Nearly a week after two journalists were murdered in southern Guatemala, the government has implicated a local criminal group with commercial ties to the government in the killings.
Guatemala’s Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez Bonilla said the so-called Oajaca group may have been behind the March 10 attack that killed reporters Danilo Lopez and Federico Salazar, and injured a third, Marvin Tunchez, El Periodico reported.
The criminal network — which carries the name of the principal family that allegedly manages it — works with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel, the minister said, coordinating the arrival and dispatch of illegal drug shipments along its Pacific coastline.
It also manages government contracts, including one from the Health Ministry to supply water to a local hospital and another from the judicial system to rent a building for an unspecified use, according to Prensa Libre.
Police have arrested two suspects in the shooting, one of whom allegedly had connections to arms trafficking and a record as a hired assassin, according to Prensa Libre. The prosecutor in the case recently requested it be moved to a special court outside of Suchitepequez due to risks faced by witnesses, prosecutors, and judges.
After an enormous outcry from a range of Guatemalan organizations, the United Nations, and the Committee to Protect Journalists, the government announced new protection mechanisms for journalists in Mazatenango, the city where Lopez and Salazar were killed.
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Lopez’s reporting cut to the heart of a critical issue throughout the region: the intimate connections between criminal actors and the political establishment, especially on a local level where they trade campaign funding for protection and government contracts.
In interviews released posthumously by Prensa Libre, Lopez detailed how criminal groups contributed to political campaigns and controlled authorities with relative ease in part because of their patronage and in part because of their strong-arm tactics.
Lopez had faced down threats in the past. In a 2013 complaint to the Attorney General’s Office, Lopez said he was threatened by the mayor of the Suchitepequez municipality San Lorenzo after reporting the mayor had embezzled public funds.
Threats against journalists in Guatemala are on the rise. According to an Attorney General’s Office spokesperson quoted by Prensa Libre, there have been 142 complaints made by journalists since 2010, with the numbers increasing every year.
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Instead of formally requesting government protection, many journalists self-censor when they are harassed or threatened. In a report detailing the dangers faced by the press in Central America, the Committee to Protect Journalists noted that coverage of organized crime in rural areas has become increasingly difficult. The report added that reporters rely on official government announcements and rarely venture outside major cities.