Social Movement Leaders Cleared of False Femicide Charges in Guatemala

Last month, Rogelio Velásquez and Saúl Méndez, active members and leaders of the defense of territory in northern Huehuetenango, were acquitted of charges of femicide. Their community of Santa Cruz Barillas has been in resistance to the Santa Cruz hydroelectric project under construction by the Spanish firm Ecoener Hydro Energy. They argue that the dam will greatly affect their land and water. The case against Velásquez and Méndez reflect the use of laws, such as Guatemala’s 2008 Law on Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women to criminalize the leaders of the social movements challenging the construction of mega-projects by transnational companies.


On October 28, Rogelio Velásquez and Saúl Méndez went before a judge in Quetzaltenango, commonly known as Xela, Guatemala’s second largest city. The two community leaders from Santa Cruz Barillas faced charges of femicide for their alleged participation in the murder of two women in 2010 and 2011. By late afternoon, the judge had come to his decision: The two were acquitted of the charges.

Photo: Domingo Baltazar sits before a Judge in Guatemala (Credit: Jeff Abbott).

Méndez and Valásquez have been active members and leaders of the defense of territory in northern Huehuetenango. The community of Santa Cruz Barillas has been in resistance to the Santa Cruz hydroelectric project under construction by the Spanish firm Ecoener Hydro Energy. They argue that the dam will greatly affect their land and water.

In 2010, the community declared their resistance after they held a community-wide consultation. They argue that they were never consulted by the company on the project prior to the issuing of permits, despite the legal requirements of not only the Guatemalan constitution, but Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization’s declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Communities. Since then, Méndez, Valásquez, and other community leaders have faced intimidation and assassinations for their resistance.

In May 2012, the administration declared a state of siege in the rural communities of the municipality of Santa Cruz Barillas, Huehuetenango, where the indigenous communities have protested the construction of a hydroelectric project owned by the Spanish firm Econcer Hydroelectrics. Hundreds of military and police were deployed to the communities, and more than 70 orders for arrest were issued for the leadership of the movement, including Méndez and Velásquez.

Méndez and Valásquez were detained in August 2013 on allegations of their involvement in the murder of two women. Despite the accusations, they remained incarcerated without official charges until 2015. The case finally went before the Femicide Court in Xela in September.

The court’s decision, however, does not mean that the two will be released just yet. There remains a case in Guatemala’s Constitutional Court that needs to be resolved.

But despite this, the decision to acquit these two political prisoners represents a major victory for communities that have faced criminalization for their defense of their territory.

Manipulation of Femicide Laws

The case against Velásquez and Méndez reflect the use of laws, such as Guatemala’s 2008 Law on Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women to criminalize the leaders of the social movements challenging the construction of mega-projects by transnational companies.

“These false accusations made against these people and movements struggling for the defense of territory, attributing abominable crimes to them, [crimes] that are abominable to the human rights movement,  are trying to leave [these people] isolated and unsupported,” wrote Quimy de León for the website Prensa Comunitaria.

Femicide, which is defined as the murder of a women by a man in the context of unequal power relations, has been a major problem in Guatemala in the years since the end of the internal armed conflict. According to data from the Washington D.C. based, Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, cases of femicide rose from 213 cases in 2000, to 720 cases in 2009.

Guatemala’s femicide laws were passed in 2008 during the administration of Alvero Colom, and represented a major victory for holding men accountable for violence against women. By passing these laws, Guatemala became on the second country in Central America to pass such laws. The first was Costa Rica in 2006.

But since 2008, only 2 percent of cases have led to a conviction, leading many to argue that there remains a culture of impunity around violence against women.

“The criminalization of protesters through charges of femicide is a perversion of the original aims of the law: to bring justice to acts of femicide and violence against women in Guatemala,” said Julia Hartviksen, a doctoral research student from the Gender Institute at the London School of Economics. “The fact that only 2% of perpetrators of femicide are convicted in the specialized justice system is a testament, at least in part to the lack of legal resources available in these cases. Criminalizing and charging protesters as perpetrators of femicide is a grave abuse of a system already overworked, and corrupts the legal meaning of femicide in Guatemala”

But this manipulation is part of a larger campaign of criminalization of social movements in Guatemala.

Continuation of the Criminalization of Resistance in Northern Guatemala

Increasingly, activist and communities that protest the extractive industries in Guatemala have faced criminal charges. The interior ministry and firms have used false charges of “kidnapping,” “illegal sequestering,” “terrorism,” and the draconian charge of “intent to commit a crime” to exhaust the leaders of social movements.

Northern Huehuetenango has become a symbolic example of the criminalization of social movements. Community members there face criminal charges for their defense of territory against the arrival of mega-projects.

“The government is fortifying their plan to support and defend the multinational companies and their projects in the country,” says Victor Sanchez, the coordinator of the Departmental Assembly of Peoples of Huehuetenango (ADH), an organization that works with 32 municipalities in the department. “The Internal Minister of the Guatemalan government has criminalized the leaders of the movements. They (Mendez and Velasquez) have been incarcerated for more than a year without charge. But despite what the government says, they have been arrested for the defense of their territory.”

Three other leaders, Adalberto Villatoro, Francisco Juan y Arturo Pablo, were arrested in February 2014. The following month, Rigoberto Juárez and Domingo Baltazar, were arrested as they walked through Guatemala City. And most recently in May 2015, another leader from Santa Cruz Barillas, Ermitaño López, who is affectionately referred to as Don Taño, was arrested as he attended a hearing for three other men who were arrested in February. All face charges for their alleged participation in the sabotage of machinery, kidnapping, and the intent to commit a crime.

According to lawyers involved in the defense of movement leaders, these charges have become increasingly worse, and reflect the manipulation of the country’s laws by the companies in order to criminalize and exhaust the movements that challenge mega-projects.

“In the last two years, there has been a worsening of the criminalization of the leaders of social movement,” said Benito Morales, a Guatemala City based lawyer that is deeply involved in the defense of leaders who face criminal charges. “There is a violation and manipulation of the law by the companies. The Public Ministry uses the investigations that are done by the companies in order to prosecute the community leaders.”

An example of this campaign of criminalization is a document entitled “The Structure of Organized Crime in Northern Huehuetenango,” that was issued by the Guatemalan Public Ministry in May 2014. The document details the alleged structure of the social movement in northern Huehuetenango, and classified it as a criminal organization, and states that Rigoberto Juarez is the head of the “organization.”

According to Morales, the document was prepared by representatives from the Spanish firm, Ecoener Hydro Energy, and then issued by the Public Ministry. The document has since been used against the leaders of the movement in their trials.

A Country Wide Campaign of Criminalization

The criminalization of social movements extends well beyond northern Huehuetenango, and impacts all movements in defense of territory. International organizations such as OXFAM and the Guatemalan Human Rights Commissions, and others have increasingly raised concern with the use of criminal charges against leaders of community movements, and human rights defenders. In early 2015 OXFAM issued the report ‘We Only Want To Be Human,’ which highlighting cases of leaders of the social movement and their supporters.

“The violence and harassment of human rights defenders has taken on the relevant use of the judicial apparatus to damage the public image (of the movements),” the authors of the OXFAM report write. “Human rights defenders suffer criminal prosecution, conviction, and deprivation of freedom by both public and private actors, who use the criminal justice system to deter, suppress, and limit the work of human rights defenders.”

The report concludes “the criminalization of people who defend human rights constitutes another step in the process of delegitimizing the principles of democracy in Guatemala. It also favors the inequality of the communities in relation to other sectors to hinder the full enjoyment of human rights.”

There is a clear campaign to exhaust the social movements of Guatemala with legal charges.

Other organizations such as the Guatemalan Convergence for Human Rights, an alliance between Guatemala based human rights organizations, has also highlighted the deterioration and criminalization of community leaders. In early 2015, they too issued a report on the criminalization of human rights defenders. In their report, they associate the increased criminalization of human rights defenders with the state’s change in the definition of human rights defenders.

“Beginning in 2004, the idea of a human right defender was changed (by the state),” they wrote. “Human rights defenders began to be equated with destabilization, international intervention, and terrorism. But in 2011, it was the manta which amplified, and human rights defenders began to be associated with communism, guerrillas, and armed struggle.”

This change is reflected in data from United For the Protection of Defenders of Human Rights, which is a member of the Convergence for Human Rights. According to their data, attacks on human rights defenders have steadily increased since the election of president Otto Pérez Molina in 2012. That year, they registered 305 aggressions against human rights defenders. By 2014, the number had skyrocket to 805 attacks.

But like the case of Velásquez and Méndez, not all criminal charges against the movements have led to prison time. In some cases, the judge can acquit the leaders of the charges that they face.

Since 2012, the communities of San Jose del Golfo and San Pedro Ayumpuc have maintained a permanent blockade of the entrance of the El Tamblor gold mine, which is owned by the Reno, Nevada based Kappes, Cassidy, & Associates (KCA). The “La Puya” resistance fears that the mine will significantly pollute their water and land.

In September 2013, legal charges were filed against 12 of the leaders of the movement for alleged “illegal detention” of workers, “coercion,” and for “threats” against workers from the mine. The 12 defendants had been involved in the alleged kidnapping of workers from the mine. On February 27, 4 of those facing charges went before Judge Elvis Hernández of the 8th Criminal Court in Guatemala City, who proceeded to acquit the defendants from La Puya, a small victory.

But despite this small victory, the community is still on edge. Members fear that more false charges could be brought against them at any time. This threat contributes to the campaign by the state and business against the communities in resistance.

“(The criminal charges) all come with the intention of damaging the social fabric and social organization,” wrote the Convergence for Human Rights. “It creates fear in the communities that are exercising their rights.”

Jeff Abbott is an independent journalist currently based out of Guatemala. He has covered human rights and social movements in Central America and Mexico. He is a regular contributor to Upside Down World. His work has appeared at VICE News, Truthout, and the North American Congress on Latin America. Follow him on twitter @palabrasdeabajo