Guatemalan Editor Unmasks Gunmen Who Attacked Him

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By: Mark Fitzgerald

If Guatemalan authorities thought the furor had died down over last June’s horrifying intimidation of elPeri?dico Editor Jos? Ruben Zamora in his own home, they badly misjudged the will of the newspaper’s founder.

In an electrifying series of articles recently published, Zamora identified those responsible by name, published their pictures — and linked them to the national security forces.

“One of the most difficult decisions that I’ve had to make in my 15 years as a journalist was to have published the faces, names and links with State security of those criminals who broke into my house on June 24, 2003,” Zamora wrote in an op-ed published in his paper Monday, Jan. 26.

Even by the standards of Guatemalan pressure on the press, the attack on Zamora’s home was an exceptionally ugly incident. Early one morning, about a dozen men, led by four men and a woman, forced their way into his Guatemala City home. Zamora, his wife, three sons and their domestic employees were bound and beaten. Zamora himself was stripped, blindfolded, separated from his family and told, with a gun against his head, that he was going to be executed. The ordeal continued for nearly three hours, with the leaders appearing to be following instruction relayed over their cell phones.

The invasion came just one day after elPeri?dico published allegations that the civilian government of then-President Alfonso Portillo was actually run by a cabal of ex-military men. It also followed a long period in which government tax authorities unleashed auditors who spent 50 days in the newspaper’s offices for what proved to be an unsuccessful search for financial irregularities.

In the days after the home invasion, Guatemalan authorities promised a full investigation. As time went on, Zamora recounted in his paper, it became clear that prosecutors were not trying very hard to solve the case. Zamora undertook his own investigation.

He discovered all the home invaders were present or past members of the security forces, Zamora recounted in his op-ed, and concluded that when they arrived at his house it was on the orders of their superiors — to do the work of their profession.

“In other words, they had nothing personal against us,” Zamora wrote. And, they thought, they had nothing to fear from him, he added, because “they were accustomed to the immunity and invisibility that for decades has been guaranteed them by the Army.”

But Zamora put names and faces to the criminals, writing that the following carried out the crime against him and his family: Sergeant Major Eduvijes Funes Vel?squez, a counterintelligence member of the presidential guard (EMP) until last October; former EMP member Belter Alvarez; Erick Alexander Johnston Barrera, an official in the Public Ministry; and National Civil Police counterintelligence agent Iris Edith Soto L?pez.

“No more criminals (with) invisibility, immunity and impunity,” declared the headline of Zamora’s op-ed article.

In the last couple of weeks, ?scar Berger has taken office as president — and it appears Zamora has gotten his attention. Berger went to the offices of the newspaper last week as an “act of solidarity” with Zamora. A prosecutor was named to re-start the investigation.

The change in government could help, said Rafael Molino, chairman of the Inter American Press Association’s Committee on Freedom of the Press and Information. “The identification of the assailants leads us to believe that public officials and politicians from the prior regime were involved, and we therefore urge the current government to carry out an impartial investigation to determine responsibility under the law in order to prevent a culture of violence, state terrorism and impunity from taking precedence over freedom of expression,” said Molina, editor of the news magazine Ahora in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.



PAN-AM HIGHWAY

A diary of the working conditions faced by Latin American journalists

CUBA

Logging off in Cuba: The Castro government has imposed a new law making Internet access more difficult for ordinary Cubans. Under the measure, home Internet access will be available only to those with special authorization or who pay for a more expensive telephone service with U.S. dollars that are unavailable to most Cubans, the Knight Center for Journalism in the Americas reported, citing a BBC account.

L?ster T?llez Castro, one of 32 independent journalists in Cuban prisons, began a hunger strike Jan. 12, the Miami-based Inter American Press Association reported. T?llez Castro, who headed the Avila Free News Agency, is protesting his imprisonment for nearly two years without trial, the group said. The 28-year-old journalist has been held on charges of disturbing public order, disobeying the law, resistance and “insulting” the Cuban president since March 4, 2002.

MEXICO

Journalists Irene Medrano Villanueva of the El Sol de Sinaloa daily in Sinaloa state has been receiving death threats over the phone, the Lima-based Institute for Press and Society (IPYS for its initials in Spanish) reported Jan. 21. In a press conference, Medrano said the calls apparently came from the mayor’s office in the state capital of Culiac?n. In addition, she said, the word “death” was written on her car window and her brakes were tampered with.

GUATEMALA

The family of H?ctor Ram?rez filed a formal demand of arrest against former dictator Efra?n R?os Montt in connection with the television reporter’s death last July 24 while fleeing a mob of R?os Montt sympathizers who were chasing and attacking journalists, the Knight Center reported, citing an account in Prensa Libre. Montt, who ran unsuccessfully for president in last year’s election, is to blame for Ramirez’s death by heart attack, the family said in its complaint to criminal courts.

PERU

Joel Valencia Palomino, editor of the weekly El sol del Huallaga in the San Mart?n region was assaulted by a municipal official on New Year’s Eve, IPYS reported. The attack followed Valencia Palomino’s coverage of charges that municipal officials had stolen clothes and shoes donated by the National Customs Service that were intended for distribution to rural poor people.

The National Association of Peruvian Journalists (ANP in its Spanish initials) is protesting restrictions imposed on reporter access to the Palace of Justice. In a letter to the Judicial Power, the agency which imposed the new rules, the ANP says the so-called security measures “constitute a grave attack on the free exercise of the profession.” Under the new regulations, reporters are required not only to submit to physical searches, they must register their names and working press credentials with security personnel — and disclose who they are meeting. Lawyers and the general public, the journalists group notes, need only show their identity cards for admission.

PANAMA

Judicial authorities in Panama are also imposing restrictions on local reporters, IAPA said. The Miami-based press liberty group noted that new Chief Justice C?sar Pereira Burgos went out of his way at his Jan. 4 swearing-in ceremony to accuse the news media of “abuses” in its reporting, and to announce new restrictions on press access to the court. Under the new rules, only one journalist from any news organization can maintain an office in the court’s press room. IAPA suggested the measure was in retaliation for its reporting on a dispute between Pereira Burgos and Panamanian Comptroller General during the corruption trial of a former president.

HONDURAS

In a grisly threat against the press reported by Tegucigalapa newspapers Jan. 20, the huge organized street gangs known as “maras” in Honduras left the headless corpse of a woman along the side of the road in San Pedro Sula with a note addressed to President Ricardo Maduro reading, “Happy New Year to President Maduro, this is another threat, the next victims will be the police and two journalists of (TV station) Canal Seis: Edgardo Castro and David Yanes.”

LATIN AMERICA

Freedom of the Press is eroding in Latin America, New York City-based Freedom House declared in its latest annual Freedom of the Press survey. Only 18 of the hemisphere’s 35 nations are rated “free,” down from 21 in the previous survey.

Colombia and Venezuela were downgraded from “partly free” to “not free” because of political instability and violence, Freedom House said. They joined Cuba and Haiti in the hemisphere’s “most repressive environments for press freedom,” the group said.

Democracy, too, is eroding in the region, Freedom House declared in its annual survey of liberty around the world.

Despite the gains for democracy and freedom, only 23 of the hemisphere’s 35 countries “have achieved sufficient progress in political rights and civil liberties to be rated ‘free,'” the group said. It rates 10 nations as “partly free” and Haiti and Cuba as “not free.”

Argentina was the only nation that showed significant progress during 2003, moving from a rating of “partly free” to “free.” Boliva, however, was downgraded from “free” to “partly free” because of a brutal government crackdown on protests by indigenous groups.

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