'They call to threaten me and say I can’t return': Guatemalan journalist Michelle Mendoza

  • By
  • November 15, 2022

*By Alex Maldonado, originally published by Ocote.

Journalist Michelle Mendoza, a CNN correspondent in Guatemala, is in exile after having suffered constant harassment, which began in social media via anonymous profiles. It continued with physical stalking, when she was alone or with her daughters. And it culminated in judicial persecution because of her journalism work.

Over the past 13 years, Michelle Mendoza has covered everything from diplomatic events to natural disasters, such as the eruption of the Fuego volcano in 2018. She started in 2009 in Guatemalan media and as of 2017 was a correspondent for CNN, one of the largest news networks in the world.

Through CNN, she reported to the world how the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, for its Spanish acronym) and the Public Prosecutor's Office (MP, for its Spanish acronym) of that country initiated investigations and criminal proceedings for acts of corruption, which affected the highest levels of the government, political and business sectors.

For years, she carried out her work without pressure. But after President Jimmy Morales expelled the CICIG in Sept. 2019, the situation for media and journalists -- as well as for prosecutors, judges and activists -- began to change in Guatemala. It changed for Mendoza, too.


The ordeal begins


"The situation for me started to get out of control in 2021, when my older brother, who for years had worked at the Ministry of Development (Mides, for its Spanish acronym), told me that he was being harassed because of my publications," Mendoza told Ocote. 

"He was fired in short order. He got other jobs, but then he would get fired because of pressure against the companies. He got sick because he could no longer support his family. He had to leave the country to get a job," she said.

She continued her work as a journalist, but harassment from anonymous profiles on social media (known as netcenters) was on the rise.

"One day, I asked a question through the Presidency chat. Someone took a screenshot of it and circulated it. It showed my question and my phone number. The account @LordVaderGT (now canceled) posted it. That's when the harassment became more aggressive," she said.

After this, Mendoza began to become a victim of physical stalking. "I could no longer go to the supermarket, take my daughters for a walk, go to the movies or just go out by car. They would take pictures of me and publish them. I was already endangering them," she said, meaning her daughters.

On her phone, she began to receive photographs taken unawares or from behind. She also received pornographic photos and rape videos. She was threatened saying they would do the same to her. They began to insult her and call her names.

"That month (May 2021) I traveled to Atlanta (CNN’s headquarters in the U.S.) to pick up some equipment and then I received a Telegram video call with the CNN logo and a man appeared masturbating live."


Netcenter slip


"I returned to Guatemala and that same month, during Attorney General Consuelo Porras' annual report presentation at the Camino Real Hotel, a journalist alerted me that (Supreme Court Justice) Vitalina Orellana was taking pictures of me from behind with her phone and showing them to Justice Nery Medina," Mendoza said.

"I still told her in jest that all that was missing was for @LordVaderGT to publish it. I went into shock 15 minutes later, when the same journalist confirmed that it was so. At that moment, I understood the seriousness of the matter because of these people’s tentacles," she said.

The Guatemalan press published several articles showing the coincidences between the photographs taken by the judge and the anonymous profile. As a high-ranking official, Orellana was directly linked to these profiles that harass and threaten.

Despite the evidence, judge Orellana denied the accusations, and the publication was deleted. Mendoza reported the incident to the Public Prosecutor's Office and requested that the people in charge of the hotel where the event was held provide her with the recordings of that day. They said there were no cameras inside the room. "They denied me access to justice," she said.

The intimidation did not stop. A funeral wreath was sent to her parent's home. It was then that CNN decided to hire a personal security detail to protect Mendoza.

According to Mendoza, months later, the company that provided the service decided to cancel it because they claimed to have received pressure and threats from State entities.

Mendoza says she always reported what was happening to her to the  Public Prosecutor's Office, but that the institution never answered. 

Juan Luis Pantaleón, the spokesman for the Attorney General's Office, was asked if any case of anonymous profiles that expose personal information on social media was being investigated. Pantaleón said, "there is only one complaint specifically containing the word netcenter, for slander and libel, and it’s [being processed] in the Internal Affairs Prosecutor's Office." 

Regarding the complaints that Mendoza claims she filed in 2021, Pantaléon said that "the Prosecutor's Office for Crimes against Journalists has received two complaints from 2021 and 2015, in which someone from SAAS (Secretary of Administrative and Security Affairs) was prosecuted for the crime of sexual aggression." 

The 2015 aggression was made by a presidential guard against Mendoza and another reporter, when several journalists were following former vice-president Roxana Baldetti to interview her during a judicial proceeding.


The investigation against the President


In September 2021, Mendoza received a series of documents and a witness statement confirming that Alejandro Giammattei had allegedly become president due to bribes from state contractors. 

The Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity (FECI, for its Spanish acronym), when Juan Francisco Sandoval was in charge, had initiated this investigation a year earlier. But after Sandoval's dismissal and exile in July 2021, it had remained confidential in a court headed by Judge Erika Aifán, who is now also out of Guatemala.

For security reasons, Mendoza decided to travel again to the United States. From there she investigated and cross-checked information to confirm the truthfulness of the documents. She relied on the digital news outlet El Faro, from El Salvador, which had been investigating the same issue months before.

The investigations were made public, in El Faro and in CNN, between Feb. 14 and Feb. 16, 2022. Mendoza remained in the United States all that time. 

As she explained, she was sure the government knew she was responsible for this information. Before it was published, both she and the network received messages and calls warning them not to go public.


Last trip to Guatemala


On Apr. 26, Mendoza returned to Guatemala. But the constant harassment for three days in a row on social media, news outlets, and even physically, made her feel she could no longer stay.

"The same day of the flight, the netcenter made my itinerary public. On the second day, a man with military characteristics (because of his posture, haircut, and the way he spoke) and dressed as a purified water delivery man came to tell my dad to tell me to 'get the hell out of Guatemala,'" she said.

"On the third day, Rodrigo Arenas (indicted for illicit electoral financing in 2018) published something in República (a news outlet of which he is president and general manager) vilifying me as a woman and a mother. This is when my family decides to take me out of the country,” she said. The publication, signed by República Newsroom, questioned Mendoza's ethics and accused her of abandoning her daughters. 

Regarding the responsibility for the publication, Arenas told Ocote that "the authorship of this feature story belongs to the investigative team of República."

Six months have passed since then. Mendoza is seeking asylum from the United States, due to the harassment and criminalization she suffered in Guatemala. 

"They can say whatever they want about me, but I never did my job wrong and if this is the price I have to pay for working for my country, I accept it. But it's hard, you know because it not only affects me in my role as a journalist. It also affects my role as a mom, and as a woman. They sexualize me, and they threaten me with rape. Mentally, they tear you apart," Mendoza said.

The journalist said that "while I was already in the United States, my boss told me that CNN's legal team in Guatemala had received information that the attorney general (Consuelo Porras) had given the green light to prosecute a case against me for obstruction of justice, for the investigation that Fernando del Rincón made public.”

The current head of the Special Prosecutor's Office against Impunity, Rafael Curruchiche, said publicly that he had filed a complaint to investigate "how an audio, facts and circumstances of a case in reserve were leaked" and to determine criminal responsibilities.

Two days later, journalist José Rubén Zamora also called Mendoza to warn her. "Don't come back because the Prosecutor would like to see you in jail," she said he told her. "Oh, surprise! Now he is there, detained, just like they wanted to hold me. They fabricated a case against him in 72 hours," she said.


Journalism’s vulnerability in Guatemala


An analysis by the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (Udefegua) on the criminalization of social actors, states that since the end of 2020 and during 2021 saw a pattern of complaints of censorship and discrimination emerge against workers at public and private companies.

"We received many complaints from people who were being censored because they supported CICIG or criticized the government on social media. There were high-profile cases such as the dismissal of María Alejandra Morales, at the National Civil Service Office (Onsec) and Michelle's brother, at Mides," Claudia Samayoa, head of Udefegua's Justice Program, said. 

Morales was a communications advisor at Onsec and claimed to have been fired in retaliation for organizing a campaign in support of women victims of violence.

Regarding Mendoza, Samayoa said that, although Mendoza had filed several complaints about what happened to her in the past two years, the Public Prosecutor's Office has not given it enough importance. "It is amazing that despite the fact that there is an investigation protocol for advocate and journalist cases, the way she was treated was like, ‘Why to bother with this?’"

In addition, Samayoa said that "being already out of the country, there have been a series of calls and messages through a cell phone (from South America) where they keep threatening her with rape. That’s a problem for you journalists because technology is part of your work and you can’t stop using it."

From 2014 to date, according to a count carried out by Ocote, at least 19 journalists and communicators have been criminalized and subjected to court proceedings. Some have been captured and others had to leave Guatemala.

For Mendoza, Guatemala has not yet reached the bottom in terms of the destruction of its democratic system and the persecution of social actors. But she also believes that change will come from the communities. 

"Civil society is the future. Whatever happens in the communities will allow for things to change. I don't know what needs to happen because people are worried about surviving, which is not easy to do there. It’s going to require a lot of work and time, but above all, it will require many people’s determination," she said.