The recent murder of a Guatemalan human rights defender has cast a sombre shadow over social movements, signaling the increasingly hostile and too often fatally dangerous environment faced by human rights workers in the Central American country, international organizations warned Wednesday.
Jeremy Barrios, a 22-year-old human rights activist, was shot dead in Guatemala City on Saturday with two bullets to his head. He has been working as an assistant to the general director of the Guatemalan environmental and human rights group CALAS, a prominent voice in shedding light on abuses at the hands of mining corporations in the country, where he was in charge of handling sensitive information.
The killing has been interpreted as a threat and warning to CALAS’ founder and director general, Yuri Melini, who has in the past suffered threats, harassment and and at least one assassination attempt for his work as a leading human rights and environmental defendor. Melini was award the 2009 Front Line Defenders award recognizing outstanding commitment to defending human rights despite personal danger.
“The situation for land and environment defenders in Guatemala and Latin America is progressively getting more and more dangerous,” Lisa Rankin of Breaking the Silence Maritimes-Guatemala Solidarity Network said Wednesday in a joint statement from over a dozen Canadian and U.S. social justice and legal organizations responding to the Barrios’ murder.
Matt Eisenbrandt, legal director for the Canadian Centre for International Justice, added that the assassination marks a “disturbing continuation of threat and brutality against human rights and environmental defenders throughout Guatemala."
The joint letter, signed by Amnesty International Canada, the Guatemalan Human Rights Commission, MiningWatch Canada and several other organizations, highlights that Barrios’ killing comes as a deeply worrying sign for the state of human rights in Guatemala amid an escalation of attacks on land defenders, journalists and other advocates of social justice in Guatemala and across Latin America.
The killing comes as CALAS is involved in leading a civil suit in a Vancouver court against Canadian mining giant Tahoe Resources for human rights violations at its notorious Escobal silver mine in Guatemala. A recent report by the Toronto-based Justice and Corporate Accountability Project found that Guatemala suffered the most deaths of any country in Latin America tied to abuses by Canadian mining companies with 12 fatalities linked to four Canadian mining projects. Overall, the report detailed 44 deaths, 403 injuries, and 709 cases of criminalization in over a dozen countries connected to 28 Canadian mining giants, including Tahoe.
JCAP’s Leah Gardner said in the joint statement Wednesday that the high level of violence against land defenders and mining-affected communities in Guatemala makes social justice advocates “extraordinarily worried” about activists’ safety in the country.
Human rights organizations have urged authorities in Guatemala to carry out a thorough investigation into Barrios’ murder while also taking steps to protect other human rights defenders who are at risk of violence and legal harassment.
But as Canada has blood on its hands in Guatemala through the infamous track record of its mining industry in Latin America, North American human rights groups are also pressuring their own governments to take action. Earlier this year, over 180 organizations from across Latin America — including CALAS — penned a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau demanding the government act in the face of runaway abuses by Canadian mining companies. The joint statement Wednesday reiterated calls for Trudeau to respond to their demands.
The letter six months ago warned of certain violence to come, urging the Canadian government to take steps to put a stop to the systematic attacks on affected communities and their advocates.
Barrios is the latest in a long list of victims of the war on human rights and environmental defenders in Latin America and around the globe. According to Global Witness, Guatemala is one of the top 10 most dangerous countries in the world for land and environmental defenders with 10 activists killed in 2015 alone.