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Guatemala

Executive Summary

Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. On January 14, Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei Falla of the We’re Going for a Different Guatemala Party was sworn into office for a four-year term as president. International observers considered the presidential election held in 2019 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. Members of security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings arranged by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on the press, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists; widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of indigenous groups, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and use of forced labor, including child labor.

Impunity continued to be widespread. Corruption, concerted efforts by organized criminal actors, and lack of political will made meaningful investigation and prosecution of crimes difficult.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides 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. From January through December 11, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Judicial Workers and Unionists received 194 complaints of threats or aggression against workers in the judicial branch, compared with 70 from January to August 2019.

The existing selection process for the election by the congress of 13 Supreme Court and 135 appellate court magistrates suffered widespread manipulation of selection committees by politicians, judicial operators, and other influential citizens, resulting in a judiciary that lacked full independence. In September 2019 the Constitutional Court halted the selection process for Supreme Court and appellate court magistrates, ruling that formal evaluation procedures were not followed within the selection committees. The selection committees provided a list to congress of 270 candidates for the appellate courts on February 14 and a list of 26 candidates for the Supreme Court on February 19. Public Ministry investigations found Gustavo Alejos, former chief of staff under President Alvaro Colom in prison on corruption charges, accepted at least 20 visits from officials associated with the selection process in his hospital ward on February 12-16. The Constitutional Court issued a final ruling on May 6 requiring removal of candidates associated with Gustavo Alejos and a voice vote for each position in congress. The new magistrates should have taken office in October 2019. As of November 30, congress had not started the election of judges, and the sitting Supreme Court and appellate court judges remained in their positions.

On June 25, the Supreme Court granted an immunity review/impeachment against four Constitutional Court magistrates and sent the case to congress for further action and a plenary session vote. The Constitutional Court then granted an injunction against the Supreme Court that ordered congress to halt its proceedings. On June 28, Congress responded by filing a criminal complaint against the four Constitutional Court magistrates. Civil society organizations largely interpreted impeachment to be a retaliatory measure against Constitutional Court magistrates that stood in the way of influence peddling in the selection of magistrates.

Trial Procedures

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 “abbreviated processing,” similar to 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, including for indigenous victims in the high-risk courts. Officials conduct trials in Spanish, the official language, although many citizens speak only one of the 23 officially recognized indigenous languages.

The Public Ministry, acting independently of the executive branch but dependent on funding that goes through congress, 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.

Most courts closed at the outbreak of COVID-19 in mid-March while the judicial system created sanitation protocols and amended regulations to allow virtual hearings. Courts began reopening in June, with individual judges allowed to decide whether to return to work and whether to hold court virtually. The judicial system reported 40,000 hearings were cancelled by June. The system was working through the backlog, but as a result of the closure, conviction rates for most crimes were lower than in 2019.

International and domestic observers considered the number of judges insufficient. Lack of sufficient personnel, training, and evidence hampered Public Ministry prosecutors’ ability to bring cases to trial.

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, including money laundering, illegal political party financing, and bribery, many of which the Public Ministry investigated and prosecuted.

To continue the fight against corruption after the expiration of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala’s mandate on January 21, the Giammattei administration declared the creation of the Presidential Commission against Corruption, with entry into force on January 22. Civil society organizations expressed concern regarding the new commission’s perceived lack of independence from the Giammattei administration.

As of October, Juan Francisco Sandoval, lead prosecutor for the Public Ministry’s Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, had received more than 40 administrative and judicial complaints launched by the former military group Foundation Against Terrorism, Gustavo Alejos, and former Guatemalan ambassador to the United States Julio Ligorria, among others. Three judges in the high-risk courts also incurred a litany of complaints. Civil society organizations noted the lengthy and costly judicial process for the defendants to resolve the complaints, even when the complaints themselves had little or no basis of proof.

Corruption: Former communications minister Alejandro Sinibaldi voluntarily returned to Guatemala and surrendered to authorities on August 24. Sinibaldi was 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; the Transurbano security case, involving alleged siphoning of approximately one million quetzals ($140,000) from security contracts for public transit; and a case of alleged illegal campaign financing in 2011.

The Transurbano case, involving former president Alvaro Colom, 10 of his ministers, and former chief of staff Gustavo Alejos, was delayed by several complaints filed by Gustavo Alejos against Judge Eduardo Cojulum. In 2008 the ministers signed an agreement that allowed the Urban Bus Company to form anonymous corporations and begin syphoning funds from a prepaid fare program.

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.

Financial Disclosure: Public officials who earn more than 8,000 quetzals ($1,030) 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.

Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, and sets penalties between five and 50 years in prison. Police had minimal training or capacity to investigate sexual crimes or assist survivors of such crimes, and the government did not enforce the law effectively. Rape and other sexual offenses remained serious problems.

The government took steps to combat femicide and violence against women. The judiciary continued to operate a 24-hour court in Guatemala City to offer services related to violence directed toward women, including sexual assault, exploitation, and trafficking of women and children. The judiciary also operated specialized courts for violence against women throughout the country, but not in every department. The Public Ministry maintained a 24-hour victim service center to provide medical, psychosocial, and legal support to victims, including restraining orders for their immediate protection. The ministry also maintained a national alert system for finding disappeared women. Sexual violence remained widespread despite these advances. The ministry reported that 3,684 women were victims of rape from January to August, compared with 6,231 women in the previous year. NGOs partially attributed the lower number of cases filed to barriers to accessing the Public Ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic, including modified working hours for Public Ministry offices.

The law establishes penalties for femicide of 25 to 50 years in prison without the possibility of reducing the sentence; however, femicide remained a significant problem. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported that from January to August, 302 women were killed, compared with 477 in the same period in 2019. According to judicial system data, 34 persons were convicted of femicide from January to November.

Violence against women, including sexual and domestic violence, remained widespread and serious. The law establishes penalties of five to eight years for physical, economic, and psychological violence committed against women due to their gender. As the government closed down nonessential businesses and most forms of travel, imposing a strict curfew for COVID-19, several NGOs, international organizations, and the government noted an increase in domestic abuse and violence against women. Data was scarce and difficult to collect, as some analysts noted women were not able to leave their homes to report abuses confidentially to police. Mutual Support Group estimated that domestic violence cases increased by nearly 200 percent compared with the previous year, noting 2,657 cases of “intrafamily violence” in the first six months. The Public Ministry recorded 39,399 instances of violence against women from January to August, compared with 40,993 in the same period of 2019. The ministry noted that the judicial system convicted 424 perpetrators of violence against women from January to August, compared with 1,149 in the same period of 2019.

In January, PNC officers arrested Francisco Cuxum Alvaradeo, 64, immediately after his deportation from the United States. The Public Ministry indicted him on charges of crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual assault against 36 Maya Achi women in Rabinal between 1981 and 1985. The Public Ministry indicted seven other defendants, former members of the civil defense patrols, on the same charges in 2018. The case against Cuxum was in the presentation of evidence phase, awaiting a resolution regarding the opening of a public trial. Cuxum’s case reopened the overall Maya Achi sexual violence case, which had remained blocked after a previous judge dismissed the charges against the seven other defendants and ordered their release. The case remained mired in a series of unresolved appeals.

Sexual Harassment: Although several laws refer to sexual harassment, no single law, including laws against sexual violence, address it in a direct manner. Human rights organizations reported sexual harassment was widespread.

Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. They did not always have the information and means to do so.

Cultural, geographic, and linguistic barriers hampered access to reproductive health care including contraceptives, particularly for indigenous women in rural areas, where contraceptives were also least likely to be available locally. A lack of culturally sensitive reproductive and maternal health-care service providers deterred some indigenous women from accessing these services.

The government made progress to ensure that survivors of sexual violence who sought medical attention received sexual and reproductive health services, with some hospitals classifying sexual assault as a medical emergency; however, many survivors did not seek medical care due to cultural and geographic barriers.

Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Discrimination: Although the law establishes the principle of gender equality, women, and particularly indigenous women, faced discrimination and were less likely to hold management positions.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country or from their parents. UNICEF described low birth registration as a “serious problem,” and UNHCR reported problems in registering births were especially acute in indigenous communities due to inadequate government registration and documentation systems. Lack of registration restricted children’s access to some public services and created conditions that could lead to statelessness.

Education: While primary education is free and compulsory through age 15, access was limited in many rural areas; education through the secondary level is not obligatory. International observers noted boys were prioritized for high school education in rural communities due to the need to travel long distances and girls’ perceived value in the home. UNICEF criticized the government’s education plan during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing its exclusively distance-learning education plan as unrealistic and discriminatory against most indigenous children, who lacked access to stable internet connections and computers.

Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious problem. A unit under the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Children and Adolescents handled child abuse cases. The Public Ministry opened an integrated 24-hour care model providing medical, psychosocial, and legal support to children and adolescent victims of violence. The ministry reported 4,001 reports of abuse of minors of all types, approximately 3,000 fewer than in 2019. The ministry reported 14 convictions for child abuse from January through August, compared with 54 during the same period in 2019. Closure of the courts for COVID-19 affected convictions for these cases.

NGOs supporting at-risk youth reported adolescents detained by police were subject to abusive treatment, including physical assaults.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18. There continued to be reports of early and forced marriages in some rural indigenous communities and in the Lev Tahor religious community, but the National Registry of Persons reported no attempted registration of underage marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law provides sentences ranging from 13 to 24 years in prison, depending on the victim’s age, for engaging in sex with a minor. The minimum age of consensual sex is 18.

The law prohibits child pornography and establishes penalties of six to 10 years in prison for producing, promoting, and selling child pornography and two to four years’ imprisonment for possessing it. The Public Ministry and the PNC conducted several raids against alleged online child pornography networks. The Regional Unit against Trafficking in Persons, responsible for eight departments in the Western Highlands and launched in 2018, expanded the government’s investigative capacity against child pornography offenders. The commercial sexual exploitation of children, including child sex tourism, remained a problem, including in privately run orphanages.

Displaced Children: Criminals and gangs often recruited street children, many of them victims of domestic abuse, for purposes of theft, extortion, prostitution, transporting contraband, and conducting illegal drug activities.

Institutionalized Children: More than 500 children and adolescents lived in shelters operated by the Secretariat for Social Welfare (SBS). In 2019 the Secretariat against Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking in Persons transferred control of three shelters to the SBS, as mandated by the government. Observers noted the SBS responsibly maintained and improved the shelters despite fears from human rights observers that the transfer happened too soon and the SBS was not prepared to handle control of the shelters.

Overcrowding was common in both private and SBS shelters, and government funding for orphanages remained limited. Local and international human rights organizations, including Disability Rights International, raised concerns that child abuse was rampant. The OHCHR reported Hogar Esperanza, a private shelter for orphans and child victims of violence, sheltered children with disabilities but had no specialists able to care for them. The OHCHR also reported Hogar Esperanza was housing children in spaces that resembled cages. The OHCHR stated private shelters were often better than SBS shelters, but in cases like Hogar Esperanza, there was a clear need for reform to care adequately for children with disabilities.

Former SBS secretary Carlos Rodas and former deputy secretary for protection and shelter services Anahi Keller remained in pretrial detention with four others on charges of murder, abuse of authority, breach of duty, and abuse against minors following the deaths of 41 girls in a 2017 fire at the Hogar Seguro orphanage. As of October the case remained locked in a series of unresolved appeals and delays. The Constitutional Court ruled in July that the court in charge of the trial must accept evidence on the nature of the fire that was previously rejected in 2018. Some nongovernment analysts noted the judges might be intentionally delaying the Hogar Seguro case to wait for the new appeals court judges to be appointed, a process delayed since 2019. There were also accusations the judges intentionally delayed the case because the defendants were close to former president Jimmy Morales; several judges recused themselves from the case amid allegations of bias in favor of the defendants. The government did not make significant structural changes to the national system following the Hogar Seguro fire.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Indigenous People

The government’s National Institute of Statistics estimated indigenous persons from 24 ethnic groups made up 44 percent of the population. The law provides for equal rights for indigenous persons and obliges the government to recognize, respect, and promote the lifestyles, customs, traditions, social organizations, and manner of dress of indigenous persons. The government does not, however, recognize particular indigenous groups as having a special legal status provided by national law.

Indigenous communities were underrepresented in national politics and remained largely outside the political, economic, social, and cultural mainstream. This was mainly due to limited educational opportunities (contrary to law), limited communication regarding their rights, and pervasive discrimination. Government agencies dedicated to supporting indigenous rights lacked political support. These factors contributed to disproportionate poverty and malnutrition among most indigenous populations.

Indigenous lands were not effectively demarcated, making the legal recognition of titles to the land problematic. Indigenous rights advocates asserted that security authorities’ lack of familiarity with indigenous norms and practices engendered misunderstandings.

Indigenous representatives claimed actors in a number of regional development projects failed to consult meaningfully with local communities. In some cases indigenous communities were not able to participate in decisions affecting the exploitation of resources in their communities, including energy, minerals, timber, rivers, or other natural resources. They also lacked effective mechanisms for dialogue with the state to resolve conflicts.

The Russian conglomerate Solway, which bought the Fenix nickel mine in Izabal Department in 2014, continued to stand accused of violence against indigenous activists and illegal extraction of undeclared materials. Observers in Izabal reported that as of September, the mine continued operations despite the 2019 court order to suspend activities. Observers reported that Solway employees were giving baskets of food and other bribes to locals to keep them from protesting the mine, as protests routinely disrupted mine operations. Observers also reported Solway was believed to have bribed municipal officials in El Estor to keep news of a COVID-19 outbreak on the mine compound from becoming public. The 2019 Constitutional Court order required the provisional closure of the mine until the Ministry of Energy and Mines conducted consultations compliant with Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) with local communities.

Xinka authorities reported the court-ordered consultations were not progressing in regards to the San Rafael mine. In 2018 the Constitutional Court ordered the Ministry of Energy and Mines to hold ILO Convention 169-compliant consultations with Xinka populations and upheld the suspension of the operating license of the San Rafael Mine until after conclusion of the consultations.

Other Societal Violence or Discrimination

Vigilante mobs attacked and killed those suspected of crimes such as rape, kidnapping, theft, or extortion on several occasions. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported three persons were lynched and 45 injured in attempted lynchings by vigilante groups from January through August.

On June 6, villagers in San Luis, Peten, killed Domingo Choc, an indigenous spiritual guide and expert on medicinal plants and traditional healing methods. The mob confronted Choc in his house, where they beat him and burned him to death on allegations that he was practicing witchcraft. The mob violence was widely circulated in social media and caught national and international attention, due to its graphic nature and Choc’s ties with the anthropology departments of University of College London and Zurich University for research on indigenous healing practices. Multiple local NGOs and international organizations raised the killing as evidence of continued violent discrimination against indigenous peoples and their belief systems. While police continued to investigate the incident, observers and analysts noted the perpetrators, caught on video, seemed to be primarily motivated by religious animus against traditional Mayan spiritual practices and traditions, accusing Choc of being a witch. President Giammattei strongly condemned the incident and convened an interfaith group to discuss the need to prevent violence against indigenous spiritual guides in the future.

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