Press Release

The IACHR Condemns Murders and Attacks Against Defenders in Guatemala

September 11, 2020

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Washington, D.C. - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemns the recent murders of human rights defenders who were members of indigenous organizations and defenders of indigenous land and territories in Guatemala. The IACHR is concerned about this violence. It calls on the State to protect human rights defenders in the country, and to diligently investigate these crimes taking into consideration victims’ activities in defense of human rights as a likely motive.

According to publicly available reports, in June–August 2020, at least eight human rights defenders active in the defense of the land and territory of indigenous communities were murdered in Guatemala. On June 6, 2020, the Q’eqchi indigenous leader and expert in traditional Maya medicine Domingo Choc Che was burnt alive in San Luis, Petén, after being accused of witchcraft. On June 8, Alberto Cucul Cho, a defender of indigenous territories in the Alta Verapaz area, was murdered when he was on his way to the Lachuá Lake National Park, where he worked as a park ranger. On June 15, Medardo Alonzo Lucero, a defender of indigenous rights and territories and a member of the La Cumbre Ch’orti’ community, was murdered in the municipality of Olopa, Chiquimula. On June 23, Fidel López, a member of the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA, by its Spanish acronym), was murdered in the municipality of Morales, Izabal. On July 20, Abel Raymundo, a defender of land and territory and a member of the Community Council in Lelá Chancó, in Jocotán, Chiquimula, was murdered.

On August 10, Benoît Maria, a French citizen active in the defense of indigenous peoples in Guatemala, was also murdered in the Alta Verapaz department. On August 11, Misael López Catalán, a community leader and a member of CODECA in the Jalapa department, was murdered. On August 16, the Maya Q’eqchi’ indigenous leader Carlos Mucú Pop was murdered in the Santa Rosa community in Sayaxché, Petén. According to publicly available reports, community leader and pastor Carlos Enrique Coy remained missing since August 3, 2020.

These acts of violence have happened in an aggressive context that defenders constantly face in Guatemala and that the Commission already flagged in its 2017 Country Report and in the follow-up reports issued in Chapter V of its 2018 and 2019 Annual Reports. According to Guatemala’s Unit to Protect Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA, by its Spanish acronym), there were a total of 677 attacks against defenders over the period January–June 2020, mostly in the form of criminalization, smears, stigmatization, and hate speech, but also including murders, threats, attempted murders, intimidation, and surveillance.

The IACHR notes that murders and other acts of violence against human rights defenders have a multiplier effect that goes beyond these individuals. Attacks against them in retaliation for their activities as defenders frighten others who advocate for similar causes. For indigenous communities in particular, the loss of a leader or a defender might affect a given community’s effective involvement in matters affecting its rights, inclusion, and self-determination and its free development within a multicultural and democratic State.

The Commission urges the State to investigate these events on its own initiative (ex officio) and to try and punish both their perpetrators and their masterminds. In particular, the Commission urges the State of Guatemala to launch thorough, serious, and impartial investigations that focus on victims’ work to defend human rights as the first hypothesis. Similarly, the State must seek to adopt a differentiated ethnic-racial approach when investigating, trying, and punishing these crimes and when providing reparations for them.

Defenders can only do their work freely when they are not being subjected to physical or emotional attacks, threats, or any other form of harassment. The IACHR therefore calls on the State to take all measures necessary to protect the rights to life, integrity, and safety of human rights defenders, particularly indigenous leaders and defenders of indigenous land and territories who have been especially affected by this violence.

The Commission reminds the State of Guatemala that it has an obligation to protect the lives and personal integrity of human rights defenders when these are at risk, even if such risk stems from the actions of non-State actors. This obligation becomes particularly relevant during the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when defenders face increased risks given emergency measures that restrict, among others, their freedom of movement, as the IACHR noted in Press Release 101/20.

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 215/20