Central America Theater
On May 10 a three-judge panel of the High Risk Cases Court in Guatemala City convicted former dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-1983) of ordering, supervising and permitting the killing of 1,771 people from the Ixil Mayan group—about 5.5% of the total Ixil population—in El Quiché department during his 17 months of de facto rule. The killings occurred during the most violent phase of a 36-year civil war in which some 200,000 people died, mostly civilians killed by the military, with covert assistance from the US. Ríos Montt was given a prison sentence of 80 years and was escorted from the court directly to the Matamoros prison. He said would appeal and called the proceedings an international farce. The court acquitted co-defendant José Rodríguez, Ríos Montt's former intelligence chief.
Just one week after imposing a 30-day state of siege on four municipalities in southeastern Guatemala that have been the site of violent confrontations over a Canadian-owned silver mine, President Otto Pérez Molina announced on May 9 that his government was lifting the measure and instead declaring a state of prevention in the area. Under the less severe state of prevention, "some rights remain limited," the president said, "such as the right to strike, and demonstrations when it's going to interfere with public services, [along with] the carrying of arms." Apparently, Pérez Molina had to back off from the May 2 state of siege because the National Congress had failed to approve it within three days, as required by law. (AFP, May 9, via Hoy, Dominican Republic; El Mercurio, Spain, May 11)
The status of the genocide trial of former Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) remained uncertain as of May 3, with observers disagreeing on the impact of four rulings by the Constitutional Court (CC) that day. The trial--in which Ríos Montt and former intelligence chief Gen. José Rodríguez face charges of causing the deaths of 1,771 indigenous Ixil Mayan civilians in the central department of Quiché during Ríos Montt's dictatorship—started on March 19 but was suddenly suspended on April 18 after an appeals court appeared to reinstate the presiding judge from an earlier phase of the case. The trial resumed on April 30, but on May 2 the three trial judges decided to recess until May 7 to allow the defense to prepare.
An estimated 80,000 Salvadorans representing a wide array of labor organizations, university students, women’s organizations and anti-mining activists, among others, as well as the leftist Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) political party, took to the streets for the largest May Day march since the election of President Funes in 2009. "We're really happy to have had such a diverse and strong showing of the working class on May 1," said Vilma Vásquez, one of the leaders of the Salvadoran Union Front (Frente Sindical Salvadoreño, FSS). "It takes a lot of work to mobilize that many people but the working class and the popular movement in El Salvador have always carried out our struggle with love."
The Guatemalan government declared a state of emergency and banned public gatherings May 2 in four municipalities in the eastern highlands following clashes between police and anti-mining protesters. The 30-day "state of siege" effects Jalapa and Mataquescuintla (Jalapa department), and Casillas and San Rafael las Flores (Santa Rosa department). (See map.) Constitutional guarantees are suspended, and the powers of local municipalities dissolved, placing them under the direct control of Pesident Otto Pérez Molina. Clashes between local residents and National Police and security guards this week left one officer dead, six residents wounded, and police cars burned near the Escobal silver mine at San Rafael las Flores. Protesters also briefly detained 23 police officers. The government says the protesters are armed with guns and explosives. The mine's owner, Vancouver-based Tahoe Resources Inc., said protesters armed with machetes "turned hostile" at the gate on on April 27, and security guards fired tear gas and rubber bullets, setting off days of angry protests.
According to a report by a US-based labor rights monitoring group, the Workers Rights Consortium (WRC), managers employed by the major Korean apparel firm Sae-A Trading Co. Ltd orchestrated an attack on laid-off Nicaraguan unionists and their supporters on March 4 at two of the company's plants in a "free trade zone" in Tipitapa municipality, Managua department. Sae-A supervisors reportedly promised workers 100 córdobas (about US$4.04), a production bonus and a free lunch if they broke up a rally and leafleting that about 30 workers were holding outside the two factories, EINS and Tecnotex, at the start of the workday. Some 300-350 workers came out of the plants and attacked the protesting unionists with metal pipes, belts and scissors, the WRC says, while police agents and plant security guards on the scene did nothing to stop the violence.
Both supporters and opponents of former Guatemalan dictator Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt (1982-83) took to the streets of Guatemala City on April 20 in response to the abrupt decision two days earlier to suspend his trial for genocide allegedly committed against indigenous people during the country's 36-year civil war. Human rights activists marched to the Constitutionality Court (CC), where the Center for Legal Action in Human Rights (CALDH) had filed a complaint on April 19 against the suspension. "We're asking for a court free of pressures, one which can say whether or not there was genocide and crimes against humanity," CALDH director Juan Fernando Soto explained. Meanwhile, friends and relatives of soldiers marched in the Lourdes neighborhood in Zona 16, putting decals on cars reading: "I love the Army of Guatemala" and "We Guatemalans don't commit genocide." (Prensa Libre, Guatemala City, April 21)
Citing frustration with mounting criminal violence, the National Congress of Honduras on April 16 moved to suspend prosecutor general Luis Alberto Rubí and his assistant, replacing them with a temporary oversight committee. The five-member commission, made up of leaders of the country's political parties, will have 60 days to analyze why the prosecutor's office, the Fiscalía General de la República, has made little headway on numerous criminal cases, and draft a plan to reform the institution. With a homicide rate of 90 per 100,000 residents, Honduras is often called the world's most violent country. Prosecutors solve only about 20% of homicide cases, on average. The National Congress estimates 20,644 homicides have gone uninvestigated in the 28 months of the current administration. (InfoSurHoy, La Prensa, Tegucigalpa, April 18; AP, NYT, April 17; La Prensa, April 16)