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Guatemala: News & Updates

Guatemala had the longest and bloodiest civil war in Central American history: 36 years (1960-96). The US-backed military was responsible for a genocide (“scorched earth policy”) that wiped out 200,000 mostly Maya indigenous civilians.  War criminals are still being tried in the courts.

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For decades, one of the most horrific crimes against humanity ever committed in Central America has gone without consequences. During the Guatemalan civil war, which raged from 1960 until 1996, violent death squads brought terror over the country. Between 1983 and 1985 these feared paramilitaries kidnapped and tortured at least 195 political enemies, before eventually killing most of them. Years went by without any notable investigation efforts to bring those guilty to justice. This was not unexpected, as corruption and injustice runs deep within the country, and many of the perpetrators had influential positions within the government or affiliated organization. 

With this history it was even more surprising when Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez started investigating the case. In 2016, the so called Death Squad Dossier took off, when Gálvez ordered the seizing of critical military documents for the case. The resulting process finally started in 2021 with the arrest of 11 suspects, followed by a second sweep shortly after, in which four more individuals were detained. One year later in May 2022, the first evidence hearing started after which nine of the accused perpetrators were ordered to trial. During the hearings more and more devastating stories came to daylight, including rape, murder and forced displacement. In the period of the Death Squad activity, at least 131 people were forcedly displaced, six of which were later found in military bases.

At first it seemed like this process might finally bring clarity about what happened to the victims and their families, and would bring the criminals to justices, but as Judge Gálvez later had to realize it was all down hill from there on. 

Until today, many of the perpetrators still have important political connections and positions and even work with criminal organizations like "La Cofradia" (The Brotherhood) and are even on the run. These connections often lead to efforts to keep these criminals out of condemnation.

Following the arrest of Toribio Acevedo Ramírez in Panama in 2022, a massive campaign against Gálvez was started to prevent the hearing. Trying to avert a prosecution, the Foundation Against Terror (FCT), a pro-military organization, sought to criminalize Gálvez by bringing charges against him to lift his immunity. Additionally the FCT started a social media campaign to denounce Gálvez and the lawsuit.

After months of immense pressure, Gálvez unexpectedly resigned on November 15, 2022, after 25 years as a judge. In an attempt to escape the threats and allegations, Judge Gálvez left the country and now lives in exile in Europe. 

The resignation of Judge Gálvez opened the door for collaborating judges to dismantle the case; a process started promptly. The new judge assigned to the case started lifting custody orders for five of the defendants due to "health" issues. This de facto release is more than just a punch in the face of all victims, it also undermines the Guatemalan constituti0n under which defendants charged with murder must stay in detention until trial. 

Get deeper insight into the accused perpetrators, their connections to political and criminal organizations, and the general case in the article below.  

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On behalf of IRTF’s Rapid Response Network (RRN) members, we wrote six letters this month to heads of state and other high-level officials in Colombia, Guatemala, and Honduras, urging their swift action in response to human rights abuses occurring in their countries.  We join with civil society groups in Latin America to: (1) protect people living under threat, (2) demand investigations into human rights crimes, (3) bring human rights criminals to justice.

IRTF’s Rapid Response Network (RRN) volunteers write six letters in response to urgent human rights cases each month. We send copies of these letters to US ambassadors, embassy human rights officers, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, regional representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, and desk officers at the US State Department. To read the letters, see , or ask us to mail you hard copies.

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In the months leading up to the Guatemalan presidential election on June 25, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) has denied left-wing Indigenous leader Thelma Cabrera the ability to run as a candidate.  As a pretext, the  TSE says that Cabrera's vice-presidential candidate, Jordan Rodas, would not meet all legal requirements. This is most likely based on complaints against him for his prior work as the national Ombudsman for Human Rights (Procurador de los Derechos Humanos).  On February 3, the TSE blocked Cabrera from registering as a candidate.  After Cabrera appealed, judges validated the rejection of her candidacy on February 16. As a last chance to be registered for candidacy in the election, Cabrera now has to apply in front of the Guatemalan Constitutional Court. 

In protest of the court's ruling, farmers blocked twelve national highways and the Movement for the Liberation of the Peoples (MLP) and supporters took to the streets. Indigenous environmental activist Bernardo Caal Xol stressed that "Preventing the registration of Thelma Cabrera as a presidential candidate is an act of racism." In fact, it is believed that corrupt groups and the far-right have mobilized to prevent Cabrera from running in the elections.

Thelma Cabrera, who already took part in the 2019 presidential elections and won 10% of the votes, has since risen in popularity and is believed to be an actual threat to the right-wing candidates. Thelma Cabrera, the former attorney general, and Jordan Rodas, the former ombudsman for human rights, were fired from their posts by the right-wing administration in Guatemala. Both are now living in exile.  

It is apparent that the Guatemalan ruling body fears a loss of power and an Indigenous, leftist government. The recent protests have shown that especially the Indigenous population is fed up with the rule of a class carrying the legacy of colonialism.        

News Article

In Guatemala the struggle for water protection has been grueling for activists and inhabitants of reserves alike. In few areas is this as visible as in Huehuetenango, an department that borders Mexico. This natural paradise containing rivers, forests and mountains is home to a majority Indigenous population,  cultivating coffee and other native crops. But the diverse and untouched land is endangered. More and more immigrants moving northwards and being funneled through Huehuetenango as well as the rapid militarization of the Mexican border disturbs the peace. And that is only the slightest problem. For years, more and more corporations and mining actors have been invading the land, robbing it of its natural resources and poisoning and privatizing water for use in production. To protect their profits, corporations build up militarized and violent security networks. Support for these activities comes from the Guatemalan state, which in coalition with invaders, uses military grade equipment against civilians who are demanding their right to clean and safe water supplies. 

But the habitants are putting up a fierce fight for the security of their homes and utilities with their weapon of choice, community organizing. In 2016 hundreds of mostly poor and Indigenous protesters joined forces in Guatemala City to fight for water protection. Events like these are not only important as a means to put forward their demands, but also serve as get-togethers and  conferences to discuss strategies and goals. For the Huehuetenago residents, this means establishing municipal water protection in 31 communities in their western  territory.

Although the organizing on a municipal level may seem inefficient, the communities have good reason for this strategy. The so-called Municipal Water Agreements state that under national and international law, the Guatemalan government is responsible for the insurance of its peoples survival, a duty that can only be fulfilled by the protection of water as an essential resource. If this agreement would pass, it would make the privatization of water illegal and punishable by law. This is a major blow to mining companies. But for the law to come into effect, the agreement has to be signed by all municipal mayors, an unlikely event. Thirty-three mayors have allied themselves with the industry, being spoiled by political power and bribery. The only way to push these mayors to support the project is an organized community that builds up pressure as a means to save their livelihood. To reach free and organized communities, activists get together to educate the residents by providing workshops, posters, having individual conversations with the community, and organizing events to establish a united voice in the struggle for water and land protection. 

But a dark shadow lies over the organizations and their leaders. Internationally, Guatemala is known for its violence against activists with many ending up in prison or even dead. In Guatemala the rate of environmentalists killed is one of the highest in the world. 

We need to shed a light on this violence by the state and companies alike, while learning from the water protection fighters. There is an urgent need for international solidarity in the fight for human rights as well as the preservation of our planet.         

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In this monthly newsletter, please read about (1) Immigration Court in Cleveland, OH, (2)  The Biden Administration’s Plans to Overhaul Border Policies after the End of Title 42, (3) Title 42: Expelling Migrants in the Name of Health Measures. Update on Removal Flight Trends, (4) Temporary Protected Status (TPS) Renewed for Haitians, and (5) At The Border: Recent Incidents at and around the US-Mexico Border. TAKE ACTION ITEMS: After reading the articles, please take a few moments to advocate for migrant justice with our TAKE ACTION items: (1) Urge Congress to Reject Racist, Anti-Asylum Policies, and (2) Permanent Pathway to Citizenship for DACA and TPS Recipients.