Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. In 2016 James Ernesto Morales Cabrera of the National Convergence Front party was sworn into office for a four-year term as president. On August 11, Alejandro Giammattei was elected president for a four-year term set to begin on January 14, 2020. International observers considered the presidential election held in 2019 as generally free and fair.
The National Civil Police (PNC), which is overseen by the Ministry of Government and headed by a director general appointed by the minister, is responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order in the country. The Ministry of National Defense oversees the military, which focuses primarily on operations in defense of the country, but the government also used the army in internal security and policing as permitted by the constitution. The defense ministry completed its drawdown of 4,500 personnel from street patrols to concentrate its forces on the borders in 2018. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.
Significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; substantial problems with the independence of the judiciary, including malicious litigation and irregularities in the judicial selection process; widespread corruption; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats thereof targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) persons, persons with disabilities, and members of other minority groups; and use of forced or compulsory or child labor.
Corruption and inadequate investigations made prosecution difficult. The government was criticized by civil society for refusing to renew the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala’s (CICIG) mandate, which expired on September 3. Impunity continued to be widespread for ongoing human rights abuses, endemic government corruption, and for mass atrocities committed during the 1960-1996 internal armed conflict.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. The intimidation of and violence against journalists resulted in significant self-censorship, however.
Freedom of Expression: On March 21, a court dismissed a case in which President Morales filed a criminal complaint against social activist Roberto Rimola. Morales accused Rimola of defamation and insult after Rimola verbally insulted him. The court ruled that insulting leaders of the three branches of government could not be considered a crime due to limitations to freedom of expression. Morales appealed the court decision and attended a May 29 hearing in court. As of October 1, the case remained open, and a lower court declared the case must be judged specifically under the freedom of expression act, normally reserved for cases involving journalists.
Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Nonetheless, reporters covering organized crime, including its links to corrupt public officials, acknowledged practicing self-censorship, recognizing the danger investigative journalism posed to them and their families. Public security forces continued imposing more stringent identification checks on journalists covering government events and activities, a practice initiated in August 2018.
On May 9, presidential candidate Sandra Torres filed a criminal complaint against the daily newspaper elPeriodico after it published several editorials against her. Torres based her lawsuit on the law against femicide and violence against women for attempted violation of her physical and psychological integrity. On May 13, she tried to rescind the lawsuit, but the femicide law does not permit withdrawal of cases, and consequently the Public Ministry must conclude an investigation.
Violence and Harassment: Members of the press reported receiving pressure, threats, and retribution from public officials regarding the content of their reporting. Online attacks against independent journalists and media outlets continued throughout the year. These included hacking of journalists’ private accounts, publishing stolen or falsified personal information, and apparent coordinated attempts to undermine specific journalists and the press. On May 20, a blog page appeared against Henry Bin, journalist for the radio and weekend television program ConCriterio, and several other independent journalists, alleging Bin was gay and engaged in pedophilia and child pornography. Several attacks against journalists in April and May included videos alleging various forms of corruption and immorality by journalists Juan Luis Font, Claudia Mendez, and Pedro Trujillo.
Members of the press continued to report threats and violence from public officials and criminal organizations, which impaired the practice of free and open journalism. The government failed to establish a journalist protection program, a voluntary commitment the country accepted in 2012 during the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council. According to the Public Ministry, 51 complaints were filed for attacks or threats against journalists; none were killed by the end of August, compared with two killings in 2018.
On June 4, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez of High-Risk Court B found sufficient cause to bring to trial the case of Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez, accused of ordering the killing of journalist Danilo Efrain Zapon Lopez in 2015 in Mazatenango, Suchitepequez Department.
The Public Ministry employed a unit dedicated to the investigation of threats and attacks against journalists, but the NGO Center for Reporting in Guatemala noted it had few prosecutions.
Nongovernmental Impact: Organized crime exerted influence over media outlets and reporters, frequently threatening individuals for reporting on criminal activities.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Human rights defenders, as well as judges and lawyers on high-profile cases, reported social media attacks, including the hacking of their private accounts, publishing of stolen or falsified personal information, publishing of photographic surveillance of them and family members, and online defamation and hate speech. The government took little action to protect these individuals.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, with a few exceptions. On September 4, in response to the killing of three soldiers in the municipality of El Estor, Izabal Department, President Morales declared a state of siege in 22 municipalities across five departments. Congress ratified the measure, which limited the freedom of peaceful assembly, freedom of association, and the right to protest for more than one million citizens living in the area under siege. The president and congress renewed the state of siege for a second 30-day period ending on November 4.
The law provides for freedom of assembly, and the government generally respected this right, except during the declared state of siege noted above.
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right, except during the declared state of siege noted above. There were reports, however, of significant barriers to organizing in the labor sector (see section 7.a.).
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement
The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights. The state of siege in Izabal and parts of four other departments temporarily limited rights to freedom of movement (see section 2.b.).
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed concern regarding violence against internally displaced persons (IDPs) and strengthened its efforts to monitor the problem and provide assistance to the displaced. The country does not officially recognize the existence of IDPs within its borders, with the exception of those displaced by climate change and natural disasters. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights characterized as IDPs 400 farmers the government evicted from the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 2017. Media and civil society groups reported the evictees did not receive adequate government assistance and continued to struggle with poverty and landlessness.
f. Protection of Refugees
Access to Asylum: The laws provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR reported that identification and referral mechanisms for potential asylum seekers were inadequate. Migration authorities lacked adequate training concerning the rules for establishing refugee status. The government and UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding, published on September 4, to significantly strengthen the asylum and protection system and increase capacity to process asylum seekers.
Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported access to education for refugees was difficult due to the country’s onerous requirements for access to formal education, including documentation from the country of origin.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights
A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were often cooperative and responsive to their views.
A number of NGOs, human rights workers, and trade unionists reported threats, violence, and intimidation. UDEFEGUA reported 12 killings of human rights defenders from January through July. The NGO also reported 361 attacks against human rights defenders in the same period, compared with 392 attacks in all of 2018. According to human rights NGOs, many of the attacks were related to land disputes and exploitation of natural resources and involved mainly indigenous communities. NGOs asserted the government did little to investigate the reports or prevent further incidents.
NGOs also reported the government, fringe groups, and private entities used threats of legal action as a form of intimidation. According to UDEFEGUA, from January to July, there were 28 retaliatory judicial cases filed against human rights defenders. On March 22, the president of the Supreme Court, Nester Mauricio Vasquez Pimental, filed a criminal case against Claudia Samayoa, president of UDEFEGUA, and Jose Manuel Martinez, member of the civil society group Justicia Ya (Justice Now), for alleged theft, deviation of correspondence, and trafficking of influence. UDEFEGUA and other civil society groups stated this case occurred after Samayoa and Martinez’s participation in a complaint before Guatemala City’s criminal, drug trafficking, and environment court against 11 Supreme Court justices on January 17.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government had refused to renew the visas of the CICIG commissioner and investigators since early 2018, making it difficult for CICIG to resume normal functions. CICIG’s mandate expired on September 3, and CICIG cases were transferred to the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity in the Public Ministry. Subsequently, Guatemalan former CICIG employees complained about being subject to systemic harassment and spurious lawsuits for simply having performed their duties for CICIG.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The PDH monitors the human rights set forth in the constitution and reports to Congress. The PDH opposed several congressional bills during the year, including an amnesty bill for human rights violators during the armed conflict period. On October 2, several congressional deputies submitted a petition to the Congressional Committee on Human Rights calling for the ombudsman to be removed from his position. While the PDH attempted to operate independently and issued public reports and recommendations as in past years, Congress applied significant political pressure, including threats to withhold the PDH’s funding. NGOs generally considered the PDH to be an effective institution with limitations in rural areas due to lack of resources.
The Congressional Committee on Human Rights drafts and provides guidance on legislation regarding human rights. The law requires all political parties represented in Congress to have a representative on the committee. Some NGOs did not consider the committee to be an effective forum for human rights promotion and protection.
The President’s Commission on Human Rights (COPREDEH) formulates and promotes human rights policy. COPREDEH also led coordination of police protection for human rights and labor activists. COPREDEH generally benefited from the administration’s cooperation and operated without political or party interference. Some NGOs claimed COPREDEH was not an effective interlocutor on human rights issues.
For the first time in its post-civil war history, the government failed to participate in the meeting on human rights convened by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in September. During this meeting the PDH and civil society organizations discussed challenges related to human rights. On behalf of the government, COPREDEH issued a letter claiming the commission’s meeting constituted a challenge to the country’s sovereignty.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, and sets penalties between five and 50 years in prison. Police had minimal training or capacity to investigate sexual crimes or assist survivors of such crimes, and the government did not enforce the law effectively.
Rape and other sexual offenses remained serious problems. The government took steps to combat femicide and violence against women. The judiciary continued to operate a 24-hour court in Guatemala City to offer services related to violence directed toward women, including sexual assault, exploitation, and trafficking of women and children. The judiciary also operated specialized courts for violence against women throughout the country, but not in every department. The Public Ministry maintained a 24-hour victim service center to provide medical, psychosocial, and legal support to victims, including restraining orders for their immediate protection. The ministry also maintained a national alert system for finding disappeared women. Sexual violence remained widespread despite these advances. The ministry reported that 6,231 women were victims of aggravated rape from January to August, compared with 549 cases filed during the same period in 2018.
The law establishes penalties for femicide of 25 to 50 years in prison without the possibility of reducing the sentence; however, femicide remained a significant problem. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported that from January to August, 477 women were killed. Despite a generally decreasing homicide rate for men since 2010, the rate of femicide remained essentially the same.
Violence against women, including sexual and domestic violence, remained widespread and serious. The law establishes penalties of five to eight years for physical, economic, and psychological violence committed against women due to their gender. The Public Ministry recorded 40,993 instances of violence against women from January to August. The ministry noted that the judicial system convicted 1,149 perpetrators of violence against women. In December 2018 the bodies of former congressional deputy Joaquin Humberto Bracamonte Marquez and his wife Zulma Vyanka Subillaga Dubon, former secretary against sexual violence, exploitation, and human trafficking, were found in their missing vehicle. The Public Ministry investigation, concluded in June, determined Bracamonte had murdered his wife before committing suicide.
In May 2018 authorities arrested seven former members of the civil defense patrols and charged them with sexual violence against 36 Maya Achi women in Rabinal, between 1981 and 1985. On June 21, Judge Claudette Dominguez ruled there was insufficient evidence to send the defendants to trial and ordered them released. The prosecution filed recusal motions against Judge Dominguez, and in September the First High Risk Appellate Court granted the recusal motion and transferred the case to Judge Miguel Angel Galvez; however, the case remained mired in a series of unresolved appeals.
Sexual Harassment: No single law, including laws against sexual violence, deals directly with sexual harassment, although several laws refer to it. Human rights organizations reported sexual harassment was widespread.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization.
Discrimination: Although the law establishes the principle of gender equality and criminalizes discrimination, women, and particularly indigenous women, faced discrimination and were less likely to hold management positions.
Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country’s territory or from their parents. UNICEF described low birth registration as a “serious problem,” and UNHCR reported problems in registering births were especially acute in indigenous communities due to inadequate government registration and documentation systems. Lack of registration restricted children’s access to some public services and created conditions that could lead to statelessness.
Education: While primary education is compulsory through age 14, access was limited in many rural areas; education through the secondary level is not obligatory. Boys were prioritized for high school education in rural communities due to the need to travel long distances and girls’ perceived value in the home.
Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious problem. A unit under the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Children and Adolescents handled child abuse cases. The Public Ministry opened an integrated 24-hour care model providing medical, psychosocial, and legal support to children and adolescent victims of violence. The ministry reported 7,089 reports of minor abuse of all types, approximately 2,000 fewer than in 2018. The ministry reported 54 convictions for child abuse from January through August, compared with 82 during the same period in 2018.
NGOs supporting at-risk youth reported adolescents detained by police were subject to abusive treatment, including physical assaults.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18. There were reports of early and forced marriages in some rural indigenous communities and in the Lev Tahor religious community. A 2017 decree prohibits underage marriage. The National Registry of Persons reported no attempted registration of underage marriage since enactment of the decree.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law provides sentences ranging from 13 to 24 years in prison, depending on the victim’s age, for engaging in sex with a minor. The minimum age of consensual sex is 18.
The law prohibits child pornography and establishes penalties of six to 10 years in prison for producing, promoting, and selling child pornography and two to four years’ imprisonment for possessing it. The Public Ministry and the PNC conducted several raids against alleged online child pornography networks. The Regional Unit against Trafficking in Persons, responsible for eight departments in the Western Highlands and launched in 2018, was expanding the government’s investigative capacity against child pornography offenders. The commercial sexual exploitation of children, including child sex tourism, remained a problem, including in privately run orphanages.
Displaced Children: Criminals and gangs often recruited street children, many of them victims of domestic abuse, for purposes of stealing, extortion, prostitution, transporting contraband, and conducting illegal drug activities.
Institutionalized Children: More than 500 children and adolescents lived in shelters run by the Secretariat for Social Welfare (SBS). During the year the Secretariat against Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking in Persons transferred control of three shelters to the SBS, as mandated by the government.
Overcrowding was common in shelters, and government funding for orphanages remained limited. Local and international human rights organizations, including Disability Rights International, raised concerns that child abuse was rampant. A 2018 investigative report claimed children with disabilities were consistently mistreated and neglected, including by being locked in cages.
On August 22, a judge denied house arrest for former SBS secretary Carlos Rodas and former deputy secretary for protection and shelter Anahi Keller, and they remained in prison. The two, former shelter director Santos Torres, and four others were charged with murder, abuse of authority, breach of duty, and abuse against minors in relation to the deaths of 41 girls in a 2017 fire at the Hogar Seguro orphanage. As of November the public trial, which was the final stage of the criminal proceeding, had not begun. The government did not make significant structural changes to the national shelter system.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.
The Jewish population numbered approximately 1,500 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.
See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.
The constitution contains no specific prohibitions against discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The law, however, mandates equal access to public facilities and provides some other legal protections. In many cases, however, the law was not enforced. The law does not mandate that persons with disabilities have access to information or communications.
The National Council for Persons with Disabilities reported few persons with disabilities attended educational institutions or held jobs. The council, composed of representatives of relevant government ministries and agencies, is the principal government entity responsible for protecting the rights of persons with disabilities. Most schools and universities did not have facilities accessible to persons with disabilities, and there was no reliable data on the prevalence of disabilities in the school-age population.
The Federico Mora National Hospital for Mental Health, the only public health-care provider for persons with mental illness, lacked basic supplies, equipment, hygienic living conditions, and adequate professional staff. Media and human rights organizations reported mistreatment of residents, including physical, psychological, and sexual violence by other residents, guards, and hospital staff, especially with respect to women and children with disabilities. Multiple legal actions were pending against the hospital.
The government’s National Institute of Statistics estimated indigenous persons from 24 ethnic groups comprised 44 percent of the population. The law provides for equal rights for indigenous persons and obliges the government to recognize, respect, and promote the lifestyles, customs, traditions, social organizations, and manner of dress of indigenous persons. The government does not recognize particular indigenous groups as having a special legal status provided by national law.
Multiple local NGOs raised concerns over the killings of at least six indigenous leaders from January through September. According to NGO assessments, at least three of the victims may have been targeted because of their political involvement and advocacy for indigenous rights. On July 5, Isidro Perez and Melesio Ramirez were killed near Livingston by an armed group alleged to be connected to a former government minister. The Committee for Rural Development (CODECA) and indigenous leaders reported that Perez and Ramirez were killed during a CODECA protest and targeted due to their indigenous land rights activism. On September 14, Maya Achi Ancestral Authority representative Paulina Cruz Ruiz was killed in Baja Verapaz by unidentified gunmen in front of her house. Ruiz was active in organizing the March for Dignity in 2018 and had assisted the Maya Achi Ancestral Authorities to bring legal actions against mining projects in the area.
Indigenous representatives claimed actors in a number of regional development projects failed to consult meaningfully with local communities. In some cases indigenous communities were not able to participate in decisions affecting the exploitation of resources in their communities, including energy, minerals, timber, rivers, or other natural resources. They also lacked effective mechanisms for dialogue with the state to resolve conflicts, as Congress had not approved a legislative proposal to guide the implementation of prior consultation, as required by International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 169. In 2018 the Constitutional Court ordered the Ministry of Energy and Mines to hold ILO Convention 169-compliant consultations with Xinka populations and upheld the suspension of the operating license of the San Rafael Mine until after conclusion of the consultations. As of October the government and Xinka authorities were negotiating who would represent the Xinka community in the consultations.
In July the Constitutional Court ordered the provisional closure of the Fenix nickel mine in Izabal Department, near the border with Honduras, until the Ministry of Energy and Mines conducted ILO 169-compliant consultations with local communities. The Russian conglomerate Solway, which bought the mine in 2014, was accused of violence against indigenous activists and illegal extraction of undeclared materials. The OHCHR reported the mine continued operations despite the court order to suspend activities. The OHCHR also reported the mine began operations in the Barrio Nuevo area despite a lack of consultations with local communities during the September state of siege declared by the government.
Indigenous communities were underrepresented in national politics and remained largely outside the political, economic, social, and cultural mainstream. This was mainly due to limited educational opportunities (contrary to law), limited communication regarding their rights, and pervasive discrimination. Government agencies dedicated to supporting indigenous rights lacked political support. These factors contributed to disproportionate poverty and malnutrition among most indigenous populations.
Indigenous lands lacked effective demarcation, making the legal recognition of titles to the land problematic. Indigenous rights advocates asserted that security authorities lacked familiarity with indigenous norms and practices, which engendered misunderstandings. In February the government established the “Road to Prosperity,” a program to facilitate and implement an inclusive, participatory, and transparent dialogue between government officials and indigenous peoples to analyze and identify local needs and gaps in government services and to improve the quality and coverage of public services and projects.
The law does not extend specific antidiscrimination protections to LGBTI individuals based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics. Efforts to pass laws against such discrimination, including a gender identity law, encountered severe opposition among legislators.
LGBTI human rights groups stated police officers regularly engaged in extortion and harassed male and transgender individuals whom they alleged to be sex workers. There was general societal discrimination against LGBTI persons in access to education, health care, employment, and housing. The government made minimal efforts to address this discrimination. Aldo Davila, elected in June and the first openly gay member of Congress, reported receiving constant death threats during and after the elections due to his sexual orientation, activism, and heightened public image. Several attacks targeted journalists for supposed membership in the LGBTI community. PNC officials visited one local LGBTI NGO’s office in August and stayed outside for hours, which the group claimed was an attempt to intimidate LGBTI victims of violence who were seeking shelter in the office.
According to LGBTI activists, gay and transgender individuals often experienced police abuse. The local NGO National Network for Sexual Diversity and HIV and the Lambda Association reported that as of October, a total of 20 LGBTI persons had been killed, including several transgender individuals the NGOs believed were targeted due to their sexual orientation. Several were killed in their homes or at LGBTI spaces in Guatemala City. LGBTI groups claimed women experienced specific forms of discrimination, such as forced marriages and forced pregnancies through “corrective rape,” although these incidents were rarely, if ever, reported to authorities. In addition, transgender individuals faced severe discrimination.
The law includes HIV/AIDS status among the categories prohibited from discrimination. Societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS remained a problem, however, despite efforts by the Ministry of Health to address it. Forms of discrimination included being required by some government authorities to reveal HIV/AIDS test results to receive certain public benefits or from employers in order to be hired. In addition, HIV/AIDS patients experienced discrimination from medical personnel when receiving services at some public hospitals and clinics, and had their right to confidentiality violated by disclosure of their status. Discrimination against LGBTI persons with HIV/AIDS was particularly common and affected access to HIV-prevention programs, especially for transgender individuals.
Several times vigilante mobs attacked and killed those suspected of crimes such as rape, kidnapping, theft, or extortion. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported three persons were lynched and 22 injured in attempted lynchings by vigilante groups from January through June.