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A State of Siege in Guatemala

  • JASS

The election of a former prison systems director, Alejandro Giammattei, this past August was a turning point in an increasingly bold and aggressive consolidation of power by the conservative right in Guatemala. The termination of the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), a beacon of hope for justice and anti-corruption advocates in Guatemala and throughout Latin America, and the declaration of two states of siege that have suspended constitutional freedoms, clearly signal an official rollback of human rights. In the midst of this political rollercoaster, human rights defenders, especially indigenous activists defending their land, water, and territories, face ever-mounting violence and intimidation. Given JASS’ ongoing work with indigenous women leading environmental justice efforts and human rights organizations, we spoke to one of JASS Mesoamerica’s allies in Guatemala, who chose to remain anonymous due to security risks, to find out more.

JASS: The political changes in Guatemala haven’t really been covered in the international media. Can you explain the latest?

Guatemalan Ally: At President Morales’ urging, Congress approved a 30-day state of siege on September 7 and extended it again on October 10. A state of siege suspends citizens’ constitutional freedoms of expression, assembly, and protest, even monitoring their movements and enforcing curfews. It means security forces can detain anyone they decide is suspicious without an order from the judicial system – for instance, radio hosts accused of threatening national security or the indigenous activists in Izabal who are fighting extractive companies illegally operating on their lands. The state of siege is a way to control communities, social movements, and leaders. Given the history of violence and repression in the country, the fact that soldiers are again entering communities with heavy weapons is in itself an act of significant intimidation and a sign of re-militarization.

The state of siege was implemented after three soldiers were killed during an operation to locate hidden drug-trafficking airstrips in El Estor municipality in the department of Izabal, but the government retaliated also in five other departments. In September, the government announced that they found cocaine plantations, a big concern because previously Guatemala was not considered a producer. This claim helped the president justify the siege on rural communities because it was a way for him to show internally and to the U.S. that he is fighting against drug trafficking. Since there is no official security policy that actually addresses drug trafficking or organized crime at the national level, their rationalizations for the state of siege don’t really make sense.

JASS: Tell us more about the areas that are under the state of siege.

Guatemalan Ally: The government targeted six northeastern departments, all areas with a long history of indigenous and mestizo resistance. One municipality, El Estor, is home to the women of Sepur Zarco, who won their case last year against former military leaders for the sexual slavery they endured during the armed conflict in the 1980s. El Estor is also home to indigenous communities fighting against the Fenix Nickel Project, the biggest in Central America, where extraction led not only to life-threatening pollution, but also intense police violence and persecution of indigenous journalists and activists. We can’t just reduce these areas to a “drug-trafficking corridor” – they are sites of struggle for justice and the environment, with historical roots to confront land grabs and natural resource extraction that are operating without the consent of communities, which is required by international law. Under the state of siege, the police can use the excuse of rooting out drug traffickers as a cover to detain community leaders and human rights defenders who are disrupting mining and other extractive operations. Communities are understandably intimidated and afraid.

JASS: How has the state of siege affected the women, communities and organizations JASS works with, particularly within indigenous territories?

Guatemalan Ally: The state of siege has been dangerous for citizens’ rights. For many decades and particularly during the armed conflict, terror was a strategy in Guatemala to silence people. The return of terror has strong emotional ramifications for people who’ve barely recovered from the war.

In the midst of all this, two women human rights defenders have been killed: Diana Isabel Hernández on September 7 and Paulina Cruz Ruiz on September 14. Diana Isabel was a teacher and an environmental activist within her social work with the Catholic Church. She was a close partner of Madre Tierra, one of JASS’ main allies in Guatemala, and they worked together to denounce the environmental destruction caused by African palm and deforestation. Paulina was a Maya Achi’ Ancestral Authority and defender who filed legal actions against extractive projects that threatened her territory. Her husband was also shot, but survived. This violence is part of a larger strategy in Guatemala of political and economic forces that are coming together to halt the progress on human rights advanced by social movements. They think indigenous peoples and rural communities along with their organizations and movements have gone too far and won too many cases against extractive companies and military leaders. This violence links local struggles in defense of land and territories with the bigger picture of impunity. Diana Isabel and Paulina were killed for defending human rights and land.

JASS: How does this extended state of siege fit into the larger political reality in Guatemala?

Guatemalan Ally: The state of siege is part of a heavy setback against the Guatemalan people’s many efforts to promote human rights and end impunity and corruption. CICIG, the anti-impunity commission, brought different sectors together to support the legal system to take control and root out corruption, but the president allowed its mandate to lapse. In its final report, CICIG called out the “mafia coalition” of government officials and business leaders who were intent on protecting their power and placing themselves above the law. Congress then named a special commission to investigate the investigators; they’re using the law to dismantle democratic measures and structures designed to end impunity, and running a smear campaign against everyone who defended CICIG – women’s groups, social movements, human rights lawyers, honest judges and the UN. On October 7, the Constitutional Court ordered Congress to end its inquiry, which was good news but immediately followed by Congress’s announcement of a “Truth Commission” to continue this investigation. We don’t know what will happen next to reverse human rights – the context changes from day to day.

Since CICIG is no longer a watchdog in Guatemala, the government has threatened civil society groups and issued activists arrest warrants. This is a diversion tactic – getting stuck in the courts means activists can’t devote their time, energy, or strength to their justice struggles. We call this the “judicialization of politics.” Many organizations have spoken out about CICIG and the state of siege, but there is a tense calm. We haven’t seen mobilizations like in 2015. The U.S. government’s role also matters. There was a time when the U.S. defended CICIG and human rights, but now the ambassador doesn’t even make public statements. The U.S. position has empowered President Morales and his allies to become more hardline in exchange for supporting the U.S. government’s immigration policy in the region. President Morales recently even called the Constitutional Court “ridiculous.” This is an assault on the rule of law and on the credibility of the highest court to protect the constitution, and shows that Guatemala is becoming a real dictatorship.

JASS: The government has defended its state of siege as necessary to combat drug trafficking and target criminal groups, while indigenous groups and social organizations have said it was a tactic to dismantle their resistance against extractive projects that exploit natural resources in indigenous territories. Can you help us understand these conflicting narratives?

Guatemalan Ally: There’s a lot of disinformation. People in rural and indigenous areas are more aware of what’s going on. In the capital where the private sector aligned with power controls the media, there isn’t a lot of reliable information. An important point on narratives is that the president said the government should investigate the links between social movements, particularly human rights defenders, and organized crime and drug trafficking in order to justify his plea to prolong the state of siege. This is an extremely serious and direct threat again human rights defenders in Guatemala, and an attempt to spread rumors and manipulate public opinion when it’s actually the government, not human rights defenders, with links to bad actors. We need to be careful not to fall for disinformation tactics; reliable sources in the region include Nomada and the Prensa Comunitaria. Journalists have been targeted and persecuted for their work too, and this intimidation has successfully limited the amount of information getting out about what’s going on. In El Estor, police raided Mayan community radio station Xyaab’ Tzuultaq’a on September 26.

JASS: Is there anything that allies outside of Guatemala can do to help?

Guatemalan Ally: Within the country, communities outside of the targeted departments have expressed their solidarity and concern for the wellbeing of people living under the state of siege.  It’s so important for people outside Guatemala to do the same; it helps their morale to not feel so isolated. International solidarity is key, not only to make visible what is going on and to fight the criminalization of human rights defenders, but also to connect struggles in different contexts among people who are fighting to defend the land and environment. This is going on in Guatemala but it’s linked to a model we see all over the world, one that only values accumulation of wealth over life. In order to change what is going on, we need to strengthen the legitimacy of all people to defend their territories, land, the environment, and the planet. We also need to call attention to the terror that people are facing.

JASS: What else do you want people to know?   

Guatemalan Ally: We need to uncover what is behind all of this: the links to land grabs and accumulation, narco-trafficking, extractive projects, and more. There are no guarantees that the state of siege won’t be used to detain and prosecute community leaders, but we have been resisting for 500 years and we will continue. This is a difficult moment to have strength and hope, but at the same time, we see incredible resilience and resistance from the people. Political education and feminist popular education processes are more important than ever to strengthen the capacities of new leaders who are emerging with new energy. These processes help them critically question, resist disinformation, and organize people effectively to come together against the efforts by those in power to polarize people and silence those who speak out.  


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