Last week, Guatemala’s Court of High Risk “B” (Tribunal de Mayor Riesgo “B”) announced that the genocide trial of Guatemala’s former president, General Efraín Ríos Montt, will not resume until January 2015. The trial was pushed back from an earlier date of April 2014, and by the time proceedings continue, Ríos Montt will be 88 years old.
Ríos Montt had been tried and convicted of genocide and crimes against humanity committed against the Mayan Ixil people during one of the most violent periods of Guatemala’s civil war. On May 10, he was sentenced to 80 years in prison, but served just two days before being transferred to a military hospital.
A day later, one of the defense team’s 100-plus amparos—measures designed to provide constitutional protection of individuals—was upheld by Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC). The result of the successful amparo was to move the trial back to its middle, where there was a judicial battle over who was to hear the case—Judge Yasmin Barrios or Judge Carol Patricia Flores.
The ruling backtracked on previous declarations that the trial would not return to a previous date. It also contradicted Guatemalan law, which states once a verdict is delivered, the defendant must continue their legal fight in the Appeals Court.
Since then, the original trial judges have recused themselves on the grounds that they have already issued a judgment. Dozens of judges have avoided hearing the case for fear of repercussions, and in October, the CC reopened the possibility that Ríos Montt may be granted amnesty, based on a 1986 presidential decree by former President Óscar Humberto Mejía Víctores that barred prosecutions for political crimes committed during Mejía and Ríos Montt’s administrations.
When masked men burst into the tiny hamlet of San José Nacahuil on a peaceful Sunday evening last month, what followed was all too familiar to Guatemalans.
Eleven people were killed and numerous injured as armed assailants moved from house to house. Children safe in their beds were awoken by shots fired into their bedrooms. They tumbled out of bed terrified and in pain, checking to see if their relatives were alive or dead, then, confused and crying, waited for help.
Over 50 firefighters and 20 ambulances arrived at the scene according to Sergio Vásquez, the Bomberos Voluntarios (Volunteer Firefighters) spokesman. “We got a call and a calm voice said several people had been injured. We found victims in hiding places, in the bathrooms of bars and in the streets surrounding the scene,” Vásquez said.
A burnt-out car stolen from the streets of San José Nacahuil was all that remained of the attackers, who fled quickly into the dusk, leaving behind another broken neighborhood.
Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla arrived quickly on the scene, and presented three possible theories to the press corps: the attackers were either extortionists, one of three maras clicas (organized crime groups) in the area, or bandits that had been refused liquor and returned to seek revenge.
Quietly, locals pointed to a fourth theory—that members of the government’s Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC) had perpetrated the crime. It turns out that San José Nacahuil has had a difficult relationship with the police. In 2005, residents burned down the PNC substation and two motorbikes to protest alleged corruption, lack of public services and rising inter-city bus charges. There had been no police presence in the area since then.
Sixteen suspects were captured in recent weeks for their role in the June 13 massacre of an entire police station in Salcajá, Guatemala, a case that has shocked a country with a high threshold for violent acts. Still, many unanswered questions remain.
Gunmen killed all eight officers on duty in the assault on the Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC) station in Quetzaltenango department and kidnapped police sub-inspector Julio César García Cortez. Mexican drug cartels were initially suspected of carrying out the raid, but Guatemalan Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla revealed that the Villatoro Cano cartel, a homegrown group of Guatemalan criminals led by Eduardo Villatoro Cano and linked to Mexico’s Gulf cartel, is responsible. Several of the 14 suspects are police officers linked to Villatoro Cano.
“They are Guatemalan and have made the stupid decision to attack Guatemalan police,” said Bonilla. “These people felt immune, untouchable and thought they owned the entire area. Now we have linked them to many other crimes."
The Guatemalan government’s “Operation Dignity,” an investigation into the attacks, has put over 1,000 agents on the case and initiated 128 raids in Huehuetenango since July 14, but three suspects remain at large. Authorities have tied over 100 murders to the Villatoro Cano cartel so far, including high-profile cases such as the murder of a prosecutor and four investigators for the División Especializada en Investigación Criminal (Specialized Criminal Investigation Division—DEIC).
Guatemalan authorities believe that sub-inspector García Cortez was the principal target of the attacks, and the other policemen were killed to avoid leaving any witnesses. Since García Cortez had previously worked in Cobán in the north-central department of Alta Verapaz, it was assumed that Mexico’s Zetas cartel had carried out the raid in possible retaliation for his investigative work and successes against them.
Three of the sub-inspector’s fingers and pieces of his uniform were the only remains found—a grisly reminder of the modus operandi of the cartels. Media reports theorize that the inspector had either stolen money, drugs or both from the local gang and that the raid was a response carried out by at least 15 men armed with automatic weapons.
Besides the nine deaths, 19 children lost their fathers during the attack. The widow of Héctor Bocel Tun, one of the murdered officers, asked police officer and suspect Milson Fredy García Chávez, “How can it be possible for someone who shakes your hand to stab you in the back? My husband was our provider, now I have to ensure my child gets what he needs.”
In 2010, authorities estimated that 40 percent of the country was controlled by cartels. Perhaps most concerning for Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and the security forces is how the brutal tactics employed in Mexico are being exported to Guatemala and used by local criminals.
With the capture of Zetas leader Miguel Ángel Treviño Morales (also known as “Z-40”) last month, it remains to be seen how the Zetas will continue to operate in Guatemala. Treviño Morales was instrumental in moving the cartel to its new base of operations in Guatemala and setting up lucrative transportation routes. This tactic proved so successful that it was copied quickly by other Mexican cartels—and now many border routes, towns and infrastructure are under their control.
Pérez Molina, who has called for talks on the decriminalization of drugs, has seen his popularity slump in the first 18 months of his presidency. In a recent survey, 66 percent of those polled said that the former general, who rode to victory on the back of a “mano dura” (“iron fist”) campaign slogan, has made things worse.
Even if cartel influence weakens in Guatemala, cartel tactics have been eagerly seized on by local organized criminal elements and street gangs. Director of Police Telémaco Pérez García and Defense Minister Manuel López Ambrosio, both installed in July, do not have much time to learn their new roles.
However, Guatemalan authorities recently got a break in the Salcajá police massacre case after Villatoro Cano’s companion, María Isabel Sales López, told judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez that Cano had asked her “to gather all the weapons into a bag and throw them in the Valparaíso river in Huehuetenango.”
However, threats against Pérez Molina, Bonilla, members of Bonilla’s family and the PNC through anonymous calls to the national police number mean this is far from over.
Until cartel leader Villatoro Cano is caught, the threats will remain—and like a hydra, even if the authorities do triumph, another head will rise up in its place.
El mensaje enviado por los Estados miembros de la Organización de Estados Americanos (OEA) durante su 43ª Asamblea General, realizada la semana pasada en la ciudad de Antigua, Guatemala, fue claro: después de dos años de reflexión y reformas a la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos (CIDH), es necesario pasar a la implementación de las mismas.
Efectivamente, este año la reunión anual de cancilleres de todos los países del continente—menos Cuba—era de especial relevancia en materia de derechos humanos porque “tomaría el pulso” de los Estados en torno a la reforma del Sistema Interamericano de Derechos Humanos (SIDH), después de dos intensos años de discusión, debates, propuestas, reformas y una Asamblea General Extraordinaria realizada en marzo pasado con la que formalmente concluyó el proceso de reflexión sobre la CIDH.
Durante esta Asamblea General realizada en Guatemala, se esperaba la discusión y posible aprobación de una resolución que abordaría el tema—aunque no se conocía el contenido de la misma—y, quizás lo más importante, se elegirían tres nuevos miembros de la Comisión Interamericana de Derechos Humanos.
Los países que presentaron candidatos a la CIDH fueron Colombia y México (para la reelección), Brasil, Ecuador, Estados Unidos y Perú, quienes fueron muy activos en la promoción de los mismos. Llamó la atención la gestión particularmente proactiva del canciller ecuatoriano, quien—de acuerdo con información recogida en la página web de la Cancillería ecuatoriana—durante los últimos meses visitó buena parte de los países de la región para promover la continuación del diálogo sobre la CIDH y la aprobación de (más) reformas a este órgano, y—suponemos—para promover también su candidato a la Comisión.
The 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States opened on Tuesday in Antigua, Guatemala, with the aim of producing “a comprehensive policy against the world drug problem in the Americas."
Guatemala has been at the vanguard of new thinking on the drug trade partly because it has few alternatives. The country is blighted by drug violence and losing control of its territory to organized criminal gangs that control drug shipping to North America and Europe. At the same time, its dangerously weak judicial infrastructure is powerless to stop them.
"We are opening the discussion (on drugs),” said Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. “This had not been done before. We expect to get the positions of all the American countries."
When Pérez Molina called for the decriminalization of drugs and drug transport in February 2012, he sparked debate on the subject.
But Guatemala is not alone. Uruguay has gone a step further: last year, President José Mujica called for state control of the production and sale of cannabis. A draft bill on this proposal has divided politicians in Uruguay, but is currently working its way through Congress; although the vote was postponed when opinion polls revealed that the majority of Uruguayans were against the proposal.
There is growing support across the hemisphere for a more lax approach to the “War on Drugs,” started by U.S. President Richard Nixon in 1971 in an attempt to combat growing consumption in North America. Pérez Molina was backed by Costa Rican President Laura Chinchilla in asking for more debates. Colombia’s Juan Manuel Santos said he would favor decriminalization if other countries went first, and legislators in both Brazil and Argentina have debated decriminalizing the personal use of drugs.
Heads of state and foreign ministers from across the Western Hemisphere arrive in Antigua, Guatemala, today for the 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS). The three-day meeting will begin with an inaugural session at 6:00 pm (local time) this evening. The primary focus of the Assembly, as noted in the draft declaration, is to discuss effective solutions to the world drug problem and ways to devise a comprehensive and integrated approach to tackle this issue in the Americas.
According to Guatemalan Foreign Affairs Minister Fernando Carrera, consensus already exists among member states that the final declaration should include changes to the current anti-drug policy in the hemisphere. "We already have some ideas on how to change drug-fighting policies,” he said. On Monday, dozens of human rights organizations signed a letter asking leaders “to discuss and rethink the existing initiatives with a view to place human rights at the center of the debate."
The Assembly takes place two weeks after the OAS released a report that urges "assessing existing signals and trends that lean toward the decriminalization or legalization of the production, sale and use of marijuana.” Some member states have argued that the report fails to make specific proposals and reveals that there is no consensus among OAS member states to legalize cocaine, the illegal drug with the greatest impact on the region. According to OAS Secretary General José Miguel Insulza, the Assembly will not approve the report, but will serve as “a platform for discussion and for reaching an agreement to see which agency will monitor the study."
On Thursday afternoon, during the meeting’s fourth plenary session, the Assembly will elect three new members to serve on the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The six candidates to the Commission are José de Jesús Orozco (Mexico), Rodrigo Escobar Gil (Colombia), Javier de Belaúnde López de Romaña (Peru), Paulo Vannuchi (Brazil), Erick Roberts Garcés (Ecuador) and James Cavallaro (United States). The Assembly is also expected to discuss some of the controversial reforms to the IACHR being put forward by a group of member states led by Ecuador.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is leading the U.S. delegation. During his visit, Kerry will meet with Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and hold bilateral talks with his regional counterparts. The U.S. delegation will also include R. Gil Kerlikowske, director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy; Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs Roberta S. Jacobson; Assistant Secretary of State for Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William R. Brownfield; and U.S. Permanent Representative to the OAS Carmen Lomellin.
Alfonso Portillo, the former Guatemalan president, was extradited to New York last Friday to stand trial on charges of laundering at least $70 million through U.S. banks.
A U.S. grand jury indicted Portillo on money laundering charges in 2010, and by 2011 he had run out of appeals. The Constitutional Court ruled that the former president should be extradited to the U.S. in August 2011.
As rumors swirled about the potential extradition on Friday morning, Portillo was asked by a national newspaper if he had heard anything. He replied, “I’m watching TV, so it is not true.” An hour later, Portillo was being taken to La Aurora International Airport, where an eight-seat private jet was waiting to take him to the United States with an escort of four members of the U.S. Secret Service.
“This is an abuse, this is a kidnapping, they have broken the law in the process. I have appeals pending,” fumed Portillo in an interview with Radio Sonora.
Mauricio Berreondo, Portillo’s attorney, told reporters his version of events. "[Guatemalan officials] showed up at the hospital, said, 'get dressed, put on this shirt and we are taking you to the Air Force base.’”
Guatemala’s congress and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina are at odds on how to deal with the ongoing violence between mine security guards and the public in two Guatemalan departmentos.
Tension in the two departments of Jalapa and Santa Rosa prompted Pérez Molina to declare a state of emergency in four towns in early May, with the president claiming that organized criminal groups were causing trouble. "I took the decision with ministers who have been on the ground, not MPs who sit at a desk, who do not even know what goes on inside the country," said Pérez Molina. "The statements of the deputies did not influence me, absolutely not. Nor do I care about their opinion.”
However, the Guatemalan congress rebelled against the enforcement that would remove constitutional rights for citizens. With Congress’s refusal to ratify the States of Siege, Pérez Molina ordered states of prevention to be issued in the four municipalities. States of prevention allow the government to militarize an area, prohibit or prevent strikes or work stoppages, limit outdoor gatherings, use force to break up a meeting or demonstration, prohibit parking in certain areas and require broadcasting bodies to avoid inflammatory or inciting material.
"I am not going to allow this to continue," Pérez Molina told reporters. "We have conducted a six-month investigation in this area with the attorney general's office for various criminal activities."
At the end of April, hostilities between a subsidiary of the Canadian-owned Tahoe Resources Inc. silver mine and San Rafael’s population deteriorated after the company’s security guards shot and wounded six demonstrators that were protesting that the Escobal silver mine would contaminate their water supply. In response, locals kidnapped 23 police officers and an attempt to free the hostages left a police officer and demonstrator dead.
The contentious relationship between Indigenous communities, mining companies and the state came to a head last week in Peru. Mines and Energy Minister Jorge Merino persuaded Peruvian President Ollanta Humala to exclude Quechua-speaking communities from a law that gives Indigenous groups the right to be consulted about major mining and infrastructure projects that would directly affect them.
At issue is the country’s consulta previa (prior consultation) law—based on ILO Convention 169—which requires that Indigenous and native communities be consulted prior to the establishment of any policy and development processes that would directly affect them. President Humala formally signed ILO 169 into national law in 2011 in a symbolic ceremony in the town of Bagua—the location of the fatal 2009 clash between law enforcement and native communities in the Amazon that killed 33 people and cast a shadow on then-President Alan García.
Yet just one and a half years after ILO 169 became Peruvian law, it appears the state is rolling back what was once a win for the Indigenous communities. The cabinet battle being led by Merino prompted Deputy Culture Minister Iván Lanegra to resign from his post on Friday. Lanegra, who was responsible for overseeing the implementation of consulta previa and improving relations with Indigenous communities, announced his resignation via Twitter.
The impasse in the genocide trial of Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt should be cleared this week, following a succession of rulings by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court. On Monday afternoon, the court turned the case back over to presiding Judge Yassmín Barrios, who looked to resume the trial on Tuesday morning.
However, the 8:30 am proceedings were halted when Rios Montt's attorneys failed to show up, leading Judge Barrios to suspend the trial for two more days. May 1 is a national holiday in Guatemala, and it remains to be seen whether there will be a defense team in place when the trial resumes on Thursday. If not, Ríos Montt will be assigned a public defender.
The historic genocide trial against Ríos Montt and his former intelligence chief, José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, has been on hold since April 19, pending a Constitutional Court decision on how and when to proceed after Ríos Montt’s defense counsel abruptly walked out of the trial on April 18 in protest. On April 19, Judge Carol Patricia Flores stopped the trial—which was then being presided over by Judge Barrios—after she was reinstated by the Constitutional Court.
The news comes against a backdrop of increasingly powerful demonstrations by survivors and human rights groups on the one side, and by Ríos Montt sympathizers and ex-military veterans on the other. On Friday, Guatemala commemorated the anniversary of the murder of Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, a co-author of a report by the Oficina de Derechos Humanos del Arzobispado (Office of Human Rights of the Archbishopric—ODHA) that documented over 400 massacres by the army during Guatemala’s 36-year internal conflict. Gerardi was murdered two days after the report was published in 1998. As a convoy of buses made its way from Nebaj, at the centre of the Ixil triangle where Ríos Montt is accused of ordering the deaths of 1,771 people, many Ríos Montt sympathizers carried inflammatory banners such as, “Hairy Hippies and Foreigners, Stop Making Money off the Lie of Genocide!”