The coal-case of Guatemala

- One politician used his Facebook profile to accuse me, a journalist, of being behind "the attacks" against him, and stated that a criminal lawsuit would follow. A day later he wrote a column welcoming me to the "world of the mortals", and implicit death threat. 


Written by Rodrigo Veliz Estrada* (photograph on the right)

At the end of 2013 a Chinese construction company and a small US electric power company started a legal (and in a moment physical) fight with each other. The conflict was about the property rights of a US$900 million coal-based power plant in southern Guatemala, and it represented the first big investment of a Chinese state company in the country, which has a long political and economic tradition of bonds with the US.

In a way, it was a fight between China and the US on Guatemalan territory. But it was a fight that would take the “style” of local politics. Parallel politics (para-política), is a term coined by the American historian Robert Paxton to describe organizations or institutions that are “state like” in their practice, but not a part of the government. This case documented how irregular political practices use institutional channels with a non-public, private goal in mind.

Unfolding over the next year, two opaque and parallel networks started forming in the middle of a scaling confrontation, both looking to displace the other. By the end of 2015, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a UN financed body mandated with investigating and prosecuting serious crimes in support of the Public Prosecutor’s Office (Ministerio Público, MP), presented a preliminary case against one of the networks. The case showed that judges, lawyers, public prosecutors, migration officers, an ex US ambassador, high ranking politicians and the then President’s son-in-law where involved in molding institutions to favor Jaguar Energy, the US electric power company, subsidiary of Ashmore Energy International Ltd (ex Enron).

How to reveal the “counter-forces”?

What helped us understand the nature of Guatemalan’s politics was a 4-piece newspaper report that appeared in Nómada (and then in Indymedia Guatemala). Through this, we had access to the phone transcripts that had allowed CICIG-MP to present the case. Together with interviews and legal documents we could give detail to the case.

Through these documents we were also alerted about the aggressive responses growing from political and economic groups against the work of the CICIG-MP, and also against all the independent media and journalists that were pushing to reveal the nature of those and other networks with new investigations.

One of the groups advocating aggressively against the UN institution CICIG, was a far-right organization which had called itself “Foundation against Terrorism”, formed by military officials in retirement and sponsored by big local companies. Soon, this group’s ties with “illegal structures” were slowly revealed. It was revealed that one of them had a contract in the Supreme Court, attached to a magistrate accused of corruption; and another one linked to massacres during the war in Guatemala. Other members were recently sent to jail for forming a criminal structure in the prison system.

Death threats

One of the addressed far-right politicians used his Facebook profile to accuse me, a journalist, of “being behind the attacks” (meaning the reports) against him, and stated that a criminal lawsuit would follow. A day later he wrote a column welcoming me to the “world of the mortals”, and implicit death threat.

This was not the first time a member of Indymedia or Nómada has received threats or other kind of intimidation, so we activated a network of support that reached the UN, key embassies, and the Guatemalan Ombudsman. All showed support in counseling me in steps to follow. That was followed by social media messages condemning the threat and backing up the work that we do. No other threat followed and the tension did not escalate, thanks to this support.

CICIG has received little support from the President of Guatemala, Jimmy Morales (2016-2019), who has at least twice pressed (vainly) for the expulsion of its commissioner, Colombian citizen Iván Velásquez. No other reports of violent attacks against journalists have come up recently, but many independent media directors have pointed out possible state-sponsored social media profiles and basic state surveillance. Guatemala is now in a tense impasse. 


Read more about Centro de Medios Independientes (in Spanish)


* This article was written by Rodrigo Veliz (upper-right photograph) and is part of a project "It happens overnight" funded by Fritt Ord.


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