On July 20th, a still-unidentified person released pepper spray in the men’s bathrooms at a historical trade union hall in Guatemala City. The venue was hosting an anniversary party for a group of transgender rights activists after the city’s 19th annual LGBTIQ+ Pride parade. Two activists, who were in the bathroom at the time, were directly hit by the gas. A number of other people abandoned the party amidst irritation to their eyes and throats.
Three hours later, at 1:15 am, eight armed police officers forced their way into another post-Pride event at the offices of a group that advocates for access to essential medicines for people living with HIV. Without a warrant, they entered the building on the premise that licensing hours for alcohol sales (which don’t apply to private events) end at 1 am. Once inside, witnesses told me, the officers intimidated attendees and pressured organisers to end the party.
“What they were doing was illegal, they were violent and armed with high calibre weapons,” said Aldo Dávila, Guatemala’s second openly LBGTIQ+ member of Congress, who was elected in June and will assume office in January. Also a member of the Pride organisational committee, and a former director of the group hosting this party, Dávila was among the crowd that night.
He told me the police said they were specifically looking for “El Diputado” (the congressman). But even after he came forward, and identified himself, they remained inside for half an hour, seeking to close down the event. Then: more pepper spray. The police released it into the air, people fled the building, ambulances were called, and several people were taken to a nearby hospital.
Homosexuality is not illegal in Guatemala, and since the 1990s, toward the end of the country’s 36-year-long civil war, the LGBTIQ+ community has become more visible within society. But same-sex marriage and civil unions are not legal; LGBTIQ+ people aren’t specifically included in most anti-discrimination laws; ultra-conservative religious movements are politically influential; and hate crimes continue to take a violent toll on the community.
On the night of 20 July, a group of people were also harassed by police on the street in front of a bar that is locally-known to be friendly to LGBTIQ+ people. Together these incidents were seen by rights activists that I spoke to as an extreme acceleration in already growing aggression towards the community, amidst mainstream hate speech and homophobic elections campaigns.
They said the police’s role in the night’s events was particularly concerning. And they warned that the worst is likely yet to come, as this weekend Guatemalans vote in the second round of presidential elections where both candidates, Sandra Torres and Alejandro Giammattei, of the UNE and Vamos parties respectively, have taken public positions against LGBTIQ+ rights.
In their campaigns, each of these candidates committed to passing a so-called ‘Protection of the Family Law’ to prohibit the possibility of marriage equality, criminalise “sodomy” and all education on questions of sexual diversity, and ban abortions under all circumstances. This bill, drafted by religious conservative groups, is waiting for its third and final vote in Congress.
Over the last year, this proposed legislation has become a “political football,” said Sandra Morán, Guatemala’s first openly lesbian congresswoman who is leaving office at the end of 2019 after she was not chosen for re-election by her party. She told me this bill had been placed on Congress’s agenda, several times, during key political moments to distract people from other issues such as the fight against corruption, or to garner conservative support for the current government.
Dávila, the second openly LGBTIQ+ politician elected to Congress, in June, also described how hate speech against the community was being used to sow divisions and drive voters to the most hardline political factions. “They need an internal enemy, to maintain the population divided and now that we are not at war any more our community is an easy target,” he told me.
“We are organised and articulate, they want to silence us and they are using the police to do so”, added Lola Vásquez, deputy director of the OTRANS activists group, whose 15th anniversary party last month was interrupted by the anonymous pepper spray attack. “They persecute our community for political gain,” they told me, but stressed: “there are real lives being affected.”
“I call it the Bolsonaro strategy”, said Jorge López Sologaistoa, another Pride organisational committee member and director of OASIS, a local LGBTIQ+ community support group – the first of its kind – founded in the early 1990s. By this, he meant “a continental strategy from the North to the South”, starting with Trump’s election in the US followed by the rise of hardline conservative and populist leaders in Brazil as well as El Salvador and Costa Rica.
“They all had strong religious and anti-abortion and anti-gay marriage platforms, and used a conservative and hateful discourse against the LGBTQI+ community to foment support,” López explained, responding to economic instability with “hard handed security policies”. He emphasised: “So this is not just about Guatemala, it is happening across the region.”
Ahead of the Pride celebrations this year, LGBTIQ+ people had been attacked publicly by almost all political parties, and influential religious lobby groups. Their discourse was amplified through social media, said Vásquez, describing “ever more violent comments, including threats to attack or murder people from our communities.” There were also reports of extreme, physical violence.
In March, José Roberto Díaz, an 18-year-old volunteer with an LGBTIQ+ rights group called Working Together, was murdered in Huehuetenango, a city in the country’s western highlands. The next month, Betzi Esmeralda Có Sagastume (also 18) and Kelli Maritza Villagrán (26), a lesbian couple, were found murdered in El Progreso, about an hour’s drive from Guatemala City. In each case, their bodies were found with homophobic slurs cut into their skin.
According to Morán, the congresswoman, the fact that hate crimes against LGBTIQ+ people are not specifically recognised under Guatemalan law means that there is no official registry of such crimes – and little political support for initiatives to prevent them. Though we know from civil society monitoring that last year between 24 and 33 membersof the LGBTIQ+ community were murdered in Guatemala alone.
Dávila also cited cases of surveillance, break-ins and harassment at the offices of rights groups including Gente Positiva, which hosted the 20 July party that was raided by police trying to shut it down – despite the fact that the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office had specifically issued a protection order instructing the police to protect this group and guarantee its security.
By the time Pride came around, people were nervous. Activists I spoke to were worried that conservative pressure groups and evangelical churches would try to obstruct or cancel the march. Rumours spread that religious activists planned to provoke confrontations during the event – and that the police could respond with pepper spray to disburse the march.
In Guatemala, the right to protest is protected by the constitution and civil society groups do not need permits to hold public assemblies or marches, but they must inform the interior ministry of planned dates, times and routes.
They can also request support with security from the National Civil Police (PNC), as the Pride organisers did. It typically takes 24 to 72 hours for the ministry to approve such requests, according to the activists I spoke with. But, this year, two weeks passed and they received no response.
The Human Rights Ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, appealed to the Constitutional Court to issue a resolution explicitly supporting the march’s free movement through the capital city — which it did, just a few days before 20 July.
Ultimately, the march went ahead as planned and with little disruption and confrontation, amidst public support and participation of UN agencies and the UK, US and Canadian embassies. Unlike what happened after, that evening.
After the police raided the office party, they remained outside the building for an hour — dispersing just before representatives of the Human Rights Ombudsman arrived. Activists told me that three days later, numerous LGBTIQ+ rights groups formally denounced what happened that night to the Ombudsman as well as the public prosecutor’s human rights attorney.
This year’s Pride celebrations in Guatemala will be remembered, not for its usual expressions of joy — but for the attacks against LGBTIQ+ people and organisations that took place across the capital’s historical centre.
The activists I spoke with said they expect threats to rights and equality to only increase over the coming months – including via the imminent possibility that the ‘Protection of the Family’ law could be passed by Congress, or by the incoming government, reversing many of the human rights gains that have been made in the country since the signing of peace accords in 1996.