Banner in Cuenca, Ecuador: "We are not terrorists, we defend life and nature."
Banner during a demonstration against the criminalization of protest in Cuenca, Ecuador that reads “We are not terrorists, we defend life and nature.” Photo: MiningWatch

Just as opponents of the state were tarred as “communists” during the 1970s and 80s, they are today labelled “terrorists” to stigmatise them and delegitimize dissent.

– Jonathan Hafetz, observer in Guatemala and Associate Professor of Law at Seton Hall University1

How Does Stigmatization Work?

Stigmatization is a key element in laying the groundwork for a process of criminalization. People in positions of authority, whether members of a government administration, media commentators, representatives from citizen or non-governmental organisations or representatives of the armed forces, publicly label legitimate dissent and those involved as troublemakers; as being manipulated, or as people from outside a given area with a vested interest; as terrorists or whose activities are likely to inflame the activities of armed groups; as enemies of the state, the national interest and/or political opponents.

Such statements generate a climate of polarization and hostility, and aim to put the credibility of those who dissent and their claims into doubt and away from the top news headlines. They are also aimed at making those who do speak out or dissent in some way afraid to do so and can lead to attacks from interested parties, hired assassins, or illegal armed groups.

image of a community meeting with Gustavo Castro in Chiapas, Mexico
Community meeting in Chiapas, Mexico with Gustavo Castro; Photo: MiningWatch
According to a 2011 report by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR): “The ever more systematic and repeated way in which legal actions without basis are initiated against human rights defenders has led this obstacle to become ever more visible with increasing intensity in the region and…undermines the credibility and legitimacy of their activities in defence of human rights, making them more vulnerable to attacks.”2

They note a particular relationship between this trend and those involved in disputes over mega-projects in the areas of mining, hydroelectricity and forestry. Land defenders have frequently been stigmatized as “enemies of development,” “backward peoples” or “ecoterrorists.” Linked to this is an important rise in the abusive use of the penal system through concepts like “sabotage”, “terrorism”, “rebellion”, “illicit association”, “instigation to be delinquent”, against those who resist resource extraction projects.3

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Source: [1] Jonathan Hafetz, Al Jazeera, “Guatemala’s creep toward military rule and repression,” October 26, 2012;; [2][3] CIDH, Segundo informe sobre la situación de las defensoras y los defensores de derechos humanos en las Américas, 31 diciembre 2011, paragraph 78, 94, 324; Jonathan Hafetz, Al Jazeera, “Guatemala’s creep toward military rule and repression,” October 26, 2012: