Gangs, known locally as maras, and paramilitary groups left over from the country’s three-decade-long civil war have long terrorized Guatemala. But in the last few years, the country has also become a major part of a drug-moving corridor from Colombia into the United States. Drug-related crimes escalated as a result of gang competition for smuggling routes. Sergio Morales, Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman, said 16 people on average were killed daily. Nine of 10 murders went unsolved, he told CPJ.
Reporters working in the country’s provinces did not cover sensitive stories for fear of retaliation, said Ileana Alamilla, director of the local press group Centro de Reportes Informativos Sobre Guatemala (Cerigua). According to a 2008 poll conducted by Cerigua in nine Guatemalan regions, local reporters said they feared covering drug trafficking, organized crime, maras, and corruption. Investigative teams from Guatemala City-based publications occasionally traveled from the capital to cover these issues, but many of the pieces appeared without bylines, Alamilla said.
On the afternoon of May 12, an unidentified assailant shot and killed Jorge Mérida Pérez, correspondent for the national daily Prensa Libre, who had been covering drug trafficking and corruption in southwestern Quetzaltenango province. The reporter was shot four times while working at his home computer in the city of Coatepeque, 130 miles (210 kilometers) southwest of the capital, according to news reports and CPJ sources. He had received multiple threats in the weeks before. Authorities in charge of the investigation said they were looking into links between Mérida’s work and his slaying, although they said they had been unable to confirm a motive.
The press was rocked by three violent episodes involving the Guatemala City-based daily El Periódico. It was unclear whether the newspaper had been targeted or simply caught up in the generalized violence in Guatemala’s capital.
José Ruben Zamora, the daily’s president, was abducted as he was leaving a bar on the outskirts of Guatemala City early on the morning of August 20, according to news reports and CPJ sources. Zamora, a 1995 recipient of CPJ’s International Press Freedom Award, was found unconscious in the neighboring province of Chimaltenango eight hours later, his cell phone and wallet missing. In October, a Guatemala City judge sentenced two men and a woman to prison terms on charges of kidnapping, robbery, criminal deception, and conspiracy, El Periódico reported. The defendants maintained their innocence, El Periódico said. Local journalists expressed some skepticism that the true assailants had been convicted given that Zamora and his family were victims of a brutal attack in their Guatemala City home in 2003. Colleagues said Zamora had made many enemies as a result of years of investigating organized crime and corruption.
On the day of Zamora’s kidnapping, a group of unidentified men followed Oscar Ismatul, a reporter with El Periódico’s investigative unit, as he was leaving the paper’s Guatemala City offices, the journalist told CPJ. El Periódico said in a statement that the men had caught up with Ismatul and issued a warning: “Shut up and stop talking.” The attackers snatched the reporter’s bag, along with a notepad and documents he was using for a story, the journalist said.
A graphic designer for El Periódico, Abel Girón Morales, died on October 22 after he was struck in the heart by an arrow outside his home in Guatemala City, according to reports in the local press and CPJ interviews. Witnesses quoted in El Periódico said unidentified individuals had shot the arrow from a black SUV that had been parked in front of the journalist’s home for at least three hours. Local authorities told the press they would not make leads public for fear of damaging the investigation.
In at least two cases, journalists covering local corruption received death threats. A team of three reporters working for local Radio Tamazulapa in the Jutiapa region received anonymous threats in March after critical coverage of local government officials, according to Guatemalan press reports. A month later, Cerigua reported that José Pelicó Pérez, one of its own investigative reporters, had received several telephone death threats. In both cases, the journalists filed complaints with local authorities.
Reporters covering demonstrations were often harassed and attacked by protesters, CPJ research found. In March, protesters in San Juan de Sacatepéquez, near Guatemala City, held a group of five journalists hostage for an hour, beating them with rocks and threatening to burn them. According to Cerigua, the demonstrators were protesting the actions of a local cement company. Eduardo García, a cameraman for the national television station Telecentro 13, was shot in the back on April 9 while covering a clash between local residents and police in San Juan de Alotenango, a small city 18 miles (30 kilometers) west of Guatemala City, colleagues told CPJ. That day, protesters also beat María Teresa Lopez, correspondent for Prensa Libre and radio station Emisoras Unidas, and forced her to hand over her camera and cell phone. A group of demonstrators in San Juan de Sacatepéquez held José Manuel Patzán, local correspondent for Radio Emisoras Unidas, hostage a month later while he was reporting on clashes between police and residents demanding the release of a man accused of human trafficking, according to local news reports.
In an encouraging development in September, Congress unanimously passed the Law of Access to Public Information, which allows Guatemalans to request and be given any information on public institutions and government officials. President &AACUTE;lvaro Colom signed the bill in October, and it was to take effect in January 2009. Local journalists praised the bill’s passage as a step toward transparency in government.
AMERICAS: Regional Analysis
Drug trade, violent gangs pose grave danger
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