The Guatemalan government has once again imposed martial law in a region pivotal to organized crime, but its reasons may have less to do with criminal activity than the president says.
On July 19, President Alejandro Giammattei ordered a 30-day state of siege in five municipalities in the northeastern provinces of Izabal and Alta Verapaz -- both part of a major overland drug smuggling route that stretches from Honduras to Guatemala’s border with Mexico.
The measures, which temporarily restricted freedom of movement and the right to gather and protest in the affected municipalities while allowing the government to detain and interrogate residents, were adopted as a means of reestablishing order amid the presence of armed criminal groups that have attacked state security forces and engaged in illicit activities, such as drug trafficking, according to a presidential decree and other statements made by Giammattei, published on the state-operated news portal Diario de Centroamérica.
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That decree was nullified on July 25, after congress failed to approve the measures. But the following day, Giammattei enacted a 15-day state of prevention in the same municipalities -- a separate decree which limits outdoor gatherings and protests but does not outlaw them entirely, as was the case under the state of siege. The new decree also has no provisions on detention and interrogation.
Giammattei's initial move was largely backed by the business and agricultural sectors, with some organizations calling on the government to restore order and use the state of siege to execute pending eviction orders in the area.
But the decision sparked an outcry, with over 125 national and international organizations issuing a statement rejecting the state of siege, citing concerns over the potential for human rights abuses and "land evictions in favor of economic interests."
All five of the affected municipalities in Izabal and Alta Verapaz were also placed under martial law in September and October 2019, when the previous administration of Jimmy Morales enacted a state of siege in 22 municipalities after three soldiers were ambushed and killed by a group of suspected drug traffickers in El Estor, Izabal.
InSight Crime Analysis
The Guatemalan government enacted a state of siege allegedly to restore order in areas affected by organized crime, but these claims were so vague that they raised questions about what ulterior motives may be at play.
Unlike the 2019 version by Morales, the government has not cited a specific event that led it to impose martial law. It has failed to provide details on the criminal groups alluded to in the presidential decree.
Drug trafficking groups and other criminal networks have operated in Izabal and Alta Verapaz for decades, and the government statements do not appear to show any notable change in these dynamics.
And almost a week after decreeing the state of siege, the government has little to show that could justify the measures. Authorities have eradicated 40,000 coca plants, far less than the reported destruction of 1.5 million plants during the first weeks of martial law in September 2019.
In a press conference, a Defense Ministry official claimed that the municipalities under martial law contained hidden runways used by drug trafficking groups, including on land owned by private companies, but he did not provide further details.
There may be other issues at play beyond drug trafficking. State mining interests and Indigenous communities in Izabal and Alta Verapaz have come into conflict over land rights. A controversial nickel mine in El Estor, operated by the Guatemalan Nickel Company (Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel), has seen frequent protests and legal challenges aimed at curbing its operations and reducing environmental contamination.
In July 2019, the Constitutional Court ordered the mine to temporarily cease activity, but it has allegedly remained operational in spite of the ruling.
The increased restrictions on movement under martial law effectively quash any possibility of local protests. They also open the door for more land appropriation and evictions aimed at making way for plantations managed by the agribusiness sector, which has broadly supported the state of siege.
Human rights journalists from Qʼeqchiʼ Indigenous communities in Izabal told InSight Crime that agribusinesses often seek eviction notices or to criminalize land defenders to remove people from land that has long been occupied by local communities.