May 2017

Guatemala: Police in spotlight over killing of human rights defender

Government officials including the minister and deputy minister of the Environment and Natural Resources (MARN) and senior officials of the National Civil Police (PNC) have attempted a cover up of police brutality that resulted in the death of 27-year-old human rights defender Carlos Maaz Coc.

Amid government claims of civil unrest, and despite the fact that there was little evidence of violence in the area, police deployed tear gas and rubber bullets to restore order which resulted in the death of Carlos in what was supposed to be a peaceful demonstration over mining issues in El Estor, Izabal, Guatemala.

Carlos Maaz Coc was a member of the indigenous Maya-Q’eqchi’ people and an environmental and land rights defender. He was part of the Gremial de Pescadores Artesanales – GPA (Artisanal Fishermen’s Guild), which, with several other local organisations, works to protect the Maya-Q’eqchi’ people from adverse health effects caused by nickel mining activities which contaminate and pollute the lands in the El Estor region.

On 27 May 2017, the Guatemalan government unilaterally abandoned negotiations with GPA, which had been organised in an attempt to find a solution to the problems of the community caused by mining activities.

At approximately 3.00pm, the people of El Estor decided to conduct a peaceful demonstration by closing the road that leads to the mining facilities in the department of Alta Verapaz. The Ministry of the Interior ordered the deployment of the National Civil Police to the region. The disproportionate use of force by the riot police (NPC), including the use of rubber bullets, live ammunition, gas bombs and sound bombs, resulted in many injuries and led directly to the death of Carlos Maaz Coc.

Several Guatemalan officials, including the Minister of the Environment, Sydney Samuels, have now publicly denied that a killing took place.

In 2006, the Guatemalan government issued mining licenses to the Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel – CGN (Guatemalan Nickel Company), owned by the Canadian company HudBay Minerals Inc. The government failed to inform or seek permission from the El Estor indigenous people, a requirement stated in the International Labour Organization Convention 169. The mining in the surroundings of Lake Izabal has caused its contamination by toxic metals, such as nickel, chromium and cadmium. This has endangered the human rights and well-being of the indigenous communities who use the lake for fishing and as their main source of fresh water.

The Guatemalan government has continuously failed to comply with international and national legislation and judicial decisions to respect the rights of indigenous communities.

Front Line Defenders has previously reported on violations against indigenous and land rights defenders in the country. On 4 February 2017, Abelino Chub Caal, an indigenous Maya-Q’eqchi’ defender, was detained and falsely charged with aggravated land grabbing, arson, coercion, illicit association, and belonging to illicit armed groups. He remains in detention as he waits for his case to be judged. On 17 September 2016, shots were fired outside the home of Angélica Choc in El Estor, where she slept with her two children. The next morning, the human rights defender discovered at least four shots had been fired at the wall surrounding her home. Angélica Choc and 12 other plaintiffs sued the company Hudbay Minerals and its Guatemalan subsidiary CGN in Canada in an unprecedented effort to bring justice to their Maya-Q’eqchi’ community.

In 2011, Rodrigo Tot, president of the Agua Caliente community in El Estor and winner of the 2017 Goldman Environmental Prize, filed a lawsuit against the government of Guatemala to prove the community’s ownership of the land. Despite the fact that several pages of the official land registry were intentionally removed, the Guatemalan Supreme Court ruled in favour of the communal ownership of land for the Agua Caliente community, thus reaffirming the necessity for the state to seek the approval of local communities before issuing mining permits on their land which could violate their human rights. The government has not complied yet with the decision.

Front Line Defenders condemns the killing of human rights defender Carlos Maaz Coc, as well as the disproportionate use of force by the Guatemalan authorities against peaceful protesters in El Estor. Front Line Defenders is also deeply concerned at public declarations made by authorities denying the killing.

Brazil: 25 killings in a forty day period

On 24 May 2017, Jane Julia de Oliveira, president of the Association of Rural Workers (Associação dos Trabalhadores e Trabalhadoras Rurais) in the local community, was shot dead in the municipality of Pau D’Arco in Pará state. According to local media reports the killing took place when police carried out an attack on a camp of participants in a land occupation on the Santa Lúcia estate. Jane and 9 other participants in the occupation were shot dead.

While the police claim that the killings in Pau D’Arco took place during an armed confrontation there is no evidence of armed violence by the LCP members.  There is, however, evidence to suggest that the attack by the police was in retaliation for the shooting dead of a security man on the estate, several days previously. According to local media reports, the police managed to approach the estate without being observed and opened fire on the members of the LCP. According to an eye-witness, several people who had hidden were shot dead by the police after being captured.

Those killed were: Weldson Pereira da Silva; Nelson Souza Milhomem; Weclebson Pereira Milhomem; Ozeir Rodrigues da Silva; Jane Julia de Oliveira; Regivaldo Pereira da Silva; Ronaldo Pereira de Souza; Bruno Henrique Pereira Gomes; Antonio Pereira Milhomem; Hércules Santos de Oliveira. 7 of the victims belonged to one family.

The estate is occupied by a family of alleged “grileiros” whose title to the land is disputed by the farmers. “Grileiros” is a term used to refer to people who have seized control of large tracts of land often using dubious title documents. It is estimated that in Brazil 64% of the land is occupied or owned by 8% of the population. In another land occupation in the same state, the LCP had been able to show that of the 800 acres claimed by the land owner, only 200 acres had been properly documented. The remaining 600 acres were state land which had been illegally occupied. This is a recurring problem across Brazil and is the root cause of many conflicts in which human rights defenders are killed for protecting the rights of their communities.

This latest spate of killings brings the total number of killings in the context of land disputes in Brazil in 2017 to 36, 25 of which took place in one forty day period. On the first of May, the incinerated bodies of 4 farmers were found in their burnt out lorry in Santa Maria das Barreiras, in southern Pará. Two days earlier, on 29 April, the bodies of another 3 farmers were found, again, incinerated in their burnt out lorry. These killings took place ten days after a massacre in north east Rondonia, which shocked the whole country when the bodies of 9 farmers were found.

According to the Comissão Pastoral da Terra (CPT), which started collecting data on rural killings in 1985, there have been 1,833 such killings up to the end of 2016. These killings are seldom properly investigated and it is rare for anyone to be brought to justice. In a joint statement 29 Brazilian human rights organisations have demanded an independent international investigation into the killings in Pau D’Arco: “Given the visible failure, and inability, of the Brazilian authorities to adequately investigate or punish crimes by its own agents, either in the city or in the country, we are demanding an independent international investigation by international bodies into the circumstances of the killings in Pau d’Arco”. Front Line Defenders echoes this call.

Mexico: Wixarika indigenous people mourn death of leader and brother

According to Mexican daily La Jornada Indigenous community leader Miguel Vazquez Flores has been killed alongside his brother Agustin Flores, as the country’s human rights situation continues to spark national and international alarm just days after the murder of a renowned veteran journalist Javier Valdez.

Miguel Vazquez Flores, president of the Communal Lands Commission representing the Wixarika Indigenous people of San Sebastian Teponahuaxtlan in the western Mexican state of Jalisco, was murdered with his brother Agustin Florez Saturday 20 May around 6:00 p.m. local time in Tuxpan de Bolaños.

The murders come just days after Mexican journalist and author Javier Valdez — a prominent investigative journalist with La Jornada in Sinaloa, founder of the magazine Riodoce and author of several books — was shot dead in broad daylight in the city of Culiacan.

The high-profile killings coincide with a new survey for 2017 published by the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), a global think-tank, researching political and military conflict(s), that named Mexico the world’s second most deadly conflict zone, second only to Syria.

Vazquez Flores and the Wixarika people have been fighting for decades to reclaim some 10,000 hectares of ancestral land that the group argues is under “irregular possession.”

The people of San Sebastian Teponahuaxtlan, where Vazquez Flores was a local leader, took a stand last September, together with some 1,000 Wixarika community members, to reclaim a swath of ancestral land from ranchers in the neighbouring state of Nayarit, reports Tele Sur.

The Wixarika people’s traditional territory spans the major Western Sierra Madre mountain range in the states of Jalisco, Nayarit, Zacatecas and Durango. The traditional culture, shamanic spirituality and the present-day struggles of the Wixarika were showcased in the 2014 documentary film “Huicholes: The Last Peyote Guardians.”

The Wixarika, and their ancient cultural traditions are under threat from foreign mining activities, including an open-cast silver mine which is leaching cyanide into the local water supply. The mine is operated by the Canadian company First Majestic Silver Corp.

According to Tele Sur, San Sebastian Teponahuaxtlan has become one of the most hotly disputed areas in the territorial conflicts in the sierra region, where expanding drug cartels in Jalisco, home to Mexico’s second largest city, Guadalajara — combined with the war on drugs — contributes to worsening levels of violence.

According to Front Line Defenders annual report, 26 human rights defenders were killed in Mexico in 2016 alone, while Article 19 documented 11 murders of journalists in the same year amid soaring levels of impunity for politically-motivated killings. Front Line Defenders calls on the government of Mexico to bring to justice those responsible for the murder of Miguel Vazquez Flores, his brother Agustin and all other human rights defenders killed because of their peaceful human rights work. They must take action to ensure that those who continue in their struggle to defend the rights of indigenous people are able to do so without fear of retaliation or reprisals.

Mexico: Death of environmental activist raises serious questions for Mexican government

A United States-Mexican citizen described as a much-loved community and environmental activist was found murdered in his home on Thursday May 4 in the municipality of Teocelo, Veracruz.  

The U.S. Embassy confirmed on May 9 the death of 58-year-old Gordon Louis Strom Diaz and declined to comment further out of respect for his family.

According to some media reports, Gordon Strom, also known by close family and friends as ‘‘El Gringo’’ was killed during what appeared to be a robbery on his ranch on the Teocelo-El Zapote highway. There have been many cases in Mexico where the killings of HRD’s have been disguised as random acts of criminal violence.

An employee of Strom discovered his body and reported that his hands and feet were tired and that he had been beaten.

According to the newspaper La Jornada, Gordon arrived in Teocelo six years ago from California and participated in environmental conservation projects such as recycling and water filtration, ran a meditation group for children and adults and advocated for urban gardening and water rights.

Gordon Strom’s wife Yvette told Mexico News Daily that her husband “loved the community of Teocelo with all of his heart,” and always looked for ways to improve the community’s standard of living.

In 2015, Gordon founded the organisation Amigos de Teocelo in the hope that the people of Teocelo could ‘‘have faith and trust’’ in their community. A retired US contractor, Strom was instrumental in persuading the community of Teocelo to get behind a project that sought to repair local roads by hiring a construction firm without first seeking the approval of local authorities.

Yvette Strom said her husband worked tirelessly on various projects in the community and described her husband’s death as senseless

We have little of value in our home, and he was bound, beaten and murdered for a few, valueless things.”

The circumstances surrounding the death of Gordon Strom require a full and independent investigation. The killing of the environmental rights defender highlights the dangers faced by environmental and land rights activists across Mexico.

Mexico News Daily and Associated Press

Philippines under review: Rodrigo Duterte must no longer turn a blind eye to the fate of human rights defenders

The human rights record of the Philippines came under scrutiny on 8 May 2017 during the 27th session of the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC) in Geneva, Switzerland. After the initial review of the national report submitted by the Philippines, member states of the UNHRC made their recommendations. In this article Front Line Defenders looks at the critical situation for human rights defenders, (HRDs), in the Philippines.

During the previous UPR of the Philippines in 2012, only four countries1 had raised concern with regard to the situation of human rights defenders (HRDs) in the Philippines, resulting in five official recommendations. While the Philippines merely acknowledged the recommendation pertaining to cooperation with the UN Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, it accepted two concerning the protection of HRDs from extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances. During the examination, the government committed itself to taking “firm measures to address the problem of extra-judicial killings and enforced disappearances”. Despite those assurances, extra-judicial killings and targeted attacks on HRDs have continued to take place. The government report under current review made no mention of the risks facing HRDs or the measures taken to prevent their targeting, thus demonstrating how little progress has been made in implementing such recommendations over the past five years, and particularly under the new administration.

In contrast, in its 2017 review, eleven states called for the establishment of protection mechanisms for HRDs and recommended that the Philippines “should provide a safe and enabling environment for the work of human rights defenders”2. The dire need for the recognition of their positive and legitimate work in defence of human rights was also raised by some member states, highlighting how much the issue of the dangers faced by human rights defenders in the Philippines has gained momentum in recent years.

Prior to the 2017 review, Front Line Defenders submitted stakeholders’ report with recommendations to the government of the Philippines pertaining to the protection of HRDs which called on the government to take effective action to:

  • end and investigate extra-judicial killings;

  • cease judicial harassment;

  • review restrictive laws;

  • recognise the positive and legitimate role human rights defenders play in society.

As of today, extra-judicial killing remains the gravest threat facing human rights defenders. Since the last review, the Philippines has seen a marked deterioration in the rule of law, which has deeply affected the ability of HRDs to carry out their peaceful human rights work. The climate of impunity prevailing in the Philippines, combined with the administration’s encouragement of extra-judicial killings of alleged drug users, as well as President Duterte’s hostile rhetoric about HRDs and civil society members, has resulted in a serious deterioration in the situation for HRDs in the country. There are very real fears that under Duterte’s administration such killings will increase as official encouragement for the killing of those suspected of involvement in the illegal drug trade will have the knock-on effect of creating a situation in which the killing of HRDs is seen as an acceptable state response. The Philippines has already become the most dangerous country in the world in which to be a HRD, outside of the Americas, in terms of number of reported killings.

In a recent letter to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Philippine human rights organisation Karapatan noted that 474 HRDs were killed during the Arroyo presidency (2001-2010), and 139 during the Aquino presidency (2010-2016) while 33 HRDs have already been killed since President Duterte came to power in July 2016. This makes a total of 646 HRDs killed in a 16 year period.

In the first two months of 2017 alone, 15 HRDs working on land and indigenous rights were the victims of extra-judicial killings, none of which have been properly investigated by the authorities to this day. Defenders of economic, social and cultural rights, including land and environmental defenders and defenders from indigenous communities, face significant risks in their attempts to peacefully defend their land or oppose major industrial projects. Most of the HRDs targeted in the recent spate of killings were working on environmental, land or indigenous peoples’ rights.

Despite the high number of states which expressed concern about extra-judicial killings in the so-called ‘war on drugs’ during this week’s UPR, no commitments were made by the Philippines delegation to stop the killings, or to conduct independent investigations to hold perpetrators accountable, let alone to end the extra-judicial killings of HRDs.

Now that the lethal environment facing HRDs in the Philippines has come under international scrutiny, the Duterte administration must put an end to these killings, many of which take place with official sanction and the active participation of members of the security forces. Recommendations made by the UNHRC member states as well as the civil society organisations need to be properly addressed as a matter of urgency. The first step is to immediately cease extra-judicial killings and other gross and systematic violations of human rights committed against HRDs. The Philippines must recognise the important role played by HRDs in creating a more just and equal society. Meanwhile, the international community and human rights organisations must maintain their pressure on the Duterte administration and hold it accountable for its human rights record.

The Philippines is expected to announce whether or not it accepts the recommendations made this week in September 2017, before the 36th regular session of the UNHRC.

1France, Ireland, Norway, United Kingdom

2Denmark, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Poland, Slovakia, Ukraine, United Kingdom.

Mexico: Mother who fought for justice for her daughter gunned down on International Mothers’ Day

“They will kill me in the end. Of that I have no doubt” – and they did.

On the evening of 10 May, a group of armed men forced their way into the home of Miriam Rodríguez Martínez in Tamaulipas, in the north east of the country, and shot her 10 times. She was taken immediately to hospital, but was declared dead on arrival.

In 2012, Miriam’s daughter Karen Alejandra was disappeared. When the official investigation proved fruitless, Miriam undertook her own investigation and, for 2 years, she worked unceasingly to discover the whereabouts of her daughter, and to bring her killers to justice.

In 2014,  her work led to the discovery of a mass grave which also contained the body of her daughter. Further evidence supplied by her to the police led to a series of arrests and the prosecution of the alleged perpetrators, members of the Zeta gang. Miriam did not just focus on the search for her own daughter. She was one of the founding members of Colectivo de Desaparecidos en San Fernando, which campaigned for justice for the families of all the disappeared. She also helped to create a national network for the families of the disappeared.

When three of the gang members, charged with murdering her daughter, were among a group of criminals who escaped from the prison in Tamaulipas in March, Miriam feared for her life. In this interview she talks about how, despite the fact that she had requested protection from the authorities, it was never provided.

According to her husband, the threats started at the end of March. On one occasion gang members kidnapped her husband, but Miriam followed in her car, while calling the police, and managed to intercept the gang and rescue her husband.  Because of the repeated threats she had received over the years, Miriam had given up her market business and was working in a health centre. Just weeks before her death she confided in a friend that she felt that the gang would kill her in the end.

Miriam’s death is just the latest killing of a parent who has been  searching for the truth about the disappearance of a family member. Since 2010, at least 11 parents have been killed because they refused to give up the struggle to find out what had happened to their children.

  • Marisela Escobedo Ortiz
  • Nepomuceno Moreno Núñez
  • Sandra Luz Hernández
  • Luis Abraham Cabada Hernández
  • Bernardo Carreto
  • Cornelia San Juan Guevara Guerrero
  • José Jesús Jiménez Gaona
  • Heriberto López Gastélum
  • Emma Gabriela Molina Canto
  • Gerardo Corona Piceno
  • Míriam Rodríguez Martínez

According to local media reports there have been several recent instances of HRDs being followed, having their photographs taken by unknown people and of unmarked vans driving round their homes at night. With 5,682 people reported to have been disappeared in the last seven years, mostly at the hands of drug cartels, the State of Tamaulipas has the highest rate of disappearances in Mexico.


Mexico: 125 HRDs killed in the 5 years since President Enrique Peña Nieto came to power


Bet-biraí Nieto Morales is a journalist with Alcaldes de Mexico

While attacks on journalists and priests in Mexico attract the most publicity and public outrage, the fact remains that community leaders and human rights defenders (HRDs) account for the highest number of killings – 125 in the last 5 years.

According to this latest report, in the 53 months since President Enrique Peña Nieto came to power, 266 community leaders and activists have been killed in Mexico, of whom 125 are human rights defenders. 83 were municipal leaders, killed while in office, and 38 were journalists. Since December 2012, on average two human rights defenders have been killed every month in Mexico.

During his recent visit to Mexico, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders, Michel Forst, highlighted the particular dangers faced by indigenous rights defenders and those campaigning to protect the environment from the impact of mega development projects.

“The situation of human rights defenders in Mexico is conditioned by the criminalisation of their activities through the deliberate misuse of criminal law and the manipulation of the state’s punitive power by both state and non-state actors, to hinder and even prevent the legitimate activities of defenders to promote and protect human rights,” said Forst.

“The failure to investigate and sanction aggressors has signaled a dangerous message that there are no consequences for committing such crimes. This creates an environment conducive to the repetition of violations,” he warned.

Two major contributory factors are the impunity enjoyed by organised criminal gangs and the failure by state authorities to provide protection to HRDs or to bring the perpetrators of attacks to justice.