Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. In January 2016 Jimmy Morales 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.
The most significant human rights issues included: harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; corruption and intimidation of judges; threats against journalists, including by criminal organizations and corrupt public officials, resulting in significant self-censorship; widespread government corruption; violence against persons with disabilities in public care; cases of killing of women because of their gender, which authorities were prosecuting; police violence against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex individuals; trafficking in persons; children engaged in the worst forms of child labor; and violence and threats against trade unionists and labor activists.
Corruption and inadequate investigation made prosecution difficult, and impunity continued to be widespread. Parts of the government collaborated with the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to strengthen the rule of law and prosecute officials who committed abuses. On August 27, however, President Jimmy Morales declared CICIG commissioner Ivan Velasquez persona non grata, negatively affecting domestic and international confidence in the administration’s commitment to anti-impunity and anticorruption efforts. The Constitutional Court blocked the expulsion order, and Commissioner Velasquez remained in his position.
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 National Civil Police (PNC) and its Office of Professional Responsibility (ORP), the mechanism for investigating security force abuses, reported no complaints of homicide.
On August 16, Mara Salvatrucha criminal gang members entered one of the largest public hospitals and killed five civilian bystanders and two prison guards. The assailants freed a fellow gang member who was being treated at the hospital. The PNC arrested five suspects and the Public Ministry linked four to the case, which was under investigation at year’s end.
The case regarding the 2015 killing of Hector Donaldo Contreras Sanchez was in the intermediary pretrial phase at year’s end. In 2016 authorities arrested 13 members of the San Juan Sacatepequez military brigade for the alleged extrajudicial killing.
In January 2016 the Public Ministry arrested 14 high-ranking former military officers on charges of human rights violations for hundreds of extrajudicial killings during the 1960-96 internal armed conflict. The charges were based on the discovery of mass graves in Coban, Alta Verapa, at the Regional Training Command for Peacekeeping Operations (CREOMPAZ), formerly the Military Zone 2 base during the conflict. Known as the CREOMPAZ case, it was assigned to a special high-risk court created in 2009 with competence to hear cases that posed a serious risk to the security of judges, the prosecutor, the defense, or any other individual involved in the case. In 2016 the court found sufficient evidence to send eight individuals to trial, but the Public Ministry appealed the exclusion of a number of charges in the proceedings. At year’s end the trial was pending resolution of the various appeals by the Public Ministry, joint complainants in the case, and defense lawyers. In March the Supreme Court ruled to remove the immunity of Congressman Edgar Ovalle, one of the suspects in the case. Ovalle disappeared before authorities were able to arrest him and remained a fugitive at year’s end.
On October 13, 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 during his presidency (1982-83) and sentenced to 80 years in prison. The Constitutional Court later overturned the conviction on procedural grounds and returned the case to be retried. In 2015 a high-risk court determined Rios Montt was mentally unfit for public trial but ordered the trial be held behind closed doors and with a guardian present. It also ruled any verdict could be used only to determine reparations to the victims and that Rios Montt could not be sentenced to prison. In May the Center for Human Rights Legal Action filed a complaint against former constitutional court magistrates for breach of legal duty after obtaining videos of their deliberations during the decision to annul Rios Montt’s genocide sentence. At year’s end the Public Ministry had not moved the case forward for an initial hearing.
In 2016 a high-risk court dismissed a motion in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre case by the defense team to suspend criminal prosecution for genocide and crimes against humanity. The defense argued that Rios Montt was mentally unfit to stand trial. The case remained in the intermediary pretrial phase, and a date for the next hearing had not been set by year’s end.
As of August the government had paid approximately 23.9 million quetzales ($3.26 million) in individual reparations to families affected by the Chixoy hydroelectric dam. The government also appropriated 121.3 million quetzales ($16.5 million) for collective reparations, which government authorities believed could be delayed until early 2018 due to the fact the proposed community projects were undergoing feasibility studies. During the dam’s construction from 1975 to 1985, more than 400 individuals died and thousands were displaced. As part of a 2014 reparations agreement, the government agreed to pay 1.15 billion quetzales ($156 million) over 15 years in individual and community reparations.
There were no reports during the year 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. In 2016, four high-ranking retired army officers were arrested for the 1981 forced disappearance of minor Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. The Attorney General’s Office presented additional charges against retired army general Benedicto Lucas Garcia, who was also charged in the CREOMPAZ mass graves case. In July the final phase of the preliminary hearings concluded. The trial date for the case was set for March 2018.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, there were credible reports of abuse and other mistreatment by PNC members.
On September 18, trial proceedings began for PNC agents Carlos Baten Perez, Rogelio Perez Hernandez, Nancy Evelia Rodriguez Alai, and Cesar Augusto Funes Morales for the torture and illegal detention of four suspects in 2015 in the Villa Nueva suburb of Guatemala City.
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 August 25, according to the prison system registry, there were 22,660 inmates, including 2,240 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, and the fabrication of weapons. Prisoners conducted criminal activity both inside and outside of prisons. From January through August 25, at least 13 inmates died of unnatural causes while in prison.
Media reported that transnational criminal gangs and drug trafficking groups controlled major prison centers. In 2016 prisoner Byron Lima Oliva, a former army captain charged with the murder of human rights defender Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi, was killed along with 13 others in the Pavon prison. On August 2, the PNC arrested six suspects. On November 23, a judge indicted 17 individuals arrested in the case. At year’s end the Public Ministry, with CICIG support, moved the case forward to preliminary hearings.
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 under age four could live in prison with their mothers, although the penitentiary system provided inadequate food for young children and many suffered from illness. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights groups stated that other prisoners often sexually assaulted LGBTI individuals and that there were insufficient facilities to protect LGBTI individuals in custody. The Ministry of Government approved initial admittance procedures for LGBTI prisoners in 2015. NGOs claimed, however, the protocols were not being implemented and noted particular concern regarding admittance procedures for transgender individuals. Frequent leadership turnover in the prison system exacerbated these problems. Occasionally authorities held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners, juveniles with adults, and male with female detainees.
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 nonviolent juvenile offenders being held with violent adult offenders. On July 3 and July 24, riots occurred at the Las Gaviotas juvenile detention facility, resulting in injuries to dozens of prisoners. The riots were sparked by the killing of two inmates. The facility received citations in 2016 for housing 460 inmates in a facility designed for 250 and for dangerous and inhuman conditions.
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 NOPT rapporteurs by more than six months, while the PDH and civil society reported former rapporteurs were inactive and ineffective in their oversight mandate.
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 in a publicly accessible manner.
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.
Improvements: During the year authorities implemented a correctional model to address corruption and overcrowding as well as the lack of personnel, equipment, and infrastructure in the penitentiary system. The model provided opportunities for the rehabilitation, education, and social reintegration of inmates and improved recruitment, selection, and training of staff. In March the first model correction center opened; it housed 63 female inmates by year’s end.
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.
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. At times the PNC struggled to deploy its resources effectively across the country.
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. Authorities arrested approximately 210 police officials from January through September, compared with 376 in all of 2016. A police reform commission, established by a previous administration, has a legal mandate to make necessary changes to reform police forces. The commission’s infrastructure unit provided design support for the establishment of model police precincts throughout the country.
The ORP reported that from January through August, there were 17 complaints of police extortion and 290 for abuse of authority, compared with 747 and 206, respectively, in all of 2016, according to the Public Ministry’s Strategic Planning Office. 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. For example, security officials allegedly arrested and imprisoned suspected gang members without warrants or on fabricated drug charges. The local press also reported police involvement in kidnappings for ransom.
In September, Guilber Josue Barrios, a soldier who allegedly drugged and raped a 14-year-old student at a civil military institute administered by the Ministry of Defense in March 2016, was captured in Mexico. On October 9, he was indicted.
The ORP conducted internal investigations of misconduct by police officers. During the first eight months of the year, the ORP reported receiving 1,222 complaints alleging misconduct by police.
All new PNC and soldiers receive some training in human rights and professional ethics. During the year the Ministry of Defense increased its Human Rights Directorate personnel from eight to 13 staff members and incorporated a gender integration unit.
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 pre-trial detentions, 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 25, prison system records indicated 50.6 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 pre-trial 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. Authorities did not release some prisoners after completing their full sentences due to the failure of judges to issue the necessary court order or other bureaucratic delays.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and the law provide for an independent judiciary. The judicial system failed to provide fair or timely trials due to inefficiency, corruption, insufficient personnel, 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 129 complaints of threats or aggression against workers in the judicial branch, compared with 192 through September 2016.
The CICIG assisted the Ministry of Government and Public Ministry with the investigation of cases including allegations of extrajudicial executions, extortion, trafficking in persons, improper adoptions, corruption, and drug trafficking.
The Supreme Court continued to pursue the suspension of judges and conduct criminal investigations of improprieties or irregularities in cases under its jurisdiction. From January through October 6, the Judicial Disciplinary Board investigated 573 complaints against judges of wrongdoing, held hearings on 105 complaints, and applied sanctions in 20 cases. During the same period, the Judicial Disciplinary Unit investigated 1,167 complaints of wrongdoing against technicians and judiciary administrative staff, held hearings on 519 complaints, and applied sanctions in 360 cases, including disciplinary suspension without pay (277 cases) and recommending dismissal (34 cases).
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 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, excessive workload, and a legal system that often permits time-consuming but spurious complaints.
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 September 2016 President Jimmy 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 was under investigation by the Public Ministry. Media sources reported that former presidential advisor and member of congress Herbert Melgar’s name also appeared in the criminal complaint filed with the Public Ministry. Melgar was not charged, however, and continued to serve in congress.