Global Witness is concerned by news of a fresh wave of digital attacks against our Guatemalan partner Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) amidst a wider crackdown on civic space. For more than 20 years, UDEFEGUA has been working with local communities to document attacks against human rights and environmental defenders within the country.
The organisation has reported online attacks and threats against it, exposing its staff and the communities they support to greater risk. UDEGFEGUA appears to be the target of an online smear campaign, believed to be orchestrated by anonymous bot accounts accusing the organisation of committing criminal offences and delegitimating their work to defend human rights. The same social media accounts have also threatened physical violence against their staff – targeting lead figures within the organisation.
A report by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) highlights the role of organised criminal structures operating and their use of “netcenters” to carry out targeted smear campaigns. "Netcenters" are paid groups of people who distort public opinion via media and social media platforms. They are known to explicitly target civil society leaders, journalists, and public prosecutors as part of a strategy of intimidation that aims to contaminate public discourse by discrediting human rights defenders and organisations. Criminalisation, smear campaigns, the spread of fake news, and threats against defenders increase their vulnerability to violent reprisals – especially if left unchecked by authorities. Over the last decade, over 80 land and environmental defenders have been murdered in Guatemala, according to Global Witness data.
This recent threat is part is a broader pattern of attacks, with UDEFEGUA staff members suffering in the past, as well as reporting defamatory online allegations and break-ins to their office. They believe that these attacks are attempts to deter its continuing work to support and protect human rights defenders, including individuals and groups campaigning to protect the environment against destructive extractive projects. The organisation has supported the crucial work of Abelino Chub Caal, who was criminalised after opposing agribusiness projects; and has reported threats against defenders like Ercilia Pérez, following her resistance to a large-scale hydropower plant.
"At UDEFEGUA, we are already seeing the consequences of the closure of civic spaces, leaving people and communities without dialogue with the state and therefore subject to attacks and abuses against their fundamental rights that go unpunished". - Jorge Santos, General Coordinator, UDEFEGUA
Global Witness expresses its support for UDEFEGUA and calls upon the Guatemalan government to investigate social media attacks against the organisation and individuals. Local authorities should ensure the safety of their staff and land and environmental defenders by ensuring robust protection measures are in place to prevent any escalation of threats or future attacks. We also call on diplomatic missions and the international media to monitor, document and report on the dangerous situation facing human rights and environmental defenders in the country.