A soldier patrols a lake in the town of Panajachel, where journalist Lucía Escobar used to live. (AFP/Orlando Sierra)
A soldier patrols a lake in the town of Panajachel, where journalist Lucía Escobar used to live. (AFP/Orlando Sierra)

Displaced by threats, old life gives way to new

For seven years I lived in Panajachel, a tourist town on the beautiful Atitlán Lake in Guatemala. There, my husband, Juan Miguel Arrivillaga, and I started a family and the independent news outlet Anti Magazine. We also hosted a radio program on the local station Radio Ati.

The magazine was in circulation for several years, free of charge. It survived by publicizing the services of local businesses (restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, mechanics, and art galleries). The magazine delved into regional issues through four cross sections: indigenous culture, freedom of expression, art, and ecology. We also organized free art and film festivals, and collected thousands of books for local libraries. The last year we were there, I also taught literature to high school students in a local private school.

Because of its rugged geography, Panajachel has been hit by several hurricanes and tropical storms that every so often destroy roads, bridges, and houses. In 2010, the storm Agatha damaged local infrastructure while many people were forced to temporarily leave their homes.

Given this situation and the general state of insecurity in the country, municipal security squads were fashioned after the civil self-defense squads of the times of internal conflict in Guatemala. Like in those times, men patrolled their neighborhood streets at night. However, within months, the solution became a problem. Men began patrolling in groups, their faces covered with ski masks, baring sticks and baseball bats. And it did not take long for the abuse to begin: men were beaten and illegally detained; liquor stores burned. The squads became avengers able to act with complete impunity, with consent from local authorities.

Due to my close relationship with the community, at first I did not want to discuss the issue in the media, although I encouraged my fellow journalists to investigate and report on it. But neither the community nor the Guatemalan judicial system responded to the reports. So, on October 19, 2011, after hearing the testimony of Lorena Caal (wife of a local carpenter, allegedly beaten and disappeared by members of the self-defense squads), I wrote an opinion piece for the national daily elPeriodico. Based on my experiences in the community and my knowledge of the situation, I denounced those I believed to be the masterminds–including the local mayor.

My column prompted Plaza Pública, a magazine run by the local University Rafael Landívar, to conduct a thorough investigation confirming my accusations, and showing that I could be the next victim. One week later, Panajachel Mayor Gerardo Higueros, along with other high-ranking members of the municipal security commission and the local police chief, appeared on a local news show (hosted by Higueros). They claimed I was not a literature teacher but a drug dealer, and for that reason I opposed their work. They said I did not write columns but slander, and deserved to end up in a dumpster. Higueros, the mayor, accused me of being a drug addict in an interview with elPeriodico. With the accusations also came messages to my mobile phone, where my assailants attempted to link me to drug trafficking.

The night that the news show aired I was in the capital, Guatemala City, without my children (who were still in Panajachel). I was never able to return home. My children and their father fled the next day with the clothes they had on their backs and our dogs. Mayor Higueros visited the school where I taught and his and my children studied. He said that if I wasn’t fired he would pull his children out of the school. The director supported me but I resigned out of fear that something could happen to my family. My friends helped pack and move my belongings.

It has been almost six months since the day I left my house. Most of my things are still packed in cardboard boxes and my life never again has been what it used to be. My children still ask when we will go back to Atitlán Lake. It has been difficult to explain to them that I cannot go back to the life I had before, that it’s dangerous and that our lives are at risk there. I am still not even able to explain to myself why I had to run when I am not a criminal.

Despite my exile, some good things have happened. Two weeks after my column was published, the president and vice-president of the municipal security commission were arrested, and recently they were sentenced, respectively, to 16 and 19 years in prison for the many crimes that I had denounced. Mayor Higueros lost his bid for re-election, although no charges have been filed against him. The support I received from international organizations and journalists groups was stunning. I have to acknowledge that I never thought there would be such professional solidarity. Without help from CPJ, the Lima-based Instituto Prensa y Sociedad (IPYS) and the London group Rory Peck Trust, I probably never would have been able to start my life again.

I also reported the threats against me to the office of the special prosecutor for crimes against journalists and union members. Today, six months later, the prosecutor’s office has brought a case against my assailants. The office said this was the first time they were bringing perpetrators to justice in the case of a threatened journalist.

My life has changed a lot since I left Panajachel. I have to constantly visit the government to follow up on my case; I have a new job with a publisher; and Radio Ati, which was transmitted from Atitlán, has had to change venues and programs, losing income and listeners. I still write my column for elPeriódico and I occasionally do other freelance work. Anonymous threats still come to my email, blog, and to the Radio Ati website, attempting to discredit me or abuse me psychologically. But life goes on, and I do not intend to stop the work that I love so much, that is linked to freedom of expression, to art and communication. And finally I am still alive; I have my kids and a house and a good job that feeds me. In Panajachel, the situation has improved greatly and people can once again walk the streets at night without fear that something might happen. I am not there to enjoy it but I am here to tell the story.