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ZACAPA, GUATEMALA—June 22, 2009, was an historic day for the family of Israel Carías Ortiz, and for the people of Guatemala. The Sentencing Tribunal in Zacapa, Guatemala found two men guilty of the 2007 murder of Ortiz and his two sons Ledwin Anilson (age 9) and Ronald Aroldo (age 11).
The precedent-setting sentence recognizes Carías was killed because of his leadership in the struggle to reassert legal rights to community land, and mandates an investigation into the planning or 'intellectual authorship' of the murder: the finqueros (large land-owners) presumably responsible for contracting the assassins to protect their interests.
In Guatemala, this sentence is referred to as 'dejar abierto,' meaning that though there was a verdict, the judges do not consider the crime resolved. However, due to many obstacles impeding justice in Guatemala, action to persecute intellectual authors remains extremely difficult.
The ruling has implications in establishing guilt for human rights crimes of the past, especially those committed during the 36-year internal armed conflict, over 99 per cent of which, according to the Human Rights Office of the Archdiocese of Guatemala (ODHAG), remain in impunity. For the first time, a Guatemalan court established that guilt in attacks against human rights defenders goes beyond the actual perpetrators. Those responsible for orchestrating the attacks must be identified and held accountable for conceiving and financing the crime.
Carías, president of the regional peasant farmers’ association (ACUS) was shot at point-blank range while walking from his community, Los Achiotes, to the city of Zacapa with his sons in February 2007.
Backed by more than 80 families, Carías had led the campaign to recuperate community lands—legally recognized as such in 1951—from finqueros illegally usurping the territory.
In an audio-recording submitted as evidence during the trial, Carías described the campaign to residents of Los Achiotes: “We don’t want to touch lands that already have papers. We are fighting for national lands. I am only the spokesman for the needs of the community. I am not a judge; I do not decide. You have a right to the land according to the law.”
Yet after years of frustration in a stagnated legal and bureaucratic process, ACUS turned to negotiation in 2004 as a more effective way to secure the land. Though it meant ceding a portion of land to the finqueros, negotiation was seen as a necessary way of curbing further finquero encroachment and establishing firm boundaries.
The timing of Carías’ assassination coincided with a final land measurement, an approximate three-month deadline for the lands to be handed over to the community, and a nationwide increase in repression against those asserting their rights to land and natural resources.
According to witnesses and police reports prior to his murder, Carías had been intimidated and received death threats from the two accused, their families, and the finqueros, beginning in 2004. These actions had one goal: to force him to stop his campaign.
In spite of the dangers, Carías never stopped organizing.
A speech filmed before his death, which had been presented as evidence, reminded those in the packed courtroom of Carías’ steadfast commitment. “Despite the persecution, I will not allow a backward step,” declared Carías in the film footage.
The panel of judges affirmed that Carías was killed for defending his community’s rights.
After languishing in the public prosecutor’s office for two years, in March 2009 public hearings began. Over the course of four months, judges heard testimonies from more than 20 witnesses and reviewed upwards of 50 documents.
On June 22, 2009 the Tribunal delivered its verdict: the two accused, Jacobo Salguero and Manfredo Ramirez, respectively perpetrated and were accomplice to the premeditated assassination of Israel Carías at the instruction and in possible employment of the finqueros. Salguero was previously acquitted of a murder in 2004 because, as he described, "No one was willing to testify against him." Ramirez is his brother-in-law, as well as the nephew of Carías. Both men lived in Los Achiotes until their arrest.
It is assumed that the two children were killed for being with their father at the time. The sentence acknowledges the complexity and danger in communities that dare to defend land rights in the face of unlawful opposition.
Although there has not yet been any movement towards prosecuting the finqueros in this case, the sentence sends a clear message to those historically protected by nationwide impunity. This aspect of the sentence is perhaps more important for its symbolism than its possibility for prosecution in the case of Carías' murder.
Although the verdict sets key precedents, the sentence does little to change the day-to-day reality in the community—at least so far. Minutes after the sentencing, Carías’ widow commented on the verdict: “It’s a little.” For many members of the community of Los Achiotes, the sentence is exactly that: a little.
Today, the community is still waiting for the final document to arrive settling the land issue, and ACUS and the Association for Community Development of Los Achiotes (ACIDEA) leaders report feeling like targets for their organizing.
Currently, the president of ACIDEA is Carías’ twenty-one-year-old niece who knows intimately the responsibility and risk of the position. Inspired by her uncle, she refuses to be silenced by fear. “[My uncle] knew that sooner or later he would be killed for his organizing. But we all die. It is a question of dying on your knees or living standing up. We choose with our eyes open.”
Despite the risks, approximately a dozen members of the community and Carías’ family attended each of the hearings in solidarity—making the two-hour hike down the mountain to the hearings as a group. Many gave testimony themselves and received threats for doing so. One of Carías’ brothers likened the community to a flock of sheep that experienced the devastating effects of a coyote in their midst—now the community is “always alert, tense, vigilant. We learned,” he explained, shaking his head.
ACUS and ACIDEA have worked to reconstruct and honor the memory of Carías’ life that had been overshadowed by his murder and the trial in the weeks since the verdict.
ACUS organized a march to the Tribunal as a tribute to Carías’ organizing, to demonstrate appreciation for justice served, and to petition the court to proceed with other pending ACUS cases. At a community lunch, people remembered Carías, their memories building upon each other as they recalled his dedication to the community:
“He was kind to everyone.”
“Even as a boy, he knew he would lead his community.”
“He was a man of vision.”
“He was a great leader. He literally gave his life for the community.”
ACIDEA hopes to construct a memorial in Los Achiotes to ensure that Carías—and his sacrifice for the common good—is not forgotten.
Amanda Kistler has been an international human rights observer with the Network in Solidarity with the People of Guatemala (NISGUA) since January 2008. She currently lives in Guatemala City.
For more about impunity in Guatemala and prosecuting forced disappearance cases, read Valerie Croft's Disappeared Before the Courts.
The Dominion is a monthly paper published by an incipient network of independent journalists in Canada. It aims to provide accurate, critical coverage that is accountable to its readers and the subjects it tackles. Taking its name from Canada's official status as both a colony and a colonial force, the Dominion examines politics, culture and daily life with a view to understanding the exercise of power.