3 Years… and Counting

Bernardo Caal Xol

Bernardo Caal Xol, a water and environmental defender, has been in prison for exactly three years. He is an innocent man.

Today, January 30, marks the third anniversary of the unjust detention of Bernardo Caal Xol, a professor and indigenous Mayan Q’eqchi’ human rights defender. The Human Rights Defenders Project wishes to express our grave concern and dismay that the courts continue to delay the judicial review of his case. This despite the overwhelming evidence that Bernardo is innocent of the crimes for which he was accused and sentenced to 7 years and 4 months in prison. We feel that this malicious delay is a perverse way to keep him imprisoned and away from his family, his people, and his work in defense of the environment.

Bernardo has denounced that it was for defending the rights of his community and protecting the Cahabón River –considered sacred for the Q’eqchi’ people– that powerful actors have sought to silence his voice and disrupt his work. He affirms that the OXEC Hydroelectric Company, financed by investors in Spain and Guatemala, has sought to make an example of him for daring to oppose the massive dams and their disruptive environmental impact.

On July 16, 2020, Amnesty International declared the defender Bernardo Caal Xol “a prisoner of conscience.” In a letter to Consuelo Porras, Attorney General of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, Amnesty stated that it had access to the criminal case file and was able to verify serious irregularities, negligence, and lack of grounds in the investigation carried out by the Public Prosecutor’s Office.

We join the various expressions of support, solidarity and above all concern that Bernardo continues to be detained and we demand that the Guatemalan authorities seek to remedy this case of criminalization.

Libertad para Bernardo Caal Xol - Preso de Conciencia

Criminalizing human rights defenders for their work is an affront not only to the defender, but also to his or her people. In fact, it is an affront to humanity as a whole. Today more than ever, during this global pandemic, we are made aware of the essential role of water in guaranteeing our collective health and wellbeing. 

Bernardo Caal Xol is a defender of water and life. We demand his release!

Photo of Bernardo Caal Xol © Héctor Herrera

3 años… y contando

Bernardo Caal Xol

Bernardo Caal Xol, defensor del agua y del medio ambiente, lleva exactamente tres años en prisión. Es un hombre inocente.

Hoy 30 de enero, que se cumplen 3 años de la injusta detención de Bernardo Caal Xol, profesor y defensor indígena maya q’eqchi’ de los derechos humanos, manifestamos nuestra preocupación porque aún las cortes continúan dilatando las acciones de revisión de su caso, sabiendo que los delitos por los que se le acusaron y condenaron a 7 años y 4 meses de prisión no están bien sustentados. Este retardo malicioso es una perversa forma para mantenerlo preso y alejado de su familia, de su pueblo y sus justas demandas.  

Bernardo ha denunciado que es por defender los derechos de su comunidad y proteger el río Cahabón -considerado sagrado para el pueblo Q’eqchi’- que actores poderosos buscan silenciar su voz y anular su trabajo. Afirma que la compañía hidroeléctrica OXEC S.A., financiada por inversionistas de España y Guatemala, ha querido hacer de él el ejemplo de lo que le sucederá a cualquiera que quiera manifestar su oposición a esos grandes megaproyectos.

El 16 de julio de 2020, Amnistía Internacional (AI) ha declarado al defensor Bernardo Caal Xol como preso de conciencia, en carta a Consuelo Porras, Fiscal General del Ministerio Público. AI señala que tuvo acceso al expediente penal y pudo comprobar serias irregularidades, negligencias y faltas de fundamento en la investigación realizada por el MP.

Nos sumamos a las diferentes manifestaciones de apoyo, de solidaridad y sobre todo de preocupación porque Bernardo continúa detenido y demandamos a las autoridades guatemaltecas que se haga justicia en este caso de criminalización.

Libertad para Bernardo Caal Xol - preso de conciencia

Criminalizar a las personas defensoras de derechos humanos, que defienden los bienes naturales, es una afrenta no sólo para el defensor, para su pueblo, es una afrenta a la humanidad entera. Hoy más que nunca, frente a este escenario de pandemia global, en dónde el agua es uno de los bienes fundamentales para combatirla, es un deber exigir que todas aquellas personas que en diferentes partes del mundo son criminalizadas por su defensa sean liberadas. 

¡Bernardo Caal Xol es un defensor de la vida y exigimos su liberación!


La foto de Bernardo fue tomada por Héctor Herrera.

Happy Birthday Bernardo Caal

Bernardo Caal and his family

Hello everyone!

We have an important favor to ask of you. In one week, on January 13, Guatemalan human rights activist Bernardo Caal will celebrate his 49th birthday… in prison.

Bernardo is a loving husband, dedicated father, respected teacher, and committed defender of the environment and the rights of indigenous people.

However, for daring to question the environmental impact of a massive, foreign-owned hydroelectric dam on the Cahabón River – and the negative effect on the indigenous farming communities who live along that river – Bernardo was convicted in a sham trial to 7 years and 4 months in prison.

Amnesty International declared, in June of 2020, that “Bernardo Caal Xol, a Q’eqchi’ Maya Indigenous leader and Guatemalan human rights defender, is a prisoner of conscience who has been wrongfully imprisoned for more than two years.”

Dania and I had the privilege of meeting Bernardo in prison, shortly before the COVID crisis made such visits impossible. Despite putting on a brave face for us, it was evident that his time in prison was beginning to exact a heavy mental, emotional, and physical toll.

With the arrival of the Coronavirus in Guatemala, his situation has only grown more dire. Placed under lockdown, Bernardo is forced to live in inhumane conditions, crowded into the same room as 180 other prisoners. Due to COVID restrictions, family visits are severely limited (his mother and daughters aren’t allowed to visit.) His health has suffered, and his appeal process has been stalled in a backlogged legal system.

Bernardo just wrote, in a letter from prison, “Upon receiving my teaching certificate, I returned to my community. It was there that I became conscious of the injustices, of the abandonment in which the indigenous communities are forced to live: without schools, without teachers, without any of the basic services that the State is obligated to provide.” He adds: “And I, for the third consecutive year, will celebrate my birthday in this place of torture called prison.”

Dania and I would like to invite you to send Bernardo birthday wishes and messages of support and encouragement. We will gladly collect, translate (if necessary), and send your messages to Bernardo before his birthday.

Let’s stand with this brave man during his dark days of suffering and seclusion. Let’s lift him up with our messages of support and solidarity. Please leave a message below or email it to [email protected]. Don’t forget to mention your location (city, state, country.) Please share this note with your contacts!

A moment of your time will make an enormous difference to Bernardo and his family! Thank-you.

FONGI: Deep concern about the approval of Law 5257

We express our deep concern about the approval of Law 5257 by the Congress of the Republic of Guatemala, which contains requirements that negatively affect and limit the exercise of human rights, as well as administrative controls that could be applied in a discretionary manner to constrain the work of civil society entities.

We call on President Alejandro Giammattei not to ratify the Law 5257, which in its current version contains articles that threaten constitutionally guaranteed freedoms and rights, limiting the scope of citizen and civil society actions fundamental to the functioning of a democratic state and the rule of law, precedents that would constitute a major setback in Guatemala’s aspiration to form part of a community of progressive and democratic nations.

COMUNICADO-FONGI-13022020

Memory at Risk

Boxes at the AHPN

The News

Last Monday, February 3, the judges of the Guatemalan Supreme court heard arguments asking them to extend and strengthen protections for the Historical Archive of the National Police (Archivo Historico de la Policia Nacional – AHPN).

Police Archive? Sounds kinda boring.

Actually, the history of the archive is like something torn from the pages of a John Grisham thriller.

In 2005 there was a massive explosion of stored munitions at a military base in Guatemala City. Members of the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, responding to fears that other stored arms caches could similarly explode, decided to visit the former Guatemalan National Police Headquarters in the capital’s Zone 6.

What they found in the dilapidated buildings, surrounded by a junkyard full of rusting cars, wasn’t stored weapons but… over 75 million documents! Bundles upon bundles, stacks upon stacks of police records, dating back to 1881.

They had stumbled inadvertently a police archive that the Guatemalan government had denied even existed!

Cool story, but still… a police archive? Expense reports? Traffic violations? Overtime requests?

Well, yes, a large number of the documents unceremoniously dumped in the abandoned warehouse are administrative records. But there are also records of secret police surveillance, files on supposed “subversives” (including progressive politicians), and records of illegal detentions and arrests.

The documents prove that the National Police often played a repressive role, especially during Guatemala’s 36-year armed conflict, working hand-in-hand with the military and intelligence services to capture, torture, disappear, and kill those they deemed to be enemies of the state.

But isn’t searching through 75 million documents a herculean task?

75,441,200 documents, to be exact. And yes. Especially given the fact that many of the documents were in terrible shape to begin with: waterlogged, moldy, deteriorating, and covered with the fecal droppings of cockroaches, rats, and bats.

The process of cleaning, organizing, digitalizing, archiving, and safeguarding such a large collection of documents was nothing short of groundbreaking. A highly trained team of Guatemalan archival specialists was created with the help of international experts. From 2005 to 2017, the 200 members of the Archive digitalized 23,891,199 of the historic documents!

A real plus for human rights and justice, I’m guessing?

Absolutely. The documents have been introduced as evidence in court cases concerning the forced disappearance of students, labor leaders, community organizers, and others. The Archive also provided evidence in other trials concerning grave violations of human rights: rape, torture, sexual slavery, genocide, and crimes against humanity. 

The archive also serves as factual proof (created by the State itself) that supports the tragic testimonies of the survivors and family members who lived through the repression. 

The archive is an invaluable resource for recovering and preserving Guatemala’s historic memory, especially in a country where powerful forces still attempt to hide and deny their participation in the violence and oppression. It really is a national treasure.

Finally, a story from Guatemala with a happy ending!

Not so fast. Like everything else that helps move Guatemala closer towards peace and justice, the archive has come under threat from sinister forces in country that prefer to maintain a status quo of impunity and injustice. 

During the previous administration of President Jimmy Morales, drastic and dangerous changes were made to the archive:

  • The highly respected Coordinator of the Archive, Gustavo Meoño, was unexpectedly informed that his 13-year tenure had come to an abrupt end by being physically escorted from the building.
  • Oversight of the Archive was shifted from the United Nations Development Program to the perennially underfunded Ministry of Culture and Sports. 
  • Those seeking to consult the Archive, perhaps hoping to find a loved one who had been disappeared, were told that they now had to file a Freedom of Information request to obtain access to the documents. 
  • The archive staff, as of January 2020, was reduced to fifteen workers.

Wait, there are only 15 employees?!!

Of the original staff, only 5 remain… all security guards and administrative staff. There are only a handful of newly hired, untrained employees actually working on the archive itself. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office estimates that, given the current conditions, it will take approximately 375 years to finish digitalizing the remaining documents.

Even more worrisome is that without the proper care and attention the original documents themselves might be lost forever.

Sigh. Another “abandon all hope” situation, then?

Not yet. Remember how this article started? The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, along with other concerned parties, has filed an injunction with Guatemala’s Supreme Court, demanding that the government guarantee the preservation and protection of the documents, provide unlimited access to the archive for prosecutors and the public, and the maintain the professional staffing necessary for a fully functional archive.

Those supporting the injunction also urged the Supreme Court magistrates to carry out an on-site visit to determine firsthand the precarious situation of the archive.

Supreme Court of Guatemala

How did the judges rules?

The hearing was for the judges to receive input and updates about the current state of the archive. Their ruling will be forthcoming.

I could really use an inspiring quote right about now.

My pleasure. One of the most powerful testimonies during the hearing came from Julio Solórzano Foppa, a Guatemalan artist and activist. His mother, Alaíde Foppa, was a poet and writer who was forcibly disappeared by government forces during the armed conflict.

Julio stated, in a clear and passionate voice:

“We cannot change the terrible history of Guatemala’s past, but we can change the future. We can build a different future, a future based on knowledge and remembering, instead of denial and forgetting.” 

Did you know?

  • Guatemala’s National Police existed from 1885 until its dissolution in 1997. As a result of its notorious reputation for corruption and repression, it was disbanded by the Peace Accords signed between the Guatemalan State and the URNG guerrillas. It was replaced by the National Civilian Police (PNC). 
  • The archive is the largest single depositary of official documents ever found in Latin America.
  • The building was not only used as a document dump, but during the conflict served as a site for the illegal detention and torture of suspected “subversives.” It was known as La Isla… The Island.
  • The building housing the Archive is presently the property of the Ministry of Governance. A temporary permit exists allowing the Ministry of Culture and Sports to maintain the archive there. One possible solution being discussed is to designate the building as a Site of Memory (as in Argentina) for perpetuity.
  • A partial copy the digitalized archive is maintained by the University of Texas – Austin. It is accessible online at https://ahpn.lib.utexas.edu