Guatemala: Death threats for lawyer and politician fighting corruption

On 23 December an anonymous caller to Armando Sánchez’s mobile phone told him he would be killed if he did not leave the country within five days. He reported the death threat and was given 24-hour police protection.

At 2am on 26 December, three men knocked on his neighbour’s door and asked where his house was. They did not approach the house, as there were two police officers outside. But this protection has now been reduced to three hours a day, with police sometimes failing to attend at all.

The first few days of 2005 has seen several Human Rights organisations targeted in what appears to be a concerted effort to stop efforts to bring perpetrators of past human rights violations to justice. On 9 January the organisation HIJOS had their offices raided and important information about their work and contacts stolen.

Its members have worked to establish what happened to their parents who were "disappeared" or killed during the country’s internal armed conflict, and to call for justice. On 11 January CALDH, another organisation which has been instrumental in pressing the authorities to bring to justice senior military officers implicated in massacres carried out during the conflcit years, received a call saying that a bomb had been planted in their offices.

Legal professionals in Guatemala representing people who allege official corruption, pursue claims against drug traffickers or defend peasant farmers involved in labour disputes, have been systematically intimidated in an attempt to make them give up their work in recent months.

Armando Sánchez has represented people in several cases which could have given rise to the death threat, including a local human rights organisation, which has accused local government officials of complicity in helping a murder suspect escape; a woman whose husband was allegedly murdered by drug traffickers; and labour disputes between farmers and their employers.

Armando Sanchez said, yesterday:

"It has affected me a lot because it has made me anxious. It has affected me emotionally and physically. It has made me scared to carry on working, even to go out in the street."

In a separate case raised by Amnesty International, the family of a UN-commended mayor who had been fighting corruption and impunity, and who was assassinated five days before Christmas, has also received death threats.

The organisation believes they are in grave danger, particularly his daughter Makrina Gudiel Ãlvarez, a local councillor who had also been fighting corruption.

During the wake for the late mayor Florentín Gudiel, what appeared to be a military patrol led by a special forces officer positioned themselves as if they were going to storm the house, terrifying those inside.

They left shortly after this act of intimidation, without entering. During the traditional nine days of mourning, people who came to pray at the family home received spoken threats. Makrina Gudiel Ãlvarez received a number of spoken death threats via third parties indicating she is also the target of assassination and telling her to flee.

Amnesty International members are writing urgent appeals to the Guatemalan authorities, calling for full investigations into these death threats and to ensure that Armando Sánchez and Makrina Gudiel Ãlvarez are given full protection.

Background

During 2004 two lawyers, a magistrate and a judge were killed in Guatemala in what appeared to be an effort to stop them carrying out their work. Numerous other lawyers and witnesses have received death threats because of their involvement in trials or complaints implicating government officials in corruption or other criminal charges.

Congress member Nineth Montenegro received a death threat in November 2004, apparently linked to her work investigating corruption among high-ranking military officers.

One year on since President Berger came to power, far from improving the human rights situation, criminal networks and what have been referred to as Guatemala's 'parallel powers' continue to consolidate their power.

The human rights challenges facing the fledgling government are as urgent as ever. Threats and intimidation, and impunity for those who commit them, continue to be the norm for human rights defenders in Guatemala.

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