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Human Rights Defenders Program

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THE PROBLEM: In the face of the deteriorating rule of law and pervading impunity for past and present crimes, human rights defenders have suffered. Since 2000, there have been 1,972 aggressive attacks against human rights activists. In 2009, there were 343 attacks, making it the most violent year to date since the signing of the Peace Accords. As of August, 2010, 223 attacks of violence were committed, and the month of June alone accounts for 117 of them, a 396% rise from the same time last year.

Those that are promoting and defending the rights of Guatemalans: Indigenous leaders, community organizers, environmentalists, justice officials, journalists, union representatives, women’s rights advocates, and church leaders have suffered these increased abuses. Many have been verbally threatened and physically assaulted. Perpetrators impede on activists’ privacy by parking cars outside their homes and wiretapping their phones. Institutions have been raided and important equipment and files stolen. Still others have been killed in cold blood. The perpetrators appear to be clandestine groups and other criminal entities, made up of past or active members of the State security apparatus (i.e. police officers, military, ex-PACs). The assailants have one goal: To silence the voice of these courageous leaders who work to preserve the rights of others.

Even more unbelievable than violence perpetrated against human rights defenders and institutions is that the Guatemalan government has shown neither the will nor the ability to stem these results. The attacks in many cases follow a pattern: The government or other powerful sectors (i.e. military or oligarchy) support a particular policy or project; people voice their opposition; and they are threatened, physically assaulted, prosecuted on false charges, or murdered. Authorities have failed in investigating the attacks and bringing the perpetrators to justice. Prosecution of the perpetrators has occurred in fewer than 2% of the cases.

The following vignettes demonstrate just a few of the most egregious human rights violations against activists in the last three years:

  • On February 16, 2009, Jesús Ernesto Guarcax disappeared at 4:45 pm on his way to present a program on radio El Tablón. He was found dead the next morning half buried in a ravine with a gunshot wound. Jesús had been a part of the Teachers Union of El Tabló. This is another case of an attack made against a union member. Such attacks occur most frequently in Guatemala and due to the impunity union members remain at risk of attack.

  • Between the 8th of May and the 6th of June of 2008; five members of the Brother Pedro Hospital received 19 threats that demanded they stop speaking out against corruption in the Guatemalan health system. The members and their families were threatened with death although the Public ministry did not recognize the threats as a crime. No threat was investigated as the members continue to receive threats.

  • At approximately 3:45, May 10, 2008, Jorge Mérida was working at his computer desk in his house when a man entered through the door and shot him in the head. A month earlier someone had approached him demanding that he stop making reports about the mayor because they had already paid him off. A week before his death, Jorge Mérida had released a report on corruption in the township of Mayor Vega and on the radio about the presence of armed men in the township and their possible ties to Drug trafficking. This crime happened in broad daylight and has not been prosecuted due to the fear of testifying or helping out the case.

  • On January 10, 2007, an attempt was made on the lives of the environmental activists Carlos Albacete Rosales and Piedad Espinosa Albacete in Guatemala City. Both activists are founding members of the environmental organization Trópico Verde. They have been victims of previous threats and acts of intimidation believed to be linked to their work in denouncing illegal appropriation of land inside the Maya Biosphere Reserve, El Petén.
  • On January 15, 2007, Pedro Zamora Álvarez, a trade union leader from the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Portuaria Quetzal, was killed in front of his two small children. Previously Zamora Álvarez had received numerous death threats believed to be related to his union work. Four other members of the Union’s Executive Committee have continued to receive death threats.
  • On February 5, 2007, the shared offices of the Unidad de Protección de Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos (UPD) of the Movimiento Nacional por los Derechos Humanos (MNDH), and the Asociación Comunicación para el Arte y la Paz (COMUNICARTE) were broken into. Computers with case information, as well as communications equipment and money, were stolen. The two organizations work to defend and promote human rights and human rights defenders in Guatemala.
  • On May 25, 2007, staff members of the Fundación de Antropología Forense de Guatemala (FAFG) received a death threat against them and members of their families through an email. On May 28, Fredy Peccerelli received a subsequent email threatening to kill him and members of his family.  It is believed that these threats may be linked to FAFG’s exhumation work that aims to identify victims of massacres during the internal armed conflict in Guatemala.

OUR RESPONSE: In order to respond in solidarity and with advocacy, GHRC is launching its new Human Rights Defenders Program to support human rights defenders and institutions that have suffered attacks.

ACTION STEPS: GHRC’s Human Rights Defenders Program aims to raise awareness among the international community about the increasing attacks while also providing moral accompaniment and support for those affected. The following activities are part of the work we carry out as part of this Program:

  • Denouncing attacks through GHRC’s Urgent Action Network, press releases, and paid ads and insisting that Guatemalan authorities work to thoroughly investigate the crimes and prosecute the perpetrators.
  • Educating US lawmakers, academics, students, parishioners, and grassroots activists about the increasing attacks against human rights defenders and informing them of ways they can apply pressure on the Guatemalan government to address this issue.
  • Raising funds for the Human Rights Defenders Relocation Program, to help provide immediate support to human rights defenders who have suffered threats or attacks and need to move out of their community until the threat subsides. GHRC partners with UDEFEGUA, the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Unit, to identify human rights defenders who are eligible for funds.

GHRC's postcard campaign came to a close in March of 2009, when GHRC handed over a large stack of postcards to the President's office in Guatemala City. Thousands of activists signed postcards to the President of Guatemala imploring authorities to recognize the problem, prevent violence against human rights defenders, investigate the attacks, protect those affected, and take legal action against those responsible for committing these grave abuses.

Through these activities, GHRC continues to increase solidarity with human rights defenders in Guatemala, highlight their positive human rights efforts, augment pressure against Guatemalan authorities to adequately respond to the situation, and bolster our relationship with human rights defender organizations.

HOW YOU CAN BE A PART OF THESE EFFORTS: Fourteen years after the signing of the Peace Accords, with the international community diverting attention to other areas around the world, human rights violations in Guatemala have once again reached wartime levels. Human rights defenders and institutions in particular have faced an increase in assaults, and the Guatemalan government has done very little to stem these attacks. International mobilization, advocacy, and solidarity are more important now than ever. For this reason, we are launching our Human Rights Defenders Program. GHRC will raise awareness, mobilize international pressure, and provide moral accompaniment and material support. We believe that the activities we highlighted above will help ebb the tide of violence against human rights defenders, and ultimately contribute to building a more democratic and sustainable Guatemala.

However, we can’t do it alone. We ask that you join our efforts by doing one or more of the following:

  • Sign up to our Urgent Action Network and receive e-alerts about attacks against human rights defenders and institutions and take action on behalf of your Guatemalan sisters and brothers. Just send us an email to with your name, address, telephone number, and email address and we will sign you up.
  • Host a presentation on this topic at your university, high school, church, or in your community.
  • Donate to help human rights institutions that have been illegally raided and looted to quickly purchase new equipment, repair damaged property, and get their activities back up-and-running. Be sure to put "Human Rights Defenders Campaign" in your designation.
  • Check with us about upcoming fact-finding delegations to Guatemala to learn more about this phenomenon. The delegationsl meet with human rights organizations, victims of violence, and Guatemalan authorities. You can turn your gained knowledge into activism, mobilizing support in your community when you return.


Recent Urgent Actions to Protect Human Rights Defenders

Maya Kaq’chikel Artist, Teacher, and Spiritual Guide Tortured, and Killed
On August 25, 2010, Maya Kaq’chikel teacher and artist Leonardo Lisandro Guarcax, age 32, was kidnapped en route to work. Leonardo was the director of a school in Chuacruz, Sololá and coordinator for the Sotz’il Jay Cultural Center. He is the third member of his family to be killed for his work at the Cultural Center.

[Find past actions in our urgent action archive]

Recent News

January 19, 2011: Judge orders opening of public trial against two men accused of murdering Human Rights Defender Pedro Ramírez


July 2010: UDEFEGUA mid-year report on the situation of human rights defenders in Guatemala

UDEFEGUA (Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Unit) Mid-Year Report 2009 [English][Spanish]

Read the June 2008 delegation report: Who Will Defend the Defenders? Criminalization of Human Rights Defenders and Chronic Impunity in Guatemala, December 2008 (pdf)

General Links to other Information about Human Rights Defenders


Rights Action

Protection Online

Human Rights First

Amnesty International, Guatemala

Frontline: Protection of Human Rights Defenders


Human rights defenders at grave risk in Guatemala, UN expert finds [2008]


Learn about the life of Bishop Gerardi and the events surrounding his murder.











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