Seven were killed and some 40 wounded Oct. 4 when security forces attacked a protest road blockade by Maya indigenous campesinos in Guatemala's highland department of Totonicapán. Protesters were blocking Cuatro Caminos intersection, a meeting point for roads linking the towns of Totonicapán, Quetzaltenango, Huehuetenango and the capital, Guatemala City. President Otto Pérez Molina initially denied that soldiers on the scene were armed, saying the violence began when a private security guard on a cargo truck fired his gun in an attempt to clear the crowd. After Guatemalan newspapers ran photos from the scene clearly showing soldiers armed with rifles, Pérez changed his story, admitting the troops were armed but saying they only fired in the air after the protesters "tried to lynch" them. A private security guard and the seven soldiers who fired their weapons are under investigation by civil authorities, but Defense Minister Ulises Anzueto said the troops will remain in the army pending completion of the probe. Eight soldiers supposedly injured in the confrontation were presented to reporters at Anzueto's press conference in the capital.
Drug trafficking and violent crime in Central America and the Caribbean threaten the rule of law in those regions, according to a report released Sept. 27 by the UN Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC). The report concluded that cocaine trafficking and the associated violence are the main source of the threat. The UNODC expressed concern that addressing drug trafficking and violence through the use of increasing police presence could further threaten the rule of law by eroding civil rights and displacing organized crime to neighboring nations. The report called on nations in the region to coordinate an international effort to reduce crime, strengthen infrastructure and gain public confidence in law enforcement. It also recommended that the UN provide supplementary law enforcement and advisers to assist the region in developing a strong rule of law.
On Sept. 11, a judge revoked 10 arrest warrants that had been issued against community leaders in the Guatemalan municipality of Barillas, Huehuetenango, for alleged crimes against the Spanish firm Hidro Santa Cruz, which plans to build a dam on a river outside the village. A civil court in Santa Eulalia found the warrants were issued in violation of proper procedures. The 10 were accused by the company of property destruction, kidnapping and terrorism, among other charges, after riots broke out following the murder of a community leader, Andres Fransisco Miguel, who had been an outspoken opponent of the plans to dam the Río Q'am B'alam (also rendered Canbalam). Nine community members still remain detained in Guatemala City's central prison. Saturnino Figuero of the Assembly of Peoples of Huehuetenango for the Defense of the Territory expressed hope that these would be released too, saying, "We are convinced that because this case has become national and international news, the actors in the justice system will begin to align their actions more closely with the law." (Cultural Survival, Sept. 17)
The US embassy in Guatemala on Aug. 30 praised the decision of the Guatemalan Constitutional Court allowing former president Alfonso Portillo to be extradited to the US on charges of embezzling foreign donations. Upon extradition Portillo will stand trial in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York on charges of laundering US$1.5 million in Taiwanese foreign donations, which were supposed to be used to buy schoolbooks for Guatemalan children. Instead Portillo allegedly deposited the funds in various banks for his personal use. Portillo was president from 2000 to 2004 and was tried last year in Guatemala on charges of embezzlement under which he allegedly diverted approximately USD $15 million in funds from the Ministry of Defense. His extradition to the US was approved by a Guatemalan criminal court in March 2010.
Swiss prosecutors announced Aug. 31 that Erwin Sperisen, former commander of Guatemala's National Civil Police, was arrested in Geneva. The arrest is based on evidence submitted in 2011 by Guatemalan authorities linking Sperisen to extrajudicial killings. Sperisen, 42, holds both Swiss and Guatemalan nationalities; because of his Swiss citizenship he cannot be extradited, but authorities say he will be put on trial in Switzerland. He is accused in at least 10 homicides carried out in Guatemala's prison during his time as police commander from 2004 to 2007, thought to be part of a campaign of "social cleansing."
A court in Guatemala City on Aug. 21 sentenced Pedro García Arredondo, former chief of the National Police, to 70 years in prison for the 1981 disappearance and torture of a university student, Édgar Enrique Sáenz Calito. Enforced disappearance is a crime under international law, and the First Tribunal for High Risk found that the victim's torture in detention amounted to a crime against humanity. The judgment found that Arredondo "planned, cooperated with and aided in" Sáenz Calito's disappearance, and that he "had full authority and as a consequence, knowledge of what happened to the disappeared person." The ruling was hailed by human rights groups. "It has taken more than three decades for justice to catch up to Pedro García Arredondo, but this ruling sends another strong message that those responsible for past human rights violations in Guatemala will be held accountable," said Sebastian Elgueta, researcher on Central America at Amnesty International.
After living on land in the center of Guatemala City since January, a group of about 100 impoverished families were forced to move at least twice during the week of Aug. 13 as the result of an eviction order obtained by the Defense Ministry, which claims the property. Defense Ministry spokesperson Col. Erick Escobedo said the National Coordinator for Disaster Reduction had mandated the eviction on the grounds that the land was unstable; the disaster agency didn't return phone calls when the Associated Press tried to confirm Escobedo's statement.
An agent of Guatemala's National Civilian Police and two students were injured in a confrontation July 30 between riot police and students outside the Teachers School for Men in the south of Guatemala City; three students and a teacher were arrested for alleged attacks on security forces. The clash came after hundreds of students occupied eight schools, one in the capital and seven in other parts of the country, to protest proposed changes in the national teacher certification program. Security forces prevented the takeover of two other schools. Students also reportedly blocked various highways in the northern and northeastern parts of the country, but apparently without any confrontations with the police. (EFE, July 30)