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Journalists’ Murder Highlights Lack of Press Freedom in Guatemala

Three Guatemalan journalists were killed and another seriously injured last week, exposing the high price to pay for reporting in the nation’s provinces.  All three were murdered in the department of Suchitepéquez about 96 miles from the capital, Guatemala City.    

Danilo López, a 38-year-old correspondent for national newspaper Prensa Libre, and Federico Salazar, a reporter for Radio Nuevo Mundo, were killed just yards from police and government officials in the central park of Mazatenango.  The two were covering an event commemorating International Women’s Day.  The suspected gunmen escaped on a motorbike, but one of them, Sergio Waldemar Cardona Reyes, was captured hours later.  Another suspected gunman, Artemio de Jesús Ramírez Torres, was apprehended last Friday in Champerico, an hour from Mazatenango.

According to local cable television presenter Marvin Israel Túnchez, who was taken to the hospital with gunshot wounds to his arm and leg, López was the target of the assassination.  López’s investigations in 2013 into public works in the department of Suchitepéquez had revealed 2.8 million quetzales ($368,000) worth of non-existent work. 

“Journalism is one of the most dangerous jobs in Guatemala,” said Túnchez, who  works for Canal 30, the same channel as Carlos Orellana, a journalist who was murdered in 2013.

López received a number of threats from politicians throughout his career. The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (La Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos, Guatemala—UDEFEGUA) revealed that López first reported being threatened in 2008, when the ex-governor of the department of Suchitepéquez, Leonor Toledo allegedly threatened him by phone following critical reports of the department’s management. Another article by López in 2011 caused then-mayor of Mazatenango, Juan Manuel Delgado, to attack the journalist in the street.

In July of 2013, José Linares Rojas, the mayor of San Lorenzo, Suchitepéquez, allegedly said that he had the power and money necessary to take action against López, whose reporting had alluded to a network of corruption in various municipalities of Suchitepéquez. López later denounced Rojas to the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry—MP), and the information he provided is currently playing a key part in the investigation of his death. In February 2014, López revealed the dangers of working as a journalist and the issues of drug cartels, police corruption and organized crime in his home department.

"We have had to pay a high price for the right to report transparently, honestly and for the right of our correspondents to not sell themselves no matter what pressures they face,” said Miguel Ángel Méndez Zetina, editorial director of Prensa Libre.  “I condemn in the strongest possible way this crime. We sympathize with the family and alert the international community that it is time that Guatemalans are more concerned about the terrible atmosphere of insecurity and lawlessness that prevails in the country."

Last Friday, a third journalist—cameraman Armando Giovanni Villatoro Ramos, who worked for cable news company Servicable in Suchitepéquez—was also killed.  According to Deputy Minister of Security Edi Juárez, a group of extortionists furious at the capture of their leader  attacked the company’s premises.  Villatoro was shot as he was leaving work and later died at Mazatenango hospital.

Data from the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) indicates that since 2000, 12 journalists have been killed in Guatemala.  The Inter American Press Association (IAPA) stated that during Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s government alone, seven journalists have been killed, four in 2013 and three last week.

In August 2013, Pérez Molina announced his intention to create an organization to specifically protect journalists.  The mesa técnica de protección a los periodistas (technical committee for the protection of journalists) meets weekly but has done little to halt the wave of attacks on journalists, with 141 complaints since 2010 and 21 this year alone, according to statistics provided by UDEFEGUA.  In July 2014, sociologist and criminologist Ana Margarita Castillo was appointed to design a program to protect journalists, with the first results expected this month.  Currently, four journalists are receiving police protection through this program and there are 52 ongoing investigations into intimidation of reporters.

Pérez Molina condemned the attacks in Mazatenango and promised that the authorities were working to make sure the crime does not go unpunished.  However, he claimed that mesa técnica was unaware of any threats towards López or Salazar.  This seems at odds with the numerous reports that López had registered with the MP since 2008.

Last week, 150 journalists marched from the Ministry of the Interior to the Presidential Palace in Guatemala City to demand a full investigation into the murder of their colleagues and improved security for journalists.  Other protests were held around the country as journalist associations called for three days of mourning for their colleagues. 

Meanwhile, López leaves behind a wife and five-year-old daughter.  The day he was killed, his spouse, Saraí Herrera, was planning to tell him that she was pregnant with the couple’s second child

“What am I going to do now?” said Herrera.  Many Guatemalans will be wondering the same as they face an uncertain future, going into an election campaign that could bring more of the same random violence and targeted deaths that the country has grown used to.

*Nic Wirtz is a freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years. His work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost, and he is editor for the website Vozz.

Any opinions expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its publishers.
Tags: Guatemala, Press Freedom, Suchitepéquez

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