'This is a time of great tension because we know that at any moment, when we least expect it, our lives can be cut short at a stroke,' Tito Gálvez, a leader in the Resistance Front for the Defence of Natural Resources and Rights of the Guatemalan Peoples (FRENA), told IPS.
Two of Gálvez's fellow activists, Evelinda Ramírez and Octavio Roblero, were among four human rights workers murdered so far this year in this country, where even today, defending civil liberties is a life-and-death matter.
Besides Ramírez and Roblero, Germán Curup and Juan Antonio Chea were also killed between Jan. 1 and Feb. 17, and the perpetrators have still not been identified. In 2009 there were 353 attacks on activists, according to human rights organisations.
The non-governmental FRENA, based in the western department (province) of San Marcos on the border with Mexico, is engaged in an ongoing dispute over local electricity distribution with the Gas Natural-Unión Fenosa, a Spanish corporation.
The conflict escalated to such a level that the government decreed an emergency order called a 'state of prevention' from December 2009 to February 2010, suspending several constitutional rights such as freedom of movement, speech and assembly and enhancing the powers of security forces to conduct searches.
'Our protests are against the electricity company's abuses. But their people can go about carrying arms and creating mayhem, while the government here does nothing to stop it,' Gálvez complained.
The murders of human rights defenders and attacks on their work have triggered an outcry.
'The IACHR (Inter-American Commission on Human Rights) strongly urges the Guatemalan State to maximise its efforts to investigate and legally clarify these crimes and to prosecute the perpetrators and masterminds,' the Organisation of American States human rights body said in a Feb. 25 press release.
'The Inter-American Commission also calls on the state of Guatemala to urgently adopt all the measures necessary to provide adequate protection for human rights defenders in the country,' the IACHR statement said.
According to a report by the non-governmental Human Rights Defenders' Protection Unit (UDEFEGUA), 16 labour, rural and human rights activists were killed in 2009.
In the same year, 353 attacks were carried out, almost one a day, a 36 percent increase over the number of attacks in 2008, and 83 percent more than in 2000.
'The number of murders of rights defenders has risen excessively, and the attacks are increasingly violent, which goes to show how deep an interest there is in breaking up the human rights movement,' Luisa Pineda, the head of UDEFEGUA, told IPS as she dealt with another complaint of aggression against a colleague.
This impoverished Central American country of 13 million has one of the highest murder rates in the world: 47 per 100,000 population in 2007, according to the 2008 United Nations Development Programme Statistical Report on Violence.
In 2009, 6,451 murders were committed, nearly 18 a day. Of these cases, barely 230 convictions have been handed down by the courts, according to the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a United Nations body created at the request of the Guatemalan state.
Human rights defenders have historically faced risks in Guatemala.
Luis Lara, the head of the Frente Nacional de Lucha (FNL), a trade union organisation opposing the Gas Natural-Unión Fenosa company, told IPS that his group has presented 250 writs of habeas corpus to force the courts to produce persons in custody and release any who are unlawfully detained.
A writ of habeas corpus is a petition filed with a court by a person who objects to his own or another's detention or imprisonment. The petition must show that the court ordering the detention or imprisonment made a legal or factual error.
'In the second half of last year, and so far this year, harassment of and hostility against our leaders has increased,' said Lara.
'Many activists have received death threats, in the form of a bloodstained note under their front door or a threatening phone call,' he said.
In his view, the persecution is in response to 'denunciations of corruption and our demand for better public and private services. There is a strategy of collusion between economic and political-military powers-that-be to put a stop to our actions.'
The dangerous nature work of human rights activists in Guatemala has led CICIG to investigate the violent attacks.
Defending human rights is high-risk work in Central America and Mexico, where activists are frequently assaulted or even killed by gunmen.
In Honduras, human rights organisations have documented more than 4,234 violent attacks, including persecution and attacks on social leaders and raids on their premises, since the Jun. 28, 2009 coup d'etat which ousted President Manuel Zelaya.
Three environmentalists were killed in El Salvador in 2009, and Nicaraguan human rights activists reported that the security forces in their country have taken part in harassing their leaders.
This kind of hostility can also be found to the north, in Mexico, where the national Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights has documented 128 cases of aggression against activists, including 10 murders, between January 2006 and August 2009.
Basilio Sánchez of the Campesino (peasant) Development Committee (CODECA) told IPS that campaigning for respect for workers' rights in Guatemala has cost several of his fellow activists their lives.
'They (the company owners) do not like their workers to be interviewed. We receive threats because we are demanding our rights,' he complained.
Last year, two CODECA members were killed in separate armed attacks.
One of the murdered men 'was asking the government for subsidies to help people weather the food crisis. Unfortunately there was a clash between the police and the campesinos, and a few days later he was murdered,' Sánchez said.
© Inter Press Service (2010) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service
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