Crisis in Guatemala: Why hope must guide us

Last month, Amnesty International Canada’s Tara Scurr and Kathy Price joined a delegation of Amnesty colleagues from Spain, Sweden, Mexico and the United States for a research and solidarity mission to Guatemala and Honduras. Tara reports from their meetings with human rights defenders and officials in Guatemala.  

Fortified with strong, sweet coffee after a pre-dawn flight from Honduras to Guatemala, our delegation listened intently as a full room of international and Guatemalan civil society organizations methodically unpacked the situation facing human rights defenders in Guatemala. 

Threats shouted in the street. Frightening text messages. Strangers texting you photos of your children at school. Warning shots fired outside your front door. Slander and rumors. Violent forced evictions. Hysterical opinion pieces attacking your character in the daily newspaper. Rape. Attacks. Murder.  

Those at greatest risk: men and women who defend the environmental and territory from unwanted resource extraction. An Indigenous leader wiped away tears as he recounted an attack on a human rights defender that very week which left the man so badly injured that he might lose his legs.

Person after person told us that when ordinary Guatemalans speak up in defense of their rights when faced with a mine or a hydro-electricity project they don’t want, the reaction is swift: first the smear campaign, then the threats and attacks, then the criminalization. Arrest warrants, house arrest, jail, and the uncertainty of not knowing if and when you’ll be freed. Some have spent more than a year in jail over false charges before being freed.

 “Those who represent powerful interests in Guatemala sow seeds of hate to silence our voices. They call us lazy, poor, ignorant, eco-terrorists… our organization has been called ‘public enemy number one’,” the Indigenous leader tells us. “CACIF (the business lobby) has publicly called on the government to investigate our funding, saying we receive money from drug-traffickers and even from investments in hydro-electric projects. This is false and an attempt to silence us.”

Attacks against defenders rarely investigated

Later that day, the Public Prosecutor for Human Rights, attorney Hilda Pineda, added to this bleak picture by telling us that attacks against human rights defenders are rarely investigated, while defenders are quickly arrested on false charges and put into preventative detention, a reality that she conceded was unfair and unbalanced.

As if to underscore the imbalance described by the Public Prosecutor, our delegation was given a copy of a communique published by Minera San Rafael, a subsidiary of Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources. The communique called on citizens and the government to put an end to a peaceful resistance camp near the company’s silver mine. The camp was established in June out of concerns over the environmental and human rights impacts of the mine. Human rights defenders there have been attacked in newspaper articles by the mine’s supporters and death threats for raising their concerns. Such a call, in a context of extreme danger and rampant impunity for attacks against defenders, is both highly irresponsible and dangerous.

In support of these courageous defenders, we presented the Public Prosecutor with 16,000 petitions from Amnesty members which call on Guatemala to implement guidelines for systematically investigating attacks against defenders, such as Rafael Maldonado, Lolita Chavez and Jeremy Barrios.

One of the most dangerous places on earth to be an environmental human rights defender

According to the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places on earth today to be an environmental human rights defender. 

In the south-eastern part of the country, the Casillas peaceful resistance camp arose out of local farmers’ concerns about water contamination from Tahoe Resources’ underground silver mine. While giving us a tour of the region, a farmer and community leader pointed to the abundant coffee plants and vibrant flowers lining the roads and said, “this all looks lush and green to you, but imagine what will happen here if we lose our water forever?”. These brave defenders are working at great personal risk to protect local waters and their small farming businesses from water depletion and contamination associated with all large-scale mining. 

Solidarity from Canada

While meeting with community leaders and visiting the peaceful resistance camp, we spoke with Luis Fernando Garcia Monroy. In June, Luis Fernando gave powerful and emotional testimony to Canada’s Parliamentary Sub-Committee on International Human Rights in Ottawa about the terrible shooting he survived at the hands of company security guards outside Tahoe’s mine in 2013. Along with 6 other men who were also shot, Luis Fernando filed a lawsuit against Tahoe Resources for negligence and battery. While he was in Canada delivering his testimony, the BC Court of Appeal rejected Tahoe’s application to dismiss the case in Canada and instead ruled that it would be heard in Vancouver. 

It was with a full heart that my colleague Kathy Price and I shared with Luis Fernando and community leaders the many dozens of beautiful, handmade solidarity messages made by Amnesty supporters from across Canada. Community members immediately brought the banners to the capital city to proudly display them at a demonstration outside the Constitutional Court where they await a decision regarding the suspension of Tahoe Resources’ operating licence.  

Two days later, we were encouraged during a meeting with Canada’s Ambassador to Guatemala and Embassy staff to hear that Canada takes seriously its commitment to make visible support for human rights defenders at risk in the country. 

Why we must continue our support – and hope

On our last evening in Guatemala, we sat down for supper with long-time activist, musician and LGBTI advocate, Congresswoman Sandra Moran. In her direct and disarming way, the Congresswoman asked, now we were at the end of our mission, for our reflections on the state of Guatemala’s civil society. 

How to respond? That I was simultaneously filled with despair, rage, love and hope? That the voices of resistance to imposed mining and hydro-electricity projects were stronger and more united than ever, yet more vulnerable to a new wave of politically-driven hatred? Her eyes didn’t waver as I described what I had heard. 

When I was finished, she took a sip of her water and said crisply that there are five reasons to have hope: communities in resistance, women, social movements, regular citizens and students

She explained that since the massive public protests against corruption rocked the government in 2015, during which both the Vice-President and President of the country were ousted and arrested along with several Ministers and functionaries, Guatemalans have united to say ‘No More’ to impunity and ‘yes’ to holding politicians and political parties accountable to the people. Sandra and her fellow Congressman, Maya-Kaqchikel leader, Leocadio Juracan, were elected soon after. Both face extreme threats of violence and attacks for promoting legislation that protects Indigenous peoples’ rights in the context of resource development and the gender rights of women and girls. 

The Congresswoman told us that while there are signs of resistance and hope, this intergenerational movement of human rights defenders and ordinary citizens needs all the support it can get from the international community if it is going to succeed in protecting the rights of Indigenous peoples, women and girls, as well as the rights of territory, land and environmental defenders.

The crisis facing human rights defenders at risk in Guatemala is severe and relentless. But across the country, clear-eyed and extremely brave defenders refuse to be silenced, to negotiate away their rights or let them be stolen from future generations. They are putting their lives on the line to defend their rights and Amnesty International will continue to support and make visible their courageous work.