Since 2011, communities in northern Huehuetenango have organized more than 50 peaceful protests and dozens of community referenda in which they have actively expressed their opposition to the expansion of hydroelectric dams and other megaprojects in their territories.

This demonstration of community strength and self-determination has been met with violence, state repression, criminalization, and re-militarization. Currently, there are seven community activists unjustly imprisoned for their opposition to these projects.

Most recently, on March 24, Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar, two Q’anjob’al community leaders with the Plurinational Government of the Q’anjob’al, Chuj, Akateko, Popti’ and Mestizo Peoples (“Gobierno Plurinacional”) were arrested in Guatemala City. Juárez and Baltazar have joined thousands of others in speaking out against the imposition of hydroelectric dams in their territory despite community consultations rejecting them.

They were arrested on 16 charges including threats, coercion and illegal detention stemming from events that took place in 2013. After having many of their rights to due process violated, including the right to a preliminary hearing within 24 hours of arrest, a judge released them on bail. However, as they were leaving the courthouse, both men were re-arrested on new charges of abduction, kidnapping and inciting crime for events that took place on January 23, 2015. To this date, they remain in prison with no scheduled date for their first hearing – adding to the growing list of violations of speedy due process that have already occurred.

Rigoberto Juárez awaits his preliminary hearing from a jail cell in
Guatemala City.  Photo credit: J. Abbott

The arrests of Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar follow a pattern of criminalization of leaders who have been active in the movements to protect territory against the many threats of resource extraction and other mega-development projects in Guatemala. Leaders continue to face outlandish legal charges – occasionally for events in which they were not even present – in an effort to silence their voices and organizing capacities. As a result, movements are being forced to use much-needed resources to provide legal support to these leaders instead of using them to further strengthen the struggle in defense of life.

In a statement released after the most recent arrests, the Human Rights Convergence – a group of Guatemalan organizations working for social justice and an end to state and corporate impunity – points to a series of other incidences of criminalization that have taken place just in relation to hydroelectric projects in northern Huehuetenango, amongst which are:

  • Rubén Herrera, director of the Departmental Assembly of Huehuetenango (ADH): charged with kidnapping and terrorism related to events that transpired before the government implemented a state of siege in Barillas, in April 2012. After spending months in prison, he was absolved of all charges for lack of proof. Like him, 30 others have had to go through legal processes only to be absolved at the time of formal accusation.
  • Rogelio Velásquez and Saúl Méndez, community leaders from Barillas: convicted of the murder of a man and woman in their community. In the verdict reached against them in December of last year, in which both men were sentenced to 33 years in prison, the judge argued, “We cannot prove how the woman was killed. But since they [Saúl and Rogelio] are community leaders, they are responsible.” This illegal verdict seeks to hold the human rights defenders legally responsible for the activities that occur in their communities.
  • Sotero Adalberto Villatoro, Francisco Juan Francisco and Arturo Pablo, community leaders from Barillas: indicted in February 2015 for a kidnapping allegedly committed during 2012, even after the Public Prosecutor asked that the charges be dropped for lack of proof. Not only were they indicted on charges, but also ordered to a prison in zone 18 of Guatemala City, taking them out of their community. The judge soon after withdrew from the bench, leaving those indicted without a trial judge to oversee their case and as a result, no date to appeal the indictment.

In addition to these cases and many more in which leaders have been criminalized for their roles within the movements for the defense of life and territory, at least two leaders have been murdered. Daniel Pedro Mateo, an active member within the ADH and a prominent defender of the 2007 community consultation in Barillas, was kidnapped and murdered in April, 2013. On March 27, 2015, the body of Pascual Pablo Francisco was found. He had been missing for three days, and was another prominent figure in the defense of life in Barillas.

In contrast to the disproportionate amount of charges laid against community leaders, the majority of cases of murder, assaults or threats against human rights defenders have failed to advance in the court system and remain in impunity.

In the department of Huehuetenango alone, communities are facing the expansion of the “Northern Corridor/Franja Transversal del Norte” (a mega-highway set to cut across the northern part of Guatemala), three hydroeletric dams (Cambalam of Hidro Santa Cruz in Barillas, Hidro San Luis of CM5 in Santa Eulalia and Ixquisis of the PDH, S.A., in San Mateo Ixtatán) and other possible mineral extraction in the area. In Huehuetenango, 28 of the 32 municipalities have held referenda in which communities have soundly rejected the presence of hydroelectric dams. Despite this clear message, the government continues to push these projects forward and to grant new licenses.

Given this reality, the Human Rights Convergence has called on the Guatemalan government and judicial system to respect due process and immediately halt the criminalization of community leaders. In a statement released in March, the Convergence urged the government to stop granting licenses for hydroelectric dams in the regions, and called on the companies who are already operating in the area to listen to and respect the decisions made by impacted communities.

It states, “The government of Otto Pérez Molina is using this violence to protect personal and corporate interests. The censorship and attacks – including assassinations – of journalists and other grassroots media is only one example. Indigenous communities who carry out referenda are met with racism and repression by government authorities and from company employees seeking to expand into their territories.”

To read the full statement made by the Human Rights Convergence in Spanish, click here.