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Riot police prevent members of the Peasant Development Committee (CODECA) from reaching Guatemala's Congress during a protest against alleged acts of corruption of Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei's government and asking for the resignation of US-sanctioned Attorney General Consuelo Porras in Guatemala City on September 21, 2022. (Photo: Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images)

Central American Anti-Corruption Activists Are Facing Criminal Prosecution

Guatemala cracks down on protesters in the streets and in the halls of congress—where lawmakers are pushing a bill that would justify the use of deadly force.

Jeff Abbott

 by The Progressive

Three activists are facing criminal charges for allegedly painting graffiti on the walls of the Guatemalan congressional building during protests on November 21, 2020. But the case against these protesters has been marked by the manipulation of information and due process. 

"When justice does not apply equally to everyone, that is a selective application; it is not justice."

"This case represents revenge [from the authorities]; there is no other possible explanation," Claudia Samayoa, a human rights defender with the Guatemalan human rights organization UDEFEGUA, tells The Progressive. "They are wanting to manipulate the case to justify [their argument] that marches, particularly of the university students and campesino organizations, are violent."

Nanci Sinto and Dulce Archila are facing charges of "depredation of cultural property" during the November 2020 mobilization, which protested cuts to key social programs included in Guatemala's 2022 budget bill and demanded the resignation of the country's president and ministers. Sinto and Archila were arrested a year later in November 2021. 

During the protest, many gathered at the congressional building, where a small group—which did not include Sinto and Archila—set fire to an office. Riot police deployed teargas to disperse the protesters,drawing others into a violent standoff. During the initial dispersal Sinto was beaten and pushed to the ground before being helped away by a couple photojournalists.

In June 2022, a judge ruled that there was no evidence to prosecute Sinto and Archila, but an appeals court allowed the Public Ministry to proceed with their prosecution. 

"The idea of ​​keeping them [facing charges] is to generate this state of fear and almost terror, to prevent it from happening again," Renzo Rosal, a Guatemalan independent political analyst tells The Progressive.

But while the state goes after these two protesters for allegedly tagging the congressional building, groups of ex-soldiers who burned parts of the congressional building and vehicles in the parking lot in October 2021 remain free and uninvestigated. The former soldiers who were active during Guatemala's thirty-six-year internal armed conflict are demanding that the State pay 120,000 Quetzales, or more than $15,000 dollars, to each of the thousands of soldiers who served during the war. 

"When justice does not apply equally to everyone, that is a selective application; it is not justice," Rosal says. "That is a serious indicator of the deterioration of the democratic model." 

Guatemala has a long history of falsely accusing community activists accused of crimes including land usurpation and kidnapping. Such criminalization has expanded to impact prosecutors and anti-corruption activists in recent years. Amid the rollback of anti-corruption efforts, the Guatemalan government continues to take new steps to reprimand people who protest living conditions in the country. 

"Right now we are in the crack-down period," Samayoa says. "We are at that moment where I believe that society still has to understand where the difference [between authoritarianism and democracy] stands."

The Guatemalan congress has been pursuing a measure that will permit the police and military to use deadly force during protests. As law it would establish an immunity from prosecution for security officers accused of using deadly force. Known as Initiative 6076, the measure was proposed by congressional representatives with the Unión del Cambio Nacional, or UCN, a far-right party that is known to have deep ties with drug cartels. 

The bill was forced through the first two debates, despite outcry from the opposition in congress and communities that have been affected by state violence.

The Indigenous local ancestral government authorities of the municipality of Totonicapán traveled to Guatemala City to request that the legislation be archived. While President of Congress Shirley Rivera stated that the bill would not be brought up again in the rest of the year and that it would go under review, there are still concerns that it will advance. In September 2022, the Guatemalan digital media outlet La Hora reported that supporters of the legislation are preparing to introduce another version of the bill. 

As Samayoa points out, the legislation comes after several high profile prosecutions of police and military for the use of deadly force in protests, including a case against a colonel and nine soldiers for the killing of six protesters in Totonicapán on October 4, 2012, and widespread outcry over the use of force against student protesters in August 2022 and in November 2021 resulting in several protesters losing eyes. 

The proposed legislation suggests that far-right members of the congress are preparing for more confrontations with protesters. This year alone, the Guatemalan National Civilian Police and the Guatemalan military have both made purchases of tens of thousands of teargas grenades and other crowd control equipment. Since the beginning of the Giammattei administration in January 2020, the Guatemalan Ministry of the Interior has also purchased tens of thousands of teargas grenades.

"What we can see is that in order to deploy the police [against protesters] they need to give the police and the army some immunity and impunity," Samayoa says. "And that's what that law is."

© 2021 The Progressive

Jeff Abbott

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. "The Other Americans" is a column created by Abbott for The Progressive on human migration in North and Central America.

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