Guatemalan journalist flees city after threats, harassment

New York, November 1, 2011–A Guatemalan newspaper columnist has faced intimidation and harassment after writing a piece that raised questions about the disappearance of a person in the western city of Panajachel. The journalist, Lucía Escobar, said she fled the city on Friday after growing fearful.

Escobar, a weekly columnist for the Guatemala City-based daily elPeriódico, used her October 19 piece to accuse members of a local security committee of being behind the recent disappearance of a resident. In an interview with CPJ, Escobar alleged that the committee, an independent group originally formed to help protect the community, had begun using extralegal measures to enforce its own code of conduct.

In her column, Escobar blamed local government figures for being indifferent to the group’s activities. She ended the piece by writing: “If the next person to rest at the bottom of the world’s most beautiful lake with rocks holding them down is me, you will know who to blame.”

Juan Manuel Ralón, one of the security committee members named in Escobar’s column, appeared last Thursday on a local television program hosted by Panajachel Mayor Gerardo Higueros. Flanked by the mayor and the chief of police, Ralón denied the allegations in the column and then accused Escobar of being a drug trafficker, a charge Escobar described as fabricated. Ralón said the journalist was “trash and would end up in the trash.” Beginning the next day, Escobar received six intimidating text messages that referred to drug trafficking.

“We are shocked that people claiming to protect the citizens of Panajachel could be behind threatening comments made against Lucía Escobar,” said Carlos Lauría, CPJ’s senior program coordinator for the Americas. “Guatemalan authorities must investigate the threats, bring those responsible to justice, and take all necessary measures to protect Escobar.”

The journalist, who also hosted a local radio program with her husband, said she has filed a complaint with the national human rights office. On Monday, authorities arrested Ralón and another security commission member on charges of forced disappearances, destruction of homes, and illegal searches, according to local press reports.

Gustavo Girón, correspondent for national television station Guatevisión in the department of Sololá, received a threatening phone call on Monday after reporting on the arrests of the security committee members, he told CPJ. Shortly after the broadcast, he said, an anonymous caller told him that “you are going to regret getting involved in this.”

CPJ has documented threats against other provincial Guatemalan journalists this year. Television journalist Oscar de León was threatened after a corruption probe in February. Television journalist and teacher Yensi Roberto Ordoñez Galdámez had received threats before being murdered in May.