On October 23rd of last year, I arrived in Guatemala City to begin what would be a new chapter for me in Guatemala: human rights accompaniment. When I started my in-country training with CAIG-ACOGUATE on November 5th, I did not yet know where I would be placed or what exactly that work would look like. I was worried that I would get bored if I was to work in rural communities but was equally worried that working in the capital-based team would not allow to develop deeper more meaningful relationships with the people and organisations we accompany.
Seven months later, I have had a chance to work both in communities and based in the capital and have truly enjoyed both aspects of accompaniment work. Some days I crave the tranquility, fresh air and the relative calm and quiet of life in the communities. But most days the inspiring work of the various organisations and individuals that we accompany in the capital-based team motivates me to keep going despite spending long hours (and days) on buses traveling to many different parts of the country.
Seven months is a relatively short period of time, yet it is long enough to start getting discouraged after witnessing the lack of change in the complete impunity that continues to protect perpetrators of crimes of the past and present and the seemingly unbreachable structures of social, economic and political exclusion that exist in this country. Even more disheartening and enraging is the all-too-common indifference as well as the more-than-occasional complicity with which these issues are met by government officials, news media and a large part of the national and international public – including the racist, classist and sexist/macho attitudes that are embedded in, and reinforced by, the daily actions and inactions of so many of us in the North and South. While it is necessary to be aware of (and outraged at) these issues and conscious of the barriers we face in order to work towards dismantling these structures, I also think it is crucially important to recognise – and celebrate – advances and successes, however small theses steps may seem. These include:
I am including, below, some of my own reflections on these cases as well additional information and links for those of you who wish to continue reading. For those of you who don't... thanks for having made it this far!!!
I have been thinking about Canada a lot lately ... Springtime is a magical time in the Maritimes and I miss it. It seems quite ironic to miss springtime in a country known as the land of "eternal spring", but spending 7 months in Guatemala City has made me crave fresh, cool air and green spaces! At least the rainy season - also known as "winter" - just started this week, finally giving a bit of respite from the hot and muggy summer nights in the capital. My initial commitment to the project was of six months, which means that my original contract finished a little over a week ago. However, I have decided to stay in the project for an extra month and a bit (until late June)... I miss all of you, my friends and family, but I don't feel ready to go just yet.
I am thinking of you all and hope that this email finds you well!
p.s. - I started this email meaning to send it as a "six month update" so apologies for the delay in sending some of the "news" included below... better late than never?!?
***If you want peace, work for justice***
Declassification of military archives
The Constitutional Court announced last week that it has denied a legal recourse put forth by former dictator Ríos Montt's lawyers seeking to block the declassification of military archives – including the documents which are thought to contain plans for the military campaigns of the early 1980s: Plan Campaña Victoria 82, Plan Operativo Sofia 82, Asuntos Civiles Operación Ixil, and Plan Firmeza 83. The declassification of these archives had been requested by the Ministerio Publico (more or less the equivalent of the public prosecutor) in the course of the genocide trials being brought forth in the national courts. It is now up to the Ministry of Defense to comply with the decision and de-classify the documents.
Sentence - Caso Doña Juana
Every seat in the courtroom in Santa Cruz del Quiche was already occupied at 4:45pm on April 16th. Women who had arrived late were forced to stand, filling the aisle, the entrance and a small room at the back of the courtroom. They were all there waiting to hear the sentence in a case known as the "Juana Mendéz Case." At noon of that same day, almost two months after the beginning of the trial, the court had been adjourned so that the judges could deliberate, and it had been announced that it would reconvene at 5pm to read the sentence. Everyone involved in the prosecution of the case agreed that the trial had gone exceptionally well and had seemed quite confident that the court would convict the accused, but the tension was still high as we waited for the judges to return.
As we sat there in the packed courtroom, I reflected on the importance of the sentence that was about to be delivered – which I was almost certain would be a conviction – and began to wonder if the faith I had in the legal system in this case was misplaced. It was a bizarre feeling to have witnessed the development of a trial in which the accused presented no proof supporting his alibi and to still have doubts about the outcome (the only witness who had been brought forth in support of the accused's alibi did not even provide the right date in her in-court testimony). The defense's only hope was that the judges would believe their theory that the rape had never happened. This theory was supported by the fact that the doctor who examined Doña Juana the day after the rape concluded that he had found "no conclusive evidence of sexual assault." However, the first day of trial, he admitted under interrogation that he had never before completed a gynecological exam, was unaware of protocols and procedures that are to be followed when examining a suspected victim of rape or sexual assault and that his report "surely contains many errors." This "confession" was only acquired through the participation of a "technial consultant" brought in from Mexico by the ICCPG (the co-plaintiff in the case) to interrogate – and eventually discredit – the doctor's conclusions. The simple truth is that, in the Guatemalan legal system, "expert witnesses" are almost never challenged when they declare in court. I can't help but think that the outcome to this trial would have been drastically different if the ICCPG had not gotten involved... In fact, the case would probably never even have gone to trial.
Nevertheless, the case did go to trial, and the verdict was read in that packed courtroom on April 16th. The accused police officer, Antonio Rutilio Matías López was convicted to 20 years in prison – 15 years for aggravated rape plus 5 years for abuse of authority. It was the first time a police office was convicting for the rape of a detainee – a crime to which 75% of incarcerated women are subjected in Guatemala.
Genocide hearings in the country
Between April 17th and May 6th, for the first time in Guatemalan history, survivors and witnesses of the violence and repression of the 1960-1996 civil war gave their testimony in a national court. Judge Eduardo Cojulún, of the 11th Criminal Court, heard these testimonies in response to a request from the Spanish judge Santiago Pedraz who heads the investigation into the crimes of genocide, torture, assassination and illegal detention by the Audiencia Nacional Española. In December 2007, the Constitutional Court rejected the principle of universal jurisdiction on which this case is based thus preventing Pedraz of conducting any further investigation in Guatemala. However, the Guatemala judge Eduardo Cojulún took the initiative to hear these testimonies based on the principle of judicial reciprocity: after having heard and compiled the survivors and witnesses' declarations, he will be sending them to Spain for Pedraz to include in his investigation. The importance of progress being made in the Spanish case is heightened by the fact that the Genocide case presented in domestic courts have been stalled by countless legal recourses on part of the accused as well as the lack of political will to push the cases forward.
*Last week, Eduardo Cojulún, the judge who decided to hear the testimonies of survivors and witnesses of the genocidal violence of the 1980s denounced that he has received death threats in connection to his participation in the case. Here is an article forwarded from CAIG and NISGUA:
Judge who heard testimony in Spanish genocide case denounces death threats!
Guatemala City, Guatemala – Tuesday, May 20, 2008
Today Judge Jose Eduardo Cojulum denounced death threats after presiding over the hearings of survivors and witnesses of massacres committed by the army during the armed conflict.
After receiving the testimonies of twenty people at the request of the Spanish Courts, where the genocide case is in process, the magistrate also recommended the Guatemalan Public Prosecutor's Office to investigate the facts.
Cojulum decided that sufficient evidence exists to try in Guatemala the acts described by the witnesses of the slaughters of Plan of Sanchez and Río Negro, as well as the occupation and fire in the Spanish embassy, which happened in 1981 in the capital.
The jurist sent a detailed report on the declarations received in the Criminal Court to the office of the public prosecutor and assured that if the authorities do not act they would be guilty of the crime of omission of a claim.
Nevertheless, as a result of these measures he began to receive telephone calls that warned him that he would be assassinated if he continues with the proceedings, said Cojulum.
Ley contra el Femicidio
On April 10th, the Guatemalan Congress passed Decree 22-08 known as the "Law against Femicide." Femicide is defined as an act committed by someone who, "in the context of unequal relations of power between men and women, kills a woman" and is now punishable by between 25 and 50 years in prison. This decree also typifies various types of violence against women and sets out to sanction them with prison time: physical and sexual violence (5-12 years); psychological violence (5-8 years); economic violence (5-8 years). According to news reports on the new law, the legal framework which it sets out seems to be quite progressive. It includes the act of preventing a woman from owning property or from obtaining ownership documents in its definition of economic violence. In its definition of sexual violence, it also includes the act of preventing a woman from accessing and using birth control methods. In a country where femicides have claimed the lives of over 3,300 women in the past 8 years – not to speak of the countless women who are submitted to other forms of violence and abuse each and every day – this is a very important first step! It now remains to be seen if and how effectively this new law will be applied.
Goldcorp no longer eligible for SRI portfolios Goldcorp is a Canadian corporation that operates the Marlin Mine (formerly owned by Glamis Gold) in the municipios of San Migual Ixtahuacán and Sipakapa, in the north-western department of San Marcos. There have been various issues of concern surrounding the mine's operations - including human rights, social and environmental concerns as well as the question of community consultation and approval of the operations, as is their right according to the International Labour Organisation's Convention Concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (often referred to as "ILO 169). Despite these concerns, Goldcorp (whose investors include the Canadian Pension Plan and the Public Service Alliance of Canada Staff Pension Fund) has - oddly - been considered somewhat of a model "corporate citizen" ... but no longer! Jantzi Research (which conducts research on social and environmental responsibility for institutional investors) issued a client alert on April 30th announcing that they recommend that Goldcorp be ineligible for Social Responsibility Investment portfolios "that seek to avoid companies with relatively poor records in the areas of community and aboriginal relations and environment." (To access the complete report,
**Goldcorp's AGM was also held this week in Toronto, where opponents to the company's operations – including individuals from mining-affected communities in Guatemala and Honduras – held a protest.See: www.indymedia.org/en/2008/05/906887.shtml for additional information and links.
***Also, the Rights Action web page (www.rightsaction.org/) has lots more information and news updates about mining and other important issues affecting Guatemalan communities