Central America Theater
An indigenous leader who opposed pesticide abuse on Guatemala's palm oil plantations was killed Sept. 18 outside a court that just one day earlier ordered the closure of a plantation against which he had led protests. Rigoberto Lima Choc was slain by two gunmen on a motorcycle near the civil courthouse at Sayaxche, in the northern rainforest department of Peteñ—now heavily colonized by palm plantations. The court had ordered a six-month closure local palm oil manufacturer Repsa due to unethical environmental practices. Lima, a municipal councilor with the National Union of Hope (UNE), was campaigning against contamination of the Río La Pasión with pesticide runoff from the plantation. He documented the death of thousands of fish, with numerous marine species now threaetened with extinction. The United Nations office in Guatemala recently described the situation as an "ecological disaster." Two other activists have been abducted since the court ruling. Repsa employees protested in Sayaxche after the ruling. Repsa (for Peteñ Palm Reforestation) is a member of the UN Global Compact "corporate sustainability initiative." (Siglo21, Prensa Libre, Guatemala, Sept. 19; AFP, Global News, TeleSur, Sept. 18; UN Global Compact)
The constitutional chamber of El Salvador's Supreme Court of Justice on Aug. 24 ruled that the country's notoriously violent street gangs and those who support them financially will now be classified as "terrorist groups." The ruling came in a decision rejecting four challenges to the constitutionality of the country's Special Law Against Terrorist Acts (LECAT). The ruling defines terrorism as the "organized and systematic exercise of violence," placing the label on any group that attempts to usurp the state's monopoly on use of force. The ruling upholds the freezing of funds for any persons believed linked to the named groups, and a ban on any negotiation with the groups. At issue are the rival Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 gangs.
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina sent a letter to both the country's congress and reporters early Aug. 3 announcing his resignation and his intention to "stand before justice." The congress had called an emergency session to meet that day to accept the letter of resignation. Several hours before resigning, the public prosecutor requested Pérez Molina's arrest on corruption charges and a trial judge ordered his arrest. Pérez Molina and 30 other government officials allegedly took millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for keeping low import duties. Vice President Alejandro Maldonado has assumed the presidency, and must compile a list of three names for consideration for vice president, to be chosen by congress. Maldonado replaced vice president Roxana Baldetti, who was arrested in August on corruption charges. Eight other government officials have already resigned over the allegations. Pérez Molina's resignation comes only three days before the Guatemalan general election.
A Guatemalan court on Aug. 26 held that former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt can stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity but cannot be sentenced because he suffers from dementia. The court held that a special closed trial can be held where all evidence and witness testimony will be presented with representative of Ríos Montt present. Ríos Montt's lawyers have an opportunity to appeal. This ruling comes after a Guatemalan court, earlier this month, ordered Rios Montt to undergo competency tests to determine whether he was fit to stand trial. In May the Guatemalan Congress approved a resolution denying any existence of genocide during the country's civil war.
The UN International Commission Against Impunity on July 18 reported that approximately a quarter of the money used for Guatemalan political campaigns is from criminal groups. The main criminal group being drug traffickers. The report also indicated that government contractors themselves contribute to more than half of the funds. Ian Velásquez, head of the commission, stated: "Corruption is the unifying element of the Guatemalan political system based on an amalgam of interests that include politicians, officials, public entities, businessmen, non-governmental organizations and criminal groups." The report suggested several campaign finance reforms including limiting private funding, strengthening institutional coordination, and reforming the system itself.
Thousands of protesters marched in Honduras on June 26 calling for the resignation of President Juan Hernández and demanding an independent investigation into his role in an ongoing corruption scandal. Hernández is accused of knowingly using money from a $200 million embezzlement scandal at the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS) to help pay for his 2013 presidential campaign. Hernández last week acknowledged that his campaign did receive funds from people involved with the scandal, but stated he and his party had not been made aware of where that money had come from.
Thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets May 16, demanding the nation's President Otto Pérez Molina step down amid a scandal that has already forced the resignation of his vice president, Roxana Baldetti. Despite rain, protesters marched in 13 cities. Throngs filled the capital's central plaza, where a giant banner read "We are the people." The mobilization was largely leaderless, organized by social media under the hashtag #RenunciaYa (Resign Already). It all blew up in April, when the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala released findings of an investigation into a customs bribery ring uncovered by Guatemalan prosecutors. Baldetti's private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, was named as the ringleader, forcing Baldetti to step down May 8—despite protesting her innocence. Pérez Molina likewise pleads ignorance about the ring, dubbed "La Línea," and pledges a crackdown on corruption. Monzón is on the lam and an Interpol warrant has been issued.
Panamanian vice president and foreign minister Isabel Saint Malo de Alvarado announced on Feb. 9 that the country's National Environmental Authority (ANAM) had ordered the temporary suspension of work on the $130 million Barro Blanco hydroelectric project, which is being built on the Tabasará river in the western province of Chiriquí. ANAM attributed the suspension to the owners' failure to comply with requirements in an environmental impact study, including those for clear agreements with affected communities and a plan approved by the National Culture Institute (INAC) to protect archeological relics likely to be flooded by the dam. ANAM officials also cited the owners' handling of hazardous waste without an environmental impact study and the lack of a plan for the management of sediments.