The Supreme Court of Guatemala on Jan. 28 rejected a request to strip a member of congress of his immunity from prosecution for allegedly overseeing grave human rights violations during the country's civil war. Edgar Justino Ovalle is a top adviser to President Jimmy Morales and a member of Congress, which gives him immunity from prosecution. A spokesperson for the court stated that there was insufficient evidence that he participated in the alleged acts. However, the spokesman also explained that the court decided to reject the request "in limine," without further investigation. Edgar Ovalle was accused of having led operations as a military officer in which 77 massacres took place. The request to lift Ovall's immunity came from Prosecutor General Thelma Aldana.
Prosecutors in Guatemala on Jan. 6 announced the arrest of 14 former military and government officials for alleged crimes against humanity committed during the country's 1960-1996 civil war. Among the detained is Benedicto Lucas García, chief of the army High Command under the rule of his late brother, ex-dictator Fernando Romeo Lucas García, between 1978 and 1982. Also detained were retired Gen. Francisco Luis Gordillo, who helped bring José Efrain Rios Montt to power in the coup that toppled Lucas García in 1982, and Byron Barrientos, who was interior minister during the 2000-2004 presidency of Alfonso Portillo. "The cases that we have documented were [attacks] against the non-combatant civilian population including children," the country's chief proscutor Thelma Aldana said, asserting that they were among "the largest forced disappearances in Latin America."
A change of government in Guatemala and Belize is reviving long-simmering fears of war between the Central American neighbors. Media in Belize are reporting that a leaked document written by a senior officer in the Belize Defense Force apparently claims an ongoing campaign of aggression and confrontation from the Guatemalan military along the Sarstoon River, which forms the border between the two nations in the south. The leaked memo, dated Oct. 22, notes incidents as far back as 2003, with tension reaching dangerous point in 2006. The tension eased when the two nations' armed forces agreed on protocols for their border forces along the Sarstoon. But the memo says late 2009 saw another incident, in which a Guatemalan army vessel anchored on the Belizean side near the mouth of the Sarstoon, and raised a Guatemalan flag from a tree-top. BDF troops apparently removed the flag, but that the Guatemalan soldiers defiantly promised to replace it.
An indigenous leader who opposed pesticide abuse on Guatemala's palm oil plantations was killed Sept. 18 outside a court that just one day earlier ordered the closure of a plantation against which he had led protests. Rigoberto Lima Choc was slain by two gunmen on a motorcycle near the civil courthouse at Sayaxche, in the northern rainforest department of Peteñ—now heavily colonized by palm plantations. The court had ordered a six-month closure local palm oil manufacturer Repsa due to unethical environmental practices. Lima, a municipal councilor with the National Union of Hope (UNE), was campaigning against contamination of the Río La Pasión with pesticide runoff from the plantation. He documented the death of thousands of fish, with numerous marine species now threaetened with extinction. The United Nations office in Guatemala recently described the situation as an "ecological disaster." Two other activists have been abducted since the court ruling. Repsa employees protested in Sayaxche after the ruling. Repsa (for Peteñ Palm Reforestation) is a member of the UN Global Compact "corporate sustainability initiative." (Siglo21, Prensa Libre, Guatemala, Sept. 19; AFP, Global News, TeleSur, Sept. 18; UN Global Compact)
Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina sent a letter to both the country's congress and reporters early Aug. 3 announcing his resignation and his intention to "stand before justice." The congress had called an emergency session to meet that day to accept the letter of resignation. Several hours before resigning, the public prosecutor requested Pérez Molina's arrest on corruption charges and a trial judge ordered his arrest. Pérez Molina and 30 other government officials allegedly took millions of dollars in bribes in exchange for keeping low import duties. Vice President Alejandro Maldonado has assumed the presidency, and must compile a list of three names for consideration for vice president, to be chosen by congress. Maldonado replaced vice president Roxana Baldetti, who was arrested in August on corruption charges. Eight other government officials have already resigned over the allegations. Pérez Molina's resignation comes only three days before the Guatemalan general election.
A Guatemalan court on Aug. 26 held that former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt can stand trial for genocide and crimes against humanity but cannot be sentenced because he suffers from dementia. The court held that a special closed trial can be held where all evidence and witness testimony will be presented with representative of Ríos Montt present. Ríos Montt's lawyers have an opportunity to appeal. This ruling comes after a Guatemalan court, earlier this month, ordered Rios Montt to undergo competency tests to determine whether he was fit to stand trial. In May the Guatemalan Congress approved a resolution denying any existence of genocide during the country's civil war.
The UN International Commission Against Impunity on July 18 reported that approximately a quarter of the money used for Guatemalan political campaigns is from criminal groups. The main criminal group being drug traffickers. The report also indicated that government contractors themselves contribute to more than half of the funds. Ian Velásquez, head of the commission, stated: "Corruption is the unifying element of the Guatemalan political system based on an amalgam of interests that include politicians, officials, public entities, businessmen, non-governmental organizations and criminal groups." The report suggested several campaign finance reforms including limiting private funding, strengthening institutional coordination, and reforming the system itself.
Thousands of Guatemalans took to the streets May 16, demanding the nation's President Otto Pérez Molina step down amid a scandal that has already forced the resignation of his vice president, Roxana Baldetti. Despite rain, protesters marched in 13 cities. Throngs filled the capital's central plaza, where a giant banner read "We are the people." The mobilization was largely leaderless, organized by social media under the hashtag #RenunciaYa (Resign Already). It all blew up in April, when the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala released findings of an investigation into a customs bribery ring uncovered by Guatemalan prosecutors. Baldetti's private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, was named as the ringleader, forcing Baldetti to step down May 8—despite protesting her innocence. Pérez Molina likewise pleads ignorance about the ring, dubbed "La Línea," and pledges a crackdown on corruption. Monzón is on the lam and an Interpol warrant has been issued.