The Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC) was founded in 1982 amid the turmoil of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. Founder Sister Alice Zachmann, SSND, first traveled to Guatemala in 1975, and again in 1979, where she was struck by the incredible levels of poverty and discrimination among Guatemala’s peoples. Compelled to help, Sister Alice resigned from her parish ministry in Saint Paul, Minnesota and united with former Guatemala missionaries and Guatemalan refugees to begin their work. On September 20, 1982, GHRC received 501(c)3 status as a fully functioning non-profit organization.
The years 1982-1985 were critical years for GHRC’s work. Massacres, death squads, disappearances, adbuctions, and torture were common during the internal armed conflict. As human rights violations drastically increased during these formative years, so did the work of GHRC, which continued to document and report on the situation on-the-ground, as well as advocate for victims of the repression to the US public and the US government. Despite initial successes, GHRC efforts to influence US policy towards the region were impeded by a lack of interest by the US government; some members of Congress even remarked that GHRC’s human rights reports could not possibly be true, as they were too horrendous to believe.
Nonetheless, GHRC continued to grow its base of grassroots support. In 1985 the Commission expanded its Board of Directors and added on a part-time fundraiser. That same year, GHRC received a significant grant to continue its advocacy, and the Voiceless Speak program was created to provide assistance for Guatemalans within the United States who are working toward peace and promoting respect for human rights in Guatemala.
In the late 1980s, GHRC began sponsoring speaking tours around the US and delegations to Guatemala, and in 1989 began publishing the biweekly Guatemala Human Rights UPDATE, which was produced until 2008. GHRC also launched the quarterly Guatemala Bulletin, which provided human rights reports and analyses and spotlighted particular cases. GHRC launched an active campaign for the release of Carmen Valenzuela, who was abducted in Guatemala for her human rights work (and later, safely in the US, joined the GHRC board), and pressed for the release of Sister Dianna Ortiz, who would later join GHRC’s staff after escaping from a clandestine prison in Guatemala where she was tortured. GHRC also pressed for in-depth investigations into the cases of Sister Dianna, Myrna Mack, Meredith Larson of Peace Brigades, and many others.
In the early 1990s, GHRC sponsored a conference on the use of torture in Guatemala, and initiated what was to become a decades-long advocacy campaign to support Jennifer Harbury. The capture in 1992 of Jennifer’s husband Efrain Bámaca Velasquez, a guerrilla commandant, led Jennifer to partner with GHRC to form Coalition Missing and push the US government to declassify documents pertaining to Guatemala after 1954. Jennifer and GHRC finally won widespread interest when “60 Minutes” covered her story; the ensuing publicity led to the revelation that members of Guatemalan armed forces murdered Everardo with help from a covert CIA program that funneled millions of dollars per year to the worst elements of the Guatemalan military. The program was suspended and Senate hearings ensued.
Meanwhile, GHRC’s increased involvement in controversial cases began to incite serious threats against GHRC staff and associates, who would frequently receive intimidating messages. The situation came to a head in 1995 when GHRC’s office in Washington, DC was broken into in the wake of a death threat against a member of Coalition Missing. Jennifer Harbury, too, continued to be victim to a series of violent acts, which culminated in 1996 when her attorney’s car was firebombed and the windows of Jennifer’s house were shot out.
In Guatemala, the year 1996 brought the signing of the Peace Accords, which finally ended the bloody, 36-year internal armed conflict. Yet contrary to GHRC’s hopes and expectations, the signing of the Peace Accords did not lead to immediate or significant change; human rights abuses, corruption, militarization, discrimination, and deeply rooted historic inequalities remain.
In response to this continuing violence, GHRC began the Puentes de Paz project in 1998 to support the needs of women in Guatemala by supporting psychologists to help with psychosocial support in the Ixcán region in northern Q’uiché. That same year, Sr. Dianna Ortiz founded a new project at GHRC, the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC). Both projects eventually became independent and earned their own nonprofit status.
In 2003 and 2004, GHRC participated in a series of delegations to monitor, prepare for, and observe Guatemala’s elections. In 2005, the For Women’s Right to Live program was founded to raise awareness about violence against women. GHRC also began to lead delegations focusing on this issue, and in partnership with other organizations, GHRC was able to persuade Congress to pass House Resolution 100 in 2007, which addressed the over 3,000 killings of women in Guatemala between 2000 and 2007. Also with GHRC’s active support, Senate Resolution 178 was passed in 2008, which urged the United States to work with Guatemala to end femicide.
As attacks against human rights defenders continued to increase, GHRC started the Human Rights Defenders Program in 2007. Utilizing GHRC’s growing grassroots base, GHRC began sending out more urgent actions to provide directs support for activists who were threatened, attacked or assassinated.
Recognizing the problematic impacts of free trade agreements, GHRC joined the Stop CAFTA Coalition. After US and Central American governments passed the agreement, the Coalition collaborated on three annual monitoring reports to publicize the impact of free trade on communities in Central America. In 2008, GHRC initiated a new program looking at immigration and free trade, which later shifted to focus more on the impact of migration on Guatemalan communities. With US immigrant rights coalitions, GHRC advocated for just immigration policy reform and denounced increasing raids and deportations. In the aftermath of a large-scale and highly publicized raid on a meat-packing plant in Postville, Iowa, GHRC sought support for those who had been jailed and deported.
Also in 2008, GHRC initiated the quarterly publication El Quetzal, providing articles and analysis for the US public and international community. GHRC also participated in the Social Forum of the Americas in Guatemala City and collaborated on a presentation about the Merida Initiative and impacts of the militarization of the war on drugs.
From 2008 to 2011, GHRC worked to strengthen and expand partnerships with Guatemalan organizations and community leaders. GHRC increased the number of annual delegations to Guatemala, and expanded its grassroots outreach in the US through urgent actions, rallies, presentations, speaking tours, and coalition work.
In 2011, GHRC opened an office in Guatemala City with a full-time staff person (which expanded to two the following year). In March 2011, GHRC became a petitionary organization in a case submitted to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to protect almost 800 Q’eqchi’ families that were violently evicted in the Polochic Valley. GHRC also spearheaded a campaign to deny US visas to war criminals and signed on to a letter calling for UN investigation into allegations that former General and then-presidential candidate Otto Pérez Molina was responsible for torture and crimes against humanity.
With the inauguration of President Perez Molina in 2012, and the increasing repression that unfolded during his time in office, GHRC redoubled efforts to support Guatemalan partners and denounce human rights violations. The Commission also worked tirelessly to ensure the congressional ban on US funding for the Guatemalan military remained in place.
In 2013, a tumultuous year in Guatemala, GHRC staff monitored the genocide trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. GHRC staffmember Dania Rodrigues testified in the trial. GHRC successfully led a campaign to advocate for US Embassy observation of the trial: 2,176 emails were sent to the Embassy. The ambassador himself attended the trial. Sixty advocacy meetings, two speaking tours, and a delegation kept staff occupied, as well as work on particular cases. For a full account, see the annual report.
GHRC continues to provide analysis, education, advocacy, and direct support for human rights defenders. Currently, the organization focuses on five thematic areas: militarization; truth, justice and historic memory; access to land and natural resources; women’s rights; and criminalization and impunity. GHRC also provides assistance where possible to Guatemalans seeking asylum in the United States through the asylum documentation program and monitors the situation of migrants deported to Guatemala and the broad-based effects of US migration policies. Since 2017, GHRC’s focus has included advocacy, analysis, and support for paradigmatic cases in Honduras that mirror dynamics in Guatemala in terms of the nexus of corruption, extractive industries, and repression. In doing this work, as well as fostering exchanges of expertise between human rights communities in the two countries, GHRC has broadened its effectiveness and strengthened its approach to US policy, informed now by regional patterns.
Timeline –– Línea del tiempo
GHRC founder Alice Zachmann, SSND, resigns from her parish to dedicate herself to the work of her young non-profit. On September 20, GHRC receives its 501(c)3 status and opens at Catholic University.
GHRC participates in an international campaign on behalf of the disappeared in Guatemala.
GHRC expands its board of directors and adds on a part-time fundraiser. Together they begin producing urgent actions, leading to hundreds of letters to Guatemalan officials demanding respect for human rights.
1986, October – November:
GHRC conducts its first speaking tour, a tradition that continues today.
GHRC produces a documentary, “The Dark Light of Dawn,” which exposes human rights violations in Guatemala.
GHRC launches the “Voiceless Speak Fund” to provide assistance to Guatemalan refugees who work to educate the US public and government about Guatemala.
GHRC begins a bi-weekly bulletin to provide up-to-date news on Guatemala, human rights abuses, and other important issues.
GHRC begins supporting Jennifer Harbury, a US citizen whose husband Everardo Bámaca — a Guatemalan guerrilla commander — was captured by the army, tortured and eventually killed.
GHRC begins to support Sister Dianna Ortiz, an American nun who was working in Guatemala when she was abducted, tortured, and raped.
GHRC sponsors a three-day conference called: “Confronting the Heart of Darkness: An International Symposium on Torture in Guatemala.”
GHRC’s office is broken into and illegally searched. Violence and threats against human rights defenders continue to escalate.
GHRC’s project Coalition Missing spearheads the Declassification Campaign, through which over 200 NGOs call for the declassification of all US documents involving human rights violations in Guatemala. Documents released establish that the CIA payroll included perpetrators of serious violations.
The Peace Accords are signed in Guatemala, bringing an end to the long and bloody civil war. GHRC commits itself to monitoring the implementation of the Accords.
The Inter-American Court on Human Rights hears the case of Everardo Bamaca, husband of Jennifer Harbury. GHRC staff and board members fly to Costa Rica provide testimony about the case.
The Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition (TASSC) is founded by survivors of torture, including Sister Dianna Ortiz, as a program of GHRC. TASSC is now an independent organization.
GHRC begins Puentes de Paz to provide support to female war victims in Guatemala. Puentes de Paz, based in Playa Grande, Quiche, Guatemala, became independent and continues to provide support to women and local communities.
2001, April 26:
GHRC holds a bilingual service in commemoration of the 3rd anniversary of the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi, who was beaten to death two days after the publication of his report on the victims of the conflict.
Sister Alice Zachmann retires from GHRC after twenty years as its Director.
GHRC begins “For Women’s Right to Live” to end violence against women in Guatemala. GHRC has led eight delegations focusing on violence against women.
GHRC launches the Human Rights Defenders Program to raise awareness about increasing threats and attacks against activists and community leaders.
2007, May 1:
With GHRC’s active campaigning, the US House of Representatives passes Resolution 100, sponsored by Representative Hilda Ortiz, addressing the more than 3,000 killings of women in Guatemala since 2000.
GHRC and partner organizations participate in an international campaign to collect signatures to present to the Oscar Berger administration, requesting the prosecution of Rios Montt and others for genocide.
GHRC presents on a panel at the Social Forum of the Americas about the risks of Plan Merida.
GHRC becomes a petitioner in case of evicted communities in the Polochic Valley and, with an international coalition of organizations, achieves precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and six months of food aid for almost 800 families. The case is ongoing.
GHRC opens an office in Guatemala City.
GHRC, in coalition with Annie Bird of Rights Action and human rights lawyer Jennifer Harbury, files a complaint with the UN Special Rapporteur on Torture against then-presidential candidate Otto Pérez Molina.
GHRC organizes a congressional briefing focused on the militarization of citizen security in Guatemala and in the fall, presents the first annual Alice Zachmann Human Rights Defender Award.
GHRC staff member Dania Rodriguez testifies in the trial of former dictator Efrain Rios Montt. GHRC leads a pressure campaign to persuade US embassy officials to observe the trial; supporters send over 1,200 emails to the embassy, and the ambassador himself attends the trial. GHRC also leads a delegation to Guatemala and organizes a fall and spring speaking tours for Guatemalan defenders.
GHRC leads four delegations to Guatemala and organizes two speaking tours, and continues its work in Guatemala and in Washington to support human rights defenders. GHRC also co-leads workshops in Colombia and in Guatemala on women’s participation in historical justice struggles. GHRC assists 97 people with the Human Rights Defender Fund, and 8 people with the Voiceless Speak grants.
President Otto Perez Molina resigns after allegations of corruption are met with prolonged citizen protests. GHRC provides perspectives for the international media and maintains its work of supporting particular cases, individuals, and communities, visiting two land rights defenders in jail and advocating for justice in the case of La Puya.
The year is one of transitions for GHRC, as long-time Director Kelsey Alfred-Jones moves on and Annie Bird takes the reins. Still, GHRC leads delegations to Guatemala and continues supporting defenders, at a time when killings of defenders mount in Guatemala.
Mayan lawyer Isabel Solis joins the staff as Director of the Guatemala City office, and GHRC expands its work to incorporate advocacy and support on paradigmatic cases in Honduras that mirror cases and patterns in Guatemala. GHRC helps form an independent investigative panel to monitor investigations into the murder of Honduran activist Berta Caceres and organizes and leads a congressional briefing with members of the panel and Berta Caceres’ daughter, where the experts present their report. GHRC’s Guatemala office coordinates a delegation to the Bajo Aguán, Honduras, with long-time Guatemalan partners UDEFEGUA and Prensa Comunitario. In Washington, GHRC collaborates with the Human Rights Legal Clinic to present a petition for human rights abuses in defense of 37 communities evicted in the northern Petén, including Laguna Larga, and requests protective measures on their behalf. GHRC also coordinates meetings for the Human Rights Legal Clinic lawyers representing the communities in Congress, the State Department, the IADB, and the IACHR. Shortly after, the IADB suspends a loan to CONAP, related to the eviction, and the IACHR awards protective measures. (See p. 6 of this link for a full report of the year’s activities).
GHRC leads an emergency delegation to Guatemala after ten human rights defenders are killed in little over a month. A few months later, GHRC issues action alerts as it appears a coup may be imminent in Guatemala. GHRC staff visit Abelino Chub Caal, an indigenous Maya Q’eqchi teacher in Guatemala, unjustly imprisoned. GHRC helps form and participates in an expert observation mission on the case of Berta Caceres. Annie Bird receives threats in retaliation for her work on pivotal cases in Honduras.
Guatemala staff participate in a legal observer mission that monitors the prosecution of the accused killers of Honduran activist Berta Caceres. In a focused campaign to free Abelino Chub Caal, GHRC mobilizes broad grassroots support, observes his trial, and is able to celebrate his release, after two years in detention. Continuing its mission to support human rights defenders, GHRC carries out advocacy on the case of the Guapinol water defenders imprisoned in Honduras and takes community members to visit US Congress and others in Washington.
See our In the News page for more context regarding GHRC’s work and activities.
La fundadora de GHRC, Alice Zachmann, SSND, renuncia a su parroquia para dedicarse al trabajo de su joven organización sin ánimo de lucro. GHRC recibe su estatus 501 (c) 3 y abre sus puertas en la Universidad Católica.
GHRC participa en una campaña internacional en pro de los desaparecidos en Guatemala.
GHRC expande su Junta Directiva e incluye a un recaudador de fondos a tiempo parcial. Juntos comienzan a emitir acciones urgentes, llevando a la producción de cientos de cartas exigiéndole a los oficiales guatemaltecos el respeto a los derechos humanos.
1986, octubre – noviembre:
GHRC realiza su primera gira de conferencias, una tradición que aun continúa.
GHRC produce el documental, “La Luz Oscura del Amancer”, que expone violaciones de derechos humanos en Guatemala.
GHRC lanza el Fondo de “Voiceless Speak” que provee asistencia a refugiados guatemaltecos que trabajan para educar al pueblo y al gobierno estadounidense acerca de Guatemala.
GHRC comienza a producir un boletín bisemanal que provee noticias actualizadas de Guatemala, derechos humanos y otros temas importantes.
GHRC comienza a apoyar a Jennifer Harbury, una ciudadana estadounidense cuyo esposo Everardo Bámaca – un comandante guerrillero en Guatemala – fue capturado, torturado y eventualmente asesinado.
GHRC comienza a apoyar a la Hermana Dianna Ortiz, una monja estadounidense que se encontraba trabajando en Guatemala cuando fue secuestrada, torturada y violada.
GHRC patrocina una conferencia de tres días llamada “Confrontando la Oscuridad: Simposio Internacional sobre la Tortura en Guatemala”.
La oficina de GHRC en Washington es asaltada y requisada de manera ilegal. La violencia y los ataques en contra de defensores de derechos humanos continúan incrementando.
El proyecto de GHRC “La Coalición de los Desaparecidos” lidera la Campaña de Desclasificación, por medio de la cual más de 200 organizaciones no gubernamentales exigen la desclasificación de los documentos del gobierno de los Estados Unidos que están vinculados a las violaciones de derechos humanos en Guatemala. Documentos publicados establecen que la planilla de la CIA incluia a pepetradores de violaciones serias.
Los acuerdos para la Paz son firmados en Guatemala, finalizando una larga y violenta guerra. GHRC se compromete a monitorear la implementación de los Acuerdos.
La Corte Interamericana de Derechos Humanos escucha el caso de Everardo Bámaca, esposo de Jennifer Harbury. Miembros y la Junta Directiva de GHRC viajan a Costa Rica para dar testimonio ante la Corte.
La Coalición para la Abolición de Tortura yel Apoyo a Sobrevivientes (TASSC) es fundada por sobrevivientes de tortura que incluyen a la Hermana Dianna Ortiz, como parte de los programas de GHRC. TASSC es ahora una organización independiente.
GHRC comienza el proyecto “Puentes de Paz” que provee ayuda a mujeres víctimas de la guerra en Guatemala. Puentes de Paz, con base en Playa Grande en el Quiche, Guatemala, se independizó y sigue brindando servicios a mujeres y comunidades en la región.
2001, 26 de abril:
GHRC realiza un servicio bilingüe en conmemoración del tercer aniversario del asesinato del Obispo Juan Gerardi, quien fue golpeado y asesinado dos días después de la publicación de su informe sobre las víctimas del conflicto.
Alice Zachmann se jubila de GHRC después de 20 años como su Directora.
GHRC comienza la campaña “Por el Derechos de las Mujeres a Vivir” que busca acabar con la violencia en contra de la mujer en Guatemala. GHRC ha llevado ocho delegaciones enfocadas en este tema.
GHRC lanza el programa de Defensores de Derechos Humanos para incrementar la conciencia respecto al incremento de los ataques y la violencia contra activistas y lideres comunitarios.
2007, 1 de mayo:
Junto con la continua campaña de GHRC, la Cámera Baja del Congreso estadounidense aprueba la Resolución 100, impulsada por Hilda Ortiz, refiriéndose a los más de 3,000 asesinatos de mujeres in Guatemala desde el año 2000.
GHRC y organizaciones compañeras participan en una campaña internacional de recolección de firmas para ser presentada al gobierno de Oscar Berger, solicitándole el enjuiciamiento de Rios Montt y otros por genocidio.
GHRC presenta en un panel en el Foro Social de las Americas acerca de los riesgos del Plan Merida.
GHRC se vuelve organización peticionaria en caso de comunidades desalojadas en el Valle del Polochic y, con una coalición internacional, logra medidas cautelares de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos y seis meses de entrega de alimentos a casi 800 familias. La petición y las medidas siguen vigentes.
GHRC abre su oficina en la Ciudad de Guatemala.
GHRC en conjunto con Annie Bird de Rights Action y Jennifer Harbury presentan una denuncia en contra del entonces candidato Otto Pérez Molina al Relator Especial ONU contra tortura.
GHRC organiza una sesión informativa en el Congreso enfocado en la militarización de la seguridad ciudadana en Guatemala.