Thursday, November 26, 2009

The Extrajudicial Assassination of Fausto Otzin, Indigenous Lawyer and Human Rights Defender

by Jackie McVicar, Guatemala City

Fausto Otzín’s murder on October 18, 2009, in San Juan Comalapa, Chimaltenango was a sharp blow to the Indigenous and Human Rights community of Guatemala, to which Otzín belonged and advocated for. Only 32 years old, Otzín had been named the first Executive Director of the Association of Mayan Attorneys and according to an Action Alert emitted by Human Rights First, “was heavily involved in promoting the rights of indigenous communities and victims of Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict.”

The racism, discrimination and inequality that fueled Guatemala’s 36-year civil war has not ceased to exist, putting advocates like Fausto Otzín in grave danger for the work they do defending the rights of indigenous people. Speaking the truth, and being a catalyst for victims to seek justice does not go unnoticed in Guatemala, where the military continues to play a strong role, both behind the scenes and, most blatantly, in public offices, where they operate with immunity from the crimes of the past. In its October bi-monthly report, UDEFEGUA, the Human Rights Defenders’ Protection Unit of Guatemala, states that “Given the seriousness and cost of Otzín´s muder, and the savagery with which they killed in Comalapa, this past October 18th, a person with such capacities, a humanistic nature, and his potential to help Guatemala, appears to be incomparable to other cases carried out since the end of the internal armed conflict. ”

Fausto Otzín was attacked not far from his family’s home. When volunteer firefighters and locals finally found his body after disappearing overnight, there were signs of severe abuse and suffering. He had been attacked with a machete to his head and stabbed in his back; there was severe bruising to his face and body. Otzín could not withstand the wounds and died shortly after being found.

Otzín had spent his academic and professional life promoting the rights of indigenous communities. According to Human Rights First’s Action Alert, “he founded a Mayan student association and helped to create the Law Institute of Indigenous People...He was part of a student movement demanding justice for the mass atrocities committed during Guatemala’s armed conflict, in which members of his family were disappeared... He also provided legal advice to communities in San Juan Sacatepéquez after they were criminalized for opposing a local cement factory.”

This is not the first time that Indigenous lawyers in Guatemala have been attacked. Otzín and other lawyers with the Association of Mayan Attorneys have been threatened, criminalized and black-listed for their work to promote indigenous rights and protection of indigenous territory in Guatemala. In 2008, the Association was accused without warrant of being the intellectual authors of an extra-judicial assassination, and had an erroneous criminal case launched against it. This followed events in the municipality of San Juan Sacatepéquez, where local communities had been organizing against the installation of a cement mine and plant owned by one of the country’s biggest industries, Cementos Progresos. Members of San Juan Sacatepéquez organized a community referendum through local government structures, though to date, is not considered binding by the Constitutional Court of Guatemala.

Lawyers with the Association of Mayan Attorneys had been offering legal accompaniment in the case of San Juan Sacatepéquez since 2006. In a letter to Guatemala’s Attorney General in September 2008, the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission from Washington DC states, “... over 40 indigenous community leaders with no participation in violent activities have been arrested [in San Juan Sacatepéquez] – apparently for their communities’ opposition to the cement factory. We oppose the arrest of peaceful community leaders as a way to stifle community protest and we are concerned about the enactment of martial law as a first resort to social unrest. We are also concerned by the reported human rights violations committed by members of the National Civilian Police (PNC) prior to and during the period of martial law.”

Many people work a life-time to accomplish what Fausto Otzín completed in his short life. The indigenous people of San Juan Sacatepéquez, and others who suffer from the systemic oppression in Guatemala, and those who fight for justice following the internal armed conflict will not forget his commitment. Some will say Fausto was too bright - unfortunately, his courageous work and dedication to creating a new Guatemala of justice did not go unnoticed by his enemies who committed the ultimate attack to keep him silent. Fausto’s legacy is a challenge for a generation of young professionals who dare to fight for a change.