CPJ urges investigation into attack on journalist

Dear Mr. de León:

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), an independent, nonpartisan organization dedicated to defending press freedom worldwide, is disturbed by the alleged participation of Guatemala state agents in a June 2003 attack against José Rubén Zamora, publisher of the daily elPeriódico. We urge you to ensure that these allegations are fully investigated and to bring those responsible to justice.

On January 20, elPeriódico published a special report with the results of a private investigation conducted by Zamora alleging that two former members of the Presidential High Command (Estado Mayor Presidencial, EMP), an intelligence officer, and an employee of the Attorney General’s Office were among the group of armed individuals who attacked Zamora and his family in June 2003.

On June 24, 2003, eleven heavily armed men and one woman held Zamora and his family at their home for two hours. The assailants, who identified themselves as investigators from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, invaded Zamora’s house in the capital, Guatemala City, and held him, his family, and domestic employees for about two hours. The men put a gun to Zamora’s head, took him to another room, and told him he was going to be executed. After asking Zamora several questions, the attackers took him back to the room where his family was, his eyes blindfolded and his hands tied. Zamora’s youngest son, 12, was hit in the ribs by one of the assailants, and his oldest son, 24, was hit in the head for defending his brother.

Before leaving, the men took Zamora’s credit cards and three handguns. The attackers then told Zamora that they knew his family’s routine and would kill them if he reported the attack. One of the attackers also told Zamora that he was “screwing up a lot,” that Zamora owed him 200,000 quetzales (US$25,000) for having kept the other men from harming him, and that he did not know why Zamora had a problem with the “people at the top.”

Shortly after the assault, Zamora told CPJ that a secret group with government connections may have been responsible for the attack. The lack of results in the government’s investigation forced Zamora to launch a private inquiry, the results of which he published in elPeriódico. The report on the investigation alleged that Eduvijes Funes Velásquez and Belter Armando Álvarez Castillo, former members of the Presidential High Command; Iris Edith Soto López, a counter-intelligence officer; and Erick Johnston Barrera, an employee of your office described by Zamora as being close to you, were part of the armed group that attacked the journalist and his family.

The newspaper report was a result of investigations by elPeriódico’s staff, a foreign private detective hired for the occasion, and a military officer assigned by then President Alfonso Portillo to investigate the case. With the exception of Johnston Barrera, who denied involvement in the attack in a January 21 letter sent to the Guatemala City­based daily Prensa Libre, the other state agents have never publicly denied the accusation, and the newspaper’s attempts to reach them prior to publication were unsuccessful.

Following a five-day visit to Guatemala in October 2003, CPJ urged the Guatemalan government to investigate acts carried out by armed clandestine groups, dismantle the activities of these groups, and end the impunity surrounding the threats and attacks against journalists.

We are aware that your office has created a special commission to investigate the newspaper’s allegations, which are particularly troubling given the fact that state agents were reportedly involved in the attack against Zamora. Therefore, we urge you to conduct a thorough and prompt investigation and to bring those responsible to justice.

Thank you for your attention to this serious matter.


Ann Cooper
Executive Director