In a matter of a month, a trade union lawyer, an indigenous land rights activist, and two journalists were murdered in Guatemala. Global civil society alliance CIVICUS is deeply concerned about the life-threatening situation for civil society activists and journalists in the country.
The most recent, Brenda Marleni Estrada Tambito, a legal advisor to the Guatemalan union federation UNSITRAGUA, was followed and shot five times from a moving car in Guatemala City on 19 June. On 8 June, indigenous leader Daniel Choc Pop, a member of the Highlands Peasants’ Committee in the San Juan Los Tres Ríos community of the department of Alta Verapaz, was killed by a security guard during an alleged invasion of a private ranch. The day before, 7 June, Víctor Hugo Valdés Cardona, who directed a culture and news programme on local television, was shot dead outside his home in Chiquimula. A week earlier, on 30 May, a radio host named Diego Salomón Esteban Gaspar had been intercepted and shot dead while riding his motorcycle in Ixcán.
At least 12 human rights defenders were assassinated in the country in 2015, and numerous others suffered assassination attempts, death threats, intimidation, physical attacks, judicial harassment, unwarranted detention and torture. According to the Unity of Protection for Defenders (UDEFEGUA), a Guatemalan CSO, nine human rights defenders were assassinated in the first six months of 2016 alone, and aggressions are on the rise.
As denounced by the Labour Rights Defenders Network, anti-union violence is also widespread and union activists are frequently targeted. So are journalists, although the link between the aggressions and their work is usually difficult to prove given that the perpetrators often remain unknown. Additionally, among indigenous, environmental and land defenders the true toll is probably higher than documented, as many killings and acts of violence occur in remote areas and therefore go unreported. Overall, perpetrators are rarely brought to account for their actions, and the prevalence of impunity only perpetuates the abuse.
The situation in Guatemala reflects broader global and regional trends. Notably, 60% of the attacks against Guatemalan human rights defenders documented in 2015 were against activists involved in land struggles and defending their communities’ access to natural resources. Throughout Latin America indigenous human rights defenders are targeted for defending their communities’ habitat and livelihoods, opposing the private appropriation of communal resources, demanding consultations with the populations affected by mega mining and infrastructure projects, advocating for greater controls on extractive industries, and denouncing collusion between government officials and business interests. Worryingly, perpetrators are rarely apprehended.
In Guatemala as elsewhere, CIVICUS stands in solidarity with journalists and civil society activists suffering violations of their basic human rights and facing restrictions on core civic space freedoms, and urges all involved parties to acknowledge the underlying factors leading to violence against civil society in the country.
Accordingly, CIVICUS calls upon the government of Guatemala to (i) launch timely and impartial investigations on every assassination or attack in order to identify, apprehend, and convict the perpetrators, (ii) adopt more effective protection measures to guarantee the life, physical safety and psychological integrity of journalists and human rights defenders currently under threat, and (iii) guarantee a more enabling environment for civil society actors to be able to exercise the freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression without risking their lives.