The Guardian • Issue #2101

Guatemala: can Arévalo improve human rights and corruption issues?

Bernardo Arévalo (centre) 2024 presidential inauguration in Guatemala.

Bernardo Arévalo (centre) 2024 presidential inauguration in Guatemala. Photo: Presidencia Colombia / Juan Diego Cano (CC0)

Recent human rights reports on Guatemala show a worrying trend in corruption and violence, despite the Movimiento Semilla (Seed Movement) government’s anti-corruption platform. An Amnesty International report shows that authorities have intimidated human rights defenders following the crackdown on corruption, using improper criminal prosecution, trials without due process, online and personal harassment, arbitrary detention, and exile.

The UN Human Rights report shows major issues include: the independence of the judiciary; government corruption; government harassment of domestic and international human rights organisations; targeting members of Indigenous groups with violence; and significant restrictions on workers’ freedom of association, including violence and threats against union leaders. Government accountability remains low.

The Guatemala Human Rights Commission (GHRC), founded in 1982, is a nonpartisan, humanitarian organisation that monitors human rights abuses. Recently representatives of GHRC visited Rosa Ich Xi, Olivia Mucú, and Angelina Coy Choc who have been in prison since 29 March 2022. They were convicted of the murder of three soldiers in the community of Semuy II, Izabal in 2019. The Q’eqchi’ Maya women were sentenced to 75 years in prison.

Families in the community do not believe they are guilty, but the political aim is to silence Indigenous communities who stand up against the mining corporations’ environmental and human rights violations. The prosecution did not identify what role the women played in the soldiers’ deaths.

The village of Semuy II was a meeting place for Q’eqchi’ Maya communities active in the anti-mining protests in El Estor, Izabal during 2017 and 2019. It  is near the palm oil plantations of NaturAceites and mining operations. In July 2019, the Guatemalan Constitutional Court suspended the license for the Fénix mining project, owned by the Swiss transnational Solway Investment Group Limited. The ruling reduced the area of the mining concession to only 6 sq km and ordered the company to obtain permission from the Indigenous group which holds 90 per cent of the area.

On 3 September 2019, soldiers from a Navy patrol entered into Semuy II. Gunfire broke out with two members of the community injured, and three soldiers killed. The community was besieged for five days until a delegation from the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office arrived.

A number of organisations supported the siege, including the Foundation Against Terrorism, an ultra-conservative group linked to former military officials and corrupt officials within the Public Ministry. Cementos Progreso (CEMPRO) is one of funders of the Foundation Against Terrorism, which accused the community of Semuy II of engaging in drug trafficking. The Guild of Palm Producers and Exporters (GREPALMA), the Guatemalan Nickel Company (CGN)-PRONICO, and the Association for the Defense of Private Property (ACDERPO) publicly requested the extension of the state of siege of Semuy II.

In 2016, 14 former military officers were arrested on charges of forced disappearance and crimes against humanity based on evidence uncovered at CREOMPAZ (Regional Training Command for Peacekeeping Operations) in Cobán, Alta Verapaz. The military officers accused of war crimes in the Dos Erres massacre in the municipality of La Libertad, in the northern Petén, have since been acquitted. The massacre at CREOMPAZ was ordered by Luis Enrique Mendoza Garcia, operations commander under President Rios Montt. His trial is scheduled for June 2024.

Nicolasa López Méndez and Victoria Méndez were killed in San Luis Jilotepeque, Jalapa. They were members of the Indigenous activist group Committee for Rural Development and the Movement for the Liberation of Peoples party. In October, Doris Aldana, a trade union leader at a banana packing facility, and member of the national banana workers union was killed. The Mutual Support Group reported four people were killed and 52 injured by vigilante groups. The Unit for Crimes against Unionists within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights in the Public Ministry, received 53 complaints in 2022. In October Doris Lisseth Aldana Calderón, a trade union leader at a banana packing facility, was killed.

Transparency International found Guatemala continuously grants immunity to individuals accused of corrupt practices, while targeting individuals who expressed concern over corruption. On 2 February 2024 the European Union sanctioned Attorney General Consuelo Porras and four other officials for their roles in undermining democracy, the rule of law, and the peaceful transfer of power in Guatemala following the 2023 election, when Bernardo Arévalo was elected president.

Guatemala is listed as a ‘country to watch’ in Transparency International’s 2023 Corruption Perceptions Index, ranking 13 out of 15 Latin American countries. Movimiento Semilla, a cenre-left party, has a minority bloc in congress and struggles to pass anti-corruption reforms, instead concentrating on the corruption of the previous government of Alejandro Giammattei.

For many Guatemalans, President Arévalo is moving too slowly with promised reforms, such as anti-corruption, universal healthcare, and increased funding for schools.

With a poverty rate of 55 per cent and chronic malnutrition for children under 5 years at 46.5 per cent, Arévalo has a lot on his plate on the economic front. Any improvement in prosecuting military violence will take time.

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