Mobilisations and protests against high living costs and political persecution
In recent months in Guatemala, expressions of unrest and protests against the drift towards totalitarianism and the assault on institutions by the so-called ‘pact of the corrupt’, which unites the most conservative and recalcitrant sectors of Guatemalan society, have multiplied in recent months.
The escalation of repression, in the midst of a growing militarisation of civilian life, has been characterised by the systematic persecution of social activists, defenders of land and common goods, students, communicators, justice operators and political opponents.
The recent fraud in the elections of authorities at the University of San Carlos de Guatemala (Usac), as well as the attacks on judges and prosecutors are clear signs of the deterioration of democratic institutions in the Central American country.
A situation that has become even more dramatic with the economic crisis caused by the pandemic, the impact of two hurricanes (Eta and Iota) and the incapacity, negligence and disinterest of the authorities for it to make them face adversity.
On 9 and 11 August, the Social and Popular Assembly of Guatemala, a body comprising a broad spectrum of organisations, has called for a multi-national strike against the high cost of living, corruption, impunity, the co-optation of institutions and the criminalisation of the social struggle.
From regression to authoritarian consolidation
After the signing of the peace accords (1996), Guatemala promoted a series of actions that led to significant changes in the justice system.
These reforms facilitated the investigation and prosecution of retired military officers who committed serious human rights violations during the long internal armed conflict, as well as members of the political elite and the national oligarchy implicated in corruption, influence peddling and impunity.
Of course, the reaction was not long in coming. The response to the trials and convictions of power actors who have historically enjoyed total impunity was the beginning of an accelerated process of authoritarian regression.
“From 2017 onwards, this regressive process gained more strength and we have now entered the stage of consolidation of the authoritarian State,” explains Jorge Santos, general coordinator of the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (Udefegua).
To better analyse and understand what is happening in Guatemala, Udefegua has systematised indicators that help us identify where and how this process is taking place.
“There is institutional capture and an alignment of the three branches of government. The population is completely defenceless in the face of public institutions totally controlled by the ‘corrupt pact’.
There is an increase in the processes of militarisation in the country, not only in terms of control of territories, but also in terms of appropriation of spaces and areas that belong to civilian authorities”, says the human rights defender.
At the same time, Santos continues, there is evidence of an upsurge in extreme conservatism and a significant increase in violence and repression, particularly affecting the most vulnerable sectors of Guatemalan society.
“Indigenous peoples, children, young people, women and the LGBTI population are suffering the main effects of this regressive policy, with a significant increase in acts of violence, especially political violence against all those identified as opponents of the regime”, it warns.
Killings, assaults and harassment
In its most recent report, Udefegua notes that in 2021, 1002 aggressions against human rights defenders, organisations and communities were registered, including 11 murders, 5 attempted murders and 5 cases of torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment.
A total of 211 aggressions against justice operators were also documented, in the midst of an accelerated process of co-optation of the Public Prosecutor’s Office.
According to Udefegua, this institution “has abandoned its work of investigating acts of violence and aggression against individuals, communities and organisations”, directing its efforts towards “the pursuit of impunity for the aggressors and the criminalisation of defenders”.
Likewise, 127 aggressions against journalists and social communicators and 147 against defenders of land and common goods were registered.
The largest number of attacks were acts of defamation (385), followed by harassment (158), unfounded legal complaints (101), illegal detention (57), intimidation (52) and verbal threats (24).
More than 500 attacks are allegedly attributed to government officials.
“We are facing an alliance between the economic elite, who lead the ‘pact of the corrupt’, the political and military elites who carry out the actions designed by the oligarchy, and organised crime.
For the coordinator of Udefegua, the main victims of the authoritarian escalation are those sectors suffering the onslaught of the imposition and deepening of a neoliberal extractivist economic model, which aims to refunctionalise the historic privileges of the oligarchy.
This deepening of the economic model – the report explains – is being carried out with blood and fire, committing illegalities and removing it from the scene those who oppose the installation of their investments.
“Where this model is being implemented most profoundly, with its mining projects, energy generation, expansion of monocultures and destruction of forests, is where there is most aggression and violence against defenders of the land and the commons”.
On the other hand, as the consolidation phase of the authoritarian state implies taking absolute control of the institutions, the strategy of aggression has also been directed towards the justice operators who led the investigations and criminal prosecutions against the military and oligarchs.
Currently, it is estimated that at least 24, including judges and prosecutors, have had to leave the country. The same is happening with other justice professionals and human rights defenders.
There is also a systematic attack on media outlets that have dedicated themselves to investigating cases of corruption and influence peddling involving President Alejandro Giammattei or people close to him.
The Udefegua report mentions, among others, emblematic cases such as the attacks against journalists Michelle Mendoza, Sonny Figueroa, Marvin del Cid, Juan Luís Font, community journalist Carlos Ernesto Choc and, more recently, against José Rubén Zamora, director of El Periódico.
Other media outlets such as La Hora, Plaza Pública, Prensa Comunitaria, No Ficción, Quórum and El Periódico itself are also victims of attacks.
“Aggressions, defamation and stigmatisation of journalists and social communicators, as well as threats, theft of equipment and violent raids are part of this atmosphere that is settling in the country”, says Santos.
The same goes for the outgoing Human Rights Ombudsman (Jordán Rodas), who has been systematically attacked during his term and who will now be replaced by someone totally linked to the ‘corrupt pact’.
“They are going to do the same thing they did in the Public Ministry, which is to dismantle the institutionality within the institution itself. What they are trying to do is to restore the old impoverishing, violent and unpunished order of the past,” warns the human rights defender.
Unity, resistance and action
So far, the mobilisation of broad sectors of Guatemalan society has not been able to achieve substantive changes, nor to put the ‘corrupt pact’ in check.
According to Jorge Santos, there is a phenomenon linked to Guatemala’s democratic, progressive, left-wing and even revolutionary expressions themselves, which, until now, has made it impossible to generate a wide-ranging organisation that brings together all of these active forces in the country.
“We still have at least five competing expressions with these characteristics, in a scenario where the electoral rules are designed in such a way that citizens cannot exercise their right to choose, but only choose between the political options that the oligarchy has already defined.
It is therefore a dictatorship of a new kind, with an oligarchy that, regardless of the political actor in power, is the one who really exercises power”, explains Santos.
Next year, general elections will be held in Guatemala, and a whole series of actions by the electoral authorities have already been denounced, aimed at limiting or hindering the participation of parties that would represent change.
In this context of institutional co-optation, the aim is to benefit the right-wing options, consolidating and deepening the authoritarian scheme that is being experienced in the country.
“Here it is not so much the possibility of electoral fraud, but rather a process with a series of fraudulent actions that, in the end, will determine which political actors will be authorised to participate in the electoral event.
We are seeing, for example, how the daughter of the genocidal Ríos Montt is creating an oligarchic-military political alliance with the son of former president Álvaro Arzu, the main promoter of the neoliberal, privatising and plundering model of the country”, says the coordinator of Udefegua.
Despite the difficulties and the complex scenario in which Guatemala finds itself, the resistance continues and the people remain on the streets.
“Everywhere you turn in the 22 departments and 340 municipalities of this country there is resistance and defence of human rights. The regime had to impose a state of emergency and militarise the territory to try to stop the protest.
The populations are permanently mobilised in defence of their rights and their territories, trying to reverse this scenario. People come to the courts to support criminalised prosecutors and judges, and they do the same to support defenders and communities.
Sooner rather than later – concludes Jorge Santos – we will realise that it is necessary to make the leap towards the great social and political articulation, which is essential if we want to defeat the ‘corrupt pact'”.
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