Note: This report was updated 4/12/17; see Appendix F: Errata for more information.
Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. On January 14, Jimmy Morales of the National Convergence Front (FCN) party was sworn into office for a four-year term as president. International observers considered the presidential election held in 2015 as generally free and fair.
Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.
Principal human rights abuses included widespread institutional corruption, particularly in the police and judicial sectors; security force involvement in serious crimes, such as kidnapping, drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, and extortion; and societal violence, including lethal violence against women.
Other human rights problems included arbitrary or unlawful killings, abuse and mistreatment by National Civil Police (PNC) members; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; prolonged pretrial detention; failure of the judicial system to conduct full and timely investigations and fair trials; government failure to fully protect judicial officials, witnesses, and civil society representatives from intimidation and threats; and internal displacement of persons. In addition, there was sexual harassment and discrimination against women; child abuse, including the commercial sexual exploitation of children; discrimination and abuse of persons with disabilities; and trafficking in persons and human smuggling, including of unaccompanied children. Other problems included marginalization of indigenous communities and ineffective mechanisms to address land conflicts; discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; and ineffective enforcement of labor and child labor laws.
The government cooperated with the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to strengthen the rule of law and prosecute officials who committed abuses. Impunity continued to be widespread. Gangs, organized crime, and narcotics trafficking organizations committed numerous acts of violence; corruption and inadequate investigation made prosecution difficult.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape, 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. The PDH Ombudsman for Women and activists agreed that full investigation and prosecution of domestic violence and rape cases took an average of two to three years if the victims had access to quality legal representation. Impunity for perpetrators remained very high. Rape survivors frequently did not report crimes due to lack of confidence in the justice system, social stigma, and fear of reprisal.
Rape and other sexual offenses remained serious problems. According to the Public Ministry, there were 11,399 reports of sexual or physical assault through August. During the same period, there were 610 convictions for sexual or physical assault on women, an increase from the 527 convictions in the same period the previous year.
The government took steps to combat femicide and violence against women. The PNC’s Special Unit for Sex Crimes, the Office of Attention to Victims, the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Women, and a special unit for trafficking in persons and illegal adoptions within the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Organized Crime deal with various aspects of violence against women. The judiciary maintained 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. In September 2015 the government relaunched the Office of the Coordinator for the Prevention of Domestic Violence and Violence Against Women (CONAPREVI), which serves as the domestic violence interagency coordinator and includes several civil society organizations. CONAPREVI had been active under previous governments but was dormant in recent years due to a lack of leadership and funding.
The law establishes penalties of five to eight years for physical, economic, and psychological violence committed against women because of their gender, but violence against women, including domestic violence, remained a serious problem. The law prohibits domestic abuse, allows for the issuance of restraining orders against alleged aggressors and police protection for victims, and requires the PNC to intervene in violent situations in the home. The PNC often failed to respond to requests for assistance related to domestic violence, however, and women’s rights advocates reported that few officers received training to deal with domestic violence or to assist survivors.
On November 22, the Public Ministry established a special prosecutor for femicide. The Institute of Public Criminal Defense, a government institution, provided free legal, medical, and psychological assistance to survivors of domestic violence. Femicide remained a significant problem. Sexual assault, torture, and mutilation were frequently evident in killings. The NGO Mutual Support Group, using government data, reported 565 violent deaths of women through the end of September. As of that month, authorities convicted 56 individuals for femicide. NGOs expressed concern that sentences were sometimes lenient.
Sexual and domestic violence remained serious problems. The PDH Office of Ombudsman for Women supported survivors of domestic and social violence by accompanying them to judicial proceedings and offering some social services such as psychological support. The Office of Ombudsman for Indigenous Women also coordinated and promoted action by government institutions and NGOs to prevent violence and discrimination against indigenous women, but lacked resources to reach all areas. The office maintained no statistics on its caseload. Civil society organizations provided mediation and free legal services to low-income women.
Although the law affords protection, including shelter, to victims of domestic violence, there were insufficient facilities for this purpose. The Ministry of Government operated eight shelters for survivors of abuse in departments with the greatest incidence of domestic violence. Due to continual budget uncertainties, the shelters’ operations were erratic. Several shelters funded by private donors or municipal governments operated in cities and the countryside. Many of the centers provided legal and psychological support and temporary accommodation.
Sexual Harassment: No single law, including laws against sexual violence, deals directly with sexual harassment, although several laws refer to it, such as the Femicide Law. There were no reliable estimates of the frequency of sexual harassment; however, human rights organizations reported sexual harassment was widespread. The government ran a pilot program consisting of social media and bus advertisements to promote greater awareness against sexual harassment and to encourage victims and witnesses to report the crime. Under this pilot program, the PNC, local transit police, and other groups established protocols for handling sexual harassment complaints.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children and to manage their reproductive health, free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. They did not always have the information and means to do so.
Cultural, geographic, and linguistic barriers hampered access to reproductive health care, particularly for indigenous women in rural areas. Discriminatory attitudes among health-care providers and a lack of culturally sensitive reproductive and maternal health-care services deterred many indigenous women from accessing these services.
As a result of efforts to expand health services to underserved communities, the government was able to decrease the maternal mortality ratio and increase the percentage of institutional deliveries. Although the country made progress towards decreasing the maternal mortality ratio, it remained relatively high at 88 deaths per 100,000 live births. The UN Population Fund (UNFPA) reported in 2016 that skilled health personnel attended only 66 percent of births. Unsafe abortion also contributed to the country’s high maternal mortality ratio; legal abortion was tightly restricted except to save the life of the mother.
Discrimination: Although the law establishes the principle of gender equality and criminalizes discrimination, women faced discrimination, particularly under family and labor law, and were less likely to hold management positions. The government’s Secretariat for Women’s Affairs advises the president on interagency coordination of policies affecting women and their development.
Women were employed primarily in low-wage jobs in agriculture, retail businesses, the service sector, textile and apparel industries, and government. Women also obtained employment more frequently in the informal sector, where pay was generally lower and benefits nonexistent. The 2015 Global Gender Gap Report estimated women’s earned income was 56 percent that of men, and women on average received 64 percent of men’s salaries for comparable work. Many women engaged in agricultural work and often reported receiving less than 50 percent of a man’s salary for similar work. Women may legally own, manage, and inherit property on an equal basis with men, including in situations involving divorce.
Economic violence is a crime under the femicide law. The law defines it as actions that deprive a woman of the economic benefits to which she is legally entitled and cause damage to her economic situation. The crime occurs most frequently during divorce when a husband refuses to pay alimony, cancels or liquidates bank accounts, or sells jointly owned property without the spouse’s knowledge. A slow court system and late notifications of legal actions or notifications in Spanish to women who could not read Spanish contributed to the situation. According to the Public Ministry, from January through September, 271 reports of economic violence were filed, and authorities obtained five convictions.
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. Factors such as the need to travel to unfamiliar urban areas, to interact with nonindigenous male government officials, and to speak Spanish inhibited some indigenous women from registering their children. Authorities prevented foreign citizens residing in the country without appropriate documentation from registering their locally born children prior to regularizing their own immigration status. Lack of registration restricted children’s access to some public services and created conditions that could lead to statelessness.
Education: While compulsory through age 14, education through the secondary level is not obligatory, and less than half of eligible children attended secondary school. Also, less than half of secondary schools were public. Girls, especially girls in indigenous communities, were significantly less likely than boys to be educated to the secondary school level. Access to compulsory education in primary school was limited in many rural areas.
Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious problem. In March the country created the unit of Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Children and Adolescents. A unit under the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Women had previously handled child abuse cases. The Public Ministry reported that it convicted the abusers of 489 minor victims for sexual abuse or other types of violence through September.
According to the Secretariat against Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking in Persons (SVET), from January through July, 1,552 cases of pregnancies of minors 14 years old or younger were recorded nationwide, with the majority of cases coming from the departments of Huehuetenango, Alta Verapaz, Guatemala, San Marcos, and Peten. The secretary estimated that 80 percent of these cases were due to intrafamily sexual abuse. SVET launched a press campaign with special events and training sessions in rural areas to combat pregnancy of minors.
The Secretariat of Social Welfare, which oversees children’s treatment, training, special education, and welfare programs, provided shelter and assistance to children who were victims of abuse but sometimes placed children in shelters with juveniles who had criminal records. The government operated a shelter for minor victims of violence, abandonment, and exploitation in San Jose Pinula and in two temporary shelters in Quetzaltenango and Zacapa. SVET had shelters for victims of human trafficking and sexual violence in Coatepeque, Coban, and Guatemala City.
Early and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18. In 2015 Congress eliminated a provision that previously allowed girls to marry at 14 and boys at 16 with parental consent. There were reports of forced early marriages in some rural indigenous communities. UNICEF reported that 30 percent of women 20 to 24 years of age were first married or in union by age 18 (7 percent of them by age 15) between 2008 and 2014. In an effort to identify cases of early and forced marriage, the government instituted nationwide training programs and protocols to encourage public employees to report pregnancies and childbirth among underage mothers.
The NGO Childhood Refuge reported an estimated 15,000 irregular marriages of minors had occurred since 2015, 70 percent of which took place in the western part of the country. Given the change in law raising the minimum age for marriage, the NGO also reported an increase of informal unions involving minors, which essentially functioned as marriages.
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 Public Ministry reported several complaints of sexual assault or rape against minors and successfully prosecuted some aggressors. The Ministry’s Office of Trafficking increased the number of investigators and prosecutors to respond to the sexual exploitation of minors, including opening an office dedicated to cybercrime. SVET broadened its coordination role by engaging directly with municipal governments and mayors to educate them on combatting sexual abuse, child abuse, and trafficking.
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 PNC conducted several raids against alleged online child pornography networks. The commercial sexual exploitation of children, including child sex tourism, remained a problem, with credible reports of child sex tourism in Antigua, Guatemala City, and the Department of Solola.
According to figures for 2016 released by the Public Ministry’s Office of Special Prosecutor for Children, authorities received 5,257 reports of sexual violence against minors and youth up to 19 years of age by mid-September. It received 47 reports of sexual exploitation involving minors and 141 reports of trafficking in persons.
Displaced Children: Criminals and gangs often recruited street children, many of them victims of domestic abuse, for purposes of stealing, transporting contraband, prostitution, and conducting illegal drug activities. According to law enforcement sources, there were approximately 15,500 Barrio 18 gang members and 13,950 Mara Salvatrucha gang members. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported that 74 minors suffered violent deaths nationwide between January and March, a significant increase from 2015. NGOs dealing with gangs and other youth reported that youth detained by police were subject to abusive treatment, including physical assaults.
A significant number of unaccompanied children attempted to leave the country. Polling indicated that the primary motivations for migration were a lack of economic and educational opportunity in the country, fear of violence, and family reunification. NGOs reported that the Secretariat of Social Welfare (SBS), which is responsible for the care of both returned migrant children and unaccompanied foreign migrant children, reported two cases of sexual abuse of children under its care during the year. The cases highlighted the persistent problem of overcrowding in shelters, along with security issues. For instance, according to PDH, 44 minors disappeared from secured SBS shelters from September to mid-November. One NGO provided shelter and comprehensive social services for unaccompanied foreign migrant children.
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 travel.state.gov/content/childabduction/en/legal/compliance.html.
The Jewish population numbered approximately 1,500 persons. During a May protest against Energuate, a power distribution company purchased in December 2015 by a company with connections to Israel, protesters used a banner that had an image of Jesus Christ and stated, “Jews killed me on the cross. Now Jews from Energuate are killing my people in Guatemala with energy.” Jewish community leaders filed a complaint with the PDH, which pursued the case in court. During the summer the protesting group and the Jewish community settled the matter out of court with a formal apology from the protesting group.
In June the former mayor of San Juan La Laguna, Antonio Adolfo Perez y Perez, was placed under house arrest during his trial for abuse of authority and discrimination for his involvement in the expulsion of members of the ultraorthodox Jewish sect Lev Tahor in 2014.
In September authorities raided the homes of the Lev Tahor community in Guatemala City. Authorities stated they were investigating reports of child abuse; however, they found no evidence. Lev Tahor members claimed they were persecuted because of their faith.
Trafficking in Persons
Late in 2015 Congress passed an antihuman smuggling law that designated migration-related smuggling as a crime. See also the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at www.state.gov/j/tip/rls/tiprpt/.
Persons with Disabilities
The constitution contains no specific prohibitions against discrimination based on physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities in employment, education, access to health care, or the provision of other state services. 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 government devoted few resources to addressing the needs of persons with disabilities.
The National Council for Persons with Disabilities reported that 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. There were minimal educational resources for persons with disabilities. Most universities did not have facilities accessible to persons with disabilities. The Social Development Ministry had 23 employees with disabilities, but other ministries had very few, or no, such employees. During the year a previously ad hoc congressional committee on disabilities became permanent.
The National Council for Persons with Disabilities began a nationwide survey to estimate the number of persons with disabilities. It also signed cooperation agreements with various ministries including the Public Ministry and the Secretariat of Women’s Issues to address the needs of persons with disabilities in their infrastructure, services, and programs.
The Federico Mora National Hospital for Mental Health, the only public health provider for persons with mental illness, lacked basic supplies, equipment, hygienic living conditions, and adequate professional staff. It fired several employees in 2015 after disability advocates and media 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. Despite the staff changes, disability rights organizations noted little else had changed.
The government’s National Institute of Statistics estimated that indigenous persons from 22 ethnic groups comprised 44 percent of the population. Many experts believed the number was considerably higher. 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 under national law.
Indigenous representatives claimed that actors in a number of regional development projects failed to consult meaningfully with local communities. In some cases indigenous communities were not regularly or adequately consulted or 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. During the year courts suspended the operating licenses of several hydroelectric and mining projects for not complying with requirements for consultations with indigenous communities as required under International Labor Organization Convention (ILO) 169, recognizing the convention’s requirement that the government must play a role in the process. Previously, businesses had carried out consultations independently without government oversight. The government was working to design a more thorough consultations process consistent with ILO standards.
Indigenous communities continued to report a lack of public infrastructure investment in their communities, resulting in poor roads and limited access to running water and electricity. Indigenous persons reported the need for schools with bilingual (i.e., Spanish and their indigenous language) education and cultural studies; educational scholarships; leadership training to increase indigenous persons’ participation in politics; and the construction of universities (not only extension campuses), hospitals, and health clinics in their communities.
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. These factors contributed to continued disproportionate poverty among most indigenous populations.
In April the governor of Alta Verapaz, Estela Ventura, who is of indigenous descent, filed a criminal complaint against eight members of Congress on the grounds of harassment, racial discrimination, and influence peddling. The governor claimed to have recordings in which the representatives used racial slurs against her in a meeting. On August 31, a judge agreed to remove immunity for the eight representatives in order to open a full investigation.
Indigenous lands lacked effective demarcation, making the legal recognition of titles to the land problematic. Indigenous rights advocates asserted that pervasive ignorance by security authorities of indigenous norms and practices engendered misunderstandings. The government located three police academies in largely indigenous areas of the country to increase the number of indigenous police officers and assign them to work within their own ethnic or linguistic communities.
The Department of Indigenous People in the Ministry of Labor, tasked with investigating cases of discrimination and representing indigenous rights, counseled indigenous persons on their rights. Limited resources hindered the department’s effectiveness. Indigenous persons were particularly vulnerable to labor trafficking.
The justice system significantly increased the number of legally mandated court interpreters for criminal proceedings and reported that it held 8,000 court proceedings in Mayan languages through August. Despite the increase, availability did not meet demand.
Acts of Violence, Discrimination, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
The country’s antidiscrimination laws do not apply to LGBTI individuals. LGBTI rights groups alleged that police officers regularly engaged in extortion and harassed male and transgender individuals they believed to be sex workers. There was general societal discrimination against LGBTI persons in access to education, health care, employment, and housing. The government undertook minimal efforts to address this discrimination. After being elected as president of the country’s first congressional women’s caucus in September, the first openly lesbian member of Congress, Sandra Moran, was subject to discrimination in the form of an online petition that demanded her removal due to her LGBTI status. Moran filed a complaint with the PDH.
According to LGBTI rights groups, gay and transgender individuals often experienced police abuse. A lack of trust in the judicial system and a fear of further harassment or social recrimination discouraged victims from filing complaints. NGOs conducted sensitization training classes with police officials but noted that the number of trained officials remained low. The National Police and Public Ministry changed their complaint registration systems to include a field identifying whether the complainant is a member of the LGBTI community. Due to general fears of discrimination, few LGBTI community members were comfortable self-identifying to officials.
LGBTI groups claimed that women experienced specific forms of discrimination such as forced marriages and forced pregnancies through so-called corrective rape, although these incidents were rarely, if ever, reported to authorities.
The Public Ministry and SVET took up the first case of trafficking in persons involving transgender individuals, rescuing and treating several victims and returning them to their home countries. The National Registry circulated an internal memo on nondiscrimination against the LGBTI community, although officials still barred transgender individuals from obtaining identification documents that reflected a different gender. Transgender individuals continued to face severe discrimination.
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
The law does not expressly include HIV/AIDS status among the categories prohibited from discrimination. There was societal discrimination against persons with HIV/AIDS. Forms of discrimination included being required by 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 treatment in public hospitals and had their right to confidentiality violated by disclosure of their status. Discrimination against LGBTI persons with HIV/AIDS was particularly pronounced and affected their access to HIV-prevention programs.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Several times vigilante mobs attacked and killed those suspected of crimes such as rape, kidnapping, theft, or extortion. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported that in the first three months of the year, five persons were killed in public lynchings, and 26 were injured. Many observers attributed the acts to public frustration with the failure of police and judicial authorities to provide justice and security. As a result local citizen security groups were formed and operated autonomously. In many instances PNC agents feared for their own safety and refused to intervene. In August a mob in Patulul set fire to and killed a man arrested as an alleged extortionist who had participated in the shooting of a microbus driver.