Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. In January 2016 James Ernesto Morales Cabrera of the National Convergence Front 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.
Human rights issues included reports of harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; 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, and impunity continued to be widespread. Parts of the government collaborated with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) (an entity created by agreement between the government and the UN) to prosecute the worst forms of corruption. On August 31, however, President Morales announced he would not renew the CICIG mandate, which expires in September 2019. On September 4, authorities barred CICIG commissioner Ivan Velasquez from re-entry for reasons of “national security.” The government asked CICIG to transfer capacity to the Public Ministry by the end of its mandate.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
There were no reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. As of August 31, the Public Ministry as well as the National Civil Police (PNC) and its Office of Professional Responsibility (ORP), the mechanism for investigating security force abuses, reported no complaints of homicide by police.
At least nine rural, indigenous activists and human rights defenders were killed or died under disputed circumstances between May and September. Some of the killings appeared to be politically motivated, and all of the cases remained under investigation at year’s end.
In 2017 two separate trials began against former head of state Efrain Rios Montt and former intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez in the case of genocide involving the Maya Ixil community. In 2013 Rios Montt was found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity committed during his presidency (1982-83) and sentenced to 80 years in prison. The Constitutional Court overturned the conviction on procedural grounds and returned the case for retrial. On April 1, Rios Montt died before the trial concluded. On September 26, a high-risk court–created in 2009 to hear cases that posed a serious risk to the security of judges, the prosecutor, the defense, or any other individuals involved in the case–ruled that genocide and crimes against humanity were perpetrated against the indigenous Ixil community between 1982 and 1983, but a majority of the three-judge panel found Rodriguez not guilty and attributed responsibility for genocide to the military high command, including the then president, minister of defense, and defense chief of staff.
The 1982 Dos Erres massacre case against Rios Montt did not conclude due to Rios Montt’s death in April. The Dos Erres trial against former special forces officer Santos Lopez Alonzo opened on October 1. On November 21, a high-risk court sentenced Lopez to 5,160 years in prison for the massacre of 171 persons.
As of November the government had paid approximately 95 percent of the 200 million quetzals ($26.7 million) in individual reparations to families affected by the Chixoy hydroelectric dam. During the dam’s construction from 1975 to 1985, more than 400 individuals died and thousands were displaced.
There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. The government took actions to investigate and prosecute cases of forced disappearances from the internal armed conflict period. On May 23, a high-risk court sentenced four high-ranking former military officers to 58 years in prison each for rape, forced disappearance, and crimes against humanity in the Molina Theissen case. Prosecutors had charged the group in 2016 for the 1981 forced disappearance of 14-year-old Marco Antonio Molina Theissen in retaliation for his sister’s escape from their captivity. The conviction of high-ranking former military officers for crimes committed during the internal armed conflict was unprecedented.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment but there were reports alleging government workers employed them at the Federico Mora National Hospital for Mental Health (see section 6). The Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that documentation and reporting mechanisms for torture and other cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment remain weak, thereby hindering a full understanding of the prevalence of the issue.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening, with multiple instances of inmates killing other inmates. Sexual assault, inadequate sanitation and medical care, and gross overcrowding placed prisoners at significant risk.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding was a problem. As of September 24, according to prison authorities, there were 24,314 inmates, including 2,645 women, held in facilities designed to hold 6,800 persons. Physical conditions including sanitation and bathing facilities, dental and medical care, ventilation, temperature control, and lighting were wholly inadequate. Prisoners had difficulty obtaining potable water, complained of inadequate food, and often had to pay for additional sustenance. Illegal drug sales and use was widespread. Prison officials reported safety and control problems, including escape attempts, gang fights, inability to control the flow of contraband goods into prisons, inmate possession of firearms and grenades, and the fabrication of weapons. Prisoners conducted criminal activity both inside and outside of prisons. According to prison authorities, from January through August 31, at least 14 inmates died of unnatural causes while in prison. On April 27, a riot at Granja Penal Canada Prison left eight inmates dead and 25 injured. On August 20, a separate riot at Granja de Rehabilitacion Cantel Prison left four inmates dead and four injured. Both riots started with a fight between two gangs inside the prison. On September 30, a riot at Pavoncito Prison left seven inmates dead and four wounded.
Media reported that transnational criminal gangs and drug trafficking groups controlled major prison centers. In November 2017 a judge indicted 17 individuals in connection with the 2016 killing of 14 inmates in Pavon Prison; the case remained pending at year’s end.
Conditions for male and female prisoners were generally comparable throughout the country. Media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported female and juvenile inmates faced continuing physical and sexual abuse. Female inmates reported unnecessary body searches and verbal abuse by prison guards. Children younger than age four could live in prison with their mothers, although the penitentiary system provided inadequate food for young children and many suffered from illness. LGBTI rights groups stated other prisoners often sexually assaulted LGBTI individuals and that there were insufficient facilities to protect LGBTI individuals in custody. NGOs claimed admittance procedures for LGBTI prisoners were not implemented, noting particular concern regarding procedures for transgender individuals. Occasionally authorities held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners, juveniles with adults, and male with female detainees.
In March 2017 authorities opened the first corrections center based on a new model to address corruption and overcrowding. In January the new minister of government, Enrique Degenhart, implemented significant changes, including a complete overhaul of the previously vetted and trained leadership of the new correctional model, which undermined the model’s effectiveness and hindered adult penitentiary system reforms.
Media reported similar conditions of abuse and overcrowding at the four juvenile detention centers administered separately by the Secretariat of Social Welfare. Crowding led to holding nonviolent juvenile offenders with violent adult offenders. As of September 25, there were 753 inmates in the Las Gaviotas juvenile detention facility designed for 525 individuals. More than 30 percent of the inmates had not been sentenced and were awaiting trials.
Administration: The government’s Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) and the National Office for the Prevention of Torture (NOPT), both independent entities, are responsible for prisoner rights, receiving complaints, and conducting oversight of the prison system. The PDH and NOPT may submit recommendations to the prison system based on complaints. No independent agency or unit, however, has a mandate to change or implement policy or to act on behalf of prisoners and detainees. Congress delayed the election of three NOPT rapporteurs by more than 16 months, finally appointing them on August 1, while the PDH and civil society reported former rapporteurs were inactive and ineffective in their oversight mandate. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights noted deficiencies in the NOPT mechanism and the selection process for the three NOPT rapporteurs.
While the law requires authorities to permit prisoners and detainees to submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions, authorities failed to investigate most allegations of inhuman conditions and treatment or to document the results of such investigations.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits by local and international human rights groups, the Organization of American States, public defenders, and religious groups. The PDH and the NOPT also periodically visited prison facilities. The PDH reported it was sometimes difficult to gain access to the juvenile detention centers administered by the Secretariat of Social Welfare.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but there were credible reports of extrajudicial arrests, illegal detentions, and denial of timely access to a magistrate and hearing as required by law. Suspects are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention. If successful, their release usually took several days. There was no compensation for those ruled unlawfully detained.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The PNC, which is overseen by the Ministry of Government and headed by a director general appointed by the ministry, 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. On March 31, the defense ministry withdrew 4,500 personnel from street patrols to concentrate its forces on the borders. The drawdown process began in 2016.
Civilian authorities in some instances failed to maintain effective control over the PNC, and the government lacked effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. On August 31, the Ministry of Government, with the support of the Ministry of Defense, deployed a convoy of armed jeeps at various points in the capital, including in front of an embassy, CICIG headquarters, and a prominent local human rights organization. The jeeps were mobilized from Interagency Task Forces and were donated for the purpose of counternarcotics operations. Local NGOs pointed out the jeep deployment coincided with President Morales’ announcement he would not extend the CICIG mandate and was intended as a show of force, intimidation, and an attempt to repress civil society.
There were reports of impunity involving security forces. In cases involving police forces, the ORP is responsible for internal investigations and the Public Ministry is responsible for external investigations. A police reform commission, established by a previous administration, has a legal mandate to make necessary changes to reform police forces. On May 20, Police Reform Commissioner Adela Torrebiarte resigned, alleging that the Ministry of Government purposefully blocked police reform initiatives.
The ORP reported that from January through August, there were six complaints of police extortion and 135 for abuse of authority, compared with 17 and 290, respectively, during the same period in 2017. The PNC routinely transferred officers suspected of wrongdoing rather than investigating them.
Critics accused police of indiscriminate and illegal detentions when conducting antigang operations in some high-crime neighborhoods.
The ORP conducted internal investigations of misconduct by police officers. During the first eight months of the year, the ORP reported receiving 362 complaints of misconduct by police.
All new PNC and soldiers receive training in human rights and professional ethics. The Ministry of Defense Human Rights Directorate collaborated with other government human rights offices to provide internal and interagency human rights trainings to soldiers.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law requires presentation of a court-issued warrant to a suspect prior to arrest unless police apprehend a suspect while in the act of committing a crime. Police may not detain a suspect for more than six hours without bringing the case before a judge. Authorities did not regularly respect this right and did not promptly inform some detainees of the charges against them. After arraigning suspects, the prosecutor generally has three months to complete the investigation if the defendant is in pretrial detention, and six months to complete the investigation if the defendant is granted house arrest. The law prohibits the execution of search warrants between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless the government has declared a state of siege. Judges may order house arrest for some suspects. The law provides for access to lawyers and bail for most crimes. The government provides legal representation for indigent detainees, and detainees have access to family members. A judge has the discretion to determine whether bail is permissible for pretrial detainees.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were no reliable data on the number of arbitrary detentions. Most accounts, however, indicated that police ignored writs of habeas corpus in cases of illegal detention, particularly during neighborhood antigang operations.
Pretrial Detention: As of August 31, prison system records indicated 52 percent of prisoners were in pretrial detention. The law establishes a one-year maximum for pretrial detention, regardless of the stage of the criminal proceeding, but the court has the legal authority to extend pretrial detention without limits as necessary. Authorities regularly held detainees past their legal trial or release dates. Lengthy investigations and frequent procedural motions by both defense and prosecution often led to lengthy pretrial detentions, delaying trials for months or years. Observers noted the slow pace of investigations, lack of judicial resources, and a culture of indifference to detainee rights hampered efforts to reduce pretrial detention and illegal incarceration. Authorities did not release some prisoners after they completed their full sentences due to the failure of judges to issue the necessary court order or other bureaucratic delays. Former medical school dean Jesus Oliva committed suicide on June 11 after having been in trial detention since May 2015, most of that in pretrial detention before his trial opened in August 2017. A few days before his death, Oliva’s attorney requested house arrest for him because he suffered depression, but a judge rejected the request. Oliva was charged in a corruption case involving the government health system that concluded on September 26. Other defendants in the case were sentenced to six years in prison and immediately released on bail after having already served more than three years in prison.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and the law provide for an independent judiciary. The judicial system generally failed to provide fair or timely trials due to inefficiency, corruption, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses.
Judges, prosecutors, plaintiffs, and witnesses continued to report threats, intimidation, and surveillance, most often from drug trafficking organizations. By the end of August, the special prosecutor for crimes against judicial workers received 157 complaints of threats or aggression against workers in the judicial branch, compared with 129 through August 2017.
The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, the presumption of innocence, the defendant’s right to be present at trial, and the right to legal counsel in a timely manner. The law requires the government to provide attorneys for defendants facing criminal charges if the defendant cannot find or afford an attorney. Defendants and their attorneys may confront adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. The law provides for plea bargaining for minor offenses with short-term prison sentences and the right of appeal. Three-judge panels render verdicts. The law provides for oral trials and mandates free language interpretation for those needing it; however, interpreters were not always available. Officials conduct trials in Spanish, the official language, although many citizens only speak one of the 23 officially recognized indigenous languages.
The Public Ministry, acting semi-independently of the executive branch, may initiate criminal proceedings on its own or in response to a complaint. Private parties may participate in the prosecution of criminal cases as plaintiffs.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Individuals and organizations have access to administrative and judicial remedies to submit lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation or other alleged wrongs. While the judiciary was generally impartial and independent in civil matters, it suffered from inefficiencies and a legal system that often permits spurious complaints. The judiciary estimated the country had a ratio of 2.46 judges for every 100,000 inhabitants, which international and domestic observers considered insufficient.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and the law prohibit such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions. In 2016 President Morales dismissed Jorge Lopez, the secretary of administrative and security matters of the president, and his deputy, Cesar Sagastume, for alleged illegal surveillance. At year’s end the case remained under investigation by the Public Ministry. In August a local newspaper published an investigative series alleging that former president Otto Perez Molina created an illegal surveillance network in 2012 to listen to calls, mirror mobile phones, and access social media accounts. According to the article, the Ministry of Government dismantled the network in 2015.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Speech and Press
The constitution and law provide 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: Following President Morales’ August 31 press conference announcing he would not renew CICIG’s mandate, several prominent human rights defenders and activists reported the PNC visited them ostensibly to inquire about their protection measures. Several journalists also reported suspected surveillance of their homes and offices in the days following the August 31 press conference. The activists and journalists interpreted these actions as an effort to intimidate them from criticizing the administration’s measures with respect to CICIG.
Press and Media Freedom: There were no legal restrictions on the editorial independence of the media. 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. Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Since August 31, public security forces have imposed more stringent identification checks on journalists covering government events and activities.
Violence and Harassment: Online attacks against independent journalists and media outlets increased 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. 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, 54 complaints were filed for attacks or threats against journalists, and two journalists were killed from January through the end of August, compared with 116 complaints and three killings in all of 2017.
In November 2017 the Supreme Court lifted the parliamentary immunity of Congressman Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez based on allegations from the Public Ministry and CICIG that he ordered the killing of journalist Danilo Efrain Zapon Lopez in 2015 in Mazatenango, Suchitepequez. Journalist Federico Benjamin Salazar Geronimo was also killed in the attack and reporter Marvin Tunches was injured. At year’s end the case was at the intermediary public trial phase.
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.
Censorship or Content Restrictions: Members of the press reported receiving pressure, threats, and retribution from public officials regarding the content of their reporting. Some owners and members of media accused the government of following a discriminatory advertising policy that penalized or rewarded print and broadcast media based on whether the government perceived the news or commentary as supportive or critical. Significant self-censorship occurred as a result.
Nongovernmental Impact: Organized crime exerted influence over media outlets and reporters, frequently threatening individuals for reporting on criminal activities.
The daily newspaper elPeriodico experienced a two-day denial of service attack and another three-day attack starting on September 1. The source of the attacks remained unknown.
A local newspaper reported former president Otto Perez Molina’s administration created a surveillance network in 2012 to access social media accounts of diplomats, government officials, politicians, journalists, students, and academics.
According to the International Telecommunication Union, 41 percent of the population used the internet in 2017.
ACADEMIC FREEDOM AND CULTURAL EVENTS
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
b. Freedom 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.
FREEDOM OF PEACEFUL ASSEMBLY
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right.
On September 12, the congressional spokesperson reported that more than 2,100 police were present at Congress during a commemoration of the country’s independence, led by President Morales. A protest scheduled to converge at Congress on the same day was not able to approach the perimeters of Congress. The heavy police presence ostensibly serving as presidential security and crowd control received widespread criticism and media as a form of intimidation against the protesters. Civil society groups expressed concern over the presence of Kaibiles, military special forces who were implicated in war crimes during the country’s internal armed conflict from 1960-96.
On September 14, when President Morales and his cabinet attended a ceremony at the cathedral on the central plaza, NGOs and journalists accused the government of using excessive security measures to intimidate citizens and restrict their right to assemble. Observers stated security measures included the deployment of antiriot military police; the registration of all pedestrians entering the plaza, including children; and excessive security checks. On September 14, a Public Ministry prosecutor stated publicly he would investigate for possible violations of freedom of movement.
FREEDOM OF ASSOCIATION
The law provides for freedom of association, and the government generally respected this right. 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 www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
d. Freedom of Movement, Internally Displaced Persons, Protection of Refugees, and Stateless Persons
The constitution and the law provide for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.
An immigration law in effect since 2017 overhauled the country’s migration system and defined the term “refugee” as well as listing refugees’ rights in accordance with international instruments. The preparation of regulations to implement the law, including on the refugee application process and refugee rights, was underway at year’s end. Government agencies made limited progress in implementing the Protection Council mandated by the new migration code, which would support the protection, reception, and reintegration of returned children.
The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern, including during the mid-October surge of Central American migrants that passed through the country.
INTERNALLY DISPLACED PERSONS (IDPS)
The country does not have laws in place to protect IDPs in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement. UNHCR expressed concern regarding violence against 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 government assistance in a timely manner.
PROTECTION OF REFUGEES
Access to Asylum: The laws provide for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR, however, reported that identification and referral mechanisms for potential asylum seekers were inadequate. Both migration and police authorities lacked adequate training concerning the rules for establishing refugee status.
Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported access to education for refugees was challenging due to the country’s onerous requirements for access to formal education, including documentation from the country of origin.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on nearly universal and equal suffrage for those ages 18 and older. Members of the armed forces, police, and incarcerated individuals are not eligible to vote.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In 2015 James Ernesto Morales Cabrera of the National Convergence Front party defeated National Unity of Hope candidate Sandra Torres in a second round of voting and was sworn in as president in January 2016. An Organization of American States international election observation mission characterized the elections as generally free and fair. The Attorney General’s Office continued to investigate allegations of illicit campaign financing in the 2015 elections and petitioned for immunity reviews against two parties’ secretaries general, including President Morales. An additional immunity review from 2017 against Morales for illicit campaign financing remained pending.
Participation of Women and Minorities: No laws limit participation of women or members of minorities in the political process, and they did participate. Traditional and cultural practices, in addition to discrimination and institutional bias, however, limited the political participation of women and members of indigenous groups.
While the indigenous population constituted 44 percent of the population, according to the latest 2002 government census, indigenous representation in national government was minimal. There was one indigenous female member on the Constitutional Court and one on the Supreme Court. In September the first and only female indigenous cabinet member, former labor minister Leticia Teleguario, resigned, citing personal reasons and not being able to continue supporting originally prioritized policies. There were approximately 20 indigenous members of Congress. Indigenous individuals comprised a larger share of elected local government officials, filling one-third (113 of 333) of the mayoral seats elected in 2015.
Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government
The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year, many of which the Public Ministry, with support from CICIG, investigated and prosecuted on charges including money laundering, illegal political party financing, and bribery.
Corruption: On February 13, the Public Ministry brought charges against former president Alvaro Colom and nine former members of his cabinet after a long-running investigation into fraud involving a bus system in Guatemala City known as Transurbano. Prosecutors claimed that in local currency equaling approximately $35 million, government funds were paid to a consortium of private bus companies in charge of the Transurbano system in a deal approved by Colom’s cabinet without proper legal oversight. According to prosecutors, almost one-third of the money was spent on equipment that was never used. On March 1, a judge found sufficient evidence to charge the defendants, and Colom and the former members of his cabinet were placed under house arrest.
On January 20, the Public Ministry, accompanied by CICIG personnel, conducted raids as part of an investigation of the Brazilian company Odebrecht, which allegedly paid local currency worth $17.9 million in bribes to local officials. The investigation led to charges against former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizon, who was detained in Florida on an international arrest warrant on September 18 on separate money laundering and conspiracy charges. Baldizon was accused of accepting inn local currency at least $1.3 million in bribes from Odebrecht to help it win public works contracts. Authorities also sought the arrest of former communications minister Alejandro Sinibaldi, who allegedly distributed the bribes and embezzled at least nine million dollars. Sinibaldi remained a fugitive and was implicated in another case of bribery and influence peddling linked to former president Otto Perez Molina’s administration.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials who earn more than 8,000 quetzals ($1,070) per month or who manage public funds are subject to financial disclosure laws overseen and enforced by the Comptroller General’s Office. The financial disclosures were available to the public upon request. Administrative and criminal sanctions apply for inadequate or falsified disclosures of assets.