Guatemala’s Journalists Fear for Safety as Press Killings Spread

Españolhundred journalists congregated in Guatemala City this Sunday to demand an end to attacks against the free press, and justice for the murder of three of their colleagues in under four days during the previous week.

The furious media workers gathered near the Central American nation’s Ministry of Government on March 15 to highlight the need for greater protection for the press. “You won’t kill the truth by killing journalists,” one placard read.

Many even called for the resignation of Minister Mauricio López Bonilla due to his “incapacity” to guarantee the security of journalists and the population in general. “What do the journalists demand? Justice,” the crowd chanted.

“Protest by journalists in #Suchitepequez #Guatemala where in three days three reporters have been killed and one wounded.”

“It was an important demonstration, above all in a country where journalists themselves are afraid to act,” said Mario Rosales, a professional within the sector who participated in the protest.

Bonilla met with representatives of the demonstration following a previous meeting with press from the Suchitepéquez region where the killings took place. The minister promised to find those responsible and announced that he would guarantee the security of the families of Danilo López and Federico Salazar, who were murdered on Tuesday, March 10. He added that he would visit Suchitepéquez in person to verify newly created security measures.

For the Inter American Press Association (IAPA), the government has issued many promises but little concrete action.

“Frankly, the promises of those in charge of government to put an end to impunity seem to us to be increasingly useless and, at this stage, one could say that they sound even aggravating,” the chairman of the IAPA’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information, Claudio Paolillo, said in a statement.

“It is as if they are laughing in our faces, while our press colleagues continue to die for exercising the human right to receive, gather, and disseminate news and opinions,” he added.

Three Murders in Four Days

The tragic sequence of killings began last Tuesday when Danilo López and Federico Salazar, correspondents for local daily Prensa Libre and Radio Nuevo Mundo respectively, were gunned down while attending an event marking International Women’s Day in Mazatenango, Suchitepéquez. Marvin Túnchez, a presenter with local TV channel 30, was also hurt in the attack on the town’s central plaza, and remains in the hospital.

On the night of Friday, March 12, also in Suchitepéquez, two unidentified attackers on a motorcycle gunned down Guido Villatoro, 20, a cameraman with TV company Servicable, who later died from his wounds in the hospital.

The Ministry of Government initially suggested that Villatoro was a payment collector with the firm, although both his father and Servicable later confirmed that he worked as a journalist.

Common Denominator: Organized Crime

Both of the shootings are linked to organized crime, while a local mayor is allegedly implicated in the murder of López and Salazar; police have arrested two presumed perpetrators in connection with the case.

On Tuesday, two hours after the shooting, security forces detained Valdemar Cardona Reyes, who allegedly drove the motorcycle the attackers used to make their escape. On Thursday, the police captured Artemio de Jesús Rámirez, the second alleged author of the reporters’ murder.

According to witnesses interviewed by the police, Ramírez took refuge in the house of Mazatenango Mayor Óscar Roberto Lemus Gordillo after the attack.

Minister Bonilla described the death of the reporters as an act of “organized crime, and not of common criminality.”

In a February 2014 interview, López admitted his fear in the face of multiple threats and intimidation. “Upon publishing information about the corrupt activities that there are in this town [San Lorenzo], the threats and intimidation began to grow,” he said.

One year later, López reported to the Public Ministry that San Lorenzo Mayor José Linares Rojas had threatened him. “I’m in power and I have the money necessary to take actions against you; but you don’t have anything, so face the consequences,” the mayor reportedly told him.

In the case of Villatoro, Guatemalan police arrested three people presumed to be implicated in an extortion ring against Servicable. Vice Minister at the Ministry of Government Edi Juárez also indicated that the crime could have been associated with political motives.

“Servicable strongly condemns the vile and cowardly murder of our friend, co-worker, and journalist Armando Guido Villatoro, who excelled at Channel 14 by being a journalist devoted to his work. Rest in peace Guido, may God hold you in his holy glory.”

Press under Siege

In the first two months of 2015, Guatemalan media organizations filed 13 complaints over censorship, assault, intimidation, and the closure of community radio stations, reported Ileana Alamilla, director of the Center of Informative Reports on Guatemala (Cerigua).

“We fear that aggression against the press is increasing this year,” she said.

Some of the most prominent cases are those of Juan Luis Font, director of critical magazine ContraPoder, and Pedro Trujillo, president of the Guatemalan Chamber of Journalism, who have both been judicially harassed, and the subject of various aggressive reports published by media outlets belonging to the National Media Consortium — a company thought to be linked to Manuel Baldizón, a politician for the Renewed Democratic Liberty party (LIDER).

According to Guatemala’s Public Ministry, 74 journalists were assaulted in 2014, and 26 journalists have been murdered in the last 10 years, of whom 13 were killed in 2013 alone.

Guatemala is one of the five most violent countries in the world, according to the United Nations, with an average annual homicide rate of 39.9 for every 100,000 inhabitants.

Adam Dubove contributed to this article.

Translated by Laurie Blair.

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