Guatemalan Congress approves controversial state of siege declaration

GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala’s Congress voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to approve a temporary state of siege in six northeastern provinces, a measure designed to tighten security after several soldiers were killed by suspected drug traffickers.

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The initiative passed by a vote of 88 lawmakers in favor and nine opposed in the Central American country’s unicameral legislature.

The 30-day state of siege imposes a night-time curfew in the northeastern provinces of Alta Verapaz, El Progreso, Izabal, Peten, Zacapa and Baja Verapaz, which together make up a drug-trafficking corridor that runs from Honduras to Mexican border.

Guatemala, like neighbors El Salvador and Honduras, is a hub for the trafficking of drugs from South America to the United States.

The state of siege law also gives the military new powers to arrest and interrogate suspects and prohibits organized protests in the targeted areas as well as some meetings, although it does not specify the number of people that can legally meet.

Outgoing President Jimmy Morales declared the state of siege last week, arguing it is needed to better target criminal groups operating in these areas.

Prior to Morales’ declaration, Guatemala’s Army said a group of suspected drug traffickers ambushed a patrol of nine soldiers who were sent to detain an aircraft allegedly transporting drugs. Three of the soldiers died in the attack, according to authorities.

The state of siege has been sharply criticized by local rights groups representing victims of violence as well as human rights activists in the area.

“It seems to us an exaggerated and loathsome action to take,” according to a statement by 100 social organizations published Saturday on social media.

The statement also called into question the authorities’ account of the ambush.

Guatemala’s President-elect Alejandro Giammattei, elected in a landslide last month, has not weighed in publicly on the state of siege legislation, and his office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Giammattei is set to take office in January.

Reporting by Sofia Menchu; Writing by David Alire Garcia; Editing by Cynthia Osterman