Vance Center Visits Guatemala During IACHR Evaluation of Precautionary Measures for Imprisoned Journalist

February 2024

Vance Center Special Counsel Douglass Cassel traveled to Guatemala during the visit of representatives from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) to analyze implementation of precautionary measures granted to imprisoned Guatemalan journalist José Rubén Zamora Marroquín.

Vance Center Special Counsel Douglass Cassel (center) and IACHR representatives visit imprisoned journalist José Rubén Zamora in his cell. Photo: Inter-American Commission on Human Rights

The IACHR mission took place on February 12-13, at the invitation of Guatemala’s current government, under President Bernardo Arévalo, who took office in mid-January. The long-awaited working visit was led by IACHR Executive Secretary Tania Reneaum Panszi, along with Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression Pedro Vaca Villarreal, and a technical team, as they visited Zamora in the Mariscal Zavala prison to see firsthand the conditions in which he is being held.   

Cassel accompanied Zamora in his cell during visits to the prison by the IACHR mission, and the visit of a delegation from the U.S. State Department, headed by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Central America Eric Jacobstein. The Vance Center and Cassel represent Zamora in an ongoing case before the IACHR as well as before the United Nations Working Group on Arbitrary Detention. 

Zamora remains in pretrial detention as requested by prosecutors and ordered by judges during his trial proceedings. However, he informed his visitors that prison conditions have improved since the new government took office. He reported that he is no longer confined to his cell 23 hours a day but now has access to a small patio outside; his cell now has hot water and improved lighting; and visitors are allowed more freely.   

He also told the visiting missions that he plans to refuse to accept further improvements to the conditions of his detention until officials take steps to raise the pay and improve the living conditions of his prison guards. 

While in Guatemala, Cassel also met with the new Solicitor General, Julio Saavedra; the new head of the Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights, Oswaldo Samayoa; with public defenders representing Zamora in local courts and their supervisors; and with local lawyers, civil society, and members of the media. 

In parallel, the IACHR delegation met separately with many of the same officials, as well as local lawyers and civil society organizations. The IACHR also met with President Arévalo, with whom a Vance Center mission, including Cassel, met during a prior visit in November 2023. 

The Commission originally requested the visit in 2022. However, the previous Guatemalan administration, which held office until mid-January 2024, never consented to the request.

The Vance Center has represented Zamora since shortly after he was arrested in July 2022. Assisted by Cassel and other pro bono lawyers from King & Spalding and the Chilean law firm of Ciro Colombara, the Vance Center has repeatedly asked the Commission in 2022 to amplify the precautionary measures it first issued to protect Zamora in 2003. 

Following the IACHR mission, members of a working group including Vance Center attorneys, Guatemalan officials, and the IACHR scheduled a meeting in Washington, D.C., at the end of February to discuss the case. 


At the beginning of February, an expert trial observation report evaluated the criminal proceedings against Zamora and assigned the trial a grade of “F”, finding that it was “marred by severe fair trial violations.” The TrialWatch Fairness Report, produced by TrialWatch, an initiative of the Clooney Foundation for Justice, along with the American Bar Association’s Center for Human Rights, concluded that “the proceedings against Mr. Zamora have been riddled with irregularities and appear to be in retaliation for his work as an investigative journalist reporting on government corruption.”  

The extensive report cited the Vance Center multiple times in its documentation of the many irregularities in the proceedings against Zamora and repeated violations of his rights. It calls for his immediate release and for Guatemalan officials to cease criminalization of journalists and anti-corruption actors. The Vance Center continues pursuing justice in related cases, including those of of exiled Guatemalan justice operators before the IACHR, and legal options to free Zamora from his prolonged arbitrary detention.