Unidad de Defensores y Defensoras de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) recorded 395 attacks against human rights defenders in 2019, including assassinations, violence and criminalisation. The political situation in the country also shows little indication of improvement - the past two years have seen legislation passed limiting the agency of civil society organisations and institutions designed to reduce levels of impunity. On 14th January 2020, Alejandro Giammattei was inaugurated as the new president of Guatemala. His close association with hard-line military and corruption implies that 2020 will continue the repressive human rights situation presided over by his predecessor.
The government’s permissive approach to extractive development projects has been thoroughly criticised by organizations, affected communities and experts in the field. Notable cases include the OXEC and Renace hydroelectric plants in the Cahabón and San Pedro Carchá region of Alta Verapaz, and the Cantera de los Manantiales antimony mine in Olopa, Chiquimula. According to the people consulted, one of the principal consequences of these projects is the direct “large-scale” impact on local ecosystems. Drought, food insecurity, poverty and lack of land to cultivate are the main causes of internal displacement and migration outside the country.
There are many cases of repression against human rights defenders confronting these megaprojects. Bernardo Caal Xol, the q’eqchi’ leader from the Peaceful Resistance Cahabón, was sentenced to more than seven years in prison, for example. His crime was defending the Oxec and Cahabón rivers and the nature that surrounds them in the face of the proposed construction of the OXEC hydroelectric plants.
Guatemala’s brutal 36-year civil war ended in 1996. The conflict, particularly the military government’s “scorched earth” policy, had left around 200,000 killed or disappeared, the majority indigenous Guatemalans. A UN truth commission, the Guatemalan Historical Clarification Commission, found that acts of genocide had been committed against the indigenous population. Although it is more than two decades since the end of the conflict, the rule of law remains weak in Guatemala. Around 16 murders take place every day, and with around 98% impunity, the vast majority go unpunished. Human rights defenders working to secure respect for human rights and accountability for past crimes are particularly at risk in this climate, as are those resisting mining and other large-scale development projects in rural areas.
PBI first operated a project in Guatemala from 1983-1999, which closed following the Peace Accords. Unfortunately, the human rights situation soon began again to deteriorate, and local organisations asked PBI to return.
The current project opened in 2003. PBI now accompanies around 10 organisations nationwide with 10 international volunteers based in Guatemala City.
Who we protect in Guatemala
The organisations and social movements we accompany are searching for the truth about Guatemala's civil war, for compensation, reconstruction and respect for the war's victims; they are fighting against the repression of defenders of human rights, and raising issues concerning environmental degradation and access to land.
PBI accompanies groups that carry out exhumations of clandestine mass graves, as well as lawyers and human rights organisations threatened and harassed for their work challenging impunity for past human rights violations.
Defenders of land rights, culture and natural resources
The concentration of ownership of land, and lack of acknowledgment of ancestral land rights is one of the main problems affecting indigenous people in Guatemala and was a root cause of the armed conflict. These days organisations continue to expose the negative impact of illegal exploitation of forestland and natural resources, as well as defending the rights of communities affected by mega-projects (open air mining, hydroelectric projects, oil extraction, etc).
- Ch’orti Campesino Central “New Day” (CCCND)
- CCDA las Verapaces
- The Cunén Communities Council (CCC)
- The Ecumenical and Social Coordination for the Defense of Life in Zacapa and Chiquimula in the Macizo del Merendón
- Peaceful Resistance of La Puya
- Peaceful Resistance of La Laguna
- The Verapaz Union of Campesino Organisations (UVOC)
- Peaceful Resistance of Cahabón
- TZK'AT Network of Ancestral Healers of Community Feminism
Although we do not accompany in Peten every six months PBI Guatemala undertakes a visit as a way of following up on the human rights situation.