As the election period comes to its official end, the situation in Guatemala is becoming ever more tense. Although a number of human rights organizations asked the Supreme Electoral Tribunal to extend the electoral period until January 14, when the President-elect Bernardo Arévalo will be inaugurated, the period was declared over on October 31. The end of the election period means charges can be filed against members of the Movimiento Semilla Party. It also means that the Semilla party can be suspended, and on November 2, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) ordered the party’s registration suspended. The magistrates of the TSE are insisting that the presidential binomial of Semilla, as well as Semilla’s congressional representatives and mayors, will take office next January 14 and 15, nonetheless, given that the positions have already been officialized and adjudicated. But concerns remain. When the original order to suspend the party was made last summer, the Guatemalan Congress made the decision to consider Semilla’s congressional representatives to be independents, leaving the party unable to hold membership on committees or on the board of directors of Congress and unable to represent Guatemala internationally. Large demonstrations are planned for November 3, 4, and 5. Meanwhile, efforts to tamp down protests have raised concerns internationally. The Attorney General’s Office of Guatemala has repeatedly attempted to compel the Guatemalan police to remove protesters by force from the streets and from the plaza in front of the Public Ministry. Refusing the orders, Guatemala’s Minister of the Interior resigned and has been replaced by a former army officer. On October 18, the Constitutional Court ruled that the plaza in front of the Public Ministry in Guatemala City had to be cleared of protesters. In response, many more protesters journeyed to Guatemala City to stand with others in the plaza and in front of the Constitutional Court, defending democracy and demanding Attorney General Consuelo Porras’ resignation. Two protesters, to date, have been killed. Details are below. Please continue to take action to call for a strong US response.
Indigenous Leader Shot to Death at Protest
Noé Gómez Barrera, a 65-year-old Indigenous Xinca Indigenous leader, was shot to death on October 29 in El Caulote, in the department of Jutiapa. He had reportedly organized the demonstrations in the area and was a well-known leader and human rights defender.
On October 16, as nationwide protests reached the two-week mark, one person, whose name has not been released, was shot to death and four others were injured at a protest in Malacatán, in the western department of San Marcos. According to the Guatemalan government, 50 people carrying sticks, stones, and firearms attempted to disband the protest, and a firefight ensued. Eleven men were quickly arrested for the killing. Social media users have reportedly linked Alvaro López, the mayor of Ocós and a leader in the ruling party VAMOS, and his bodyguards to the murder.
Giammattei Refuses to Meet with Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs
On October 25, the US Department of State’s Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Brian Nichols, visited Guatemala for two days to support a peaceful presidential transition process. According to a press release, the purpose of the visit to Guatemala and El Salvador was to “support democratic processes, understand the reality, and give a message that democracy is the most important form of government and the will of the people of the country is key to the future.” On X (formerly Twitter), he emphasized the importance of collaboration in protecting human rights and defending democracy and called on all sectors to support the transition of presidential power to President-elect Bernardo Arévalo. In addition to Indigenous and civil society representatives, Nichols also visited private sector leaders, to “boost inclusive prosperity in Guatemala and discuss opportunities for collaboration.” Though he requested a meeting with President Giammattei, the president declined the meeting on grounds that it was inconvenient, sending his foreign minister to meet with Nichols instead. After meeting with Indigenous leaders of the national protests, Nichols said he “engaged in vital conversations with courageous Indigenous leaders and human rights defenders while in Guatemala,” again emphasizing his support for democracy in the region.
Minister of Interior Resigns and Constitutional Court Orders Him Investigated
Minister of the Interior David Napoleón Barrientos resigned on October 16, after the Public Ministry, headed by Attorney General Consuelo Porras, asked the Constitutional Court to dismiss him. According to Porras, Barrientos had not obeyed a Constitutional Court ruling that, in Porras’ view, required demonstrators demanding her resignation to be forcibly removed from protest sites. In his resignation letter to President Alejandro Giammattei, Barrientos stated that he ran the Ministry of Interior lawfully and with respect for human rights, but that he was resigning, “given the complexity of the current situation in which the country finds itself.” On October 17, Byron René Bor Illescas was named as his replacement. According to a statement from the Ministry of Interior, Illescas is an attorney, notary, and retired Brigadier General of the Guatemalan army. Before taking the position as Minister, he worked as a senior advisor to former minister Barrientos in the Ministry of the Interior.
On October 18, the Constitutional Court ordered an investigation of former Minister Barrientos for alleged non-compliance with the Court’s ruling to clear the protesters. The Public Prosecutor’s Office, given the Court’s ruling, will have to initiate an investigation of him.
Constitutional Court Orders Clearing of Plaza in front of the Attorney General’s Office
On October 18, the Constitutional Court ordered the new Interior Minister and the National Civil Police Director to remove demonstrators in front of the Attorney General’s Office in Guatemala City. The Court’s ruling stated that these officials had to remove the demonstrators, who were allegedly blocking the building’s exits, or face removal from their posts themselves. The Court also ordered the Interior Minister and National Civil Police Director to arrest those protesters “implicated in crimes.” In spite of the ruling, protesters from various parts of Guatemala headed to the capital to support the protesters and to protest also in front of the Constitutional Court. This ruling follows a previous ruling by the Court that appeared to grant demonstrators the right to protest but specified that they “not unduly burden other essential rights.” Protesters of their own accord have now made a clear path around the building’s doors.
The Mediation Mission of the Organization of American States (OAS) in a statement expressed concern about the Constitutional Court’s rulings, highlighting the importance of guaranteeing and respecting the right to social protest and refraining from criminalizing and persecuting both protesters and institutions. The Mediation Mission also said that, through a series of meetings, it had verified that the reason for the mobilizations, blockades, and citizen rejection is related to the actions of the Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, the Prosecutor Rafael Curruchiche, the Prosecutor Cinthia Monterroso and Judge Fredy Orellana, which threaten the integrity of the electoral process and the results of the 2023 General Elections. The Mediation Mission referred to a “climate of tension and reproach” that is overtaking Guatemala and stressed that sovereign decisions expressed by citizens through the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) should take precedence and that protests are legitimate. It identified the raids of the TSE, in which election material was taken, as a trigger for the nationwide protests.
United States officials issued statements soon after the Court’s ruling, repeating warnings they have made over the past few months to “use all tools available” to sanction officials undermining democracy in Guatemala. Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs at the US State Department Brian Nichols tweeted, “We deplore @CC_Guatemala’s order to clear peaceful protesters by force from demonstration sites in Guatemala. The anti-democratic actions of @MPGuatemala and others who seek to prevent @BArevalodeLeon from taking office will fail. We, along with the international community, stand with the Guatemalan people who have made their voices heard through their votes electing @BArevalodeLeon, as certified by @TSEGuatemala.”
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the Special Rapporteurship for Freedom of Expression in an October 30 statement expressed concern about “various actions that seek to delegitimize and intimidate those who demonstrate in Guatemala, as well as the recent decision of the Constitutional Court, which has the effect of limiting the right to protest.” The statement mentions murder of the protester in Malacatán, pointing out that police were present but did not intervene to stop the violence. The statement also mentions with concern that the Constitutional Court’s order regarding the clearing of protesters from the environs of the Public Ministry’s (Attorney General’s) office contained language such as «execute the relevant actions and measures to restore public order,» including through the use of public force and with the cooperation of the Guatemalan army. In addition, the statement points out, the Court questioned whether some «non-peaceful» mobilizations could constitute crimes against humanity for «provoking the extermination of civilians» following «situations of destruction of facilities and water reserves.» In the statement, the IACHR expressed concern also about the murder of Indigenous Xinca leader Noé Gómez and the Public Ministry’s announcement that it would investigate a member of the Guatemalan Congress for a tweet he posted. The IACHR once again called on the Guatemalan government to allow it to visit the country.
Public Ministry Plans to Investigate Member of Guatemalan Congress for Tweet
The Office of Crimes Against Operators of Justice and Syndicalists announced on October 27 that it is lifting the immunity of Semilla congressional representative for the Central District, Samuel Andrés Peréz Alvarez, for possible crimes that jeopardize the country’s domestic security. On October 18, he shared two photos on social media of the Constitutional Court’s order that the Ministry of the Interior and National Civil Police (PNC) would have to forcibly clear protesters from the area around the Public Ministry. He captioned the photos “Declaration of War. The CC [Constitutional Court] sends the army to the streets.” The Public Ministry alleges that this post could cause destabilization. According to the MP, these types of comments “can attack the legal and democratic regime of the state of Guatemala, therefore it is considered that they can constitute criminal offenses.”
Constitutional Court Refuses to Make Firing of Porras Possible without Serious Crime
On October 19, the Constitutional Court ruled against an injunction, filed by the 48 Cantons of Totonicapan, which would have allowed President Giammattei to comply with the Guatemalan people’s demand to fire Consuelo Porras. The Court could have suspended part of an article in the Organic Law of the Public Ministry but decided unanimously to leave the article as it is, making Porras almost impossible to remove.
While many of the road blocks have been lifted, more than a dozen remain, and Indigenous authorities are refusing to call off the protests until government officials, including Consuelo Porras and President Giammattei, accede to their demands. They state that they will continue the national strike and peaceful demonstration “as long as is necessary.”
On October 12, a dialogue between the 48 Cantons of Totonicapán and President Giammattei was arranged and mediated by the OAS Mediation Mission. The Mediation Mission reported that “this meeting reflects the willingness of both parties to open communication channels that allow them to identify common agreements for the benefit of democracy in Guatemala and address the demands that have mobilized the Guatemalan people.” Following this initial dialogue, the OAS noted the importance of both sides’ commitment to nonviolence. The Mission is committed to continuing dialogue between Indigenous authorities and the President and rejects any disruption of the electoral process. Indigenous authorities have stressed that they do not represent any political party or political movement and deny claims that President-elect Bernardo Arevalo has been involved in their actions.
US State Department Adds Former and Current Guatemalan Official to the Engel List
On October 31, the State Department announced it had named two former Guatemalan officials and one current official to the list of corrupt or undemocratic actors, known as the Engel List. The United States designated Gendri Rocael Reyes Mazariegos, former Minister of the Interior, Alberto Pimentel Mata, former Minister of Energy and Mines (MEM), and Oscar Rafael Pérez Ramírez, Vice Minister of Sustainable Development under the MEM, as generally ineligible for entry into the United States, due to their involvement in significant corruption. Reyes had already been designated to the list in July 2023. According to the State Department, “Reyes, Pimentel, and Perez accepted bribes in exchange for their performance of their public functions during their tenures. Their corrupt actions undermined rule of law and government transparency in Guatemala.” During Pimentel Mara’s tenure at the Ministry of Energy and Mines, a position he held from January 14, 2020 and resigned from in July 2023, an independent investigation was initiated, which indicated that public officials received bribes from directors of the mining company in El Estor. The designations were made under Section 7031(c) of the State Department Appropriations, Foreign Operations and Related Programs Act of 2023.
Members of Congress Call for Strong Sanctions to Protect Democracy in Guatemala
On October 30, members of the US House of Representatives, led by Congresswoman Norma Torres, sent a letter to Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, urging them to use all available tools–including targeted financial sanctions–to support democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala. Their letter comes amidst rising concerns that Guatemalan election workers will come under attack by the Guatemalan Attorney General and others in November when their legal protections expire. The letter reads, in part, “We are grateful to see the Biden administration’s October 1 announcement stating that it is ‘actively taking steps to impose visa restrictions on individuals who continue to undermine Guatemala’s democracy” under section 212(a)(3)(C) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.’ In total, the Biden administration has placed 46 individuals from Guatemala on the Section 353 List of Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors. However, only six Guatemalans have been subjected to targeted financial sanctions under the Global Magnitsky Act. While we support the imposition of additional visa bans against actors undermining the democratic process in Guatemala, we note that visa restrictions are one of many available policy instruments to hold corrupt and anti-democratic actors accountable. Unfortunately, current efforts by the Biden administration are not leading to desired change in behaviors. We encourage the administration to expand the use of targeted financial sanctions authorities, which would likely have a more productive effect.”
Leaders of US House Democracy Partnership Ask Antony Blinken to Support Transition of Power
Three members of the US House Democracy Partnership sent a bipartisan letter on October 27 to Secretary of State Antony Blinken “urgently requesting the US Administration [to] encourage a peaceful transition of power and work with international partners to prevent further backsliding.” The letter was signed by Vern Buchanan, Chairman of the House Democracy Partnership; Dina Titus, Ranking Member of the House Democracy Partnership; and Representative Norma Torres, who is a member of the House Democracy Partnership. The members of Congress expressed concern about efforts by the Guatemalan executive branch to undermine the election results and considered US support “an urgent matter,” noting that “legal protections for the President-elect’s party end on October 31.”
In the Courts:
Cumbre de Alaska Hearings Continue
On October 17, testimony continued in the case of the Cumbre de Alaska massacre, in which soldiers and police attacked a large group of Indigenous protestors, murdering seven of them and injuring many more. Multiple forms of audiovisual testimony were introduced, including news footage indicating that the peaceful October 4, 2012 protest was broken up by members of the PNC and the military.
On October 27, Pedro Choc testified on behalf of accused Juan Chiroy Sal. He knew the accused personally and was working as his driver on the day of the massacre. He stated that Chiroy ordered him to leave the scene for the safety of others he was transporting, and thus he did not see the massacre unfold. Choc stated that he observed injured army personnel and PNC vehicles. He picked up Chiroy about 50 meters from where he dropped him off, and was told by a private citizen that he should be careful when arriving to the Alaska summit. Choc stated he did not see any violence at the scene, but later heard screams.
Another witness stated that he did not see violence because he took shelter, but he did hear gunshots on the day of the massacre. He said he did not speak with any community members and did not know what incited the violence. He said he did not see any protests provoking law enforcement, nor did he see any burned vehicles. He stated that he arrived at the summit around 8 am and stayed for three hours before he left to protect his safety.
Lizandro Estrada Conde, who worked for the PNC at the time of the massacre, stated that he was not the one to request army support on the day of the massacre. He stated that he learned of the violence first through media, then later through PNC channels.
Court of Appeals Orders Repeat of Trial Against Journalist
Guatemala’s Second Court of Appeals voided the six-year sentence handed down to José Rubén Zamora, founder and president of the publication El Periódico, and ordered that the trial against him be repeated. Zamora is an influential journalist, well known for using his platform to criticize and expose corruption in Guatemala. His arrest sparked international outrage as an attack on free speech.
Constitutional Court Leaves Issue of Amnesty for War Crimes to Congress
The Constitutional Court has refused to consider a congressional inquiry on an initiative seeking amnesty for crimes committed in the context of Guatemala´s internal armed conflict. The Court dismissed the request for an advisory opinion on technical grounds. During the period in question, from 1960 through 1996, the Guatemalan army carried out a genocide against Guatemala´s Indigenous communities. More than 200,000 people were killed and more than 40,000 were disappeared.
The Inter-American Court issued an opinion on the matter, ruling that the state of Guatemala cannot adopt Initiatives 5920 and 6099, as the amnesty bills are known. The Court required that the Guatemalan state provide no later than December 4 a detailed report on its compliance with the ruling and continue to provide such reports every three months.