The arrest of eight soldiers in connection with the Totonicapán incident on October 4—which resulted in the deaths of at least seven Indigenous protestors—heralds the first test of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s mano dura (iron fist) approach to restoring law and order.
Pérez Molina campaigned for office promising to use the army, from which he is a retired general, to help combat narcoterrorism and the associated random violence that pervades the country. Instead, the remilitarization of Guatemala, with mixed army and Policía Nacional Civil (National Civil Police—PNC) roadblocks a common sight, has brought back memories of the 36-year civil war where state brutality was a daily occurrence.
Events in Totonicapán, an Indigenous-majority department in the west of the country, are especially poignant on Día de la Hispanidad, which is a day to commemorate Indigenous resistance against Spanish conquerors. Hispanity Day, which is celebrated in the U.S. as Columbus Day, also saw a heavy police presence in Guatemala City as authorities feared a backlash by Indigenous groups.
Colonel Juan Chiroy Sal has been charged with extrajudicial murder as the commander of a detachment of the honor guard sent to Cuatro Caminos, an intersection that links Totonicapán with Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango and Guatemala City. It is a frequent spot for demonstrations and the October 4 protest against rising electricity prices in the area saw other community members join in to complain about proposed changes to the Constitution and other education reforms.
Honduras’ Congress has approved a law that prohibits the public possession and transportation of guns in the province of Colón, located on Honduras’ Caribbean coast. Colón has been one of the most affected departments in a country with the world’s highest murder rate—86 homicides per 100,000 residents.
The region of Colón has seen dramatic levels of violence due to heightened narcotrafficking activity as well as a simmering agrarian conflict, which pits poor farm workers against agricultural businesses and the private guards they employ. The land conflict alone has led to 78 murders in the last three years in Colón.
This new law is seen as a victory for Honduran forces trying to crack down on organized crime. Honduran Security Minister Pompeyo Bonilla was pleased with the measure, noting that “the bloodshed that continues taking place must stop and the disarmament of the local population is needed.” The gun law applies to public citizens only, and exempts police, soldiers and private guards.
Two regrettable constants throughout the Caribbean region are that insecurity threatens human development and that crime and violence stymie economic prosperity. Research has upheld the latter; violence discourages tourism, foreign direct investment and business expansion. Crime has negative impacts on people’s livelihoods, mental wellbeing, socioeconomic status, and political freedom.
In 2010, the Caribbean had an intentional homicide rate of 21 percent per 100,000 people, a three-percentage-point increase from 2004. Barbados and Suriname have shown relatively low homicide rates over a 20-year timeframe, from 1990 to 2010. The World Bank reported in 2007 that crime is so costly, that if it were to be controlled in Jamaica alone, Jamaica’s gross domestic product would increase by 5.4 percent annually.
The UN Development Program (UNDP) is doing a commendable job of highlighting these devastating effects, in part through its recent publication of “Caribbean Human Development Report 2012: Human Development and the Shift to Better Citizen Security.” This is the UNDP’s first-ever Caribbean-specific report on human development, and UNDP Administrator Helen Clark visited Trinidad & Tobago earlier this month to launch it. The report provides an assessment on the state of crime in Antigua & Barbuda, Barbados, Guyana, Jamaica, St. Lucia, Suriname, and Trinidad & Tobago—and gives space to the national and regional policies and programs that these countries are enacting to address it. It ultimately states: “the Caribbean cannot achieve sustainable well-being and enjoy the fruits of its efforts toward progress unless its people can be secure in their daily lives.”
In a symbolic display of solidarity, roughly 12,000 Guatemalan citizens formed a human chain on Saturday around Volcán de Agua, one of Guatemala’s 37 volcanoes, to protest the high level of domestic violence throughout the country. This volcano, referred to as Hunapú by the Indigenous Mayan population, is extinct and its peak stands at 3,765 meters (12,352 feet) high.
Using the slogan “Rompe el Ciclo” (Break the Cycle), protestors spanned all ages and genders. The demonstration was well attended by foreign and domestic politicians, including Guatemala’s new president and vice president, Otto Pérez Molina and Roxana Baldetti. President Pérez Molina said, “We want violence to end in this country, we don't want Guatemala to be one of the most violent countries in the world.” Pérez Molina campaigned on a platform of drastically reducing violent crime.
The protest called to attention Guatemala’s rising rate of domestic violence. Government statistics indicate that 646 women were murdered in 2011—almost half of them inside their own homes. Guatemalan daily Prensa Libre notes that domestic violence is the crime most reported to the Ministerio Público (Public Ministry). The ministry is led by Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and, despite showing signs of reform, Guatemala still holds one of the highest rates of impunity; less than 4 percent of crimes result in successful conviction of perpetrators.
Nonetheless, this weekend’s protest shows promising signs for the future, especially with the youth in attendance. British Ambassador to Guatemala Julie Chappell, who helped organize the human chain, commented, “We are trying to bring about a generational change of attitudes.”
News director for Channel 19 in El Paraíso, Honduras, Luis Arturo Mondragon, was assassinated last night as he sat with his son outside his home. This brings the number of media professionals killed this year to nine. Mr. Mondragon had been the target of threats in the weeks leading up to his death for his work in exposing corrupt local and national officials. All the journalists killed this year had been reporting on corruption as well as human rights violations and drug trafficking.
Violence against journalists in Honduras has increased since last year’s coup in June. Both journalists and their families alike have been the targets of over 300 reported attacks including assassinations, abuse, intimidation, and censorship. Honduran Security Minister Oscar Alvarez insists that the killing of journalists is not an organized effort to silence or intimidate the news media. However, only one murder case has plausible suspects while all other cases continue to go unsolved.
The violence has made Honduras one of the most dangerous places for journalists and has forced some to flee the country for their safety. Last week, Karol Cabrera fled to Canada and sought political asylum after surviving two attempts on her life. The first attempt in December left her pregnant 16-year-old daughter dead.