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
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.
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.).
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
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 6,307 women were victims of rape from January to August, compared with 3,684 women in all of 2020.
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, 395 women were killed, compared with 302 in the same period in 2020. According to judicial system data, no one was convicted of femicide as of November, compared with 34 in the same period in 2020. Mutual Support Group pointed to the lack of convictions as partly due to a judicial backlog stemming from COVID-19 closures in 2020 and partly to the judicial branch’s lack of attention to these crimes.
Violence against women, including sexual and domestic violence, remained widespread and serious. The law establishes penalties of five to eight years in prison for physical, economic, and psychological violence committed against women due to their gender. The Public Ministry estimated that reports of domestic violence decreased by more than 75 percent compared with the previous year, noting 410 cases of “intrafamily violence” in the first six months, perhaps due to fewer stay-at-home orders issued compared with 2020. The Public Ministry recorded 44,229 instances of violence against women from January to August, compared with 39,399 in the same period of 2020. The ministry noted that the judicial system convicted 1,118 perpetrators of violence against women from January to August, compared with 424 in the same period of 2020.
The case against Francisco Cuxum Alvarado and seven codefendants remained in the evidence-gathering phase. In January 2020 PNC officers arrested Cuxum Alvarado 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.
Sexual Harassment: Although several laws refer to sexual harassment, no single law, including laws against sexual violence, addresses it directly. Human rights organizations reported sexual harassment was widespread.
Women with disabilities and members of the LGBTQI+ community with disabilities remained at greater risk of being victims of continued sexual violence. Most persons with disabilities, especially women, did not report situations of violence and abuse because the reporting processes are complex and discriminate against them, among other reasons.
Reproductive Rights: Forced sterilization was purportedly common in persons with disabilities but reporting on these abuses was rare. There were no official reports during the year of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
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. The prevalence of modern contraceptive use remained low among indigenous women compared with all other women, and a lack of culturally sensitive reproductive and maternal health-care service providers deterred some indigenous women from accessing reproductive health care services.
In July the government approved the Policy for the Protection of Life and the Institutionality of the Family, an executive policy that sets forth policy principles, including a definition of family as a nuclear family with one male and one female parent, and a definition of life as starting at conception.
The government provided survivors of sexual violence who sought medical attention some services through the Model for Integrated Attention for Women Victims of Violence (MAINA) and the Model of Integrated Attention for Children and Adolescents (MAIMI) systems, administered by the Ministry of Public Health. The MAINA and MAIMI models provided victims with access to emergency contraceptives and antiviral medicines to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy resulting from rape in addition to some justice services. Some hospitals classified sexual assault as a medical emergency; however, many survivors did not seek medical care due to cultural and geographic barriers. Authorities within the justice system commented that on occasion some hospital clinics did not have the required pills in stock to protect rape victims against sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.
According to a report by the Ministry of Health published in 2020, the maternal mortality rate among indigenous communities was 156 per 100,000 live births, compared with the national average of 108 per 100,000 live births.
One-half of all the maternal deaths occurred in four departments in the northwest of the country (Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Quiche, and Alta Verapaz), most of them in rural and dispersed areas with high rates of malnutrition, poverty, and concentrated populations of indigenous persons.
Most maternal deaths were due to preventable causes – hemorrhages (47 percent), hypertension (23 percent), infections (14 percent), and unsafe abortion (8 percent). Factors such as the lack of medical services available in indigenous languages and lack of providers and equipment in remote areas also played a role in these deaths. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, prenatal care decreased by 16 percent.
The NGO The Reproductive and Sexual Health Observatory reported that from January to October, there were 60,464 births to mothers who were adolescents: 58,820 births to mothers between ages 15 and 19 and 1,644 to mothers between ages 10 and 14.
Access to menstrual products and the lack of separate boys’ and girls’ bathrooms in some rural schools continued to negatively affect adolescent girls’ access to education in rural areas of the country.
Discrimination: Although the constitution establishes the principle of gender equality, stating that all individuals are equal and have the same rights and that men and women enjoy the same opportunities and responsibilities, women, and particularly indigenous women, faced discrimination and were less likely to hold management positions. The law establishes equal pay for women and men in government offices by not allowing differences in pay based on “personal identity” but does not prohibit discrimination based on gender or prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace in the private sector. There are laws that restrict women from working in certain sectors, including in jobs deemed morally inappropriate. The law does not prohibit discrimination in access to credit based on gender.
The law provides for equality between men and women in divorce to both provide for care of the children and responsibility to provide financial and housing assistance to the children’s caretakers, who are often the women, both during and after the divorce. The PDH reported that divorce proceedings had improved in the last 20 years with regards to fairness between men and women. Observers, however, reported that men availed themselves of procedural delays involved with complications for women who must register children from previous relationships, thereby creating obstacles to child support for women in those cases.
Section 7. Worker Rights
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law explicitly prohibits discrimination with respect to employment or occupation based on race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, age, and disability. The government did not effectively enforce the law and related regulations. Penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred. Anecdotally, wage discrimination based on race and sex occurred often in rural areas. Upon returning to Guatemala, some deportees had difficulty joining the workforce and were discriminated against, for suspicion of being involved in gang activity.