At 11 AM, Francisco told me, a crowd of protesters descended on him with wooden sticks, metal rods, and stones, beating and verbally threatening to kill him. In the course of the beating, he was subjected to “blows to the ribs that made it hard to breathe, a blow to the left femur” his lawyer, Cristián Ortzín, explained. They dragged him off. An irate crowd of protesters congregated around the bloodied, brutalized journalist as they marched him down the Pan-American highway to the nearby municipal head of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán. By the time they brought him to the National Civil Police and Army, his video equipment had been stolen, and forty rounds of ammunition of an unspecified caliber, according to Chox, had been planted in his backpack.
Placed in custody of the local faction of the Army and Police at 12:30, the same crowd that bore Francisco, according to Ortzín, had inflated to over 800 people, surrounding and trapping the authorities in the headquarters of the public ministry. Their anger was by and large fuelled by the state of siege: according to Ortzín, they were “angry at Francisco, angry at the police, angry at the army.”
The authorities called an anti-riot unit of police, who upon arrival fired teargas to disperse the angry protesters outside. But Francisco’s nightmare had only begun: being charged with having broken Article 114 of the Guatemalan constitution, which states that carrying munitions is illegal, he was transferred to the notoriously dangerous Preventative Detention Center in the neighboring department of Chimaltenango. The day that began with a reporting trip would close in a cramped jail-cell alongside Barrio 18 gang members.
“I felt humiliated,” Chox said of the incident. “I felt discriminated against. They treated me like a dog. An animal. They put me in the section of the prison with mareros. With murderers.”
The attack against Francisco, and then his subsequent imprisonment—a judge released him free of charges after a week—came amid a sharp uptick in attacks and aggressions against journalists and human rights workers under the right-wing government of Alejandro Giammattei, who was inaugurated in January. According to a June 17 report by Centro Civitas, there have been 405 reported cases of attacks against human rights defenders and journalists since the beginning of the year— already 80 percent more than the total number of attacks for all of 2019, and the Association of Guatemalan Journalists has reported 28 cases of attacks against journalists as of April 19.
“In terms of protecting journalists,” says Evelyn Blanck, a human rights worker with Centro Civitas. “Guatemala simply doesn’t care about ensuring that they are protected.”
Francisco’s ordeal was rooted in two overlapping conflicts: the land dispute between the two municipalities, and an atmosphere of rising attacks against journalists, along with heightened impunity for those who commit them, under the new government of Alejandro Giammattei.
Territorial antagonisms have been boiling between Nahualá and Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, two indigenous communities in mountainous western Guatemala, since the late 1800s. Though almost identical in terms of ethnicity—they speak the same variation of Maya-Quiche language, wear the same clothes and practice the same traditions—in the last century and a half, Nahualá grew to achieve a greater level of economic development. It stands in stark contrast to Santa Catarina, now a third of the size of and isolated on the mountaintop above its wealthier counterpart—creating what some say is a sense of resentment and bitterness towards residents in neighboring Nahualá.
The conflict had been exacerbated by myriad forces: the Guatemalan government’s historic inability to equitably recognize land rights which has left disputes over land between the communities unsettled, militarization during the internal armed conflict that inundated the region with weapons, the topographic rearrangement after catastrophic landslides during Hurricane Mitch in 1998, and, in a more recent turn of events, the alleged infiltration of the drug trade.
“Nahualá is a place with banks and malls,” says Johanna Rodríguez, a journalist and colleague of Chox at Canal Nim, who reiterates, alongside Evelyn Blanck and several others, that Nahualá is in fact far more economically developed.
According to an army representative who spoke with Prensa Libre, soldiers stationed between the two municipalities have found a landscape replete with weapons: caches of pistols, submachine-guns, shotguns, thousands of rounds of ammunition, at least one AK-47, and hundreds of homemade bombs loaded with nails and screws.
Multiple sources claim that people living in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán are engaged in narco-trafficking. The army, as of early June, claimed to have had inconclusive intelligence tying certain members of the community to the purchase of arms from, in their words, “people in Mexico.”
“I can confirm, as a community journalist, that they got their weapons from narcotraffickers. They are allied with the narcos. They have been for years,” says Chox.
“Although there isn’t an official version [to the story] yet, it’s nonetheless said that the mayor of Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán has connections with drug trafficking,” said a source knowledgeable of the area who wished to remain anonymous for security reasons. “It’s them [the traffickers] who provide arms and munitions to people in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán.”
Colonel Juan Carlos de Paz, a spokesperson for the Guatemalan Army, said that though there is no smoking gun, there is strong evidence to suggest that organized crime has infiltrated Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán.
“We do know that in the altiplano (the region in which the two communities are located), we’ve found marijuana and poppy fields. So there’s definitely an interest for criminal groups in maintaining these inter-communal conflicts in order to maintain control.”
De Paz said that the Army had found caches of weapons in Santa Catarina—the majority of them artisanal bombs, but some of the aforementioned machine-guns as well—and reaffirmed that the Army has intelligence that Mexican organized crime has connections in the town.
Though almost all of those whom I interviewed concurred in suggesting the presence of narco-trafficking in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, there’s yet to have been an independent investigation corroborating the accusations.
Complicating the narrative of the conflict between the two municipalities, a video shared by Guatemalan news outlet RBCNoticias on Twitter on April 7 of this year depicted an armed nighttime confrontation that an unseen narrator claimed was an attack by members from Nahualá. “This has got us really panicked,” the voice says, gunfire echoing in the dark hills beyond. “All the attacks from the people of Nahualá. They’ve got us surrounded here in our village.”
Two states of emergency have been declared in the region in less than a year, with the government sending in the military to quell unrest. In September of 2019, President Jimmy Morales declared a state of emergency after a violent clash left four dead and twelve wounded. The second state of emergency, in Nahualá, Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, and Santa Lucía Usatlán, was declared on May 25, and when ensuing protests erupted, Chox, as a local journalist, felt compelled to go report on it.
For Barrio 18, the first order of business when the authorities dropped Chox in prison was demanding a ransom from his family in exchange for not killing him.
“In all of the jails in this country,” Julie López, a Guatemalan freelance journalist specialized in organized crime and extortions in the country, said “when people are brought in they charge them what’s called a talacha—if they don’t pay it, they get beat up or killed.”
The practice of charging a talacha is so widespread in Guatemalan jails it’s seen as a requirement for ensuring a place to sleep and basic security. Investigations by Prensa Libre found that the money is charged according to their economic status and the severity of their crime. The demand can range from 1,000 quetzales ($130 USD) for being booked for drunkenness, or 5,000 to 25,000 quetzales ($650-3428 USD) for murder or rape.
When he arrived, Chox was charged 5,000 quetzales.
The prison in Chimaltenango, the Centro de Detención Preventiva para Hombres y Mujeres (“Preventative Detention Center for Men and Women”), has a reputation for violence. In 2008, it attracted international attention after seven inmates were killed in a gang fight in the prison—the majority of them beheaded. In 2016, another six died in a riot on the center’s grounds.
“The food was terrible, and there was very little of it to begin with,” Chox said. “Really ugly conditions.”
“The Guatemalan state controls the prisons from outside,” Jorge Santos, general coordinator of the human rights organization Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala, told me. “Because inside, what’s brewing is a multi-layered network of corruption. This extortion—what they call the talacha—forms part of these mechanisms of corruption in the jails.”
Chox was for the most part reticent about his time in the prison. Everyone I spoke to about his case told me he seemed to have emerged from the weeklong ordeal in a stunned, post-traumatic stupor. A communique issued by Centro Civitas four days into his imprisonment, on June 17, described how “he had suffered humiliations at the hands of other prisoners without being heard by a judge.”
When asked about the mental effect of his funneling into prison, Rodríguez, his colleague at Canal Nim, was blunt: “I mean, he had never experienced anything like this before,” she told me. “He was beat up all over his body, injuries everywhere.”
After two days, with the help of DIPANDA (División Nacional Contra el Desarrollo Criminal de las Pandillas), he was transferred to a section of the prison designated for detainees brought in for breaking COVID-19 curfew, rather than violent criminals.
Guatemalan law stipulates that any prisoner needs to be given his first hearing within twenty-four hours of being detained. Chox wasn’t taken before a judge until June 18, after having spent more than a week in prison. Even then, according to Ortzín, prison officials pretended not to have received the notices they were given to bring Chox to his trial.
“There were lots of inconsistencies in his case,” says Rodríguez. “The police, for example, said that they didn’t know about the ammunition he was found with. But they’re cops. They’re supposed to know.”
“They didn’t give Francisco the time to defend himself, to make an initial statement,” Ortzín said. “They only told him why he was being detained…. All of this was very serious. They were breaking constitutional rules in the way they were treating him.”
Even as Ortzín and several civil society organizations were agitating for his release, López insists the delay in his first hearing was because of inefficiencies. Others, such as Rodríguez and Ortzín, believe it constituted a deliberate strategy of intimidation by holding him incommunicado and breaking constitutional standards as a form of punishment.
According to Ortzín, the fact that neither the police report nor the accusations of the Public Ministry could specify what type of ammunition was found in his backpack rendered the allegations against him legally null. The judge agreed, further arguing that he had only been performing his job as a journalist at the protest site.
“They got his freedom at 5:30 PM,” Ortzín told me. “By eight, he was back at his house.”
Though Francisco was released, the ratcheted up harassment against journalists has since continued.
On June 23, Juán Carlos Botón was reporting in Cunén, Quiché, taking photos of the soldiers accumulated into a group of nine or ten people without wearing masks. When the soldiers saw him, they put on their masks, surrounded him, and brandished their rifles. Five of the soldiers told him to delete the pictures on his phone before letting him walk free.
The deputy director of Press for the Minister of Defense, Rubén Téllez, remarked that the soldiers had accosted Carlos Botón after he was walking without a mask—not the reverse—and that the journalist later twisted the story to his own ends.
On April 12, a collection of 100 Guatemalan journalists published a denunciation of the Giammattei government for its hostility to journalists “through acts to intimidate, discredit and censor the press.” On May 16, the Guatemalan outlet El Periodico wrote how, in the wake of a series of resurgent threats against journalists—including rank attacks against by state security forces as well as local authorities—the Association of Guatemalan Journalists (APG) “reiterated their repudiation of President Alejandro Giammattei’s repeated intolerant attitudes towards the press.”
In a televised press conference on April 11, Giammattei criticized journalists pushing for information about COVID-19 infections. Local, community-based outlets, such as Canal Nim in Nahualá, have been the main targets: in early March, the local news outlet Prensa Comunitaria was subjected to an internet smear campaign by conservative media for its coverage of the March 8 Women’s March in Guatemala City—saying that they had in fact painted the street graffiti they were reporting on. On April 18, Ernesto Choc, a Maya-Q’eqchi journalist and correspondent for Prensa Comunitaria, had his house raided and all of his journalistic equipment stolen, later telling the Committee to Protect Journalists that he believed it to be a deliberate gesture of intimidation in response to his reporting on water shortages.
The people interviewed differed on what parts of Chox’s experience constituted deliberate persecution and what was due to malfeasance and inefficiencies. López believes—in opposition with what Johanna Rodríguez an d Ortíz believe—that it was the first part of his experience, when he was attacked by protesters in Santa Catarina Ixtahuacán, that constituted part of the broader rise in attacks against journalists in Guatemala.
But all agreed that, at the minimum, Chox’s experience embodied a broader infrastructural failure to protect journalists carrying out their jobs.
For Jorge Santos, the resurgent hostility against journalists on the national level has trickled down, legitimating anti-press violence from myriad actors. “This aggression [against journalists and human rights defenders] led by the President himself, as a government functionary at the highest level, has legitimated and permitted actors at the local level to commit attacks against journalists,” he says. “There isn’t just a continuity of the violence against people like Francisco. There’s been a sharp rise.”
The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) told me, “The COVID-19 pandemic and Guatemalan government response have made it nearly impossible for Guatemalan journalists to move around and report safely, setting up additional barriers in what was already an extremely challenging media environment. The arrest and detention of Francisco Chox clearly showcases the many difficulties local reporters face simply for trying to do their job and keep the public informed.”
“Even the judge understood,” said Ortzin, “that this was all taking place within the context of rising state attacks and the criminalization of journalists and defensores under Giammattei.”
Jared Olson is a writer, freelance journalist and Pulitzer Center grantee with a current focus on the struggle for justice in Central America. His writing has appeared in The Nation, Toward Freedom, and El Faro English.