The past is slow to fade away in Guatemala. Journalists and human rights campaigners got threats in June from a mysterious group called "True Guatemalans," showing once again that army and paramilitary abuses during the 1960-96 civil war remained a sensitive and dangerous subject.
Two months earlier, journalist David Herrera was forced to go into exile after escaping an attempt to kidnap him by attackers who were after notes he had taken during investigations into a secret mass grave of victims of army repression.
Human rights organisations said the still-powerful army was ensuring silence and impunity reigned where the civil war was concerned. However, in a different context, more suspects in the murder of journalist Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendariz in September 2001 were arrested.
Relations were still very tense between the opposition media and the government, which was accused of corruption. Great efforts by government officials and ministers to discredit critical media were echoed by TV stations controlled by Mexican businessman Angel González, who financed President Alfonso Portillo’s 1999 election campaign. The daily papers El Periódico, Nuestro Diario and Prensa Libre said they were also harassed over tax and legal matters.
New information on a journalist killed before 2002
The former girlfriend of murdered radio journalist Jorge Mynor Alegría Armendariz, Olga Maritza Linares Villeda, and her sister, Rosa Linares Portela, were cleared by a court in Chiquimula (160 kms east of Guatemala City) on 12 September 2002 of having covered up for the killers. Two other suspects were arrested in the case - Jairo Humberto Gómez, the suspected gunman, and an accomplice, Benjamón Orozco, an ex-bodyguard of the former Puerto Barrios mayor Jorge Mario Chigua, who is accused of ordering the murder. Chigua was reportedly having an affair with the journalist’s ex-girlfriend and ordered his death because of his revelations about his corruption in office and unjust dismissals. After several months in hiding, he gave himself up to police at the end of the year and was jailed. Alegría Armendariz, who presented the programme "Linea Directa" (Direct Line) on Radio Amatique in Puerto Barrios, was killed on 5 September 2001.
Two journalists physically attacked
Arnulfo Agustin Guzmán, head of Radio Sonora, was attacked by four thugs who tried to kidnap him as he arrived at the station on 5 February 2002. He fled inside and the gunmen fired at the facade and stole his car. The journalist said the reason for the attack was a mystery and that he had not previously been threatened. He did not rule out that it might be connected to the radio’s news coverage.
Freelance journalist David Herrera left for Mexico on 17 April after being briefly kidnapped the previous week by a group of armed men who got into his car and demanded his notes on investigations he had done into secret mass graves of victims of military repression during the 1960-96 civil war. He escaped by jumping out of the moving car.
Five journalists threatened
Abner Gouz, of the daily El Periódico, Rosa María Bolaños, of the daily Siglo XXI, Ronaldo Robles and Marielos Monzón, of the radio station Emisoras Unidas and seven human rights activists were threatened with "extermination" on 7 June 2002 in a statement from a mystery group called "True Guatemalans." At the end of May, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Indigenous Peoples had denounced the abuses of armed paramilitary groups.
Estuardo Zapeta, of Siglo XXI, got a telephoned death threat on 7 July from a man who said he was involved with gangsters, after articles and TV statements by Zapeta about organised crime.
Pressure and obstruction
On 24 January 2002, the Constitutional Council, pending a definitive ruling, temporarily suspended a month-old law forcing journalists to belong to an official journalists’ institute. The national journalists’association (APG) and several newspapers had formally appealed against the law on 28 December 2001. The Council agreed to hear the appeal, saying the measure clashed with the constitutional right to free expression. By the end of the year, the Council had not given a definitive ruling.
The daily Prensa Libre said on 7 May that Pedro Joel Martínez, a city official in Quetzaltenango, had ordered employees to buy up virtually all copies of the latest issue of the fortnightly paper El Quetzalteco, which included a report that the official had been cited for making threats and attacking a private individual who criticised his performance. Aides of the same official also bought up virtually all copies of the next issue of the paper, on 8 May.