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:
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.
Section 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Violations 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, however, reported threats, violence, and intimidation. The local human rights NGO Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) reported 24 killings of human rights defenders from January through October. The NGO also reported 303 attacks against human rights defenders from January through September, compared with 493 attacks in all of 2017. According to human rights NGOs, many of the attacks related to land disputes and exploitation of natural resources. 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. UDEFEGUA reported 158 cases of criminalization of human rights defenders from January through August.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The PDH monitors the human rights set forth in the constitution and reports to Congress. The government cooperated generally with the ombudsman. The office operated independently and issued public reports and recommendations, including an annual report to Congress on the fulfillment of its mandate. NGOs generally considered the PDH to be an effective institution with limitations in rural areas due to lack of resources.
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 the COPREDEH was not an effective interlocutor on human rights issues.
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.
Section 7. Worker Rights
a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The law provides for the right of workers, with the exception of security force members, to form and join trade unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. The law, however, places some restrictions on these rights. For example, legal recognition of an industrywide union requires that the membership constitute a majority of the workers in an industry and restricts union leadership to citizens. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and employer interference in union activities and requires employers to reinstate workers dismissed for organizing union activities. A strike must have the support of the majority of a company’s workforce. Workers are not restricted to membership in one union or one industry.
The president and cabinet may suspend any strike deemed “gravely prejudicial to the country’s essential activities and public services.” The government defined “essential services” more broadly than international standards, thus denying the right to strike to a large number of public workers, such as those working in education, postal services, transport, and the production, transportation, and distribution of energy. Public employees may address grievances by means of conciliation for collective disputes and arbitration directly through the labor courts. For sectors considered essential, arbitration is compulsory if there is no agreement after 30 days of conciliation.
The law prohibits employer retaliation against workers engaged in legal strikes. If authorities do not recognize a strike as legal, employers may suspend or terminate workers for absence without leave. A factory or business owner is not obligated to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement unless at least 25 percent of workers in the factory or business are union members and request negotiations. Once a strike occurs, companies are required to close during negotiations. Strikes have been extremely rare, but work stoppages were common.
The government did not effectively enforce the law. Government institutions, such as the Ministry of Labor and the labor courts, did not effectively investigate, prosecute, or punish employers who violated freedom of association and collective bargaining laws or reinstate workers illegally dismissed for engaging in union activities. The Public Ministry was ineffective in responding to labor court referrals for criminal prosecution in cases where employers refused to comply with labor court orders. Inspectors often lacked vehicles or fuel to carry out inspections, and in some cases they failed to take effective action to gain access to worksites in response to employers’ refusal to permit labor inspectors access to facilities. Inspectors were encouraged to seek police assistance as required. Inspections were generally not comprehensive, and if complaint driven, focused on investigating the alleged violation, rather than attempting to maximize limited resources to determine compliance beyond the individual complaint. Penalties for labor law violations were inadequate and rarely enforced.
In June 2017 passage of Decree 07-2017 restored sanction authority to the Ministry of Labor. Business groups complained the shortened time frame to investigate and verify compliance with Ministry of Labor remediation orders resulted in more cases being referred to the labor courts, without an opportunity to conciliate. The ministry indicated it had collected 1.06 million quetzals in fines ($141,000), but the lack of information about the law’s implementation made it difficult to assess its impact on improving labor law enforcement.
The Special Prosecutor’s Unit for Crimes against Unionists within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights in the Public Ministry was responsible for investigating attacks and threats against union members as well as for noncompliance with judicial orders in labor cases. Staffing for the unit has increased, but successful prosecutions remained a challenge. The government reported some 2,000 cases involving noncompliance with labor court orders were under investigation.
An ILO special representative continued to monitor the 2013 roadmap, which includes indicators on increased compliance with reinstatement orders, increased prosecution of perpetrators of violence against trade unionists, reforms to national legislation to conform to Convention 87, and unimpeded registration of trade unions. In November 2017 a tripartite agreement was reached at the ILO, which calls for the formation of a National Tripartite Commission on Labor Relations and Freedom of Association, which would monitor and facilitate implementation of the 2013 ILO roadmap and its 2015 indicators. The commission would report, annually to the governing board and publicly, on progress implementing the ILO roadmap until 2020. In addition to establishing the commission, the parties also committed to submitting to Congress a consensus legislative proposal that would address the long-standing ILO recommendations on freedom of association, collective bargaining, and the right to strike.
The tripartite commission was established in February, but a lack of consensus remained between employers and workers on legislation seeking to address long-standing ILO recommendations related to freedom of association, collective bargaining, and the right to strike, particularly in industry-wide unions. The Ministry of Government convened the Interagency Committee to Analyze Attacks Against Human Rights Defenders, including trade unionists, on a regular basis. NGO participants complained the ministry imposed restrictions on civil society participation in the committee and reduced working-level officials’ authorities to respond to attacks.
Despite these efforts, the country did not demonstrate measurable progress in the effective enforcement of its labor laws, particularly those related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The ILO noted the need for additional urgent action in several areas related to the roadmap, including investigation and prosecution of perpetrators of trade union violence; the adoption of protection measures for union officials; passage of legislative reforms to remove obstacles to freedom of association and the right to strike; and raising awareness of the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining, particularly in the apparel and textile industries. The ILO also called for greater compliance with reinstatement orders in cases of antiunion dismissals. Based in large part on the 2017 tripartite agreement, the ILO Governing Body closed the case in November.
Violence and threats against trade unionists and labor activists remained serious problems, with four killings of trade unionists, 20 documented threats, and two violent attacks reported during the year. Authorities did not thoroughly investigate most acts of violence and threats, and by often discarding trade union activity as a motive from the outset of the investigation, allowed these acts to go unprosecuted. Several labor leaders reported death threats and other acts of intimidation. The Public Ministry reported one conviction during the year related to a trade unionist killed in 2012.
Procedural hurdles, union formation restrictions, and impunity for employers refusing to receive or ignoring court orders limited freedom of association and collective bargaining. Government statistics on attempted union registrations indicated most registrations were initially rejected, and when they were issued, it was done outside the legally established period. In addition credentials of union leaders were regularly rejected and delayed. As a result union members were left without additional protections against antiunion retaliation.
Employers routinely resisted union formation attempts, delayed or only partially complied with agreements resulting from direct negotiations, and ignored judicial rulings requiring the employer to negotiate with recognized unions. There were credible reports of retaliation by employers against workers who tried to exercise their rights, including numerous complaints filed with the Ministry of Labor and the Public Ministry alleging employer retaliation for union activity. Common practices included termination and harassment of workers who attempted to form unions, creation of illegal company-supported unions to counter legally established unions, blacklisting of union organizers, and threats of factory closures. Local unions reported businesses used fraudulent bankruptcies, ownership substitution, and reincorporation of companies to circumvent legal obligations to recognize newly formed or established unions, despite legal restrictions on such practices.