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26 June 2020

Growing concern for the safety of journalists and indigenous peoples’ rights defenders in Guatemala amidst a series of murders, smear campaigns and death threats

Human rights organisations express their concern over the increased levels of violence against human rights defenders in Guatemala. There have been 405 attacks on human rights defenders in the first five months of 2020. Human rights defenders who work in defense of the environment, the rights of indigenous peoples, the rights of women, freedom of expression, the rights of migrants, and the right to justice and a dignified life. working in the regions of Santa Cruz Chiquimula, Izabal, Huehuetenango, Peten and Alta Verapaz, have been the targets in the past weeks of assassinations, threats, surveillance, raids, defamation campaigns and judicial harassment, including criminalization.

The recent rise in murders, smear campaigns and death threats is occurring within a complex political context and COVID-19, which has been a major setback for democratic progress in the country. The Unit for Protection of Human Rights Defenders of Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), a member of the OMCT SOS-Torture Network, which protects and promotes risk management for human rights defenders in Guatemala, documented 405 attacks against human rights defenders from January to May 2020. The number of attacks during the first five months of the year 2020 is equivalent to 80% of the 494 cases documented in the year 2019.

Human rights defenders under attack in the past weeksbelong to the civil society organizations AEPDI-Defensoría Q’eqchi’, Gremial de Pescadores artesanales del Estor, Fundación Guillermo Toriero, Equipo de Estudios Comunitarios y Acción Psicosocial, Prensa Comunitaria y Consejo Indígena Maya Chorti de Olopa, operating in Santa Cruz Chiquimula, Izabal, Huehuetenango, Peten and Alta Verapaz.

Since 2017, journalists from the independent newspaper Prensa Comunitaria have been subjected to direct threats, intimidation against them and their families and surveillance in their homes and work places. The frequency of these attacks has notably increased in recent months.

On 20 February 2020, journalist Francisco Lucas Pedro (Palas Luin) from Prensa Comunitaria, and founder of the  Agencia Prensa Comunitaria News Agency Km 169 and coordinator of the Barillas Civil Society Movement, discovered his office had been raided. The office, located in Santa Cruz, had been raided by unknown individuals, who had destroyed furniture and other items in the office, and stolen some items too.

On 5 March 2020, journalist Manuel Toro, who reports on child migration, sexual violence against Achi women, justice and reparation for massacres for Prensa Comunitaria, was leaving the United States embassy, when he realized that he was being watched. The unidentified man watched him for several hours and threatened him if he told anyone that he had been followed. The incident occurred in Guatemala City.

On 9 March 2020, a group of women journalists from Prensa Comunitaria were subjected to a smear campaign by conservative media and on social media, for their coverage of the march carried out on March 8, 2020 in Guatemala city.

On 15 May 2020, journalist Yobany Francisco Lucas, a member of Prensa Comunitaria and Agencia de Noticias Prensa Comunitaria Km 169, was intercepted by two men while documenting a gathering at La Placita market in Huehuetenango. The two men, dressed in civilian clothes, intimidated the journalist and hit him in his head, back and hands. They snatched and broke his mobile phone, verbally insulted and threatened him, forced him to delete the videos he had taken and later threw him out of the market Placita with his hands tied behind his back.

On 6 June 2020, Mayan healer Domingo Choc, a member of Releb'aal Saq'e, a spiritual association that practices traditional medicine, was burnt alive in Petén, after he was accused of witchcraft. Domingo Choc had worked as a collaborating researcher at the Universidad Del Valle de Guatemala, the University of Zurich, University College London and National Geographic.

On 8 June 2020, Alberto Cucul Choc, an environmental rights defender, was killed with a firearm in Alta Verapaz. He had advocated for the preservation of the Laguna Lachuá National Park, and advocated for 13 years against the illegal logging of fine woods and the hunting of protected species. On 11 June in the same district, the brother of the defender Cofrade Jesus Caal, who is accused of witchcraft, was detained for more than an hour by members of the Gancho Ceiba II Community, who then gathered in front of his house and threatening to burn the family owned motorcycle. The defender's son is a social communicator for Prensa Comunitaria and with his father, works to promote the protection of human rights in Guatemala.

On 11 June 2020, Mayan Q'eqchi healer Elías Caal Oxom and his father were subjected to surveillance and threats by the Gancho Caoba 2 community in Cobán, Alta Verapaz, who held their uncle for more than an hour, accusing the Caal family of practicing witchcraft. Elias Caal Oxom and his family are healers and practice Mayan spirituality.

On 15 June 2020, the defender and indigenous Mayan Chorti' Eduardo Alonzo Lucero, a member of the Consejo Indígena Maya Chorti de Olopa and a leader in the opposition movement against the mining activities of the Cantera Los Manantiales company, was found dead at the Summit, Olopa, Chiquimula. His body showed signs of torture. The company Cantera Los Manantiales, located in the Ch ’Orti’ municipality of Olopa in Chiquimula, has been criticised by Guatemalan human rights organisations for causing serious human rights violations against indigenous peoples. In November 2019, the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) suspended the company’s mining license and the Court of Amparos later granted the Maya Ch'orti Indigenous Council of Olopa, Chiquimula, a provisional injunction, stating that the company violated the agreements it had signed with the community.

On June 19, 2020, journalist Jovanna Mariám García member of Prensa Comunitaria and RUDA women + territory media, was denounced for the fabricated charge of defamation, after denouncing the disclosure of a video of a student with sexual content, allegedly by the professor. Hugo Cabreras Navas, who also holds the position of Vice Minister of MAGA, Ministry of Agriculture, Livestock and Food.

On 12 June 2020, within the context of the protests in the municipality of El Estor in response to the recent dismissal of workers from the CGN-PRONICO company, members of the AEPDI-Defensoría Q'eqchi', Radio Comunitaria Xyaab' Tzuultaq'a and Prensa Comunitaria were targeted. They were subjected to threats, attempted fire attacks, surveillance and defamatory campaigns based on discriminatory and racist discourse against indigenous human rights defenders.

AEPDI-Defensoría Q'eqchi, Radio Comunitaria Xyaab 'Tzuultaq'a and the independent media Prensa Comunitaria carry out social and legal activities and advocacy for indigenous communities in the municipality of Estor. In particular, they have worked closely on the criminal case against the mining project of the CGN-Pronico company in Izabal, Estor. During the miner’s demonstration on 12 June, the homes of human rights defenders and journalists who oppose the extraction of the mine, were reportedly subject to surveillance and the defenders subjected to intimidation by unknown persons.

Journalists Carlos Ernesto Choc and Baudilio Choc Mac, members of Prensa Comunitaria, whose work and activism have had a wide reach, facilitating access to vital resources for the communities of the municipality of El Estor, as well as members of the Gremial de Pescadores Artesanos of the Estor, were subject to surveillance by unknown persons in the framework of the miner’s demonstration. Carlos Ernesto Choc has been targeted since 2017 for his human rights work in the form of digital attacks, judicial harassment, and attempts on his life. He has also been subjected to criminalization on fabricated charges, brought against him by the CGN-PRONICO company, and attempts on his life, allegedly ordered by former mayor of Estor, Rody Méndez, in 2018. The threats on his life escalated to such a degree that the defender was forced to relocate for his safety.

Since 19 May 2020, the communities of Izabal have carried out a series of protests and road blocks against the refusal of the CGN-Pronico company to suspend operations in the context of COVID-19, defying the suspension order issued to the company by the Constitutional Court. These protests are occurring alongside those by the dismissed mine employees and members of the community who are demanding humanitarian assistance during the pandemic. These protests have generated a climate of tension towards human rights defenders, placing them in a position where they are at risk of being targeted. The choice of rhetoric of the mining company towards the defenders, blaming them for the dismissals and the economic damages, is further cause for concern. The operations of the CGN-Pronico company have constitutionally lacked legality since 18 July 2018, after the Constitutional Court (CC) suspended its operations for breach of prior consultation.

Front Line Defenders is deeply concerned by the attacks, murders, surveillance, threats, defamation campaigns and judicial harassment against environmental defenders and defenders of the rights of indigenous peoples, as well as journalists from independent media who work to expose serious human rights violations by companies in the mining sector. Front Line Defenders urges the Guatemalan government to carry out immediate, exhaustive and impartial investigations into the involvement of mining companies, members of government or other actors into the attacks against human rights defenders in the country, with a view to publish the results and bring those responsible to justice in accordance with international standards.

Front Line Defenders urges the Guatemalan government to monitor illegal operations of mining companies in the context of COVID-19 and take all necessary measures to guarantee the right of indigenous peoples to free, prior and informed consent regarding the implementation of projects that may affect them, as established in Convention 169 of the International Labour Organisation. Front Line Defenders calls on the authorities to ensure that human rights defenders can carry out their work in defence of human rights without compromising their integrity.