November 18, 2018
  • Promoting nonviolence and protecting human rights defenders since 1981
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Project context



Recent political context

This was the first year of the government of President Jimmy Morales of the National Convergence Front (FCN-Nation), elected after a campaign that took place in the midst of strong civil protests against a mafia-like criminal structure that had taken power via the ballot box during the last government. Although the elections took place in this context, their outcome was not the result of social protest but rather of high-level realignments of the military, political and economic powers. Jimmy Morales and the FCN-Nation have been accused by civil society groups of having ties to retired military personnel who were involved in human rights violations during the country’s civil war and with the apparatus of the previous ruling party, the Patriot Party. In this regard, the political and institutional crisis unleashed by the criminal trials in the aforementioned corruption of the government by mafias [1] did not go away with the resignation and imprisonment of former president Otto Pérez Molina, and supporters of his government, or with the election of a new government. There continues to be crisis of legitimacy and stability, two things that are required to govern the country. [2]

The first year of the Jimmy Morales government was also marked by a determination to continue with an economic model based on the exploitation of lands and natural resources, which is at the root of many of the conflicts around the country. The government has increased the military presence in many parts of the country, setting up bases where business projects have begun, or have been planned, without the consent of the local population. This situation, which PBI has observed, particularly in the Eastern part of the country and in the department of El Quiché, has caused alarm, especially concerning the safety of those defending the rights of the local communities to be consulted about the initiation of business projects, as well as the right of indigenous peoples to control their own territories and natural resources.

The sociopolitical climate, which is marked by the aforementioned investigations into the corruption of state organs, particularly the legislative and judicial branches, has also led to talk about reforming the Constitution, talks that have centered on changes to the justice system. In February 2016 came the “National Dialog: Toward Reforming the Justice System,”3 which included a proposal to recognize in the Constitution the practice of the indigenous peoples to govern their own jurisdictions in accordance with their own rules, procedures, ways and customs, defining it as their own judicial system with which the state judicial system must coordinate. Although the Guatemalan government recognizes the constitutionality of indigenous customs and ways of life and the related international conventions, the specific practice of indigenous justice is not recognized by the 1985 Constitution. Beyond changing the justice system, the most important reform would be to recognize the existence in Guatemala of a multi-national state. In late November, the Guatemalan Congress failed to consider and debate all of the proposals for constitutional recognition of this indigenous right, and for lack of a quorum, failed to approve other proposed articles under which mayors, governors, congressional deputies, and other civil servants who enjoy the right to an impeachment proceeding, could be subjected to a criminal investigation if there is suspicion of a crime, as well as to suspension from their post if a judge orders an indictment. Critics pointed to the inaction of the legislators as proof of their intention to protect their own interests, reaffirming a pact of impunity that continues to be tolerated by the public at large.[3]

(1) Prensa Libre, Juez abre proceso contra 53 en el caso Cooptación, Guatemala, 28/07/2016.

(2) Andrés Cabanas, Incertidumbre, ruptura y esperanza, Guatemala, 16/05/2016; El Periódico, Crisis, refundación del estado y transparencia, Guatemala, 08/04/2016.

(3) See PBI, Monthly Information Package No. 158, Guatemala, November 2016.



Situation of Human Rights Defenders

The risks for human rights in 2016 remained high in Guatemala. UDEFEGUA reported 223 attacks on defenders from January to November.1 Although the overall number of attacks have declined compared to the previous two years, the methods and mechanisms of the violence have worsened, according to UDEFEGUA and PBI’s own internal reports and analyses. In this regard, a rise in assassinations is a particular cause for concern and has been denounced by international organizations2 as well as the European Union3 and the OHCHR.4

The largest number of attacks reported are related to the criminalization of civil protest and smear campaigns against human rights defenders. Although there has been some important progress during the year – such as the court ruling in July ordering the immediate release from jail of seven ancestral authorities from northern Huehuetenango. The ruling specifically recognizes for the first time the campaign of criminalization of which the freed defendants were victims. This campaign of criminalization continue in the country and a number of national and international organizations have called attention to the improper use of the judicial system to hinder human rights defenders.5 PBI drew attention to this problem in an article titled “11 New Detentions of Community Officials in San Pablo,” in MIP No. 155 of August 2016. PBI also facilitated a workshop for human rights defenders on “preventing and responding to smear campaigns and the criminalization of social protest.”

Defamation, or “hate speech,” directed at those defending human rights in Guatemala, particularly those who are fighting impunity, has been denounced by civil society groups, who denounce a strategy of inciting violence and discrimination aimed at delegitimizing human rights work. There have also been smear campaigns orchestrated by groups linked to military power (e.g. the Association of Guatemalan Veterans, or AVEMILGUA, and The Foundation against Terrorism). The OHCHR denounced these hate campaigns in a press release6, expressing concerns about threats against human rights defenders that such messages imply. PBI wrote about this situation and the particular impact it has on women defenders in the article Lolita Chávez and Helen Mack Reflect on Hate Speech in Bulletin No. 35.7

The largest share of the attacks, 27%, have been directed at human rights defenders protecting the environment and natural resources, such as land and water, according to UDEFEGUA and Amnesty International, which writes “Defenders of human rights working on issues related to access to land and territorial and environmental rights in Honduras and Guatemala continue to carry out their activities in an extremely hostile environment and face serious risks because of their work.”8

Journalists are also frequent targets, with 14% of the attacks directed at them. PBI published an article on this subject, “Community communication: grassroots journalism at risk” in Bulletin No. 34 in March.

Of particular concern is the situation of court officers involved in high profile cases in the Guatemalan courts of human rights violations committed during the civil war (see “The Fight against Impunity” below). These trials have revived painful memories of the civil war and have put the actions of Guatemala’s Armed Forces in the spotlight. Judges, lawyers and other court officers, as well as national and international organizations involved in the fight against impunity and the recovery of historical memory, have been the target of intimidation and threats.9 In April 2016, PBI activated its Support Network by issuing an alert, “Increase in Threats and Acts of Intimidation against the Human Rights Law Office of Guatemala and other lawyers involved in human rights cases.” Among those receiving counsel from the Human Rights Law Office (BDG) are the co-plaintiffs in the Ixil, Creompaz and Dos Erres genocide cases. Due to fears that the security of human rights defenders working to fight impunity is worsening, PBI decided to increase its accompaniment of the BDH and the Chicoyogüito Neighbors Association, which includes witnesses in the Creompaz case. PBI team members accompanying witnesses or lawyers during court hearings in these cases have been the targets of hostile comments from individuals linked to the military seeking to weaken the network of support, counseling or accompaniment that actors involved in the fight against impunity receive. These hostile acts, which increased between 2012 and 2014,10 have been declining since then.

Within the context described above, the Guatemalan government has continued to play a weak role in protecting human rights defenders. Investigations and the process for identifying and punishing those responsible for attacks on human rights defenders continue to be slow and inefficient, even though these attacks are denounced publically by many Guatemalan civil society organizations.11 Moreover, the government has been reviewing the protective measures granted to human rights defenders, and in some cases these measures have been withdrawn, leaving these individuals vulnerable and at high risk as they carry out their work in defense of human rights. PBI has been monitoring the cases of Rev. José Pilar Álvarez Cabrera (Guatemalan Lutheran Church) and Lolita Chávez (CPK), who have had these protective measures revoked in the past year.

Finally, it should be noted that 35% of the attacks reported by UDEFEGUA were directed at women human rights defenders. They have primarily been the target of smear campaigns, intimidation and direct personal attacks. One such case is that of Lolita Chavez, who as a member of CPK is accompanied by PBI and has been the target of threats and public insults for denouncing illegal logging in the Department of El Quiché.12

Given the situation described above, local and international civil society organizations have called on Guatemalan authorities to develop a comprehensive public policy with the broad participation of human rights defenders to ensure that they can carry out their work in a free and safe environment.13 The European Union’s Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambridinis, upon concluding a visit to Guatemala in June 2016, also stressed the importance of establishing a national human rights policy to guarantee economic, social, labor and cultural rights, and a policy to protect human rights defenders. He also emphasized the importance of giving priority to a process for elaborating related structural regulations and reforms that includes a dialog with civil society.14

1 UDEFEGUA, El acompañante, Guatemala, December 2016.

2 FONGI, Comunicado a la comunidad internacional y la sociedad civil guatemalteca por los hechos de violencia contra instituciones civiles y estatales a favor de los DDHH y los asesinatos de mujeres y hombres líderes de organizaciones sociales, Guatemala, 24/06/2016.

3 Statement of the spokesperson for the High Representative of the European Union, Federica Mogherini regarding attacks on human rights defenders in Guatemala, Guatemala, 17/08/2016.

4 OHCHR statement denouncing recent attacks on human rights defenders, Guatemala, 21.06.2016.

5 In their most recent statement, the co-presidents of the Euro-Latin American Parliamentary Assembly called for an end to this improper use of the judicial system to criminalize the work of human rights defenders. In a press released on 10 December 2016, Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, also denounced the abuse of criminal law to intimidate, coerce, persecute and imprison social leaders, community leaders, lawyers, prosecutors and human rights defenders of all kinds in order to quash their social demands and the fight against impunity

6 OHCHR press release denouncing hate messages that incite violence, Guatemala, 01/07/2016.

8 Amnesty International, “We are Defending the Land with our Blood”, 1 September 2016,

9 See PBI Monthly Information Packet No 153, Guatemala, June 2016.

10 Between 2012 and 2014, PBI was the target of a smear campaign and attacks by various Guatemalan news organizations, as well as private organizations such as the Foundation against Terrorism, and several companies involved in conflicts with local communities (for example, Jonbo S.A.). Some of these attacks even came from Guatemalan public administrations such as the mayor’s office of San Juan Sacatepéquez and the national Ministry of the Interior, which cancelled the temporary residency permits and ordered the expulsion of two PBI volunteers in May 2014, a decision that was ultimately revoked.

11 Joint statement issued by the Central American Federation of Judges for Democracy, the Forum of Democratic and Independent Judges of El Salvador, the Association of Judges for Democracy of Honduras, the Costa Rican Judiciary Association, the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) and the International Commission of Jurists (CIJ) condemning intimidation and threats against judges, journalist and human rights defenders in Guatemala 28 September 2016. periodistas-y-defensores-y-defensoras-de-derechos-humanos-en-guatemala/

13 El Observatorio – UDEFEGUA, GUATEMALA: Llamamiento por una agenda nacional para la protección de los defensores y las defensoras de derechos humanos. Conclusión misión internacional, Ginebra-París-Guatemala, 02/06/2016.

14 Statement by European Union Special Representative for Human Rights Stavros Lambridinis, Guatemala, 26 June 2016.

Oficina del Proyecto: Avenida Entrevías, 76, 4º B, 28053 Madrid, Estado Español, Tel: (34) 918 543 150

Equipo en Guatemala: 3a Avenida 'A' 3-51, Zona 1, Ciudad Guatemala, Guatemala, C.A. Tel: (502) 2220 1032

International Office, Development House, 56-64 Leonard Street, London EC2A 4LT, U.K. Tel: +44 20 7065 0775
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