On Tuesday former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo plead guilty to a money-laundering case in New York City federal court and will be sentenced to four to six years in federal prison on June 23.
In exchange, prosecutor Preet Bharara has agreed to drop additional charges against Portillo that could result in a life-long sentence behind bars in the United States.
Portillo was extradited in a surprise morning operation in May 2013, one that he was unaware of until an hour before he was flown out of the country. Since then, he has been held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York.
U.S. District Judge Robert P. Patterson will officially announce the sentence later this year, but Portillo’s lawyers are hopeful that his sentence will account for time served, given that he has spent the last 50 months in jail. However, as the majority of his jail time was spent in the Guatemalan system, the final outcome rests in the hands of Judge Patterson.
A far cry from the initial charges of misappropriating an excess of $70 million dollars, current charges indict Portillo for receiving five checks from the Taiwanese Embassy in Guatemala, totaling $2.5 million dollars.
“I am guilty. I knew at the time that what I was doing was wrong, and I apologize for my crimes, take responsibility for them, and accept the consequences of my actions,” Portillo told the court through an interpreter.
"I understood that, in exchange for these payments, I would use my influence to have Guatemala continue to recognize Taiwan diplomatically," the former president said.
Speaking in defense of his client, David Rosenfield told the court, “He is a good and decent person, with an abiding love for the people and country of Guatemala. [This is] an aberration in an otherwise unblemished life.”
However, Rosenfield’s statement will be highly suspect to biographers of Portillo’s life, given that he remains the lead suspect of a double murder case in Mexico that took place in 1982. During the fiesta de la Reina de Independencia, a homecoming party in Zumpango del Rio, Portillo was involved in a disagreement during a late night trip to buy alcohol. The confrontation left two students dead, another injured and the future Guatemalan president on the lam, back to his native country. A Mexican judge declared the case “inactive” in 1995 but Portillo’s claims of innocence by virtue of self-defense are difficult to uphold given that the case never went to trial.
Astonishingly, Portillo went on to make political capital out of the situation in his 1999 presidential campaign, claiming that strong, no-nonsense leaders are able to make tough decisions, such as fleeing from country to country to avoid capture.
A month after Portillo’s presidency finished in January 2004, he made his second escape from prosecution. With the Ministerio Publico (MP) looking to pick him up on corruption charges, he fled to Mexico with four passports in his possession.
He was eventually captured in Puerto Barrios in 2010, hiding in a boat about to set sail for Belize. Since then he has been in military prison, from where he successfully beat the 2011 case of embezzlement of the Ministry of Defense brought against him.
The scandal has placed Guatemala’s relationship with Taiwan in question. Foreign minister Fernando Carrera has admitted that there is a $1 million annual rolling fund from the Taiwanese financing the redecoration of the ministry and the purchase of new vehicles. However, there have been calls to ditch ties with Taiwan and attempt to open diplomacy with mainland China, a relationship that currently does not exist.
Journalist Oscar Clemente Marroquín revealed that Portillo had been receiving gifts from the Taiwanese since the 1970s, including luxuries such as all-expenses-paid trips to five star hotels in Taiwan. “Almost all (Guatemalan) ambassadors told me to accept the offers. I never accepted these invitations because I always thought it was stupid for our country to allow itself to be used as a pawn in Taiwan’s political struggles with China,” said Marroquín.
Although Portillo was the one eventually caught, the question of the day is: how many other Guatemalan presidents have taken similar bribes over the past 40 years?
Last week’s decision by Guatemala’s Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC) to reduce Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz’s term in office has been met by a wave of criticism and legal challenges.
The internationally-recognized Paz y Paz, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize in 2013, is credited with improving the investigative work of the Ministerio Publico (Public Ministry) and reducing the rate of impunity in Guatemala from 95 percent in 2008 to 70 percent in 2013 (measured by the amount of cases that end in a prosecution, not necessarily a conviction). Paz y Paz also created Guatemala’s Cortes de Alta Riesgo (High Risk Courts), permitting vetted judges with international training to receive certain protections and resources so they can preside over difficult cases.
On February 5, however, the CC ruled that Paz y Paz must step down by May 2014, though her term would not have ended until this December. The court justified the decision by claiming that Paz y Paz’s term officially began in May 2010, when former Attorney General Arnulfo Conrado Reyes Sagastume was removed from office due to irregularities in his selection process. Paz y Paz took his place in December 2010.
Supporters of Paz y Paz claim that the CC’s decision—initiated by the prominent lawyer and businessman Ricardo Sagastume Morales , who is a member of the right-wing Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN)—is in itself illegal, based on transitional guidelines handed down in 1993. Article 251 of Guatemala’s Constitution clearly states that the attorney general’s term will last four years and that the attorney general can only be removed from office by the president for “duly established cause.”
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.
Representatives from Brazil, Mexico and the United States will join the four existing members of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), following their election Thursday during the 43rd General Assembly of the Organization of American States (OAS).
Dr. José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez of Mexico was re-elected in the first round of voting with 22 votes, and will be joined by Stanford law professor and U.S. candidate James L. Cavallaro, who won 20 votes. Cavallaro will serve for four years before being eligible to seek a one-off re-election.
Receiving 18 votes each in the first round, Paulo de Tarso Vannuchi from Brazil and Colombia’s Dr. Rodrigo Escobar Gil faced a second round run-off, which the Brazilian won with 19 votes to Escobar Gil’s15 votes. Also defeated was Ecuadorian candidate Dr. Erick Roberts Garcés, whose ties to the Ecuadorian government and outspoken criticism of the IACHR likely affected his popularity. Roberts Garcés narrowly missed out on the run-off, with 17 votes in the first round.
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.
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.’”
By a majority of 3-2 the Guatemalan Constitutional Court ruled on Monday to throw out General Efrain Rios Montt’s guilty verdict and 80-year sentence for genocide and crimes against humanity, returning the trial to the proceedings of April 19.
The Constitutional Court also threw out the acquittal of former intelligence chief Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez. The court has 24 hours to comply with the order and moves are already underway by the defense to have Judge Yasmín Barrios and the two other judges, Pablo Xitumul and Patricia Bustamante, recused from the case.
"The court ensured justice,” said defense counsel Francisco García Gudiel on Monday. “There were many too many legal aberrations in this case, and time and again we have been proven right.”
Observers are waiting for the written judgment to come through from Constitutional Court Secretary General Martín Guzmán. However, the ruling seems to backtrack on previous statements that the trial could not be returned to a prior date. It may also go against Guatemalan law, which states that once a verdict has been reached, the trial cannot be returned to a previous date and must instead be dealt with in the Appeals Court.
The decision returns the trial to April 19, when Judge Barrios and Judge Carol Patricia Flores argued over who had jurisdiction over the hearing. Judge Flores, who presided over a portion of the pretrial hearing, wanted to return the trial to November 23, 2011, the day before she was recused. Judge Barrios refused to do this and continued the trial, calling the move illegal and an overreach of Flores’ power. The Constitutional Court has since ruled that the trial should have been suspended while the legal arguments were heard.
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.
Guatemala City, Guatemala - Former Guatemalan president Efraín José Ríos Montt was found guilty on Friday of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. His co-defendant, former intelligence chief José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, was acquitted of all charges.
With the threat of the trial regressing to November 2011, Judge Yasmín Barrios pressed on with the closing arguments on Friday morning before retiring to consider a verdict with the three-judge panel.
Upon returning, Judge Barrios delivered her verdict, threatening the Ríos Montt attorneys with jail should they interrupt or attempt to leave again.
In a 30-minute monologue Judge Barrios agreed that the prosecution had proven that genocide against the Mayan Ixil had occurred and had been carried out by the Guatemalan Army. She blamed the Cold War anti-Communist context of the conflict as the underlying factor for the genocide, exacerbated by institutional racism.
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!”
The on-again, off-again genocide trial of Guatemala’s former president, Efrain Rios Montt, appears to have been temporarily suspended after an incredible 24 hours in Guatemala City.
With the trial winding to a conclusion on Thursday, Judge Yassmin Barrios reprimanded the defense for not having their witnesses ready. The defense lawyers responded by walking out in protest, claiming that the legal proceedings should be returned to the pre-trial phase and that the trial should be annulled.
The defense’s complaint was backed up by the original hearing lawyer, Judge Carol Patricia Flores, who ruled that the entire trial had been illegal. On Thursday, Judge Flores moved to invalidate all proceedings since November 2012, meaning that months of oral arguments against Rios Montt would have to start over. Judge Flores cited a ruling by the Constitutional Court, Guatemala's highest legal body, that the defense’s evidence had not been admitted as the basis for her ruling. Evidence and experts had not been admitted during the initial pretrial hearing, but were entered later.
Prosecutors and Guatemalan Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz immediately sought to appeal this verdict, saying that it was impossible to restart a part of the trial that was already concluded. On Friday, Judge Barrios read a statement saying that Judge Flores's orders to halt the trial on Thursday were themselves illegal.
After fourteen months of legal wrangling, the genocide trial of former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt began this week with oral presentations in court.
The trial will make history, as Guatemala becomes the first country in Latin America to try a former leader for genocide—a move that has divided the legal community.
Some classify the actions of soldiers under Ríos Montt’s command as crimes against humanity but not genocide, while others consider them genocide and still others maintain Ríos Montt’s innocence. The court’s interpretation of Ríos Montt’s orders to his soldiers during his command to consider all residents of certain areas, "guerilla sympathizers and therefore the enemy," will likely inform the trial’s outcome.
Peru tried and sentenced Alberto Fujimori to 25 years in prison for corruption and crimes against humanity during his presidency, a charge Ríos Montt and former Chief of Army Intelligence José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez also face.
The eventual verdict will hinge on whether various incidents, including massacres in the Ixil triangle region, constituted genocide against the Maya Ixil.
President Otto Pérez Molina has maintained in public declarations that genocide never happened in Guatemala. Given that Pérez Molina was stationed as a regional commander in Ixil during Ríos Montt’s presidency, the trial could bring unwelcome attention to his wartime activities—something foreign media focused on during his election campaign.
"We respect the independence of powers, so in that sense we will respect what the judiciary is doing and all the processes that are taking place," Pérez Molina said of the trial.
In the courtroom, Ríos Montt surprised observers by sacking his defense team— his fourth change of counsel since January 2012. When offered the chance to speak on the first day, Montt maintained his right to silence but stated that he would speak on record at a later date.
"There is no document or testimony can prove that my client was involved in the events that the Ministerio Publico (MP) accuses him of,” said defense lawyer Francisco Palomo. "What we ask for is a fair trial, away from pressures, and for it not to become a political lynching."
This week, Guatemala is proudly calling itself the heart of the Mayan world. On December 21, the thirteenth b’ak’tun will end, concluding a 90-year academic struggle about the destined outcome of this cosmological event. While new discoveries such as the finding of a new calendar in the Xultún ruins this past May continue to shine new light on the debate, the accepted view is that the world will not end—as some apocalyptic people have speculated.
To ancient Mayans the numbers 13 and 20 were extremely important due to their significance to crop farming. The Mayan calendar was split into kins (days), winals (20-day months), tuns (360 days), k'atuns (20 tuns), and b’ak'tuns (20 k'atuns). In other words, a b’ak’tun consists of 144,000 days, or over 394 years.
The linear Mayan count of days is referred to as the Long Count, and its start date is August 11, 3114 B.C. on the Gregorian calendar; 13 full b’ak’tun cycles will occur on December 21, when many believe the full Long Count will be complete.
As tuns are five days less in duration than a solar year (365 days), the five-day difference is known as Wayeb—nameless days that are considered the most dangerous. In Lynn V. Foster’s 2002 book Handbook to Life in the Ancient Maya World, the author wrote, “During Wayeb, portals between the mortal realm and the Underworld dissolved. No boundaries prevented the ill-intending deities from causing disasters." To counteract this, Mayans would try to avoid leaving the house; others would not wash or comb their hair during the period.
The Popol Vuh, one of the most important collections of Mayan documents, indicates that humans are currently living in the fourth world, as Mayan gods created three failed worlds before. This is seen as the zero date for the Long Count circa 3114 B.C.
How did the b’ak’tun 13 turn into a doomsday scenario that even Hollywood caught on to? One reason is a groundbreaking piece of literature by Michael D. Coe circa 1966, entitled The Maya, which said: “There is a suggestion […] that Armageddon would overtake the degenerate peoples of the world and all creation on the final day of the 13th [b'ak'tun]. Thus […] our present universe [would] be annihilated [in December 2012] when the Great Cycle of the Long Count reaches completion.”
The aftershocks from Guatemala’s largest earthquake since 1976 continue to reverberate around the country, causing a halt to governmental efforts to introduce constitutional reform.
In August, President Otto Pérez Molina went to Congress with a list of 35 proposed constitutional reforms covering everything from the mining industry to educational reform. This prompted countrywide protests, leading to the deaths of six civilians in Totonicapán.
On a visit to San Marcos, the area most affected by the 7.2-magnitude earthquake on November 7, Pérez Molina announced that the Q200 million ($25.2 million) that was to be spent on constitutional reform will be set aside to help with the earthquake recovery.
The sheer scale of the earthquake is only just being felt, with 3.4 million people affected by it and 225 aftershocks ranging from 3.5-6.1 on the Richter scale in the past three weeks. At its peak, over 30,000 people were evacuated from their homes.
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.
Walking down London’s famous The Mall, Erick Barrondo’s head swiveled from side-to-side searching for his nearest opponent. As it turned out he was 30 seconds behind and the mixture of astonishment and ecstasy on the walker’s face revealed history in the making―Guatemala’s first Olympic medal.
The fact that it was silver was immaterial. In a sport-mad country where every weekend the roads are packed with pickups transporting entire soccer teams to games, to win a medal at the Olympics for the first time since they started competing in 1952 was an incredible achievement.
Although soccer remains the most popular sport in the country, the national team has yet to reach a World Cup final. After years of heartbreak, the population is looking to new sports to find their national hero and may have done so in the 21-year-old Barrondo. To show their patriotic fervor, local Olympic broadcaster Albavisión replayed the entire race twice just after the live one had finished.
Speaking to reporters after the end of the 20-kilometer race, Barrondo said, “It is well known that Guatemala has problems with guns and knives. It is a country that has suffered much, but that also has dreams. If somebody tomorrow changes a gun or a knife for a pair of shoes and begins to train for a sport, I would be the happiest person on earth”.
Proposed reforms to the education system have resulted in tense stand-offs between students, their teachers and riot police across Guatemala. Just this week at least 40 people were injured after riot police were called in to break up a protest.
The crux of Education Minister Cynthia del Aguila’s proposed changes is a requirement that those who are studying to become primary school teachers will have to study for two additional years—for a total of five years of training—and complete a university degree. This has split public opinion between those who believe the country's educators should be well-educated and those who are concerned that there will be fewer teachers because of the increased costs that will result from more training.
Teaching is one of the few professions that does not require a university degree in Guatemala, with the result being a surplus of teacher supply.
Complicating the picture is the pending reelection of Joviel Acevedo, the general secretary of the Guatemalan Education Workers Union. After 14 years in the position, Acevedo has overseen numerous labor disputes but remains popular with teachers after helping to push through two recent pay raises despite warning from consecutive finance ministers that there is no money in the budget to pay for them.
The role of the education minister is also fraught with uncertainty. Over the past 12 years, there have been 18 education ministers, including three appointments in a six-month period. A combination of poor infrastructure, dilapidated buildings and a lack of teaching hours has resulted in the mandated 180 school days per year remaining a pipe dream. Guatemala generally places poorly on international standardized tests with a system plagued by difficult labor relations.
In a country of over 15 million inhabitants, treatment for autism in Guatemala has until recently been restricted to parental support groups. There is no state support and the best-known organization in the field, Asociación Integrame, can only provide classes for 50 families—but not treatment.
With an estimated 15,000 to 20,000 diagnosed cases of autism in Guatemala and a majority of the population under 18, some experts have said the true amount of autistic people in Guatemala is at least double.
Events such as the Walk for Autism Day in 2011 have raised awareness of the condition. Asociación Integrame used the slogan, “El autismo es parte de este mundo no un mundo aparte,” or “Autism is part of this world, not a world apart.”
However, in a country where social programs focus on the provision of a basic standard or living, autism research has not been high on the governmental agenda.
There is hope for the future with the Centro para Autismo y Necesidades Especiales Relacionadas (Center for Autism and Related Special Needs—CANER) in Guatemala City’s Galileo University. Director Stuardo Monroy is a father but, unusually for Guatemalan autism organizations, not of an autistic child.
“It has been a purely professional passion, as well as a willingness to develop a much needed field in my country,” says Monroy.
With over a decade of experience working with autistic people in Oxford, England, Monroy returned to Guatemala to head up CANER. What awaited him upon his return was a clear need for a strategic approach.
Former Guatemalan President Efraín Ríos Montt will face a second genocide trial on the civil war-era Dos Erres massacre after Judge Carol Patricia Flores Blanco issued her ruling last week.
After a marathon hearing that lasted more than 10 hours, a packed court saw relatives of civil war victims as well as human rights activists celebrate the decision. Under international pressure to resolve excesses of the 36-year civil war, Guatemala will become the first country in Latin America to place a former president on trial for genocide.
In January, Judge Blanco ruled there was a case to answer for Ríos Montt for crimes against humanity and the genocide of Maya-Ixil during Guatemala’s civil war in the Nebaj region.
Challenges to the Ministerio Público prosecutors’ claims and evidence have thus far kept the trial from beginning; it was supposed to get underway in March.
Last week Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina lifted the state of siege on Santa Cruz Barillas in which 17 residents were arrested for public disturbances. But tensions still remain high weeks after community members first demonstrated their opposition to the building of the new Hidralia Energia dam in this primarily Indigenous town close to the border with Mexico.
Pérez Molina declared the state of siege on May 3 and sent in an initial force of 260 troops and national police to Santa Cruz Barillas to “restore order” after a group of 200 men armed with machetes and guns took over a military base in the area. He justified martial law on the grounds that rioters’ ties to the Zetas drug trafficking cartel contributed to the disturbances.
Despite lifting martial law, Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez said 150 troops would remain behind to “guarantee security and avert new disturbances.” Many Guatemalans, however, backed the residents of Santa Cruz Barillas. Guatemala City resident Brenda Hernández said, “We want the government to respect the pueblo.”
At the height of martial law, an estimated 850-army and national police officers were deployed in Santa Cruz Barillas. Thousands marched in Huehuetenango, the regional capital on May 15 to denounce governmental action. Protester Juan Juarez, a 70-year-old resident of Ixcán Playa Grande, Quiché said to citizen journalist website HablaGuate, “Santa Cruz Barillas is suffering repression by the government of Pérez Molina. We worry because the government of Guatemala is defending the interests of the hydroelectric company more than Santa Cruz (Barillas).”
Clashes first arose after the death of community leader Andrés Francisco Miguel who had opposed the hydroelectric dam. Subsequent attacks on other community leaders left two seriously injured. It was the culmination of years of protests over the building of the dam, which protesters said they were not consulted about; they called for a suspension of the company's license.
According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, UDEFEGUA (the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit), the Dioceses of Huehuetenango and the Renovated Democratic Freedom Party had denounced the state of siege in Barillas and demanded it be lifted. There have been numerous reports of violations of community members’ rights such as the illegal entry into homes and the destruction of private property in the search for weapons.
But the Spanish company Hidralia Energia wouldn’t budge and stated that the project met all environmental and legal requirements.
Local residents have historically been opposed to the dam. In 2007, 46,000 residents voted against allowing mining or hydroelectric companies to operate in the area. Hidralia Energia, whose local company is Hidro Santa Cruz, did not enter into negotiations with the locals who believe construction would harm the Cambalan river ecosystem. Tensions between the locals and the company increased with allegations that Hidralia Energia was using landmines and Claymore-type bombs to protect their equipment.
This latest incident is unfortunately part of Central America’s long history of conflict between hydroelectric companies and Indigenous groups that are often forcibly removed to make way for the dams.
In 1976, the Guatemalan government announced plans to move Achi Indians (who were living along the Chixoy River) in order to build a hydroelectric dam. The village of Rio Negro, the only one that had refused to relocate without adequate compensation, was attacked by soldiers in 1979. Three years later, in February 1982, 73 villagers were ordered to report to Xococ by the local military commander. Only one woman returned; the rest were raped, tortured and murdered by the local Civil Defense Patrol (PAC) in Xococ.
A month later, 177 Achi women and children were killed at the massacre of Rio Negro by Xococ patrolmen. Three members of the PAC were sentenced to death in 1998 for war crimes; in 2008 five more former paramilitaries were sentenced to 780 years in jail each for their role in events in Xococ.
In Honduras, the El Cajón dam has been an environmental and financial disaster. Finished in 1985, the resulting soil erosion has led to lower water quality, negatively affecting the surrounding flora and animal population. Resistance against the project was so fierce that an army base was constructed at its entrance to ensure its safety.
At the crux of the problem is Central America’s energy crisis—a result of ageing infrastructure and demand that is increasing by an average of 5-6 percent per year. Guatemalan government reports from 2011 warn that the country could reach full capacity by 2015. That is part of the government’s urgency in building the plant in Santa Cruz Barillas, which is estimated to provide 10 percent of Guatemala’s electricity demand once operational.
Still, actions such as the recent governmental siege are not a long-term solution for balancing local needs with development priorities. A new approach is needed to meet the country’s competing interests and demands.
Photos and additional reporting by Brenna Goth.
*Nic Wirtz is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. 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 edits the website Vozz.
The ability of sports to unite and promote shared goals has enabled athletes to reach parts of society that have often felt excluded. Could cricket be used to stem gang membership in Central America?
Cricket dates back to the sixteenth century where it was first played in southern England. By the eighteenth century, it was the national sport, and from there it was exported through the Commonwealth.
There are national teams throughout the Americas that compete in one-day competitions on the world stage. And in Central America, Belize, Costa Rica and Panama are affiliate members of the International Cricket Council, the game’s ruling body.
Yet it is from the unlikely source of the streets of Compton, California that a potential blueprint for combating social problems in Central America exists.
Former president Efraín Rios Montt will stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity, after he refused to testify in his defense during Thursday's investigation phase.
Rios Montt will remain free, on Q500000 bail ($64000) and live under house arrest until the trial date is set, which will be at least two months from now. He faces 20 to 30 years in prison per charge.
Firecrackers and cheers greeted the news outside the Palacio Justicia, where the proceedings were broadcast to a crowd that could not get into a packed courtroom. Inside, the handful of Ixil Mayans that had made the long journey to watch proceedings remained stoic, as their 29-year wait for accountability moved a step closer to ending.
A crowded courtroom on the 15th floor of the Torre de Tribunales started 30 minutes late as over 300 people packed into the Primera Corte de Alto Riesgo.
Prosecutors from the Ministerio Publico made their way through a wealth of evidence, including documents, expert analysis, military plans, witness testimonials, forensic anthropology and video in an attempt to prove their allegations.
With an emphatic, “I swear,” last weekend Otto Pérez Molina became the first former soldier to be democratically elected as president of Guatemala since the 1996 Peace Accords.
By his side was Roxana Baldetti, who was sworn in as the first woman to hold the title of vice-president in the country’s history.
The inauguration, attended by 98 international missions, including 12 heads of state and Spain’s Prince Felipe de Borbon, had an element of tension to it. When President Otto Pérez Molina promised to spend 55-60 percent of his government’s time on security, he could not have meant within the first 24 hours of his presidency.
Events around the country threatened to overshadow Pérez Molina’s big day.
The murder of congressman Valentin Leal Caal, in close proximity to the Congress building in Zone One of Guatemala City, occurred a day before the presidential handover. Leal Caal was elected as a candidate for LIDER, headed by Manuel Baldizón, who lost to the retired general in the second round of the Guatemalan election in November.
The Guatemalan legal system has made significant improvements recently but is facing major obstacles in its attempts to bring criminals—past and present—to justice.
Impunity is an everyday event in Guatemala. From the most minor traffic offense being ignored or the less than 3 percent of murders that are investigated. However, with the trial and conviction of four former Special Forces soldiers for their roles in the Dos Erres massacre in 1982 and a steady flow of arrests of narcotraffickers wanted in the United States and corrupt police officers, things appear to be changing.
In November, the Federation of Forensic Anthropologists (FAFG) successfully identified two of the estimated 40,000-45,000 people that were forcibly disappeared during the country’s 36-year internal conflict. The use of DNA evidence is still in its infancy, although the success of FAFG is a boost to the fledgling Instituto Nacional de Ciencias Forenses (National Institute of Forensic Sciences, or INACIF).
“We have had more arrests in the last three months than the previous three decades,” said Fredy Pecerrelli, executive director of FAFG at a press conference to announce the identifications of Amancio Samuel Villatoro and Sergio Linares. “I think what feels most incredible is that it’s only the beginning.”
This cause for optimism was tempered by last week’s announcement of a denuncia against over 50 alleged terrorists by the Movimiento por la Dignificación de Militares y Especialistas del Ejército de Guatemala. A representative of the group, Theodore Michael Plocharski Rehbach, called on the Ministerio Público to investigate the deaths of a number of his “friends and acquaintances.”
Those killed included John Gordon Mein, the US ambassador to Guatemala in 1968, Colonels John D. Webber and Ernest Munro, murdered in the same year. As well as Count Karl Von Spreti the German ambassador to Guatemala and Edmundo Meneses Cantarero, the Nicaraguan ambassador to Guatemala. Mein was the first American ambassador to be assassinated while in office. He was forced from his car, kidnapped and shot by members of the Fuerzas Armadas Rebeldes (Rebel Armed Forces, or FAR). The same group was responsible for the deaths of Webber and Munro in a drive-by shooting.
A denuncia, which is required by law to open an investigation, named high-profile Guatemalans and foreigners, many with ties to the media and human rights organizations. They included Sandra Torres: former wife of outgoing President Alvaro Colom, who is accused of being a guerilla collaborator. Two respected journalists, Marielos Monzón and Iduvina Hernández—and in Hernández' case, a human rights activist—were also named.
Joining them on the list is Jean-Marie Simon, an American lawyer and teacher who documented many of the State’s abuses during the 1980s in her work for Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International. She is joined by Jennifer K. Harbury, also a lawyer and human rights activist whose husband Efraín Bámaca Velásquez was killed extrajudicially in 1993.
“I am not a criminal, I have nothing to hide and I think our duty is to strengthen the justice system,” Hernández told reporters. "We must not accept or tolerate this wave of political persecution aimed by the real criminals responsible for genocide, forced disappearance, extrajudicial execution, and exile."
Reaction to the denuncia has seen many on the list point out they were not alive or were in school at the time of the killings. In addition, six people named in the denuncia are believed to have died.
The work of Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz has been lauded in many quarters in addition to concern that she would not be able to see out her four-year term as public prosectuor. President-elect Otto Pérez Molina has confirmed that her position is not in danger despite the electoral shift from the Center-Left to the Right.
However, also named in the denuncia are Juan José Hurtado Paz y Paz and Laura Hurtado Paz y Paz, both cousins of Claudia. Enrique Paz y Paz, Claudia’s father, was the leader of FAR, leading some onlookers to believe the denuncia is an attack on his daughter’s credibility.
This denuncia is mirrored by a similar one in November by Ricardo Méndez Ruiz, whose father was minister of the interior under former President Efrain Rios Montt (1982-1983). “Yes it is a political issue. It is against the Attorney General, for the love of God, I'm aiming for her,” Méndez Ruiz admitted to El Periodico, a national newspaper.
Both of the denuncias could be seen as an attempt to help investigations into the deaths or as stalling tactics to ensure less time is spent on investigating former soldiers. Independent reports on the Civil War suggested that the State was responsible for between 92 and 93 percent of the over 200,000 deaths.
Lawyers for ex-General Héctor Mario López Fuentes and former President Óscar Humberto Mejía Victores (1983-1986) have employed similar stalling tactics. Leaks allowed Mejía Victores to avoid capture in October when police simultaneously entered four addresses registered to him. He eventually gave himself up, was admitted to Guatemala City’s Military Hospital, and is currently seeking house arrest.
INACIF, like many governmental institutions, is hampered by a lack of funds. With Pérez Molina’s claims that his presidency will see the State spending “55-60 percent of its time on improving security,” this could change—with more emphasis and money placed in the laboratory’s work. That would certainly help but the biggest problem INACIF faces is its small profile in the criminal system. The use of DNA, ballistics and other forensic science techniques is still relatively rare in trials. Prosecutors and the police need to learn how to use the information, maintain crime scenes, and ultimately trust an institute that has only been in existence since July 2007.
At the end of 2011, the Guatemalan judicial system finds itself at a crossroads. However, it is backed by a tenacious Attorney General and with public opinion on its side that is sick of the daily violence—highlighted by the murder rate that remains constant at around 25 per day.
With a new president being inaugurated next month and an organized crime firmly entrenched and in control of a large percentage of the country and efforts to discredit its investigations, justice in Guatemala may not be blind but remains blinkered.
Nic Wirtz is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. 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 edits the website Vozz.
In less than 11 hours, six earthquakes struck Guatemala starting at noon local time on September 19. The southeastern area of Santa Rosa was the most affected by earthquakes that ranged from 4.5 to 5.8 magnitude on the Richter scale. The size and frequency struck the same region unexpectedly. The results: almost 5,000 people have been affected and more than 1,200 houses damaged, and encampments now dot the area after many residents lost their homes and belongings.
The government entity in charge of emergency response, Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres (CONRED), set up nine refuge centers for 3,500 people, confirmed spokesman David de Leon. This disaster comes after the same area was flooded in August and the River San Juan burst its banks. INSIVUMEH (Instituto Nacional de Sismología, Vulcanología, Meteorología e Hidrología) reported that August’s rainfall was 40 percent above the monthly average and in September it was still above average—by about 12 percent. The amount of rain has created massive avalanches and cut off villages with landslides killing at least four people.
But event with a state of disaster being declared in Santa Rosa, Congress has been criticized for failing to release funds to emergency response and relief services. Finance Minister Rolando del Cid Pinillos told Emisoras Unidas, the largest national radio station, that “it would be difficult to fund CONRED in the result of a disaster in Guatemala.” This bureaucratic uncertainty makes recovery even more perilious.