Central America Theater

Guatemala: protesters set fire to Congress building

Thousands protested in Guatemala's capital Nov. 21 against a newly approved 2021 national budget that imposes deep cuts in funding for health care, education and programs to combat malnutrition—at a time when the country is hit hard by natural disasters and COVID-19. One breakaway group of protesters hurled improvised incendiary devices at the Congress building, setting it on fire. Police used batons and tear-gas to push protesters back, attacking not only the some 1,000 in front of Congress but also a much larger demonstration in front of the National Palace. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) condemned what it called an "excessive use of force" by the National Civil Police, while the government of President Alejandro Giammattei accused the protesters of "terrorist acts" that will be "punished with the full force of the law." (NYT, Al Jazeera, Prensa Libre, Prensa Libre)

Villagers abandoned in Eta's deadly aftermath

Some 150 are dead, with remote indigenous and campesino communities left stricken and without aid, a week after Hurricane Eta tore through Central America. Eta made landfall south of Puerto Cabezas, Nicaragua, as a Category 4 storm on Nov. 3. Two güiriseros, or artisanal gold-miners, were among the first killed, as a landslide inundated the mining camp of Tigre Norte in Bonanza municipality of Nicargua's North Caribbean Coast Autonomous Region. Far worse was to follow in Guatemala, where officials have called off the search for dozens believed to have been buried when a mountainside collapsed, engulfing the hamlet of Queja. Ovidio Choc, mayor of San Cristobal Verapaz municipality, said the site of Queja will probably be declared a cemetery. Elsewhere in Guatemala's Maya Highlands, villagers have had to mobilize their own rescue and recovery efforts, effectively abandoned by the government.

Nicaragua: sweeps target opposition activists

Over 30 opposition figures were detained by the National Police in nationwide sweeps across Nicaragua on Sept. 26. Most were released after questioning, but some are still being held. The majority of the detained were members of a newly formed opposition body, the National Coalition, which brings together three political parties and several dissident organizations. Among those detained were 17 indigenous Rama and Kriol (Afro-Nicaraguan) activists from the Caribbean coastal department of Río San Juan. Included in this group were prominent Kriol environmentalist Princess Barberena and Jaime McCrea Williams, president of the Territorial Government of Rama & Kriol. In Managua, police surrounded the offices of the Maria Elena Cuadra Movement, which advocates for the rights of working women, and interrogated the group's representative Sandra Ramos when she arrived on the scene.

Maya villagers attacked by gunmen in Guatemala

Q'eqchi Maya campesinos in Guatemala's central Alta Verapaz department were attacked by a group of unknown gunmen who violently evicted them from their homes before setting them to the torch on Aug. 16. At least 40 families lost their homes in the attack at the hamlet of Balbatzul, in Cobán municipality. President Alejandro Giammattei said National Civil Police troops have taken control of the hamlet, and the Fiscalía has opened an investigation. Some of the targetted homes were on occupied lands of a large farm, Finca Cubilguitz, which appears to have been at issue in the conflict. Local campesinos moved onto the lands last year, but leadership of the occupation has been contested between followers of the Committee for Campesino Unity (CUC) and ex-guerilla commander César Montes.

Ex-Salvador military officer goes on trial in Spain

A former Salvador military commander, Inocente Montano, went on trial in Spain this month, accused of ordering the murder of six Spanish Jesuit priests in 1989. Two Salvadoran women were also killed in the incident. Montano was formerly held in the US, but was extradited to Spain in 2017. Ex-colonel Montano was the vice-minister of public security in El Salvador during its civil war from 1979-1992. Montano commanded troops believed to be responsible for at least 1,169 human rights violations. Additionally, prosecutors believe Montano was part of the paramilitary group La Tandona. This far-right group of military leaders carried out extrajudicial executions of those who supported a peace deal with the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) guerillas.

US sanctions ex-soldiers for 1989 Salvador killings

The US State Department on Jan. 29 announced sanctions against 13 former Salvadoran military officials for their involvement in the 1989 killings of eight individuals. The former officials were found to be implicated in gross human rights violations when they planned and carried out the extrajudicial execution of six Jesuit priests and two others on the campus of Central American University in El Salvador on Nov. 16, 1989. The officials were designated under Section 7031(c) of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Appropriation Act 2019. Section 7031(c) states that when the Secretary of State has credible information that current or former foreign government officials have been involved, whether directly or indirectly, with human rights violations or corruption, those individuals and their immediate family members are ineligible for entry into the US.

Indigenous rainforest dwellers massacred in Nicaragua

Six members of the Mayagna indigenous people are dead and another 10 missing following an attack by gunmen on the community of Alal, within the UN-recognized Bosawás Biosphere Reserve in Nicaragua's eastern rainforest. Sebastián Lino, a member of the autonomous Mayagna Territorial Government of Sauni As, said that some 80 men armed with rifles and shotguns entered the community Jan. 29, firing indiscriminately on residents and setting homes on fire. Lino described the assailants as colonos, or peasant colonists who have been invading the reserve in growing numbers, illegally clearing forest and settling on indigenous lands. "The situation has gotten serious," he said, demanding government action.

Student strikes shake Costa Rica

A mass student protest filled the streets of San José Oct. 22, opposing new budgetary terms being imposed on Costa Rica's public universities. The demonstration, which was also attended by staff and even rectors of the universities, was called after the Ministry of Finance ordered an increase in the percentage of the Special Fund for Higher Education (FEES) that goes to capital expenditures—which effectively means a cut in salaries for teachers and staff. Banners read "The education of our children is not up for negotiation" and "Hands off the UCR," a reference to the University of Costa Rica. University authorities and students did meet for several hours with government officials after the march in search of an agreement, while thousands of supporters maintained a vigil outside the presidential palace. President Carlos Alvarado, elected as leftist last year but now accused of imposing a neoliberal program, was among those who met with the protest leaders. Coordinated marches were also held in cities around the country. (Tico Times, El Mundo, Semanario Universidad, Costa Rica)

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