As Guatemala and the world focused on the trial of former Gen. Jose Efrain Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity, the human rights situation in the country grew increasingly grave, as it has elsewhere in Mesoamerica. Testimony in the trial highlighted the complicity of the US government in Guatemala’s bloody history. Similarly, the current human rights crisis does not exist in a global vacuum and is inextricably entwined with government and private interests in the region, emanating from within Guatemala and its neighbors to the North. Observers fear that current human rights abuses are being eclipsed by the uncertainty and escalating tension surrounding the genocide trial.
As the trial continued on its circuitous path, President Otto Perez Molina declared a State of Siege in four towns in the country’s southeastern region after clashes between security forces and local community groups opposed to the San Rafael mine, also referred to as the El Escobal mine. Tension has been percolating for years, eliciting requests for international attention to, and condemnation of, the human rights situation surrounding opposition to the mine. The confrontation between protesters, who are mostly local indigenous Xinca, and mine owners, Canadian Tahoe Resources, escalated on April 3, when the mine received an operating license, precipitating a peaceful occupation of privately owned land by protesters five days later. Despite violent evictions by the private security guards, demonstrators continued their peaceful resistance to the mine they believe will deplete their water supply and contaminate what remains.
Evincing impatience with the peaceful opposition, private security forces opened fire on protesters last Saturday, injuring six people and triggering an escalation in hostilities. Preliminary reports indicated that the mine’s executive, Alberto Rotondo, ordered security forces to attack the demonstrators, and later to cover up the crime. In response, local groups kidnapped and disarmed 23 security forces. In a tremendous show of force, the government responded by sending over 8,000 government troops to the area. The ensuing operation to free the hostages left one protester and one police officer dead. Subsequent raids by the authorities led to the arrest of at least 15 people. Under the State of Siege, civil liberties are suspended – the rights of peaceful assembly and to bear arms are suspended, homes can be searched without cause, and the state can engage in the indefinite detention of citizens without judicial review and access to counsel. Human rights advocates fear that suspending constitutional rights will unleash further repression and shield the government from accountability for its tactics.
Advocates decry the increasing repression against communities that resist the government’s neoliberal development policies which often result in the forcible displacement of communities and environmental degradation. Under international legal standards, development projects must be implemented with the consultation and consent of the affected indigenous groups and local opposition to the mine has been overwhelming. In a vote, over 1,200 community members voted against the project, while less than 10 supported it. Despite the overwhelming community rejection, the Guatemalan government has bowed to the interest of transnational companies, deceptively claiming that opposition to the project is minimal. Instead of responding to the legitimate and peaceful protests of local communities, the government waits until the conflict escalates to the boiling point, steps in with violent force, and demonizes and criminalizes the resistance. This pattern generates complicity between corporate interests and state security forces in human rights abuses.
The conflict surrounding the San Rafael mine occurs against a backdrop of increasing repression in Guatemala. Since January, attacks against community activists have intensified. On January 24, Daniel Pascual and two others were attacked by unknown assailants; on February 28, community leader Tomas Quej was found dead; on March 8, activist Carlos Antonio Hernández was shot in a drive-by motorcycle assassination; on March 15, human rights defender Rubén Herrera was arrested and remains in jail; on March 17, four Xinca leaders were kidnapped, three of whom were released and one later found dead; on April 17, the body of community leader Daniel Pedro was found; and three human rights defenders were assassinated in the Peten on April 22. The Guatemala Human Rights Commission received complaints of 73 attacks against human rights defenders in the last four months. Another human rights organization in Guatemala documented 326 such incidents in the same time period, more than occurred in the entirety of 2012.
The violent conflicts surrounding the extractive industries are just one component of the complicated and interrelated web of challenges, including endemic poverty and pervasive violence, confronting Guatemala. As has been historically true, these are not exclusively local problems and they demand international cooperation to resolve. On the eve of President Obama’s visit to the region, an impressively broad coalition of international and civil society organizations sent a letter to President Obama and Mesoamerican heads of state encouraging them to turn their collective focus to the interrelated violence and repression careening out of control in the region.
While acknowledging that transnational crime and drug violence plays an undeniable role in the violence, the organizations exhorted governments to recognize and redress multiple international policies that contribute to the mayhem. The organizations denounced the militarization of the war on drugs as counterproductive and destructive, serving only to weaken democratic institutions and escalate violence, often inflicted by the very security forces charged with keeping the peace. This has been particularly evident in Mexico, Guatemala and Honduras.
The organizations also contextualize the violence in the region’s pervasive structural economic and social inequality and lament the poorly designed development policies that serve to reinforce rather than remediate existing inequities and injustice. In a pattern repeated around the globe, transnational extractive industry projects are often imposed on resistant peasant and indigenous communities, causing forced displacement, violent repression and environmental degradation, in violation of human rights standards. Situating the human rights crisis in Mesoamerica within the US policies that exacerbate these problems, the groups called on governments to redesign development policies to incorporate democratic participation of the affected communities.
Critics noting the hypocrisy of the United States demanding respect for human rights abroad make an important point, but given its political and economic power, the United States must be part of the solution. The past atrocities in Guatemala unfolded while the world was slow to recognize and oppose the unspeakable suffering perpetrated during the brutal internal conflict. As the genocide trial in Guatemala occupied center stage, and the conviction of Rios Montt for genocide and crimes against humanity elicited effusive approbation, the international community telegraphed a powerful and unified message encouraging the country to uphold the rule of law, support and strengthen its democratic institutions, and reckon with its past. The global community must use the same voice to insist that Guatemala and the transnational governmental and corporate interests that influence its contemporary conduct safeguard and respect human rights and protect their defenders, and adopt inclusive and democratic development policies that inure to the benefit of its impoverished masses.