Letter to Obama Regarding the State of Siege in Guatemala

President Barack Obama
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, DC 20500

Dear Mr. President:

The National Lawyers Guild recently sent a delegation to Guatemala to observe the precedent-setting genocide trial of U.S.-supported military dictator Jose Efrain Rios Montt and his advisor Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez. In the wake of uncertainty over whether the trial would continue after widely criticized procedural developments over the last few weeks, we were pleased that the U.S. dispatched Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues Stephen Rapp to Guatemala to signal the importance of upholding the rule of law. Although the trial has reconvened, the defense attorneys fail to comply or even appear in court, and defendants are confident that they will never be held accountable. Since sitting President Otto Perez was the general in charge of the Ixil Area during the 1982-83 Rios Montt administration and has been implicated by witness testimony, he has repeatedly declared that genocide never occurred in Guatemala and, as the trial nears conclusion, he has now declared a State of Siege in indigenous areas with disputes over mining rights.

While Guatemala grapples with atrocities of its past, we are writing to express our grave concern about perilous conditions for community activists and repression of human rights defenders today. We are particularly alarmed about the unfolding crisis surrounding community opposition to the San Rafael El Escobal mine in southeast Guatemala. For years, community members have been organizing in peaceful resistance to the mine, protected in their actions by the Constitutional Court. Tensions escalated after the government issued a mining license to Tahoe Resources on April 3 2013, which local indigenous Xinka residents believe threatens their water supply. Tahoe Resources private security guards have since attempted to evict the peaceful protestors occupying land near the mine’s entrance and opened fire on them, injuring six, setting further conflict into motion which has led to killing of one local indigenous resident and one police officer. 

In response, President Otto Perez Molina has declared a State of Siege in four municipalities.  This has led to suspension of fundamental constitutional rights for at least 30 days, including the right to peaceful assembly, and has allowed the government to detain citizens without judicial review or access to counsel. There is widespread concern that the State of Siege will escalate human rights abuses and serve to suppress the critical due process and free speech and association rights of those advocating for their communities. Tensions are high in the wake of the arrests of numerous community leaders.

We urge you to communicate your concerns to President Perez Molina and to encourage the peaceful resolution of land rights conflicts across Guatemala and of respecting and protecting human rights defenders.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.



Azadeh N. Shahshahani
National Lawyers Guild