Amid harassment and violence against journalists, human rights activists, and judges involved in high-profile cases, Guatemala’s political stability deteriorated considerably in 2001, and press freedom along with it. The administration of President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, a member of the right-wing Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG), showed little tolerance for criticism of any kind.
Several attacks set the tone for the year. On February 20, a group of protesters gathered in front of the offices of the Guatemala City daily elPeriódico and threatened the newspaper’s staff. The protesters identified themselves as supporters of Luis Rabbé, then minister of communications, infrastructure, and housing. The threats apparently resulted from the newspaper’s coverage of high-level government corruption, including elPeriódico‘s strong criticism of Rabbé’s official conduct. Rabbé later resigned.
In late March, four elPeriódico journalists were threatened and attacked after they uncovered mismanagement at a state-controlled bank. In another controversial story known as “Guategate,” Prensa Libre revealed in 2000 that more than 20 FRG legislators had conspired to reduce a new tax on alcoholic beverages. Former military dictator and current president of Congress Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt was implicated in the scandal and stripped of immunity from prosecution in March 2001. In April, Ríos Montt complained that media coverage of “Guategate” was part of an orchestrated campaign to damage his prestige and ensure his “political lynching.” In October 2001, the investigation of Ríos Montt and the other legislators was shelved after a highly controversial court ruling.
Early in the year, media tycoon Angel González, a Mexican national and brother-in-law of former minister Rabbé, used his broadcasting empire to wage a campaign to discredit elPeriódico and Prensa Libre. Through front companies, González owns all four of Guatemala’s private television stations, which violates constitutional prohibitions against both monopolies and foreign ownership of the media. He has canceled two independent news programs and wields enormous influence over Guatemalan politics.
González has been a leading financial contributor to President Portillo’s political campaigns, and Rabbé is a former executive in González’s media empire. González has also been linked to shady business deals in Perú, where he allegedly attempted to gain control of TV channel Canal 13 in collusion with disgraced Peruvian intelligence adviser Vladimiro Montesinos, according to Peruvian sources.
Though President Portillo says he is concerned about González’s TV monopoly, he has done little to dismantle it. While the president has pledged to open the remaining two broadcast TV channels to competitive bidding–they are state-owned and currently don’t broadcast any programming–no concrete action has been taken.
On November 30, Guatemalan Journalists’ Day, the single-chamber, FRG-controlled Congress passed a bill that requires all university graduates, including those with journalism degrees, to register with trade associations known as colegios. The bill was then sent to President Portillo, who was asked to veto it by the journalists’ organization Asociación de Periodistas de Guatemala (APG) and other international press freedom organizations. Portillo promised a veto if he found that the bill was likely to damage the interests of journalists.
The Guatemalan press has recently made more of an effort to defend itself from government interference and harassment. In addition to APG activism, the press freedom organization Centro para la Defensa de la Libertad de Expresión organized its first seminar in June 2001.
Beyond Guatemala City, provincial journalists face harassment, threats, intimidation, and violence. On September 5, radio journalist Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz was murdered outside his home in Puerto Barrios, a port city located on the Caribbean coast in Izabal Department. The journalist hosted an afternoon call-in show that often discussed corruption and official misconduct. Following Alegría’s death, his colleague Enrique Aceituno resigned as host of a local news program, saying he had received threats for criticizing local authorities.
One journalist’s murder was resolved in 2001. On February 19, a court sentenced former security guard Gustavo García to 15 years in prison for killing Prensa Libre photographer Roberto Martínez and two bystanders in April 2000, during a riot sparked by a bus-fare increase. García’s security firm was ordered to pay Martínez’s family 150,000 quetzales (US$20,000) in damages. The second defendant, also a security guard with the company, was acquitted.
About 50 protesters gathered in front of the elPeriódico offices and threatened the newspaper’s staff. According to CPJ sources, the protesters identified themselves as supporters of Luis Rabbé, then-minister of communications, infrastructure, and housing. Both elPeriódico and the daily Prensa Libre had strongly criticized Rabbé’s official conduct.
Journalists at elPeriódico subsequently identified some of the protesters as employees of the Ministry of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing. At least one car used to transport them was also traced to the ministry.
The mob attempted to force open doors and threw burning copies of the newspaper into the building, which also houses the Prensa Libre Group’s daily Nuestro Diario.
The protesters also tried to attack three photographers, two from elPeriódico and one from Nuestro Diario, and damaged two vehicles belonging to Nuestro Diario. Local police took 40 minutes to respond to a call for help from elPeriódico’s offices. When the police finally arrived, they did not make any arrests.
In various articles published since November 2000, elPeriódico exposed irregularities in the awarding of public works contracts by Rabbé’s ministry. Early in January 2001, local press reports quoted Rabbé as saying he was the victim of a campaign of personal destruction by some journalists.
Radio and television stations owned by Ángel González, a Mexican national who is Rabbé’s brother-in-law, also waged a campaign to discredit elPeriódico. Through front companies, González owns all four of Guatemala’s private television stations, in violation of constitutional prohibitions against media monopolies and foreign ownership of media.
González has been a leading financial contributor to Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo Cabrera’s political campaigns, and Rabbé himself is a former executive in González’s media empire. According to local sources, television crews from González’s stations arrived outside elPeriódico 20 minutes before the attack.
In a February 22 letter to President Portillo Cabrera, CPJ urged him to ensure that all journalists in Guatemala are able to work without fear of threats or intimidation.
Silvia Gereda, elPeriódico
Luis Escobar, elPeriódico
Enrique Castañeda, elPeriódico
Walter Martín Juárez Ruiz, elPeriódico
Escobar and Castañeda, reporters for the Guatemala City daily elPeriódico, were threatened after they broke a scandal involving the state-controlled bank Crédito Hipotecario Nacional (CHN).
Gereda and Juárez, respectively the investigative editor and a reporter with the paper, were also menaced over elPeriódico‘s coverage of the scandal.
On March 26, elPeriódico broke a major story about irregular CHN loans totaling 47 million quetzales (US$6 million). elPeriódico reported that some of these loans were to companies and individuals with close links to CHN stockholders and the bank’s president, José Armando Llort.
On March 27, in direct response to elPeriódico‘s reporting, the Banking Supervision Office ordered CHN to recover the total loan amount by the end of the month. On April 3, Llort and five other members of the CHN board of directors resigned. According to local press reports, President Alfonso Portillo Cabrera personally asked Llort to give up his post.
After the elPeriódico story broke, Llort placed several advertisements in local newspapers threatening legal action against media that covered the CHN story, according to CPJ sources in Guatemala.
On March 27, meanwhile, a man who identified himself as a CHN employee approached Gereda and said that Llort wanted to kill her as well as her colleagues Escobar and Castañeda. The man claimed that the elPeriódico journalists were being watched and filmed.
He then produced a folder containing personal information about Gereda and her family. He also gave her an oral account of Escobar and Castañeda’s daily schedule.
That evening, Gereda told CPJ, another individual approached her and grabbed her by the neck as she left her literature class at the Universidad del Valle. After insulting Gereda, the man said they–an obvious reference to elPeriódico journalists–would be killed if they kept making trouble. Gereda was unable to identify the attacker.
On the morning of March 28, Gereda noticed a car with tinted windows parked outside her house. In the afternoon, Castañeda was trailed by an unregistered red vehicle.
Later that day, Gereda filed a complaint with the United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala (MINUGUA), which monitors compliance with the peace agreements that ended Guatemala’s long-running civil war. The next day, Gereda went to the Public Ministry and filed another complaint. Ministry officials provided her with several letters ordering police units based near the paper’s offices to provide assistance in case of an emergency.
Also on March 28, following a phone conversation with Byron Barrera, President Portillo’s secretary of social communication, CPJ issued a public statement expressing its concern about the threats against the elPeriódico journalists.
On March 30 at around 8 p.m., two masked gunmen in a car intercepted Juárez while he was driving in downtown Guatemala City. The attackers got out of their car and pointed their handguns at Juárez’s head. Before fleeing the scene, the men told the journalist that they were going to kill him, Gereda, Escobar, and Castañeda because of elPeriódico‘s work.
In a state of nervous collapse, Juárez sought refuge in a nearby fire station, where he was given a tranquilizer.
Eddy Castillo, elPeriódico
Mynor de León, Prensa Libre
Sandra Sebastián, Siglo Veintiuno
Marvin del Cid, Emisoras Unidas
Castillo, de León, Sebastián, and del Cid were attacked by police officers while covering public demonstrations against a two percent increase in the value-added tax.
As the protest ended on the afternoon of August 1 near Guatemala City’s Plaza de la Constitución, a group of demonstrators engaged in a street battle with officers from the Civil National Police, who used tear gas and fired pistols into the air to disperse the crowds.
When police moved to make arrests, journalists attempted to interview and photograph the protesters who were being detained. The police tried to push the journalists away and beat up at least four of them. Police also shouted that they did not want to see any journalists around.
Members of the media who were assaulted by riot police included: Castillo, a reporter for the daily elPeriódico; de León, a photographer for the daily Prensa Libre, whose camera was destroyed; Sebastián, a photographer for the daily Siglo Veintiuno; and del Cid, a reporter for the radio station Emisoras Unidas.
Various sources reported that the assault occurred in front of police chief Santos Estrada Marroquín, who was in charge of riot control in the area. Apparently, he did not intervene.
On August 6, CPJ sent a letter of inquiry to Adolfo González Rodas, the attorney general of Guatemala, expressing its concerns about the attack and urging a prompt and thorough investigation.
Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendáriz, Radio Amatique
Enrique Aceituno, Radio Amatique
Alegría, host of the call-in show “Línea Directa,” was shot at least five times outside his home in Puerto Barrios, a port city located on the Caribbean coast in Izabal Department.
Alegría, who also worked as a part-time correspondent for the national radio network Emisoras Unidas, had reportedly been threatened on three different occasions after broadcasting stories about corruption. In addition, one of his colleagues told the press that local officials had tried to bribe Alegría to keep him quiet about their activities.
Police detained two suspects in connection with Alegría’s murder. One suspect had a 9 mm handgun whose bullets apparently matched those found at the crime scene. Preliminary investigations by the Puerto Barrios prosecutor’s office revealed that the handgun had recently fired six shots.
On September 20, the Ombudsman’s Office for Human Rights (PDH) released the results of its investigations. The report concluded that Alegría’s murder was politically motivated and was probably masterminded by local officials in retaliation for the journalist’s coverage of corruption in Puerto Barrios. The PDH added that the two suspects in police custody were scapegoats. A report with the PDH’s findings was sent to the newly created Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists.
In early October, the two suspects were released after ballistics testing proved that the confiscated handgun was not the murder weapon.
At year’s end, the Puerto Barrios prosecutor’s office and police were investigating Alegría’s murder as either a crime of passion, a politically motivated crime, or a common crime. However, they have not offered any evidence to support their theories. According to the news agency CERIGUA, a local prosecutor declared that a political motivation could neither be ruled out nor confirmed.