Central America Theater

Guatemala: trial starts in 1980 embassy fire

On Oct. 1 a Guatemalan court began hearing the case of Pedro García Arredondo, a former chief of the National Police who is charged with causing the deaths of 37 people in a fire at the Spanish embassy in Guatemala City on Jan. 31, 1980. "We finally want to close a cycle of our sorrow, of our suffering," indigenous activist and 1992 Nobel peace prize winner Rigoberta Menchú Tum told reporters the day before the trial was to start. "It's painful to carry this," said Menchú, whose father, campesino activist Vicente Menchú, died in the fire.

Guatemala: police occupy town after violence

On Sept. 22 Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina declared a 30-day state of emergency in San Juan Sacatepéquez municipality in response to the deaths of at least eight indigenous Kaqchikel in a confrontation the night of Sept. 19-20 in the municipality's Pajoques community. Some 600 police agents were sent to the municipality; according to one report they were backed up by 1,000 soldiers. Under the state of emergency the police are free to break up any demonstration or public meeting held without government authorization. On Sept. 23 the police arrested five community members, charging them with murder, attempted murder, arson and illegal meetings and protests; there are warrants for several dozen other community members.

Nicaragua: contra-drug series was CIA 'nightmare'

On Sept. 18 the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) released a number of classified articles from its in-house journal, Studies in Intelligence, including an article about "Dark Alliance," a 1996 series in the San Jose Mercury News that linked the CIA-backed Nicaraguan contra rebels to the sale of crack in South Central Los Angeles in the 1980s. Other US media, notably the New York Times, the Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times, harshly criticized the series' author, investigative reporter Gary Webb, noting, and often exaggerating, flaws in his reporting. Webb lost his job at the Mercury News and was never employed by a major newspaper again; he was found dead on Dec. 10, 2004 in an apparent suicide.

Guatemala: eight die in cement factory dispute

A confrontation between indigenous Guatemalans in the early morning of Sept. 20 over the construction of a cement factory and a highway left eight dead in Loma Blanca community, San Juan Sacatepéquez municipality, about 30 km northwest of Guatemala City in Guatemala department. Several others were injured, and three houses and five vehicles were set on fire. According to Daniel Pascual, the leader of the Campesino Unity Committee (CUC), several armed men, some of them employees of the Cementos Progreso cement company, fired on residents who oppose the two construction projects. A Cementos Progreso representative, José González Merlos, blamed factory opponents. "These acts of violence aren't new," he said, charging that construction workers "have frequently been harassed and attacked in their homes." Factory opponents "respect absolutely nothing," according to González Merlos.

Honduras: mine opponents report new threats

Members of Honduras' Tolupan indigenous group in the community of San Francisco Locomapa in the northern department of Yoro have been threatened by armed men linked to organized crime, some residents charged in a video posted on YouTube on Sept. 10. There have been protests for more than a year against illegal logging in the area and against an antimony mine which the protesters say is operating without a permit. Locomapa residents María Enriqueta Matute, Armando Fúnez Medina and Ricardo Soto were killed by two mine employees during a protest on Aug. 23, 2013. The Honduran Black Fraternal Organization (OFRANEH) and other Honduran organizations say the government has failed to arrest the killers or take other actions required by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR, or CIDH in Spanish), the human rights agency of the Organization of American States (OAS). The CID ordered protective measures for 38 community members last year on Dec. 19. (Adital, Brazil, Sept.18)

Guatemala: bishop's killer runs prison ring

On Sept. 3 the United Nations-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) announced that a joint operation with Guatemala's Public Ministry and Governance Ministry had captured seven members of a criminal network that took bribes to arrange transfers for prisoners; the ring also supplied prisoners with cell phones, special food, conjugal visits and other benefits. According to the authorities, the network's leaders were Penitentiary System Director Edgar Camargo Liere and a prisoner, Byron Miguel Lima Oliva, who is serving a 20-year term for carrying out the April 26, 1998 murder of Catholic bishop Juan José Gerardi Conedera, a well-known human rights campaigner. A total of 14 people are charged with participating in the bribery ring, but apparently not all had been captured as of Sept. 3. (CICIG, Sept. 3)

Guatemala: activists defeat 'Monsanto Law'

Guatemala's unicameral Congress voted 117-111 on Sept. 4 to repeal Decree 19-2014, the Law for Protection of Procurement of Plants, in response to a lawsuit and mass protests by campesinos and environmentalists. The law, which was to take full effect on Sept. 26, provided for granting patents of 25 years for new plants, including hybrid and genetically modified (GM) varieties; unauthorized use of the plants or seeds could result in one to four years in prison and a fine of $130 to $1,300. The law had already been weakened by the Court of Constitutionality; acting on an Aug. 25 legal challenge from the Guatemalan Union, Indigenous and Campesino Movement (MSICG), the court suspended the law's Articles 46 and 55. The law was originally passed to comply with an intellectual property requirement in the 2004 Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), and it was unclear whether Guatemala might now be excluded from the US-promoted trade bloc.

Honduras: longtime campesina leader murdered

Masked men shot and killed Honduran campesino movement leader Margarita Murillo the night of Aug. 26 on land she farmed in the community of El Planón, Villanueva municipality, in the northern department of Cortés. Murillo reportedly began working for campesino rights at the age of 12. During the 1980s she was a founder of the Campesino National Unity Front (FENACAMH) and the General Confederation of Rural Workers (CNTC). After the military removed then-president José Manuel Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009) from office in June 2009, she was both a local and a national leader in the broad coalition resisting the coup, the National Popular Resistance Front (FNRP), and then in the center-left party that grew out of it, the Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE). The National Congress observed a moment of silence after reports of Murillo's death were confirmed.

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