regarding the mine, and the company planted informers among the communities.
In 2018, when a red slick appeared on the surface of Lake Izabal, the Guatemalan Ministry of the Environment issued a determination that the color was not due to runoff from the nearby nickel mine, but instead was algae. Gustavo García, head of the mine’s environmental department, echoed this explanation, stating, “The increase in nitrogen and phosphorus promotes algae growth,” and “that’s what gave [the lake] this hue.” However, an internal company report reveals that the company knew that sediments of limonite were being released into the lake and were responsible for the red slick. According to the report, “The discharge of sediments into the lake was evident due to the reddish color of the water at this location.” A government environmental audit from November 2017 showed waterways around the mine were contaminated with nickel and while government compliance officers found Solway had violated 19 of their binding commitments to the state, these reports were hidden from the public.
Finally, the leak revealed evidence of Solway and its subsidiaries wielding their power and influence over a myriad of state institutions, from local police to the Guatemalan President’s Office. Emails contain receipts that show significant financial contributions made to local police, covering the cost of vehicle repairs, gasoline, and hotels during the state of siege in El Estor in 2021. According to the report, “Over the course of 2020, one of Solway’s subsidiaries, Pronico, made at least five donations to Raxché for “aporte strategico” (strategic support) of the PNC, worth roughly 350,000 Quetzales ($45,000 USD) in total.” Between 2014 and 2017, the company paid the National Civil Police $193,000. Leading up to the “consultation” and subsequent state of siege imposed on El Estor, General Manager of CGN-Pronico Sergey Nosachev sent a letter to President Giammattei, asking for “support to guarantee free movement in the municipality of El Estor.” A few months later, when anti-mining protesters blocked passage of mining equipment to protest the continuing operation of the nickel processing plant and the exclusionary pre-consultation process, he followed up with the President:”We request the immediate intervention of the authorities to actively participate in achieving the stabilization of the situation.” Hours later, President Giammattei declared a state of siege in El Estor. A thousand members of the National Civil Police and the Guatemalan Army occupied the community until early December. According to Olga Che, winner of the 2021 Alice Zachmann Award and Treasurer of the Fisherman’s Guild, “That’s when we could see that the government is in favor of the company, even co-opted by it.”
In a meeting on March 16, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Brian Nichols explained the challenge posed by corruption in Guatemala, drawing particular attention to the influence of the private sector in corruption. In apparent reference to the Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations, he said, “Those who seek to perpetuate corrupt practices will feel the weight of our sanctions.”
Congress Shelves Family Law Threatening Women’s and LGBT Rights
On March 17, the Guatemalan Congress shelved a recently approved law that had been reported on internationally as an attack on the rights of women and the LGBTQ community. President Giammattei announced had on March 10 that if the law reached his desk, he would veto it on the grounds that it violated several international human rights standards.On March 8, the Guatemalan Congress voted to pass Law 5772, the “Law for the Protection of Life and Family.” The law–coincidentally passed on Interntional Women’s Day–would impose harsher penalties for abortion of up to twenty-five in prison; explicitly define marriage as between a man and a woman, forbidding same sex marriage; and restrict LGBTQ+ education in schools.
Human rights groups had condemned the law, which according to the Unit for Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), “violates the rights of women and the LGBTIQ+ community, and hinders the work of defending human rights.” Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas presented an action of unconstitutionality on March 9, arguing that the law “violates human rights, it violates the international agreements ratified by Guatemala, [and] it is a setback to freedom.” According to Human Rights Watch researcher Cristian González Cabrera, under this law, “Even more women will be forced to put their health and lives at risk.”
Protesters Call for Freedom for Wrongfully Imprisoned Maya Chuj Woman
Protesters gathered outside of the Mexican Embassy in Washington DC and the Mexican Consulate in Quetzaltenango to demand the release of Juana Alonzo Santizo, a Maya Chuj woman who has been wrongfully detained in Mexican prison for the last seven years. GHRC joined the International Mayan League to deliver a petition letter to the Mexican Embassy demanding Santizo’s immediate release. The petition–organized by Promoters of Migrant Liberation–was signed by 5,135 individuals and 43 organizations in support of Santizo.
March 8 marks the deadline set forth by the United Nations Human Rights Commission’s statement–sent on September 8–that requested the Mexican Government release Juana within the next six months. The International Mayan League also demanded the immediate release of Santizo and requested the Mexican Government “conduct a full and exhaustive, transparent, and independent investigation of the circumstances surrounding the arbitrary detention of Juana.”
Santizo was forced to migrate in 2014 and was headed to the United States. On her journey, she was kidnapped and held in a house a few kilometers from the US/Mexico border. When police discovered the traffickers, Juana was accused of being a trafficker herself and wrongfully arrested by police. Because she did not speak Spanish, she was unable to defend herself and was forced at gunpoint to sign a document incriminating herself. For the last seven years, she has been detained in Mexico without access to an interpreter, legal counsel, or consular support. The Mayan League calls Juana’s case “emblematic as it highlights discrimination and racism faced by Indigenous migrants including Indigenous language exclusion and illustrates the particular realities of Indigenous women.”