This is the end of my fourth week working as Nonviolent Peaceforce protective accompaniment to La Unidad de Proteccion de Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos (Unit of Protection for Human Rights Defenders). Our Nonviolent Peaceforce team is a four person team now with Penn returning to Nicaragua and Bego and Vito here from Spain and Italy respectively. Betsy, our team coordinator, is doing an exceptional job of getting us organized. Our work has been in Guatemala City (where the majority of human rights violations are), but also out of the city.
Notwithstanding the following, I want to assure you that I am quite safe. There is little about our work here that would elicit what you are about to read.
We came face to face this week with the reality of politically motivated violence in Guatemala: five threats to a sister organization, the Instituto de Estudios Comparados en Ciencias Penales de Guatemala (Guatemalan Institute for Comparative Studies in Penal Sciences). Their current research includes cases of alleged human rights violations committed by public security forces and prison guards. The threats were reported immediately to Amnesty International, the Observatory of Human Rights Defenders, the Federation of Human Rights and the World Organization against Torture. Calls, faxes and letters have been coming to the Guatemalan government to halt the intimidation, kidnapping and assaults on Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders. You can see this alert here. The five threats were:
--A female ICCPG lawyer was intercepted by unknown assailants in a black jeep.. They first drove their cars close to her, hitting it in a hostile manner, then later the jeep stopped in front of her and another car appeared behind, trapping her. Four armed men wearing balaclavas and one holding a baseball bat forced her to get out of the car. She had just been interviewing an alleged victim of police violence. They told her they knew what she was doing and warned her to stop.
--A male ICCPG researcher was leaving the ICCGP when armed men forced him into a car. They told him if he kept being involved in things where they have no business, "we are going to start cutting off heads." They let him go after one hour, taking his money.
--A female ICCPF researcher working in the area of women in prison and gender violence, returned to her home to find her home broken into. Her child's teddy bear had its mouth covered with tape. Her home is two blocks from the police department.
--Two male ICCPF researchers were preparing to take testimony from an alleged victim of police violence. Police stopped them five times in their vehicle and checked their ID.
The Co-Director of La Unidad, Claudia Samayoa, issued her four month report this week outlining Human Rights violations for January to April. For the four month period, there were 100 reports of threats, all but 9 were considered to be threats to human rights defenders. Two cases are still in the process of verification. On average in the country, there is slightly less than one attack per day, with the largest number of attacks on Environmental defenders, and the second most frequent justice defenders, followed by union members and farmers, some of them mentioned specifically above. In all, there were 26 telephone threats, 14 intimidations, one kidnapping (see description above), ten break-ins (including the break in of La Unidad office in February), four assassinations and two attempted assassinations. These are all attempts to silence or get information about organizations which are defending human rights or to get Guatemalans to stop their human rights work. It does not include other common crimes that might be a violation of human rights.
One assassination was of Pedro Zamora, a union leader of the Porto Quetzal Port workers (Puerto San Jose on the Pacific coast) who was accosted by gunman when he was coming out of his home with his children. One child was also murdered. The gunmen yelled at one of the children "I've come to kill your father." Zamora protected one child with his body and the child survived with some injuries.
Another of the murders was that of Vicente Ramirez Lopez , a member of a farmers' union in Nueve San Jose Las Lagrimas. The next day, unknown men who presumably knew the gunmen, showed up and threatened his family. This was followed by a written threat.
For La Unidad, reports of these events come in almost daily. For a country that has police, military and security guards on every street of Guatemala City, there is great sense of insecurity.
We have been involved in accompanying La Unidad defenders as they investigate these cases.
The actual report, in Spanish, is posted here.
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Donations from individuals or congregations from churches are matched by the Samsara Fund of Minneapolis.