Correspondents for the daily newspapers Al Día, Prensa Libre, Nuestro Diario and El Quetzalteco, are being hunted by drug traffickers in Huehuetenango, approximately 250 kilometres from Guatemala City.
Nuestro Diario contributor Ronald López explained to CERIGUA (Center of Informative Reports on Guatemala) that, on 19 October 2009, the journalists covered an incident in which three people were killed in the community of Los Tarayes, in the municipality of La Democracia. Among the dead was the bodyguard of Eduardo Cano, who is thought to be the leader of the Las Zetas crime group in Huehuetenango.
The following day a man known as 'Tripas', who is Cano's brother-in-law, threatened a newspaper vendor and told him to provide the names of the reporters who covered the story. He also seized the copies of both Prensa Libre and Nuestro Diario to prevent them from being distributed in the communities of Camojá, La Mesilla and La Democracia.
López said that the newspaper vendor warned him that people were looking for him. As a result, he decided to leave his job, fearing for his life and that of his family. He added that he has not received any assistance from Nuestro Diario. He also noted that he had been in a similar situation before, when he covered a story about an extortionist who turned out to be the nephew of a drug trafficker. In that instance, he was threatened but did not receive support from either the newspaper or the authorities. The journalists said that the situation for the press in the area has become more difficult since a November 2008 'narcokilling' in the community of Agua Zarca, Huehuetenango, that left 17 people dead.
But these kinds of attacks are not new. A study published in January by the Observatory for Freedom of Expression of Guatemala showed that drug trafficking and organized crime have led to an increased risk for the journalists in the country. During 2008 three Guatemalan journalists were murdered, 13 more were attacked or assaulted while working and 10 others received direct threats. According to this report, 'there is an undercount' of cases of harassment, assaults and threats faced by local journalists by a group of criminals, because the victims prefer not to lodge complaints or 'censor' to avoid reprisals.
'This generalized fear feeds the impunity which these crimes enjoy, and inhibits the work of journalists and the media which in turn impairs the freedom of expression,' the report states.
In recent years, the country has become an important conduit through which drugs pass from Colombia to the United States. Rivalry between gangs for control of smuggling routes has resulted in an escalation of drug-related crimes. The federal Drug Enforcement Administration estimates up to 70 per cent of the cocaine entering the US travels via Guatemala. The drugs arrive on aeroplanes flying one-way journeys into the jungles and are then ferried along the coast by 'go-fast' boats and hidden in shipping containers. Once on the ground, the drugs are routed to cities throughout the US.
Correspondent Mynor Mérida said that two days after covering the story in Los Tarayes, a man in a red Hummer asked him if he had been 'below', referring to the municipality of La Democracia. Mérida said he has holed himself up in his home and is afraid to go out.
To support the journalists and secure their safety, send appeals to the authorities:
Oficina del Alto Comisionado de las Naciones Unidas Sobre Derechos Humanos para Guatemala (Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights in Guatemala)
13 calle 3-40, zona 10, Edifico Atlantils, oficina 803
Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala
Fax: +502 2382 3410
Ministro de Gobernación
6a. Avenida 4-64, zona 1
Ciudad de Guatemala, Guatemala
Fax: +502 2362 0237 / 2339 4474