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How Washington’s War on Terror Has Become a War on Human Rights Defenders in Central America

Human rights defenders and activists are facing terrorism charges in Guatemala.

Daniel Pascual doesn’t come across as a “terrorist.” The 42-year-old Kiche Maya and current president of the Comite Unidad Campesino (CUC) has been at the forefront of the movement to defend indigenous rights in Guatemala for decades, but according to a lawsuit filed in court against him by the Pro-Patriot League, “terrorism” is also among his actions.

On October 7, 2014, Pascual was accused of acts of “terrorism,” “coercion,” and for “Crimes Against the Constitution of Guatemala,” as well as the draconian charge of “intending to commit a crime.” These charges were brought against him for his continued support of the 12 Kaqchikel Communities of San Juan Sacatepezuez that are resisting the construction of the Progreso Cement factory within the indigenous community, an hour outside of the capital.

“This is an attack on the defenders of human rights,” said Daniel Pascual, in a press conference. “This is not just a violation against human rights, it is an obstacle to the work we are doing in this country towards democracy and justice.”

The charges were brought against Pascual by the far-right Pro-Patriot League, an organization with connections to the government, military and business interests in Guatemala. They state that their mission is to bring the “rule of law,” to Guatemala so every individual can pursue “their comparative advantage.”

Pro-Patriot League, alongside Ricardo Méndez Ruíz of the Foundation Against Terrorism, another right-wing organization with ties to the government and military, have brought previous charges and accusations against Pascual. In January 2014, the two organizations accused Pascual of libel and slander, as well as plotting the assassination of Ruíz.

In July 2014 the case ended up before the Constitutional Court, where Pascual spoke about the importance of freedom of speech.

“What we seek is to prevent freedom of expression from being penalized in Guatemala,” said Pascual before the court. “If the court rejects this appeal, it would endanger democracy and the freedoms of every human being.”

A decision in this case is still pending.

Activists claim that the charges come as part of a smear campaign levied against the indigenous leader, meant to discredit the movement in defense of territory and against the expansion of extractive projects in the country. They also argue that the charges find support within the government, which is interested in protecting multinational and business interests in Guatemala.

Old Enemies, New Faces

Activists, community leaders and human rights defenders charge that there is a campaign by business within Guatemala to criminalize the movement in defense of the land and indigenous rights.

Indeed, in Guatemala, the vague language of Washington’s “war on terror” has provided new tools and reinforced old tools used to repress movements and stifle human rights defenders. In Guatemala, these new tools have resurrected the ghosts of past internal armed conflicts by giving new resources to the military and elite.

This strategy fits in with history: Guatemala’s government and right wing have long utilized Washington’s tactics of labeling their enemies and critics as communists, guerrillas and insurgents to discredit their adversaries.

The 1954 coup d’état orchestrated by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), US State Department and United Fruit Company exploited the fear of the “spread of communism” to justify the removal of Jacobo Arbenez and the communist infiltrators, an action that propelled Guatemala into a 36-year-long internal war.

A 2012 document on Guatemalan National Security reflects the updated connection between Washington’s “security” interests and the small Central American country’s political rhetoric. The Guatemalan government acknowledges a new internal “threat” created by “terrorism.”

The document positions the Guatemalan internal security in terms of United States’ antiterrorism, stating “The reconfiguration of the politics of international relations and security agendas after the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, has prioritized terrorism as a threat to the security of the United States.”

According to data from United For the Protection of Defenders of Human Rights, the number of attacks on defenders of human rights has increased from 55 cases in 2000, when the organization began tracking attacks, to over 1000 in 2014 alone.

In Guatemala, the security state has adopted the US’ new, vague enemy (terrorism) and used it against the old enemies. The administration of Otto Pérez Molina has taken full advantage of this language, using it to justify the current war against human rights defenders in Guatemala. Furthermore, his administration has unleashed a campaign of misinformation and character attacks against individuals, organizations and entire communities, well beyond the Pascual case.

In March 2014, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina appeared on television to denounce not the country’s violent gangs, or the impunity that plagues Guatemalan society, but the Committee for Campesino Development (CODECA), a labor organization that works in the rural regions and has been at the forefront of the movement against the privatization of electricity. Live on television, the president declared CODECA a terrorist organization, and stated that “(CODECA) is a social cancer that is expanding and impacts the economic interests of the country.”

The administration of Pérez Molina has overseen the sharp increase of attacks on human rights defenders. In the years since the election of Otto Pérez Molina in 2012, the physical attacks, intimidations and legal cases have risen a staggering 126 percent. Yet this increase reflects the continued deterioration of the security situation for human rights defenders. According to data from United For the Protection of Defenders of Human Rights (UDEFEGUA), the number of attacks on defenders of human rights has increased from 55 cases in 2000, when the organization began tracking attacks, to over 1000 in 2014 alone.

The increased accusations of terrorism against social movements reflect a systematic increase in the persecution and criminalization of human rights defenders, social movements and their supporters. It reflects a new, low-intensity conflict that has been launched by the former military officials against the rural and indigenous communities of Guatemala.

“The government is persecuting the various movements that are defending their communities,” Brenda Hernandez from UDEFEGUA told Truthout. “They use the public force to destroy the property of the communities, and to create a climate of terror in the communities that are defending their territories.”

Challenging the Charges of Terrorism

The charges of terrorism have put many of the social movements on the defensive. Residents, members, community members have all refuted the charges.

“The government has declared us terrorists, but we’re not the terrorists,” said Telma Cabrera, a CODECA representative. “When they (the government) respond to the demands of the people, they respond with violence. And what peace is there when the government responds with violence?”

In a statement to the press by the Grand Ancestral Indigenous Council and organizations such as Waqib Kej’ and Coordination of Non-Governmental Organizations and Cooperatives (CONGCOOP), in solidarity with Daniel Pascual, the indigenous communities denounced the acts of terror against their communities by the state of Guatemala.

“We express our solidarity and respect for Daniel Pascual and the United Campesino Committee as they face these unfounded accusations of terrorism,” the statement read. “We call on (civil society) to demonstrate against the practice and use of acts of terror in the territories of indigenous peoples.”

The Return of the Internal Enemy

The language of terrorism reflects and allows for the resurrection of the logic of the internal enemy, from the years of the internal armed conflict. Yet today, that mythological internal enemy is not just those who seem to threaten Guatemala’s military and economic elite, but also those who seem to threaten transnational capital.

“If the era of military regimes in Guatemala is characterized by the use of political violence,” wrote Matthias Epe and José Rodolfo Kepfer in their book, The Internal Enemy in Guatemala: Counterinsurgency and its Heritage in the Configuration of New Conflicts, “then after the civil war, the impression arises that violence has become decoupled from the political content and became an instrument for the imposition of economic interests.”

Transnational and national businesses have found protection and defense of their interests through international trade agreements such as the Central American Free Trade Agreement. Articles such as article 10, which protects the “rights of investment,” have provided the justification for use of force against those “terrorists” and “enemies of development” that block the company’s ability to accumulate capital.

History repeats itself. In many ways, Washington’s war on terror has indeed spurred a low-intensity conflict in Rural Guatemala.

Furthermore, it legitimizes the criminalization of protest and resistance in Guatemala, which contributes to the antagonism created by the militarization and expansion of economic interests in Guatemala – which, in turn, contributes to the reemergence of social conflict in a country that greatly suffered from the 36-year-long internal armed conflict.

“This is a war,” said Hernandez. “But this is more than war. In war, you have two armies facing each other. This is not the case. You have the army and police attacking civilian populations in their own territories – those who are defending their territories.”

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