Rigoberto Lima Choc was the first person to document the environmental damage, and detrimental effect on the community, occurring due to the activities of the Empresa Reforestadora de Palma de Petén SA – REPSA in the Río de la Pasión. The local community believe the damage amounts to “ecocide”, meaning that they are now unable to use the river for fishing and drinking as they had before. The human rights defender presented a complaint to the authorities and had appeared as a witness in a case against REPSA.
On 18 September 2015, human rights defender Prof Rigoberto Lima Choc was killed, following the kidnapping of three human rights defenders, Messrs Hermelindo Asij, Lorenzo Pérez and Manuel Mendoza. The three human rights defenders were subsequently released.
On the morning of 18 September 2015, a demonstration had been organised by workers at REPSA at Kilometre 315, in protest at a decision taken by Judge Karla Hernández on 17 September 2015 to temporarily suspend the activities of the company while an investigation is carried out into the contamination of the river. At approximately 6am, as Hermelindo Asij, Lorenzo Pérez and Manuel Mendoza passed KM 315 from Cobán to Sayaxché, they were stopped and forced to get out of their vehicle, at which point they were then surrounded by the workers. The human rights defenders were briefly allowed to contact their families and colleagues, during which they informed them that they were being held on account of their supposed involvement in the closure of the company. Contact with them was lost shortly afterwards.
At around mid-morning, 600 REPSA workers took over the Centro de Administración de Justicia de San Benito Petén – CAJ (Centre for the Administration of Justice of San Benito Petén) and held 100 workers, lawyers, and service users. Despite calls from the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights and various human rights NGOs for the government to intervene, there was no response. At approximately 12:30pm, Judge Karla Hernández and an assistant from the state attorney’s office were on their way to call for the release of those held in the CAJ. However, they were warned that they too would be kidnapped if they continued. At this moment, Rigoberto Lima Choc was shot dead opposite the Courthouse of Peace of Sayaxché (Juzgado de Paz de Sayaxché), where he and other human rights defenders had been seeking the intervention of the authorities.
At 5:30pm, Hermelindo Asij, Lorenzo Pérez and Manuel Mendoza were released, as were the people who had been held inside the CAJ. The human rights defenders reported receiving threats that they would be burned alive.
It is worth noting that on 19 and 20 September 2015, during and following the funeral of human rights defender Rigoberto Lima Choc, members of the Commission for the Defence of Life and Nature and of the CONDEG received a number of death threats.
Front Line Defenders has received worrying information, confirmed by various sources, that the actions of the workers on 18 September were coordinated by an official at REPSA. Furthermore, directors and lawyers of the company had accused the Centro de Accion Legal, Ambiental y Social de Guatemala – CALAS of being responsible for the outcome of the court case. Following further threats, including death threats, against a number of CONDEG members on 19 and 20 September, on 21 September 2015, the workers again protested at the CAJ, reportedly in an attempt to put pressure on Judge Hernández.
Although two individuals were arrested in 2017 for “presumably receiving some economic reward for committing the criminal act,” there is no information as to whether they were tried and convicted. No one has been arrested for ordering the hit, and Rigoberto’s case has yet to be solved. It is fitting to remember one of his most haunting warnings: “What we want is justice, so that this doesn’t keep happening here. We said this time maybe it was fish and other river life. But next time if we don’t take action on this issue, maybe in the future it won’t be fish, maybe it will be humans.”