Thursday, January 27, 2011

Delegation Reflections, by Emma Van Rooyen

This is a story about failure. I thought that I should begin by stating this outright, seeing as it is my own failure of communication that I need to talk to you about. I’ve been thinking about this failure a lot lately, especially after returning from a trip to Guatemala this past spring. The trip was a delegation of solidarity. A small group of Maritimers traveled through Guatemala for 2 weeks. We visited memorials, community organizations, church groups, women’s groups and families. We came to listen and learn.

Almost every group of the people we visited was, in some way, directly affected by the decisions that we make at home, both as individuals and as a country. One organization was sustained by the profits made by exporting Fair Trade coffee, while another was seeking the support of Canadian foreign policy to further their legal battle for justice and recognition after the atrocities committed during Guatemala’s 30-year civil war. We sat and we listened to their stories, sometimes we cried with them.

We became very attentive listeners. Especially when we arrived at the site of the Gold Corp mine. The Marlin mine, in San Miguel Ixtahuacan Guatemala is a Canadian owned silver and gold mine. The metals retrieved there are sent abroad, to make jewelry mostly.

Many members of the community oppose the mine, while others support it. The community has been brutally divided by this conflict, but none have felt the backlash as badly as the women. One woman told us how her brother had threatened to kill her because she opposed the mine, while he supported it. Another was fired from her job as a teacher because she questioned why the children were coming to school with open sores caused by pollution from the mine that has leached into the community’s drinking water.
The conversations that afternoon affected me deeply. The women willingly shared their pain with us. Their deepest sorrows were released to us, and we became their caretakers. The Women asked us to take their stories home and share them; to spread the pain thinly across many hearts, so that no one person had to carry it alone.

I swore to myself that I would carry these stories carefully, and share them often. I could not imagine letting down the hopes of these women who had so fully trusted me, without knowing so much as my name.
I returned raw and ill, weak and more than happy to enjoy the luxuries of home. I promised myself that I would rest, but I would not forget the women’s request.
When I recovered and came back to the world I tried to share the stories, to spread the burden. After all the women in San Miguel had not intended for any of us to carry it on our own. But it was difficult. I felt anger and frustration with those who didn’t seem willing to listen. I felt that I had failed the women of San Migel, I had not been able to share their message.

But I refuse to accept a reality where indigenous Guatemalans are treated as expendable second-class citizens. And so I stand here in solidarity with all of the poor and dispossessed people of the world.
I ask you to stand with us and join us in saying Ya Basta! C'est assez! Enough his enough!
Let us come together, to create hope through solidarity.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Some thoughts on the alternative summits and the results of the COP-16
By Val Croft

As a BTS intern with CEIBA – a Guatemalan environmental rights organization that works on issues of food sovereignty, the defense of territory, and climate justice – I was fortunate enough to attend the Global Forum on Climate Justice in early December in Cancun. The conference was organized by Friends of the Earth Mexico and Otros Mundos, as one of the many alternative meetings spaces set up to coincide with the 16th Conference of the Parties (better known as the COP-16) under the United Nations Framework for Climate Change (UNFCC).

Armed with a backpack of clothes, my tent and some blank notebooks, I left Huehuetenango at 6am on December 3rd with several others from CEIBA to drive to San Cristóbal, Chiapas where we met up with a 250-person-strong caravan heading to Cancun.

Over the next week, I attended panel discussions on the evidence for the climate crisis and the role that free trade agreements, transnational corporations and global financial institutions play in worsening it. I listened to Indigenous Peoples from across the world talk in these panels about the rights of Mother Earth and the need for climate justice. I heard arguments for the necessity to look at our forests as the generators of life, instead of just carbon stores that can be divided up and traded.

In roundtable discussions, we talked about the fundamental logical flaws of capitalism – the continual expansion and accumulation of natural resources in a resource-finite world – and debated real strategies for creating a new global system we can survive with. We heavily discussed the false, market-based solutions – programs like REDD+, the enormous expansion of biofuels, and the promotion of carbon trading – that are already well-established and heavily promoted by the corporate elite, without any real basis for believing they will have a positive impact on carbon reductions, and ignoring the experience that would indicate otherwise.

Although we gathered together to exchange information in organized panel sessions and roundtable workshops, what was equally important were the stories we traded over meal times in the community kitchen mess tent, and the experiences we shared sitting around a circle, making musical instruments out of whatever we could find in our tent city. What we were left with was an even stronger awareness that the destructive impacts of climate change are already being felt the world over.

So what was the big deal anyway? The COP-16.

While all of our discussions were happening, global political leaders and their negotiators were meeting to advance their own agenda at the COP-16. These meetings took place between November 29th and December 10th in the luxurious Moon Palace, with the goal of re-establishing confidence in a global forum where countries could effectively negotiate to find solutions to climate change. Already, in comparison with the failures of the COP-15 meetings in Copenhagen last year, the meetings this year are being triumphed by the mainstream media as a case study in international diplomacy and cooperation. But after having read the final declaration of the COP-16, I can’t help but rhetorically ask: Where is the substance? Whose voices have been left out?

The Accord generally acknowledges the need for cuts in global emissions, while recognizing the role developed countries have played in getting our atmosphere to a toxic 390 parts per million of carbon dioxide. It loosely calls on developed countries to take on their fair share of the financial burden in addressing the effects of climate change, while assisting developing countries through a substantial technology transfer and access to financial resources from a global Green Climate Fund.

But again, I have to ask: where is the substance?

The barely existent reference to the protection of human rights, with only the most haphazard reference to the relevant provisions of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, is very concerning. Also concerning is the role the Accord gives to the World Bank as the manager of the Global Green Climate Fund; this, despite loud cries by environmental NGOs for the financial institution that plays such a large role in making possible many of the causes of climate change – funding a record $6.3 billion to fossil fuel projects in 2010 alone - to have no role in managing climate finance.

In addition, although on paper the life of the Ad Hoc Working Committee on the Kyoto Protocol has been extended for another year, it is no secret that several powerful developed countries – including Canada – are doing their best to derail targets and withdraw completely from the only legally-binding mechanism for emission reductions. Instead, singing on key to the tune of “voluntary pledges,” these countries will likely have success in replacing the Kyoto Protocol with loose, non-binding targets that have no hope of reaching the drastic 40%-minimum reductions in emissions by developed countries that current science claims is necessary to begin to address climate change.

In a sentence: Despite the nice fluff, the agreement adopted at the UN climate talks in Cancun completely ignores the more critical point: the need for steep, binding emissions cuts for developed countries.

Market-based “solutions”: REDD+ and carbon offsetting

What did advance substantially, however, were talks around REDD+ programs – the Reduction of Emissions from Deforestation in Developing Countries.

REDD+ sets the framework for polluting corporations in the North to purchase carbon offsetting credits from countries in the South, therefore complying with their emission reduction targets and getting a green stamp of approval. These companies could then claim they operate "emission neutral" because they have helped to conserve trees in other parts of the world that are supposedly consuming the carbon that the polluting company emitted. Digging a little deeper, it becomes clear that this will allow corporations to continue with "business as usual," with lower costs associated with buying trees than would be attributed to reducing their carbon emissions.

Those in support of this program claim that it would give forest-dwelling communities the financial resources to climb out of poverty, leaving behind their need to rely on forests for fuel and building materials. But this program treats any forest "destroyer" the same - regardless of whether it is a company from the Global North that is participating in widescale deforestation to make way for bio-fuel plantations or cattle farming, or Indigenous communities that have relied on forests for their livelihoods for centuries. Many environmental organizations, including Friends of the Earth International, warn that including forests in carbon markets is a sure way to trigger a land grab, with no consideration to the rights of Indigenous Peoples to Free, Prior and Informed Consent.

Despite being championed as one of the great "successes" of the COP-16, there is no scientific basis for believing this will have any positive effect on cooling the planet.

The Alternative Voices at the COP-16: The ALBA countries

Many of the ALBA countries – Bolivia in particular – spoke up in favour of the environment, and as a result, were labeled by the international media as having blocked negotiations, in bad spirits of international cooperation. Most notably, Bolivia presented the results of the People’s Declaration on the rights of Mother Earth that was signed in Cochabamba in April 2010, in an attempt to bring the voices of social movements to the COP-16.

Getting to hear Bolivian President Evo Morales speak on the last day of the conference was a definite highlight. As I waited for him to come onstage, I thought about the divisions within the environmental movement itself, and wondered what else we could have done to have our voices heard. I wondered what damage will come out of yet more international accords that don´t put the rights of Mother Earth first.

Thankfully I find that inspiration comes at the most important times, and this was no exception. As I listened to Bolivian musical groups energetically play, I read the back of the t-shirt the guy sitting in front of me was wearing. With a well-known quote by Archbishop Oscar Romero, it read:

We plant the seeds that one day will grow.
We water the seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
We cannot do everything, and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
This enables us to do something and to do it really well.
We may never see the end results, but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
We are workers, not master builders.
We are ministers, not messiahs.
We are prophets of a future not our own.

As I finish writing this more than a month later, the last line – “we are prophets of a future not our own” - still rings in my head. Although we have already seen big climate changes and will continue to see them over the next decades, those who will most feel what we leave behind will be future generations. With that in mind, I look towards the next round of discussions in South Africa next December, as yet another one of the many spaces for us to meet, with new strategies building on what we worked on in Cancun and what we will work on over the year to come.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Guatemala war crimes suspect arrested in Alberta

A man wanted for war crimes in Guatemala nearly 30 years ago has been arrested in Alberta.

Police in Lethbridge took Jorge Vinicio Orantes Sosa into custody Tuesday.

Sosa, who has both Canadian and American citizenship, is charged in the United States with making a false statement relating to naturalization and unlawful procurement of citizenship or naturalization.

Sosa was being transferred to Calgary, where he will be held in custody pending an extradition hearing to the U.S.

The 52-year-old is also wanted by Guatemalan authorities in relation to war crimes dating back to 1982.

It's alleged that Sosa participated in the attacks on Las Dos Erres in which 251 men, women and children were massacred.

Read more:

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Rabinal Legal Clinic: Update and Reflection from Chera-Lee Hickox

As the 2010/2011 BTS intern working in the human rights department of the Legal Clinic (or Bufete) in Rabinal, it is an enormous challenge to adequately provide a clear picture of its successes and challenges. I would like to share with you a few of the developments within the community of Chichupac, a community that is represented by the Bufete in a petition in the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights

The Bufete has two petitions open in front of the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights. The first petition, submitted in 2007, has been deemed admissible by the Commission and will, most probably, after it passes a number of formalities including a denial of a friendly settlement with the State, be seen
by the Court. The petition in discussion includes a massacre in the community of Chichupac where 32 male community leaders were violently tortured and killed in 1982, and 17 other charges against the state including forced disappearances, extrajudicial executions, torture, and sexual violence. I feel
extremely privileged to have been present with five members of the Chichupac community when they were told that the petition was accepted by the Commission – it was the closest they have ever been to justice in nearly three decades of struggle.

Although this news moved me to tears and I had to contain myself from jumping for joy, the community members remained stone-faced and stiff as if showing emotion would compromise their success. I came to realize that the success of this case jeopardizes relationships within the community as the case represents only 82 community members. The remaining community members, who are also victims of
the armed conflict, chose not to denounce the crimes committed against them due to fear, and will not have a chance for justice. This has divided the community creating jealousy and conflict. The sense of accomplishment they must have felt that day had to be subdued because any outward display might cause heartbreak for a neighbour or even a brother.

The division within Chichupac runs deeper than the petition, and threatens the peace in the community. The National Reparations Program (PNR), a state-run program responsible for issuing material and economic reparations for the victims of human rights violations, has shown to be corrupt, and faulty. In my opinion, the program is another war tactic in which the government keeps its hands clean, yet acts to divide and conquer leaving community members to destroy the Mayan soul. In
Chichupac, the PNR has offered 30 houses to be constructed when approximately 160 were destroyed during the armed conflict. The economic reparations are so small in comparison to their loss it serves only to add insult to injury. Furthermore, the victims have the burden of proof, they are responsible to provide documentation of their losses, a burden that revictimizes, and traumatizes the individuals. The
fight for justice has been compounded with struggles and violence, and the Chichupac community is only an example of the difficulties standing up to the government provide.

The Bufete has recognized the injustice of the PNR and are defending the citizen´s right to compensation, adding another dimension to the case of Chichupac. The Bufete is applying for a public hearing in March in Washington. If this is successful they will demand a reform of the program and an extension of its services. Although an opportunity such as a thematic hearing in the Commission would bring attention to the shortcomings of the PNR, the common analogy of David vs. Goliath is appropriate.
With Guatemala acting under impunity, it is almost impossible to make it worthwhile for the state to make changes to the program. The Bufete will continue its fight nonetheless.

It seems to me that in Guatemala any success comes with two additional hurdles, any joy is trumped with distress, and justice comes at a price. The Bufete is all too familiar with this reality, yet continues to move forward with their fight for justice. I have been privileged to be a part of their struggle, and am
filled with pride by their devotion to their cause.

Friday, January 7, 2011


The amazing persistence and dignity of Guatemalan massacre and genocide victims

On November 30, 2010, the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights (Commission) advised ADIVIMA (Association for the Integral Development of Maya-Achi Victims) that the Rio Negro massacre case (petition #12,649) had been forwarded by the Commission to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (Court).

This may be the last step in a 29 year process of seeking justice for the March 13, 1982 massacre of 177 women and children in the remote Maya-Achi village of Rio Negro. The process before the Court could also take a few more years, unless the government of Guatemala admits its responsibility and allows the Court to determine, unobstructed, what compensation and reparations the government of Guatemala must make to the surviving victims.

As in the case of so many struggles in Guatemala to overcome the deeply entrenched and on-going impunity of the wealthy and powerful sectors, one can only admire and be in awe of the courage and dignity of the surviving victims of the Rio Negro massacre who are the real heroes and protagonists of efforts to construct a just and fair society and country, one based on real democracy and an actually functioning legal system.

Below, one can read two articles (from 1993 and 1995) that provide background information about the March 13, 1982 Rio Negro massacre, one of four Rio Negro massacres that killed over 440 villagers.

From the date of the first mass grave exhumation in Rio Negro in 1993, surviving victims have been pursuing legal justice against the 'material' and 'intellectual' authors of the Rio Negro massacre. While a few of the lowest ranking "civil defense patrollers" (material authors of the March 13 1982 massacre under orders of heavily armed soldiers) have been jailed, the intellectual authors, ranking officers up through the chain of command in the Armed Forces, remain free today in Guatemala, 29 years later.

The Rio Negro surviving victims - that formed themselves into ADIVIMA - filed their petition with the Inter-American Commission, once they realized the Guatemala legal system was simply not going to allow justice to be done against the intellectual authors. For years, the Commission tried to come to a "friendly solution" between the Government of Guatemala and the Rio Negro surviving victims, that was not possible; thus, the case has been sent by the Commission to the Court.

While this is an extremely important step forward, it is important to clarify that the Court cannot and will not individualize responsibility for the Rio Negro massacre. Again, the intellectual authors will be left untouched. More impunity.


As set out in the articles below, the general context of the Rio Negro massacres was the State terrorism and genocide that the Guatemala military and oligarchy were carrying out against their own population - mainly Mayan people. This extreme repression was carried on in the name of the U.S. & western-back 'war on communism', that peaked (in Guatemala) from 1978-1983.

However, the specific context of the Rio Negro massacres, set out in the articles below, was the Chixoy hydro-electric dam project, a billion-dollar "development" project of the World Bank (WB) and Inter-American Development Bank (IDB).

At the same time as the Rio Negro massacres case has worked its way painfully through the dysfunctional Guatemalan courts, to the Commission and now to the Court, the Chixoy Dam Reparations Campaign has been seeking compensation and reparations from the Guatemalan government, WB and IDB, for the widespread losses and harms caused against 32 Maya-Achi villages (including Rio Negro) that were illegally and forcibly evicted or otherwise harmed to make way for the Chixoy Dam.

Both the WB and the IDB profited from their investments in this "development" bank; to date, 29 years later, neither has paid any money in the form of compensation or reparations for all the loss of life, land, home, community and livelihood.

La lucha sigue; the struggle continues for the surviving victims of the Rio Negro massacres, and for all the villages displaced and harmed by the Chixoy dam project.

Rights Action, Grahame Russell (, Annie Bird (

* * * * * * *


By Grahame Russell, 1993

In the aldea of Rio Negro (municipality of Rabinal, department of Baja Verapaz) there is a small cement cross, stuck in the ground, on top of a "clandestine" grave, on which is written: "On March 13, 70 women and 107 children were massacred by the repressive forces of Lucas and the Judicial from Xocol. Rio Negro, 1982."

"Lucas" refers to then military leader General Romeo Lucas Garcia; the "Judicial" are today the "voluntary" armed civil defense patrols (PACs), responsible for tens of thousands of human rights violations, including murders, disappearances, torture, rape, illegal detentions, etc.

In November, 1993, exhumations were initiated at Rio Negro by surviving family members and human rights organizations, Rio Negro being the place where the 177 women and children were dumped that March 13, 1982.

As in other countries throughout the Americas, where massacres have been carried out against civilian populations, Guatemalan survivors and family members of victims of massacres have an overwhelming need to find where their murdered loved ones were dumped, dig them up, give them a proper burial, and initiate some sort of process for justice.

At the 'dig' site, after the bodies have been dug up one by one by the Guatemalan Forensic Team (EAFG), the work of identifying the remains begins. Anthropologists place bits of clothing on sheets of plastic, asking the surviving family members to try and identify them. Men and women mill about, in semi-trance states, turning bits of clothing over in their hands, speaking in hushed tones in different Mayan languages, openly crying. A Dominican priest offered a service for the dead.


This article aims to de-mystify the Rio Negro massacre, a need that comes from the fact that Guatemalan human rights atrocities receive little international press coverage. When covered, they are presented in a 'snap-shot' fashion, leaving the reader stunned about one more horror that took place in a 'third' world country.

There is nothing surprising about this massacre; massive human rights violations have been commonplace in Guatemala.


In 1954 the CIA and the United Fruit Company conspired and collaborated with sectors of the Guatemalan military and elite economic sectors to carry out a coup against a democratically elected government, leaving in place more or less the same military-economic regime that governs Guatemala today.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s the Guatemalan Armed Forces (GAF), with support from successive U.S. administrations, unleashed a wave of violence against all persons and groups demanding respect for human rights, that voiced opposition to the reigning political-economic-military order. The victims of this repression were, according to the government, members or supporters of the URNG armed rebel movement. The victims were called variously communists, marxists, subversives, etc.

Rio Negro was one of hundreds of towns and villages that the GAF and the PAC destroyed during five years (1978-1983) of counter-insurgency military warfare, using "scorched earth" tactics against the civilian, mostly Mayan population. "Scorched earth" military tactics (destroying houses, towns, animals, crops and people) were extensively used by the U.S. in Vietnam, and have been taught by the U.S. to militaries across the Americas.

The GAF and PAC used these tactics to force civilians to evacuate entire regions of the country where guerilla forces are suspected of operating. In the case of Rio Negro, they resorted to four massacres, including the March 13, 1982 massacre of 177 women and children.


Rio Negro was a quiet township of some 225 families of Mayan-Achi people. Though living in poverty, they lived in peace through to the late 1970s, when the GAF began arriving to ask about the "guerilla": "If you don't tell us where the guerilla are, then you are guerilla fighters" was an argument or justification commonly used by the army and civil defense patrollers.

The problems in Rio Negro are historical and complex. One issue that created unsurmountable tension was the government's economic development plan that included the building of the $900 million Chixoy hydro-electric plant, funded by the World Bank and the IDB. This entailed the creation of a reservoir that would inundate dozens of communities, including Rio Negro. The government tried to evict the inhabitants under terms that the communities argued were totally illegal and unfavourable.

As peaceful opposition to the dam grew, the GAF increased its use of repressive tactics, using the excuse of "fighting guerillas" to militarize the area.

One month before March 13, 1982, the GAF ordered the men of the community to present themselves at the Xococ (nearby rural community) military barracks, to receive military training for their "voluntary" participation in the PAC set up by the GAF throughout rural Guatemala to help further military control.

One witness fled back to Rio Negro community (a 3 hour hike along a remote trail) to tell the villagers that soldiers and civil defense patrollers in Xococ were torturing and killing those suspected of being guerilla fighters. On February 12, 1982, approximately 70 Rio Negro community members were brutally murdered in Xococ, that being the first of four massacres.

One month later, on March 13, soldiers and patrollers arrived at Rio Negro at 5am, to find no men there. (After the February 12 Xococ massacre, the men and older boys slept in the hills, everyone thinking that the army and civil defense patrollers were only going to come after the men and boys).

"As you (women and children) don't want to tell us where your husbands and sons are, you will come with us". The soldiers and patrollers forced the entire community to march to a place called "El Palo Conacaste" where the women were ordered to dance with the soldiers, music playing on a stolen tape deck. "How well you dance. You must dance this way with the guerilla", the soldiers and patrollers taunted.

After further forced march, they arrived at "Pacoxom", a low point in the mountain ridge above Rio Negro. The youngest women and oldest girls were separated off and repeatedly raped, before being killed. The other women and children were strangled by slowly turning sticks, with rope attached at either end and wrapped around their necks. Some soldiers killed the smallest children by grabbing their feet and bashing them against trees and rocks. One woman, Maria, and a ten year old child, escaped by jumping down the steep, deep ravine. Though the soldiers shot at them and gave chase, they survived.

Upon finishing the massacre, the soldiers dumped the dead over the edge of the ravine, merely covering their bodies with loose pine branches and brush.

Some days later three surviving men from the community came to the site, placed the cement cross and covered the bodies with earth. Later still, the soldiers returned to Rio Negro, burning all homes and possessions, killing animals and destroying crops.

With the elimination of the Rio Negro people and town, it was easy for the government to advance with its plans to build the Chixoy dam. A member of the Coban Pastoral Group, that accompanies surviving family members to the sites of massacres to exhume the graves, said "the Chixoy dam was built with the blood of the inhabitants of Rio Negro, Rabinal".

After the 1982 massacres, Rio Negro survivors remained in the mountains, living on plant roots, and corn. Some died of diseases, others of hunger, and some were found by the soldiers and killed.


It is now up to the Public Ministry to undertake an investigation to determine what everyone knows -- who is responsible for the massacre, who were the military personnel in command in Baja Verapaz at the time, and who were in charge of the 'Judiciales' and the PACs. This is the hard part. It is one thing to get legal permission (and the emotional strength) to dig up the hundreds or thousands of clandestine graves that exist in Guatemala; (between July 1992-July 1993 the Guatemalan Team of Forensic Anthropologists carried out numerous exhumations at four different sites in Guatemala) it is quite another to investigate who are the responsible persons and institutions and see justice done.

In a clear indication of the position of the GAF with respect to dealing with these crimes and massacres of the past, Colonel Alvaro Fabriel Rivas, GAF spokesperson, said with respect to Rio Negro: "It is more important to seek peace for the nation than to look towards the past".


This massacre - brutal and commonplace - was perpetrated by the GAF and PAC that remain in power today. The question of cause goes deeper. Until recently, it was rare to hear internationally of human rights violations in Guatemala, a faithful western ally during the 'cold war'.

The 'international community', particularly western nations (public and private sectors), supports Guatemala commercially, financially and often militarily, turning a blind eye to the fact that Guatemala has long been one of the most racist and repressive country in the Americas.

It is estimated that there are over 50,000 mainly Mayan people "disappeared" by the security forces, PACs and death squads, and dumped in clandestine graves; this is in addition to the well over 200,000 mainly Mayan persons who were murdered and whose bodies were either found, or also dumped in clandestine graves.

Said one member of the Coban Pastoral Group: "We know of another grave that has 356 bodies buried there, and we know that dozens of bodies were buried under the Chixoy hydro-electric dam. ... In the same Rabinal region as the Chixoy dam, at a community called "Plan de Sanchez" there are approximately 50 graves where there are buried 100s men and women".


Some questions are finally being answered: what happened, where, when, etc. But Rio Negro raises a series of other human rights questions much harder and arguably more important to answer: why did this and so many other massacres occur in Guatemala?; when will the impunity of the GAF, PAC and death squads end?; when will guilty individuals and institutions be put on trial?; why has so little real international pressure been brought to bear on the most repressive country of the Americas?; why do 'first' world governments, banks (including the World Bank and the IDB) and businesses continue to have full relations with Guatemala, helping to keep the reigning political-economic-military literally 'in power'?

The questions are not academic. Violence in Guatemala doesn't occur in a vacuum. This massacre was not an incomprehensible act of violence 'in some third world country where they value life less'. It was a logical and predictable consequence of Guatemalan political, economic and military policies.

It is unlikely that the persons and institutions responsible for Rio Negro massacre will be put on trial without international pressure from the very nations and commercial and financial interests that have kept the GAF and government in power.

(Grahame Russell is co-director of Rights Action,, Feel free to re-publish this article, citing author and source.)

Thursday, January 6, 2011


A Bus Massacre, A State of Siege in Alta Verapaz and the Parallel Drug State in Guatemala

By Annie Bird,, January 5, 2011

Guatemalan papers this morning printed the words of a father struggling with how to tell his remaining children that their mother and two siblings were among the seven killed yesterday, January 4, by an incendiary device planted by gangs that set fire to a bus in Guatemala City.

Terror is a constant in everyday life in Guatemala. Reports of tortured bodies and massacres fill the print media and airwaves, everyday. Guatemalans have come to expect increased levels of violence over the holidays and in the months leading up to elections; today Guatemala is facing both.

On Sunday, December 19, President Colom of Guatemala declared a State of Siege for the department of Alta Verapaz "to fight drug traffickers". Military and police forces can now, in Alta Verapaz, detain anyone, without arrest warrants; other fundamental rights like the right to assembly have been suspended.

Social movement organizations in Guatemala live first-hand the terrible violence, and know how desperately Guatemalans want something done to combat violence. However, organizations fear that handing over blanket powers to the very same forces that have shown, incident after incident, that they are pervasively compromised or controlled by organized crime networks, is not the path to turning back the siege of violence in Guatemala.

Community organizations and human rights activists point out that Alta Verapaz has one of the highest levels of agrarian conflict in Guatemala. Much of this conflict is between campesino and indigenous communities and large landholders, often with ties to organized crime that control and manipulate the justice system and the security forces; forces that could take advantage of a State of Siege to repress human rights and community defenders.

It is also significant that over the past several months, municipalities in Alta Verapaz have been carrying out community consultations, expressing their opposition to hydroelectric dam projects that are planned throughout Alta Verapaz, without the consent of affected Qeqchi communities. The State of Siege prohibits assembly, making such consultations impossible.

(One proposed mega-"development" dam project - the Xalala dam - is down river from the infamous Chixoy hydro-electric dam project [1975-1983] that resulted in the illegal, forced eviction of dozens of Mayan Achi communities and the massacring of over 440 men, women and children in the village of Rio Negro. The Chixoy dam project was initiated and funded by the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank. To date, no compensation or reparations have been given to the victims of the forced evictions and massacres).

Guatemala is living through a complex time, as are many Central and South America nations, as the people struggle to deconstruct authoritarian, corrupt and violent political, economic, legal and repressive structures that were invested with brutal power during the "Cold War," and in turn to construct effective democratic institutions.


The long complex battle to name an Attorney General in Guatemala recently turned out unexpectedly well. Some questions are whether the new AG - a woman - will be able to clean up the institution and to what degree will other key elements of the justice system, like the courts and security forces, remain under the control of organized crime?

The violent experience of neighboring Honduran president Manuel Zelaya, not just that his government was ousted in June 2009 by a military coup, but in the difficulties faced throughout his presidency, demonstrates that simply being President in no way means control of the State.


Anyone who lives in Guatemala can tell you that in several departments, not just Alta Verapaz, drug traffickers have gained territorial control over large areas of the country. This means that they control the land, the population and the government in large areas of the country. They do this principally by infiltrating the State, particularly the security forces and the justice system.

Depending on the pervasiveness and influence exercised by these parallel structures of power, organized crime controls to a greater or lesser degree the State.

These 'parallel structures' are nothing new in Guatemala, El Salvador or Honduras; and neither is the extreme violence and repression associated with them.

Over the past decade, levels of violence in the three countries have grown to earn the region the distinction of having the highest murder rate in the Americas and possibly the world, surpassing the levels of violence during the "internal armed conflicts" that the nations suffered in the 1970s and 1980s.

It is clear that the parallel networks that control entire regions in Guatemala today are built upon the foundations laid in the 1980s, when the military, police and paramilitary death squads carried out political violence mainly against the civilian population, and also against the small armed revolutionary movements, and at the same time engaged in a range of criminal enterprises, including drug trafficking.

It is also clear that there was nothing "internal" about the conflicts of the 1980s; just as organized crime networks today are by nature transnational, so were the networks in the 1980s. And just as the repressive sectors of the armies, police and death squads of the 1980s, which have morphed into today's organized crime networks, often had a right wing political agenda, it is clear that at least some of today's crime networks maintain a right wing political agenda.

After over ten years of heavy presence by the United Nations in Guatemala, in the form of a technical mission (MINUGUA) dedicated to overseeing the peace process, an innovative commission was created to fight corruption, precisely those parallel networks that have taken over the State.

CICIG (the International Commission Against Impunity), which acts in partnership with the Attorney General's office to investigate and prosecute corruption and organized crime networks in the State, was established in the end of 2007 and its mandate, scheduled to expire in 2011, was recently renewed by President Colom until 2013.


On May 25, 2010 President Colom named a Guatemalan attorney, Conrado Reyes, as the nation's new Attorney General. What was a fairly routine political appointment passed unnoticed by most for several weeks, until Carlos Castresana, the renowned Spanish judge that headed up CICIG, resigned in protest.

In a dramatic press conference, he described how in the few weeks since Reyes had taken control of the AG's office, Reyes had set about firing and intimidating honest public prosecutors, destroying ongoing investigations, and demonstrated links to organized crime networks.

Colom fired Reyes, after a June 10 Constitutional Court ruling found flaws in the process by which he was named. In Guatemala, a Postulation Commission - comprised of representatives from law schools and the bar association - receives applications to the position of AG, and selects a list of six candidates that they present to the President.

The President must choose from that list, and by most accounts all of the candidates presented alongside Reyes appeared to have connections to organized crime or reasons to doubt their capacity to serve as AG.

Following Reyes' firing the Postulation Commission came up with the same list of candidates! What followed was a six month struggle to get a new list of candidates, without apparent ties to organized crime, which meant using public shaming to force the institutions that comprise the Postulation Commission to name new representatives.

Finally, on December 10 Colom named Claudia Paz y Paz Bailey, the first woman to serve as AG of Guatemala. Paz is among the founders of the Institute of Penal Sciences of Guatemala, a leading voice for justice reform in Guatemala. She also served on the United Nations-sponsored truth commission in Guatemala. Her appointment has been widely applauded.


The cleansing of the police and military has been a constant issue for many, many years. The 1996 Guatemalan Peace Accords mandated the dismantlement of the infamous National Police and Ambulatory Military Police, implicated in massive gross human rights violations, and criminal activities in the 1980s.

Large numbers of demobilized soldiers were recycled into the new National Civil Police force. The Peace Accords mandated the reduction of the size and functions of the military, prohibiting military participation in policing. The size of the Guatemalan military shrunk from almost 55,000 soldiers to approximately 15,000 in 2007.

A similar process happened in neighboring El Salvador, while no reform occurred in Honduras.

Nonetheless, the years that followed the peace processes, in Guatemala and the region, saw incident after incident implicating both police and military in drug trafficking.

Paradoxically, though drug trafficking in Guatemala originated in the military, the military is increasingly being called upon for policing activities, though prohibited by the Peace Accords, as stated above, and despite the fact that there is no indication that powerful sectors of the armed forces do not continue to command drug operations.

Colom's administration was the first since the Peace Process to increase the size of the military, currently slightly over 17,000 troops and expected to grow by 3,000 over the next year.

The two major drug networks operating in Guatemala, the Zetas and the Gulf Cartel, are both known to be comprised largely by former military. Though the degree to which current military is involved is not clear, their involvement is in doubt. Incident after incident demonstrates massive corruption within the police; however, the highest levels of drug trafficking began in the military.


In January 2008, the current president Alvaro Colom assumed office, and two strange killings that year offer a glimpse into the difficulties implicit in cleaning out the military and police forces.

Venezuelan Victor Rivera was fatally shot while driving in Guatemala City on April 7, 2008, one week after his contract as a security advisor to the Guatemalan government was not renewed, a position he had occupied since at least 2000. He came to Guatemala in 1997, fleeing an arrest warrant in El Salvador, where he originally arrived in the early 1980s to work with Oliver North in his illegal Contra support operation, where according to one former DEA agent, Rivera was involved in "drug trafficking, kidnapping and training death squads."

After North's operation was shut down, Rivera, alias "Zacarias," was hired as an advisor to the El Salvadoran Vice Minister of Security Hugo Barrera, where he helped out with the formation of the new Civil Police Force, creating parallel structures, death squads, within the new force. The squad he coordinated was implicated in the 1996 killing of a medical student, and a warrant was issued for Rivera's arrest.

He fled to Guatemala where the new National Civil Police was still in the process of formation. Rivera was hired to advise the Minister of Governance. CICIG's investigations of the activities of death squads in 2006 revealed he apparently again formed death squads.

Then CICIG director Carlos Castresana named a former head of the Gulf Cartel as a suspect in Rivera's death, and characterized the two as long time acquaintances.

Another killing that offers a glimpse into the organized crime, military/ police nexus was that of Guatemalan General Mauro Antonio Jacinto Carrillo, alias "Geronimo." According to Guatemala's most recognized newspaper editor, Jose Ruben Zamora, Jacinto Carrillo in August 2008 explained that for four years he had coordinated an informal group of military officers who met with and advised then presidential hopeful Alvaro Colom about the infiltration of the military by organized crime networks.

Early in Colom's administration Jacinto Carrillo was rumored to be Colom's favored candidate for Minister of Defense. By July 2008, when Jacinto Carrillo in despair and fear met with Ruben Zamora, he reported that the same old actors implicated in organized crime still controlled the highest levels of the Ministries of Defense and Governance.

A few weeks later, shortly after reporting all of this to the US Embassy at Zamorra's insistence, Jacinto Carrilles was gruesomely tortured and killed.

Over the past six months renowned human rights advocate Helen Mack has worked to bring life to a commission for police reform, but she publically denounced the lack of political will within the Congress to provide the budget necessary to implement her plan to clean up the police. Organized crime's influence within the Congress has been repeatedly demonstrated. In October, the Colom administration approached the UNDP with requests for the necessary funds to support efforts to bring life to this commission.


While the people of Central America and Mexico suffer the excruciating consequences of drug trafficking, the US people and government do not fully and truthfully address our role and responsibility. The United States provides not only the massive drug market and sets the policy agenda in framing the "War of Drugs", with all the repression and violence that implies, but also has not come to terms with the role that agencies and agents of the US government have played and possibly continue to play in drug trafficking.

The history of US government involvement with drug trafficking networks in Central America in the 1980s has been amply documented through Department of Justice, Central Intelligence Agency and US Congress investigations and published in reports that demonstrate, along with declassified documents, that CIA operatives and other high level government officials, tolerated and even apparently promoted drug trafficking by their allies in the Contra forces that attacked the Sandinista government in Nicaragua from neighboring countries (Honduras and Costa Rica), and promoted the investment of drug money in the Contras, especially with the Medellin cartel, which shared an anti-communist political agenda along with the United States.

A National Archives report released this month, "Hitler Shadow," confirms that Nazi war criminal Klaus Barbie was employed by the US army Counter Intelligence Corps (CIC) to spy on German communist organizations in the wake of World War II, and that the CIC then facilitated his escape to Bolivia. His later role in helping coordinate an alliance between drug traffickers and right wing military to perpetrate the bloody 1980 Cocaine Coup in Bolivia has been documented.

Investigator Robert Parry points to the 1980 coup in Bolivia as critical to first securing a large scale, constant flow of coca paste to Colombia to be processed into cocaine by the Medellin cartel, propelling the Medellin operation to large scale trafficking.

He also cites testimony to the US congress by an Argentine military officer who collaborated with Bolivia's right wing coup government, as implicating the Cocaine Coup government in the investment of more than $30 million dollars in right wing paramilitary operations in Latin America, including funds to get the Contra operations started with money laundered in Miami.

The Argentine military first provided support for the Contra operation, and then the CIA took over. United States support of the Contra was coordinated by Oliver North, with the help of Victor Rivera, the security advisor to the Guatemalan government whose 2008 killing CICIG linked to the Gulf Cartel.

(It is interesting and important to note that Nicaragua, where security forces were dismantled by the Sandanista government in 1979, today does not suffer from the high levels of violence and repression that its neighbors suffer, nor the same levels of penetration of the State by drug networks, where - in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras - drug trafficking took root among the security forces involved in "anti communist" and "counter insurgency" operations in the 1980s.)

Generalized terror in Guatemala, and in El Salvador and Honduras, is overwhelming and ... normal. Organized crime controls, to significant degrees, many elements of the State in each country, and they have done so, to varying degrees, for a long time.

Policies and actions of the United States have contributed decisively to the existence of these 'parallel states', and to the generalized state of terror, historically and currently. If the United States in truth wishes to help stop the terror, it must begin with a truthful examination of its role in entrenching organized crime in power in Guatemala, but also Honduras and El Salvador.

(Annie Bird is co-director of Rights Action,, Feel free to re-publish this article, citing authors & source)

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

States of siege wrack Guatemala - Features - Al Jazeera English
- by Chris Arseneault

Coban, Guatemala – Despite a "state of siege" declared by Guatemala's government under the auspices of fighting drug cartels, the state of Alta Verapaz in the country's north feels fairly calm.

As night falls, the central square in Coban, the region's main city, bustles with activity. Tortilla vendors serve up steaming plates from roadside stalls and young couples canoodle, as crowds mill about in cool mountain air.

Occasionally, a pick-up truck packed with police squatting in the back rolls by, but residents in the city centre don't seem perturbed by recent presidential declarations allowing for warrantless detention, prohibitions on public gatherings and control over the local news media.

The government of president Alvaro Colom declared a state of siege for at least 30 days, beginning December 19, arguing that Mexican drug cartels, specifically the ultra-violent Los Zetas organisation, had taken control over much of Alta Verapaz.

Police have arrested at least 22 "traffickers" and confiscated five small planes, 239 assault weapons, 28 vehicles and explosives in a series of raids, officials say.

Covert repression?

No one disputes the power, corrupting influence or horrific violence projected by the cartels. "You could see them walking in the mall [in Coban] before the siege," says Cesar Bol, a leading activist with the National Indigenous and Campiseno Coordination Organisation (CONIC).

"They openly carried pistols on their belts, wore brand new clothes, drove brand new trucks and spoke with Mexican accents."

But in farming villages, church halls and independent research offices, there is deep scepticism about the government's actions.

"The state of siege is a strategy of the government to attack social movements," says Carlos Morales, who works for farmers' rights with the Union of Campiseno Organisations of Verapaz.

At least two activists, Chabil Utzaj and Pablo Sacrab, have been arrested in Alta Verapaz under the pre-text of the siege, another farmers' rights groups says.

Sitting beside bags of fertiliser and posters of the revolutionary Che Guevara in a warehouse-turned-office, Morales says the Zetas don't live in his municipality of Santa Cruz, a 15-minute drive from Coban.

He thinks the siege is staged and simply an excuse for repression, rather than a legitimate attempt to battle traffickers.

"There are agrarian conflicts in much of Alta Verapaz," he says. "The government is trying to silence groups organising for land reform and against mega-projects like hydro-electric dams and palm oil plantations."

While many urban Guatemalans do not share Morales's analysis, there is scepticism about why a state of emergency would be declared in Alta Verapaz, as it is not the country's most violent area.

Guatemala has one of the highest murder rates in the Americas, with 52 homicides per 100,000 inhabitants, compared with 14 in Mexico and 5.4 in the US.

Strange intentions

Haroldo Shetemul, a columnist with Prensa Libre newspaper, Guatemala's largest daily, notes that 57.7 per cent of the country's murders in 2010 happened in the region around Guatemala City, the capital.

If stopping violence and protecting average people is the goal of the siege, he writes, then Alta Verapaz "wasn't necessarily a priority".

The siege declaration didn't "exactly have the aim of protecting the population as a whole, but instead was a response to particular interests."

Even the Mayor of Coban, whose position would normally guarantee support for increased security, is somewhat critical of the siege.

Al Jazeera caught up with a sweaty Leonel Chacón after he finished a 10 kilometre fun-run through the city on New Year's Eve.

"If the government would have had a plan that they had carried out since the beginning of their term, we wouldn't have arrived at this," says Chacón, who does not belong to president Colom's governing National Union of Hope (UNE) party, which is considered left-leaning.

"If there were better policies, we wouldn't have to use this last resort," the Mayor says.

Poverty and police

Endemic poverty, police corruption, social exclusion, weak institutions, a history of violence, and a porous border with neighbouring Mexico - home-base for most cartels - are just some of the policy failures that must be addressed.

More than half of Guatemalans live below the nationally defined poverty line, with 15 per cent facing extreme poverty, according to figures from the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

Indigenous people, representing more than one third of the population, are the hardest hit group, with 43 per cent of children under five facing chronic malnourishment, one of the worst records in the world.

"Because of the poverty, they [drug traffickers] can easily recruit youth in rural communities," says Bol, the indigenous rights activist.

But young men looking for a fast escape from poverty aren't the only ones susceptible to narco-gold.

Ronaldo Robles, a government spokesman, said police in Alta Verapaz had been "totally infiltrated by the Zetas" and moved some local officers out of the area to other states.

"Moving police out of the region could go either way," says Cesar Bol. "It could bring in clean cops. Or new recruits could be working for corrupt high-ranking officials."

The army option

Mexico attempted to circumvent corrupt police by sending the army and navy to fight drug cartels. But Guatemala's history with military dictatorships makes that option politically unpalatable.

After the US sponsored a coup against the democratically elected government of Jacob Arbenz in 1954, various military strongmen ran the country until 1996.

The American CIA justified their intervention by accusing Arbenz of initiating "an intensely nationalistic program of progress coloured by the touchy, anti-foreign inferiority complex of the 'Banana Republic'", declassified documents reveal.

During the era of dictatorships, the military committed mass human rights violations, killing an estimated 100,000 people, although exact numbers remain unknown.

"After 36 years of war, there is a lot of nervousness among the population," says Carlos Morales. "People are going back into the mind-frame of terror."

And, more importantly than popular distrust of major military operations, the strategy of sending in the army has not been effective in Mexico, as evidenced by more than 30,000 dead bodies since that country's president declared all out war on the cartels in 2006.

An open border

Standing at the border between Mexico and Guatemala, it is hard to imagine that a declaration of siege in one state will stem the flow of contraband between the two nations.

At a formal border crossing, people move freely between the two states, lifting a small bar to pass through. Black market money-changers hold wads of cash on either side, exchanging Guatemalan Quetzals for Mexican Pesos with no formal oversight.

Nobody seems to be checking the cars, motorbikes, people and animals that move freely and frequently between the two countries.

"It's like dealing with cockroaches," says Isain Mandujano, a journalist with Proceso magazine in southern Mexico, in discussing the state of siege and the movement of drug gangs between Guatemala and Mexico. "If you clean your house, they move to the neighbour's house.

"And they can always come back."