Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. The country last held national and local elections in 2019. Voters elected Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei Falla of the We’re Going for a Different Guatemala political party as president for a four-year term beginning January 2020. International observers considered the presidential election as generally free and fair.
The National Civil Police, which is overseen by the Ministry of Government and headed by a director general appointed by the minister, is responsible for law enforcement 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 to support the National Civil Police in internal security operations, as permitted by the constitution. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces. There were credible reports that members of security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; politically motivated reprisals against individuals in another country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental and civil society organizations; serious government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities and members of indigenous groups; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons; and use of forced labor, including child labor.
Impunity continued to be widespread. Corruption, concerted efforts by organized criminal actors, and undermining of anticorruption institutions and the judiciary by corrupt political actors made meaningful investigation and prosecution of crimes, including corruption, involving public officials difficult.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, but the government did not always respect this right. The intimidation of journalists increased during the year and resulted in significant self-censorship.
Freedom of Expression: Many journalists reported being followed or having to flee the country after publishing work that was critical of influential citizens. In August Marvin del Cid, an independent journalist, left the country after receiving threats due to the publication of a book he wrote exposing alleged improprieties in President Giammattei’s campaign funds in the 2019 presidential election.
Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other 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 due to the danger investigative journalism created for them and their families.
Lower advertising revenue, whether due to the COVID-19 pandemic or as pressure from companies against reports of corruption, resulted in media outlets becoming less independent.
Violence and Harassment: Members of the press reported receiving pressure, threats, and retribution from public officials and criminal organizations regarding the content of their reporting. Online attacks against independent journalists and media outlets continued throughout the year. These included hacking journalists’ private social media accounts, publishing stolen or falsified personal information, and conducting apparent coordinated attempts to undermine specific journalists and the press.
Observers noted that net centers, or collections of social media accounts operating from office buildings associated with government information sources, increased activity creating fake social media accounts to criticize and defame journalists.
On September 7, government prosecutors dropped all charges against Anastasia Mejia. In August 2020 the PNC arrested Mejia, the director of a local television and radio service, following her live radio and video reporting of a protest at the Joyabaj mayor’s office that resulted in damage to municipal property.
As of November the case against former congressman Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez, accused of ordering the 2015 killings of two journalists in Suchitepequez, continued being litigated.
The Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists reported 60 complaints of attacks or threats against journalists from January to August, compared with 73 during the same period of 2020, and no homicides, compared with one reported in the same period of 2020.
Nongovernmental Impact: Organized crime exerted influence over media outlets and reporters, frequently threatening individuals for reporting on criminal activities.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government did not always respect these rights. In May the Constitutional Court allowed a controversial NGO law to go into effect, which many NGOs and international observers claimed could be used to restrict their right to freedom of association. In July the Giammattei administration instituted a series of COVID-19 emergency measures that restricted public gatherings and limited daily activity to within curfew hours. Some critics alleged these states of calamity were attempts by the administration to suppress protests.
On October 4 in El Estor, Izabal, a group of 20 Mayan Q’eqchi’ activists protested the continued operation of the Fenix mine and exclusion of the group from the court-ordered consultations over the operation of that mine. On October 23, more than 700 police officers fired tear gas at the crowd of approximately 120 protesters. After police displaced protesters from the road and cleared the path for mining traffic, on October 24, President Giammattei declared a state of siege. Congress approved the state of siege two days later and imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. In the five days following the declaration, the PNC conducted 26 raids and arrested 15 persons for crimes including starting wildfires, possession of drugs, and threatening violence. Some activists claimed police raided the homes of suspected protesters and local journalists who had been critical of the government reaction.
On July 23, Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras fired the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, Juan Francisco Sandoval, who was investigating accusations of widespread corruption in the Giammattei administration (see section 4). The firing led to protests throughout the country, with protesters asking for the resignation of the president and the attorney general. The government generally respected the protesters’ rights, although there were some reports of excessive use of force against protesters by government forces.
The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights. States of siege or prevention place limits on freedom of movement. Therefore, at certain points for up to 30 days, citizens in the affected areas did not have this right, such as in El Estor, Izabal, where on October 24, President Giammattei declared, and congress approved, a state of siege for 30 days that imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., limited large groups of persons from amassing, and allowed police to detain and interrogate those suspected of disturbing the peace with suspension of some due process.
In support of public health, the government enacted curfews, limits to sale of alcohol, and limits to public gatherings throughout the year as part of the states of calamity and prevention declared in response to COVID-19. President Giammattei declared a state of public calamity on August 14, which included a 10 p.m. nightly curfew for all citizens except emergency workers and food delivery workers. On August 23, congress rejected the widely unpopular declaration.
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The government does not officially recognize the existence of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within its borders, except for those displaced by climate change and natural disasters. Organizations that monitor and support IDPs stated this lack of recognition stifled efforts to manage and address the movement of persons within the country displaced due to violence, among other factors, because official statistics did not exist for IDPs. The government indicated a more open posture to discussing the issue, framed as a matter of vulnerable or “at-risk” communities, but critics claimed this definition did not address the full range of causes and effects of the movement of IDPs. Women, youth, and LGBTQI+ individuals, as well as indigenous populations, remained at heightened risk of displacement.
The government made efforts, with significant support from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations, in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for receiving and adjudicating asylum claims to grant refugee status to qualifying individuals. UNHCR reported that identification and referral mechanisms for potential asylum seekers were inadequate and requirements to travel to Guatemala City for parts of the process continued to limit access. Despite regulations published in 2019, there continued to be gaps and lack of clarity in the procedures for implementing the legal framework.
Asylum claims are processed by the Department of Refugee Status Determination of the Guatemalan Migration Institute. Recommendations on recognition are formulated by the National Commission for Refugees (CONARE), which is composed of delegates from four government entities: the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, and Guatemalan Migration Institute. The National Migration Authority approves or denies asylum requests based on the recommendations made by CONARE. This interministerial process contributed to major delays on final case decisions and an increased backlog. With the intervention of central authorities and the PDH, some individuals in need of protection were able to access the asylum process, although only 29 of the 486 cases filed in 2020 were adjudicated as of October. CONARE was still processing cases from 2019 and 2020 and had yet to assess cases filed during the year, according to observers familiar with the process.
Access to Basic Services: Documentation needed to access government services, including health care, remained expensive and time-consuming to complete. Provisional Status, which must be renewed every 30 days, conferred a legal status to individuals who had undergone an interview as part of an application for refugee status and were awaiting a decision on their recognition as a refugee. Temporary Residence was accessible to recognized refugees, but the total cost was more than 3,000 quetzals ($388). 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, although a mechanism existed to allow asylum seekers who might not have full documentation of prior education to be integrated into the education system. Adult asylum seekers often could not obtain accreditation of their foreign university degrees to practice their profession.
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. Despite numerous allegations of corruption among the legislative and executive branches of the government, few high-profile cases were prosecuted during the year, and anticorruption efforts within the judiciary stalled. Prominent anticorruption prosecutors were fired or removed from significant cases, and corrupt actors threatened independent judges by filing complaints based on spurious charges to strip them of immunity to prosecution.
On July 23, Attorney General Porras abruptly fired the head of the Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, Juan Francisco Sandoval. On the evening of July 23, Sandoval fled the country after he held a press conference at the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, in which he implicated several sitting and former government officials in corruption cases. Over the following weeks, protesters demonstrated in support of Sandoval and called for the attorney general’s removal. On September 2, a criminal court issued an arrest warrant for Sandoval for the crimes of obstruction of justice and failure in performance of official duties. On November 30, the Public Ministry announced a new set of charges against Sandoval including abuse of authority, fraud, and conspiracy related to deals Sandoval allegedly made with cooperating witnesses in corruption cases. As of December 16, Sandoval remained out of the country.
Threats against independent judges also posed a threat to anticorruption efforts. Judges who presided over high-profile criminal cases faced continued efforts to strip them of their immunity, which would expose them to potential prosecution and retaliation for their judicial rulings.
The Presidential Commission Against Corruption serves the administrative function of introducing reforms that promote transparency, but it lacked both the resources and the mandate to actively investigate corruption cases. During the year civil society representatives criticized the commission for a perceived lack of independence.
Corruption: As of November former communications minister Jose Luis Benito remained a fugitive, and authorities requested an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest. In October 2020 the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity seized approximately 122 million quetzals ($15.9 million) in cash found in 22 suitcases inside Benito’s home in the city of Antigua, and the Public Ministry subsequently issued an arrest warrant for Benito on charges of money laundering.
On May 12, the special prosecutor against impunity presented formal charges against former member of congress Alejandro Sinibaldi in the Transurbano case. Sinibaldi had originally been expected to cooperate as a witness in the prosecution of the case but was eventually formally charged with money laundering and other crimes. The Transurbano case involving former president Alvaro Colom, 10 of his ministers, and former chief of staff Gustavo Alejos Cambara, involved a 2008 agreement signed by the ministers that allowed the urban bus company to form anonymous corporations and begin siphoning funds from a prepaid fare program. Sinibaldi was previously implicated in the Odebrecht case, involving bribes allegedly paid to himself and former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizon; the Construction and Corruption case, in which Sinibaldi was accused of money laundering and paying bribes while communications minister from 2012 to 2014; and a case of alleged illegal campaign financing in 2011.
The case known as Cooptation of the State continued against former president Otto Perez Molina, former vice president Roxana Baldetti and her chief of staff Juan Carlos Monzon, and dozens of coconspirators for illegal campaign financing, money laundering, and illegal payments for public contracts, among other charges. Several injunctions filed by the multiple defendants continued to stall the case. On May 19, the government dropped some of the charges levied against Perez Molina, including one linked to money laundering. On the same day, in a move that was widely criticized by domestic and international civil society, the government arrested Juan Francisco Solorzano Foppa, a former investigator on the original case that brought Perez Molina’s case to trial, and Anibal Arguello, a lawyer who had worked for the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala and who was a witness in the main case against Perez Molina. As of December both Foppa and Arguello remained under house arrest.
Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards 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. Many of these groups, however, were the subject of harassment and threats, and they faced pressure and attacks from government actors.
Several NGOs, human rights workers, and trade unionists reported threats, violence, and intimidation. UDEFEGUA reported five killings of human rights defenders from January through June and 551 attacks against human rights defenders in the same period, compared with 677 attacks in the same period in 2020. 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 June, there were at least 26 new unfounded judicial cases filed against human rights defenders, compared with 13 for the same period in 2020. As of November the Foundation Against Terrorism, led by Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, had filed 31 new cases, both civil and criminal, against human rights and transitional justice NGOs, human rights defenders, and judicial workers in addition to more than 100 cases filed in 2020.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: On September 13, the government renewed the OHCHR mandate for one year. In 2020 the government reduced the OHCHR’s three-year mandate to one-year increments.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The PDH monitors the human rights set forth in the constitution and reports to congress. NGOs generally considered the PDH to be an effective institution but with limitations in rural areas. While the ombudsman attempted to operate independently and issued public reports and recommendations as in past years, because congress withheld part of the funding for the office, the institution was less effective than in previous years. In March the Constitutional Court ordered that congress disburse the allocated funds to the ombudsman. Congress did not comply with this order until November 24. 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 Secretariat Against Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking in Persons (SVET) is a government body under the authority of the Office of the Vice President and monitors and informs vulnerable populations and government entities on sexual violence, exploitation of children, and trafficking in persons. SVET reported congress withheld its funds by exercising line-item approval for all its projects.
The President’s Commission on Human Rights formulates and promotes human rights policy, represents the country in international human rights forums, enacts international recommendations on human rights, and leads coordination of police protection for human rights and labor activists.
In July 2020 President Giammattei announced a new 11-member, ministerial-level Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights to replace the President’s Commission, the Secretariat for Peace (created to enact government commitments in the 1996 Peace Accords), and the Secretariat of Agricultural Affairs, which mediates land conflict. Starting in August 2020 the three governmental entities replaced by the Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights had 90 days to transfer their files to existing institutions such as the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Secretariat for Planning and Programming. As of November this had not been completed. Civil society expressed concern that dissolving the President’s Commission could lead to a lack of mechanisms for enacting the recommendations of international forums, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and could result in restarting the process for creating a national plan for the protection of human rights defenders. As of November it was not clear which government entity would continue negotiations for Chixoy reparations (see section 1.e.).