The murder of Indigenous activist Pascual Pablo Francisco, whose body showed signs of torture when he was found dead on March 27 in the northern department of Huehuetenango, is the latest episode in a long-standing conflict between the Guatemalan government and the Mayan Q’anjob’al community over the construction of a hydroelectric dam on the K’anbalam River.
The conflict dates back to 2011, when Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina’s government granted the company Hidro Santa Cruz, a subsidiary of Spanish corporation Hidralia Energía, a license to build the dam. Indigenous communities that would be affected by the project say that they were not consulted—a violation of International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention 169 on the rights of Indigenous and tribal people, which states, among other things, that governments should establish or maintain procedures to consult affected Indigenous communities “before undertaking or permitting any programmes for the exploration or exploitation of […] resources pertaining to their lands.”
The government has since held a series of meetings with community leaders conducted by the Oficina Nacional de Diálogo (National Office for Dialogue) to resolve the conflict, but participants have been unable to reach an agreement.
Meanwhile, two other licenses were subsequently granted to the company Promoción de Desarrollos Hídricos, S.A. (PDHSA) in the nearby municipality of San Mateo Ixtatán. The Ministry of Energy and Mining is also evaluating three other license applications for hydroelectric dams to be built in the municipalities of San Mateo Ixtatán, Santa Eulalia and San Pedro Soloma. According to a recent report published by Contrapoder magazine, if these applications are successful, Huehuetenango would become the third most important department in Guatemala in terms of hydropower.
On Wednesday, nearly 800 people filed a $1 billion lawsuit against Johns Hopkins University for its role in a research study that infected more than 1,600 Guatemalans with sexually transmitted diseases in the 1940s and 1950s. The plaintiffs include family members of individuals who died from complications from diseases they contracted during the study, which sought to study penicillin’s effect on the spread of gonorrhea, chancres and syphilis among sex workers, mental patients, prisoners, and soldiers.
The research, known as the U.S. Public Health Service Sexually Transmitted Disease Inoculation Study of 1946-1948, came to light in 2010, prompting apologies from President Barack Obama and then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to then-Guatemalan President Álvaro Colom. The next year, a presidential commission on bioethical research called the study a “gross violations of ethics,” and said the experiments constituted “especially egregious moral wrongs because many of the individuals involved held positions of public institutional responsibility.”
Such individuals included the U.S. surgeon general, the U.S. attorney general, Army and Navy medical officials, the presidents of the American Medical Association and the National Academy of Sciences, and experts from Harvard, Johns Hopkins, and the Universities of Pennsylvania and Rochester, who participated on a government committee that reviewed the research proposal and approved it for funding.
Johns Hopkins spokesperson Kim Hoppe called the lawsuit an “attempt by the plaintiffs’ counsel to exploit a historic tragedy for monetary gain.” Robert Mathias, the lead counsel for Johns Hopkins, called the lawsuit "baseless,” saying the university “did not initiate, pay for or direct” the study. A Rockefeller spokesperson called the experiments "morally repugnant," but said the foundation would fight the lawsuit, stating that it had no role in the study’s planning, funding or execution.
The lawsuit, filed in Baltimore Circuit Court, also named the Rockefeller Foundation and pharmaceutical company Bristol-Myers Squibb as defendants. The victims’ lawyer, Paul Bekman, said the case was about “accountability and responsibility.”
Wednesday’s lawsuit isn’t the first related to the nearly 70-year-old study. Victims and their families filed a class-action lawsuit against the U.S. government in 2012, but the government rejected the suit on the grounds that the U.S. government can’t be sued for damages it caused abroad.
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.
During a recent visit to Guatemala on March 2, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden praised the achievements made by the UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—CICIG). He also urged Honduran and Salvadoran leaders to follow the Guatemalan example by replicating the CICIG model in their own countries or to consider the creation of a regional CICIG.
However, Central American leaders do not share Biden’s enthusiastic support for CICIG, particularly Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, who refuses to renew its mandate for the third time. Civil society groups that regard CICIG as the last remaining bulwark of judicial independence in Guatemala say this does not bode well for the country’s fight against organized crime and corruption.
During their recent meeting, Biden urged President Pérez Molina to renew CICIG’s mandate—which expires on September 3, absent another extension—and stressed that Central American leaders must cooperate with efforts to reduce levels of impunity in the region as a condition for receiving a $1 billion aid package from the U.S.
“The work of organizations like the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala are so important,” Biden wrote on his official Twitter account.
Last Friday, Judge Claudia Escobar announced in a statement that a number of Guatemalan judges are being harassed and persecuted after speaking out against corruption during the election of the new Supreme Court and Appellate Court magistrates in 2014. The retaliatory measures taken against them, she said, include being forcibly transferred to remote locations or unfairly dismissed.
On October 5, 2014, Judge Escobar, who had been re-elected as Appellate Court magistrate days earlier, resigned just before being sworn in for a second period, and handed over to the authorities an audiotape of Congressman Gudy Rivera seeking her support in a case implicating Vice President Roxana Baldetti in exchange for Rivera’s support during the nomination process. Judge Escobar’s resignation in protest against Congressman Rivera’s attempt to bribe her came after a highly contentious nomination process that was mired in corruption and influence peddling allegations against the members of the nomination committee in charge of assessing candidates and submitting a shortlist to Congress, which made the final choice.
More than 50 judges, as well as Human Rights Ombudsman Jorge de León Duque, supported Judge Escobar’s call for an annulment of the appointments and the initiation of a new nomination process.
Judge Escobar became an overnight heroine, and in the face of a huge public opinion backlash against the country’s judicial institutions, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court (CC) temporarily suspended all of the nominations. However, on November 20, the CC controversially endorsed the results after three out of five CC magistrates, including the CC’s president, Roberto Molina Barreto, voted against the annulment of the appointments, arguing that there was insufficient evidence of irregularities during the nomination process.
Former President Alfonso Portillo returned to Guatemala on February 25, 2015 after spending just nine months of a six-year sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Englewood, Colorado.
In May 2014, he was convicted of conspiring to use U.S. banks to launder a $2.5 million bribe he received from the Taiwanese government in exchange for
Guatemala’s diplomatic recognition of the island in its long-standing dispute with China.
A crowd of sympathizers gathered at La Aurora airport hours before his plane was due to land in Guatemala, carrying banners with messages of support. During his administration (2000-2004), Portillo imposed price controls on basic foodstuffs, subsidized electricity tariffs for the poor, increased the minimum wage and challenged monopolies. As a result, despite his tainted past, he still enjoys considerable support among disenfranchised rural and urban Guatemalans.
“Portillo is one of the few politicians who’ve understood that putting food on the table is the standard by which a politician is judged,” explains political analyst Christians Castillo, of the the University of San Carlos’ Instituto de Problemas Nacionales (Institute of National Problems—IPNUSAC). According to Castillo, Portillo is seen as “a Robin Hood figure who steals to defend the rights of the masses.”
A poll carried out by Borge y Asociados for Contrapoder magazine in August 2014 revealed that two out of three Guatemalans would re-elect Portillo out of all of the country’s former presidents since the peace agreements were signed in 1996 (the survey was hypothetical, as the Guatemalan Constitution forbids re-election). Guatemala’s general elections are scheduled for September 13, 2015.
Guatemalan Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s insensitive recent comments about planned changes to the country’s minimum wage were answered by nationwide demonstrations on February 22, organized by Guatemala’s Coordinadora Nacional de Organizaciones Campesinas (National Coordination of Peasant Organizations—CNOC). In response to four accords approved at the end of 2014 to establish a lower monthly minimum wage of 1,500 quetzales ($196.6) in the municipalities of Estanzuela, Masagua, San Augustine and Guastatoya, protesters blocked at least 22 roads in various parts of the country, including border areas and major highways.
According to the government, a differentiated minimum wage would lower labor costs to encourage investment in the four municipalities. The new wages were set to go in effect in January, but the decision was suspended late that month after the Procurador de los Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Ombudsman—PDH) raised an injunction in the Constitutional Court, arguing that the measure violated labor rights of workers in those areas. The UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty, Philip Alston, also criticized the decision. “Having an exploited labor force is not a viable way to foster economic and social development,” he affirmed.
Responding to the controversy in a press conference last weekend, Baldetti defended the wage differential in a way that many Guatemalans found offensive. Baldetti claimed that if she lived in Estanzuela and had five children, she would be “blessed by God” if she was offered a job in a factory, “whatever the laws say.” “It’s better to have 1,200 quetzales [$157] in your pocket [than to have] nothing and have to eat […] once a day, tortilla with salt,” she said.
Former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo could be set for a stunning return to the political arena in the country’s upcoming elections in September.
Portillo will be released from federal prison in the U.S. in February, having served less than 12 months of his six-year sentence for conspiracy to launder $2.5 million—money he received from the Taiwanese government.
With the elections seemingly a straight fight between Manuel Baldizón—who lost to President Otto Pérez Molina in a runoff in 2010—and Alejandro Sinibaldi, former minister of communications in Pérez Molina’s government, Portillo will add an intriguing element to the campaign if he runs. To win, he will have to break tradition; since 1996, every election has been won by the runner-up in the previous presidential run-off.
Portillo is a potential vice-presidential candidate, should Edmond Mulet—now the UN Assistant Secretary General for Peacekeeping Operations—find a party to run as its presidential nominee. In September 2014, Mulet and Edgar Gutiérrez, the former foreign minister and chief of civil intelligence during Portillo’s government, met with Portillo in prison in Colorado and discussed his possible return to politics.
Former Guatemalan police chief Pedro García Arredondo was found guilty on Monday of murder, crimes against humanity, and attempted murder—and sentenced to 90 years in prison for his involvement in the 1980 Spanish Embassy fire in Guatemala City.
On January 31, 1980, 37 people lost their lives during the fire, set by Guatemalan police after Indigenous campesinos took refuge in the embassy after traveling to Guatemala City to protest against state repression in Quiché during the country’s civil war. Arredondo was head of Commando VI, the now defunct Special Investigations Unit (Sección de Investigaciones Especiales) of the national police. After security forces cut power and communication to the embassy, they stormed the residence, ignoring pleas from the Spanish government, ambassador and protesters. Soon after, a fire started in the ambassador’s office. Red Cross nurse Odette de Arzú heard on the police radio, “Get them out by any means!” Other witnesses testified to hearing, “Let there be no one left alive!”
In the aftermath of the massacre, one of the two known survivors of the fire, Gregorio Yuja Xuna, was kidnapped from a private hospital room. He was tortured and killed; his body was dumped outside of the rectory at Universidad de San Carlos (University of San Carlos—USAC). A note was found in one of his pockets saying, “Executed for treason. The Spanish ambassador will face the same fate.” Then, on February 2, during preparations for the mass funeral of the fire’s victims, two students were killed in a shootout at USAC’s auditorium with police.
On Monday, Arredondo was convicted of crimes for his involvement in all three incidents. In her summary, Judge Sara Yoc said, “The defendant executed orders from superiors—the order to kill everyone in the embassy. He was responsible ordering the burning of the embassy.”
The resumption of the genocide trial against former Guatemalan president Efraín Ríos Montt ended as confusingly as it began, in a theatrical first day of renewed proceedings on Monday. Following a three-judge panel’s 2-1 vote that determined that court president Irma Jeannette Valdéz was too biased to judge the case, the trial was suspended for an indefinite period.
On May 10, 2013, Ríos Montt—the de-facto dictator of Guatemala from 1982 to 1983—was convicted and sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity—specifically, the murder of 1771 Maya Ixil people, the forced displacement of 29,000 others, and the torture and rape that took place during the course of 15 massacres in the early 1980s centered around the municipality of Nebaj in Guatemala’s Ixil triangle. Yet that conviction was voided on May 20, 2013 by the Corte de Constitucionalidad (Constitutional Court—CC)—which ruled that Ríos Montt’s right to a defense had been violated by the expulsion of his combative lawyer, Francisco García Gudiel, on the first day of debate—and the trial was rescheduled for January 2015.
Valdéz, who was one of the three judges on Monday’s panel and president of Tribunal B de Mayor Riesgo (High Risk Court, which deals with high-profile cases involving crimes like corruption and genocide) rejected an amparo (defense appeal) questioning her impartiality for having written a postgraduate thesis on genocide in Guatemala. However, the other two judges on the panel, Sara Yoc Yoc and Maria Eugenia Castellanos, sided with the defense—effectively ending the trial the day it resumed.
Valdéz, whose 2004 thesis was titled “Criterios para una mejor aplicación del delito por genocidio” (Criteria for a better application of the crime of genocide) said, “It is outrageous to doubt my impartiality after several hearings in which I have made decisions on this case.” She added that her thesis was “a scholarly opinion, not legal.”