Central America Theater

Belize: villagers on trial for protecting Maya site

Thirteen Maya villagers are to stand trial in Belize over their expulsion of a settler they said had illegally encroached upon the grounds of an archeological site. A trial date of March 30 has been set in the case of the "Santa Cruz 13," who were arrested in a police raid of their village in June—days after expelling Rupert Myles from the Uxbenká site in southern Toledo district. Among the 13 charged with "unlawful imprisonment" is Q'eqchi Maya community leader Cristina Coc. Villagers say Myles illegally built a house on the grounds of the site against the wishes of the community, and Belizean authorities failed to respond to their call to have him removed. Villagers admit they restrained Myles when he became unruly at a community meeting that had been called to work out the matter, but deny his claims that they assaulted him. They also deny his charge that they are discriminating against him because he is Creole. Myles, who has a common-law wife in the Maya village, built his house on the Uxbenká site after being denied a request to do so on village lands. Village authorities say the decision was made based only a shortage of available land.

Honduras: another indigenous leader assassinated

Honduran activist Nelson Noe García Lainez was murdered March 15, becoming the second member of the indigenous environmental group COPINH to be shot to death in the country over the last two weeks. He was gunned down at his home in the Rio Lindo community, Francisco de Yojoa municipality, Cortés department—12 days after the shooting death of COPINH co-founder Berta Cáceres. COPINH said that García was shot upon arriving home after a violent eviction by Military Police of a peasant community on disputed lands at Río Chiquito, in nearby Omoa municipality. A statement by the National Police said the slaying was unrelated to the eviction and the matter is under investigation. The community at Río Chiquito was established two years ago to reclaim lands that local peasants say were fraudulently taken by landlords with the complicty of corrupt officials. Human rights groups in Honduras and around the world have demanded the protection of COPINH members since the assassination of Cáceres. (COHA, March 16; TeleSur, El Heraldo, Tegucigalpa, El Tiempo, San Pedro Sula, March 15)

Honduras: fears for activists after Cáceres slaying

Fears are being raised for the security of activists and rights observers in Honduras following the March 3 assassination of indigenous leader Berta Cáceres. Amnesty International has issued an urgent call for Honduran authorities to allow Mexican human rights defender Gustavo Castro Soto, sole witness to the murder, to leave the country. Castro, who works with Amigos de la Tierra México, had been staying at Cáceres' home to witness in the event of an attack, and she is reported to have died in his arms. He was also wounded in the attack, although not gravely. Three days after the slaying, he was detained by authorities at the Tegucigalpa airport while attempting to board a flight for his country. Officials from the Mexican embassy arrived at the airport, and succeeded in securing his relase to embassy staff. He now remains at the embassy in Tegucigalpa, despite demands of Honduran officials that he return to Intibucá department, where the slaying took place, to be deposed. He has already provided testimony and fears for his safety in Honduras, according to Amnesty. (Amnesty International, March 7; La Jornada, March 6)

Indigenous leader slain in Honduras

Berta Cáceres, a prominent indigenous rights activist in Honduras, was slain by unknown gunmen who invaded her home at La Esperanza, Intibucá department, on March 3—the day before what would have been her 46th birthday. One of her brothers was also injured in the attack. Cáceres, director of the National Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), was awarded the Goldman Environmental Prize last year for her campaign to stop the Agua Zarca hydro-electric project in the Río Gualcarque watershed. Authorities said she was killed during an attempted robbery, but her family said that Cáceres was assassinated "because of her struggle." (NPR, ICTMN, La Prensa, Honduras, March 3) The killing sparked angry student protests at National Autonomous University of Honduras in Tegucigalpa, with police using tear-gas. (The Guardian, La Prensa, March 4)

Guatemala: harsh terms for crimes against humanity

A retired lieutenant colonel and a former paramilitary were sentenced to 120 years and 240 years in prison, respectively, for sexual slavery and other crimes against humanity during Guatemala's civil war. In a Feb. 26 ruling, Judge Jazmin Barrios found that the actions of retired Lt. Col. Esteelmer Francisco Reyes Girón and former paramilitary Heriberto Valdez Asij did "irreparable harm." Reyes and Valdez were tried for murder, forced disappearances and the sexual enslavement of multiple women. The court also found that the women's husbands and children had been forcibly disappeared.

El Salvador: indigenous mark 1932 massacre

This January marked 84 years since the 1932 uprising of rural peasants and Communist Party organizers and the state-led genocide that followed in El Salvador. Indigenous organizations in the country gathered in the western departments of Ahuachapán and Sonsonate to remember those lost and call for justice. "For us, this is a painful moment. They killed many defenseless people. Our grandparents cried for justice, they couldn’t stand the hunger, the misery, the slavery, and they started to organize,”"Rafael Latin, elected indigenous leader of the town of Izalco, explained. "We have been pushed from our lands since the Spaniards arrived. They took away our collective lands; they tried to eliminate us."

Guatemala: court refuses to lift lawmaker's immunity

The Supreme Court of Guatemala on Jan. 28 rejected a request to strip a member of congress of his immunity from prosecution for allegedly overseeing grave human rights violations during the country's civil war. Edgar Justino Ovalle is a top adviser to President Jimmy Morales and a member of Congress, which gives him immunity from prosecution. A spokesperson for the court stated that there was insufficient evidence that he participated in the alleged acts. However, the spokesman also explained that the court decided to reject the request "in limine," without further investigation. Edgar Ovalle was accused of having led operations as a military officer in which 77 massacres took place. The request to lift Ovall's immunity came from Prosecutor General Thelma Aldana.

Guatemala: ex-officers arrested in 'disappearances'

Prosecutors in Guatemala on Jan. 6 announced the arrest of 14 former military and government officials for alleged crimes against humanity committed during the country's 1960-1996 civil war. Among the detained is Benedicto Lucas García, chief of the army High Command under the rule of his late brother, ex-dictator Fernando Romeo Lucas García, between 1978 and 1982. Also detained were retired Gen. Francisco Luis Gordillo, who helped bring José Efrain Rios Montt to power in the coup that toppled Lucas García in 1982, and Byron Barrientos, who was interior minister during the 2000-2004 presidency of Alfonso Portillo. "The cases that we have documented were [attacks] against the non-combatant civilian population including children," the country's chief proscutor Thelma Aldana said, asserting that they were among "the largest forced disappearances in Latin America."

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