International solidarity is vital for putting pressure on the government of Guatemala © Public Services International https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Guatemala: Getting away with murder
In 2007, Marco Tulio Ramirez, a member of the executive of northern Guatemala’s main banana union, was gunned down as he left his house to go to work. Weeks earlier five soldiers had raided union offices and demanded the names of leading activists. The union complained to the authorities about the raid and met with the Labour Ministry, which promised action. Five days later, their colleague Marco Tulio was dead.
It’s seven years later, and I’m sitting in a room with Noé Ramirez, General Secretary of northern banana workers’ union SITRABI and Marco Tulio’s brother. We’re talking to the Guatemalan Attorney General’s assistant in charge of investigating trade union murders, and Noé is asking for an update on the investigation into Marco Tulio’s murder. The brutal truth turns out to be this: in seven years, Noé is no closer to getting justice for his brother than he was the day he died, and this, so far, is also the truth for every relative of a murdered trade unionist in Guatemala. Not a single suspect has ever been convicted.
Since 2007, at least 68 trade unionists have been killed in Guatemala, 12 of them members of SITRABI. The country is now vying with Colombia to be the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists, and doubtless a huge contributing factor in this is the total impunity with which killers targeting trade unionists and other human rights defenders can operate.
In March, representatives of the British trade union movement accompanied Noé and his union on a series of meetings as he sought to get answers to the string of mysteries surrounding his brother’s death. Amongst those includes the fate of a report by the first two detectives on the investigation. Noé, keeping in touch with them from the start, recalls that they were very optimistic and had discovered some “very good leads”. Years later and not only has the investigation gone nowhere, but the detectives – and their official report – are nowhere to be found.
On the visit we met the Attorney-General herself, Claudia Paz y Paz, as well as her assistant who deals with trade union murders, the country’s Human Rights ombudsman and members of the cross-departmental government Human Rights Committee (HRC). There’s little reason to doubt the sincerity of the officials we met, indeed Noé and his SITRABI colleagues are convinced that there are good, progressive elements inside the Guatemalan government who would dearly like to redress the crimes that have been allowed to go unpunished. However, if that is true, then it must equally be true that there are other elements working to prevent this.
Claudia Paz y Paz is a case in point. Guatemala’s first woman Attorney General swiftly gained a reputation for fearlessness as she took on organised crime and vested interests. As well as setting up the trade union investigation unit, she also prosecuted the former dictator Efrain Rios Montt for genocide. He was convicted, but ten days later his conviction was overturned on a technical point (conceivably engineered by the defence team) by the country’s constitutional court.
That court has now found similar means to dispose of Paz y Paz herself, well before a Montt retrial can start. When she was appointed AG, she replaced Conrado Reynes, who was dismissed early because of links to corruption. Despite going through the full appointments process, which took seven months, the Court have now ruled that Paz y Paz’s tenure should be seen to be completing Reynes’ term of office, rather than being her own. As such, her tenure runs out this month, rather than in December.
Paz y Paz refused to give in, and put herself forward to be reappointed; despite being ranked second by the official nominating committee she did not make the final shortlist of six. The message is clear.
One of the saddest moments on the trip was hearing the helpful and earnest members of the Human Rights’ Committee putting forward the 4% clear-up rate on last year’s 99 assaults on human rights defenders as progress: sad because it really does represent progress. Perhaps these crimes, committed by less illustrious figures than former Presidents, might eventually be brought to justice without provoking a backlash from the forces that brought down Paz y Paz.
The very fact that the structures exist to follow up these crimes is encouraging, and largely down to international pressure. In June 2012, workers’ delegates to the International Labour Organisation (ILO) put forward a proposal to hold a Commission of Inquiry (COI) into Guatemala, the strongest investigative measure available under the ILO system. With Free Trade Agreements with both the US and the EU containing human rights clauses, the last thing the Guatemalan government wants is detailed international scrutiny into its human rights record.
Thus far small steps – such as the creation of the Human Rights’ Committee – has kept the threat of the COI at bay, but it remains a live issue at the ILO and, while we still await the first trial of any killers of the 68 trade unionists, it will remain so. Both the Attorney General’s office and the HRC were at pains to talk up progress in cases highlighted by the ILO, strongly hinting at government concern over a full ILO investigation. For as long as that threat remains, there is a chance of justice for Marco Tulio and many others like him.
On May 31 the TUC are supporting “No Going Back”, a conference on Impunity, Resistance and Solidarity in Guatemala, with Guatemala Solidarity Network (GSN), Amnesty International UK, Central America Women’s Network (CAWN), Banana Link, Latin American Mining Monitoring Project (LAMMP) and Peace Brigades International (PBI) at Amnesty’s London offices. For further information email: [email protected] Registration: (eventbrite) http://guatemalaconference2014.eventbrite.co.uk