Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
There were reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. As of August 31, the Public Ministry, which is responsible for the prosecution of all criminal cases, as well as the Office of Professional Responsibility of the National Civil Police (PNC), reported five complaints of homicide by police, three more than in 2020. The PNC did not provide further information on any of these cases.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) alleged that at least seven members of rural and indigenous activist groups were killed or died in disputed circumstances between January and November. Some of the killings appeared to be politically motivated, and all the cases remained under investigation at year’s end. On September 20, indigenous rights defender Ramon Jimenez was found dead with gunshot and blunt weapon wounds in El Volcan, Jalapa. Jimenez worked for an indigenous collective that promotes indigenous rights and had clashed with local political and business leaders over his advocacy for fellow farmers and taxi drivers. As of November 29, a total of 10 activists or human rights defenders were killed.
The national government’s prosecution of Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez continued. Rodriguez Sanchez, former intelligence chief under former president Rios Montt, was accused of genocide against the Maya Ixil community during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-1996). On February 21, an appellate court ruled against the appeal of the 2018 ruling that acquitted Rodriguez Sanchez of all crimes. On March 19, the Public Ministry brought the case before the Supreme Court, but as of November 29, a final resolution had not been issued.
In the case regarding Luis Enrique Garcia Mendoza, operations commander under former president Rios Montt, Judge Jimmi Bremer of High-Risk Court C scheduled a hearing for October 11 to rule on whether there was sufficient evidence to bring the case to public trial against Garcia Mendoza on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The hearing was suspended and rescheduled for February 2022.
The Public Ministry continued investigation of another case for genocide against the Maya Ixil community from the last months of former president Romeo Lucas Garcia’s government (1978-1982). Three high-ranking military officers, Cesar Octavio Noguera Argueta, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, and Benedicto Lucas Garcia, were charged in this case. The prosecution continued against Callejas and Lucas; Noguera died in November 2020. According to the ministry, the case involved a minimum of 32 massacres, 97 selected killings, 117 deaths due to forced displacement, 37 cases of sexual assault, and 80 cases of forced disappearance. Many victims were children. On August 30, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez ruled there was sufficient evidence to bring the case to public trial. As of November 29, the trial had not been scheduled. Callejas and Lucas were both previously convicted of serious crimes in the Molina Theissen case and were serving 58-year prison sentences.
There were no reports of new disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities. The Public Ministry continued to investigate and prosecute cases of forced disappearances from the 1960-1996 internal armed conflict period, although at times Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras stalled cases of genocide and disappearances from that period. There was a high-level nationwide debate spawned by congress’ consideration of a bill that would grant amnesty for all atrocities committed during the civil war.
On May 27, a High-Risk Court judge issued 17 arrest warrants for individuals materially involved with, or who directly enforced, disappearances, torture, rape, and extrajudicial executions in 1983 and 1985, as documented in a leaked military file referred to as Diario Militar. The PNC initially detained 11 of the 17 individuals and detained a 12th when he voluntarily attended a related judicial proceeding. Five more individuals remained at large and were being sought by victims’ families. Initial judicial hearings to proceed to trial began in September after months of stalling by the defendants’ lawyers and attempts to dismiss the judge.
The CREOMPAZ case, named after the Regional Center for UN Peacekeeping Training Institute where a mass burial site for disappeared persons was found, continued for former military officers indicted in 2017 on charges of forced disappearance and crimes against humanity during the 1960-1996 armed conflict. The delay in resolving several appeals and recusal motions filed in 2016 prevented the opening of a full trial. Byron Barrientos and Carlos Garavito remained in custody. Former congressman Edgar Justino Ovalle Maldonado, also charged in the case, remained in hiding after the Supreme Court lifted his immunity from prosecution in 2017.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, but there were cases of prison officials’ negligence that allowed prisoners to experience violence and degrading conditions. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that documentation and reporting mechanisms for torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment remained weak, thereby hindering a full understanding of the prevalence of the problem. The OHCHR also noted that many official complaints cited unsafe and cramped conditions at Federico Mora National Hospital for Mental Health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these complaints remained unresolved.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in February 2020 of sexual exploitation and abuse by a Guatemalan peacekeeper deployed to the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The allegation involved rape of a child. Both the government and the United Nations launched investigations into the allegation, but as of November both inquiries remained pending.
Impunity within the PNC was not a widespread or systemic issue. Impunity from prosecution for serious crimes within the PNC declined, with several high-profile convictions of PNC officers sentenced to imprisonment. Lesser crimes of negligence and bribery by officers continued, however, with few convictions. As of October more than 90 police officers were removed from the force based on bribery allegations. Most of the cases were documented in social media with videos taken by civilians. These removals formed part of PNC institutional policy to combat corruption. These instances appeared scattered and not related to military orders. Negligence by officers largely resulted from a lack of sufficient training. The law requires officers to hold at least a high school degree, but they often had much less, and some individuals had as little as six months of police training before being sent out on the streets.
In some areas impunity remained a significant problem in the PNC and the military. Impunity was evident in the Port, Airports, and Border Points Division (DIPAFRONT) of PNC forces dedicated to investigating crimes involving national borders, such as drug trafficking, smuggling, contraband and evasion of paying taxes by moving money outside the country. International law enforcement organizations reported private-sector actors paid some DIPAFRONT officers to avoid investigations into their operations. Government records did not include internal investigations in the PNC of these bribes.
Impunity for high-level officials from disciplinary or criminal prosecution existed. In several instances when PNC or Public Ministry investigators opened a case against high-level officials, the investigators were subsequently removed.
The PNC utilizes three mechanisms to identify and investigate abuses: an anonymous tip line using a landline telephone number, a tip line to receive complaints using a messaging application, and in-person complaints. The PNC Internal Affairs Division conducts internal surveillance of PNC officers’ performance and follows a disciplinary process with an internal tribunal to decide cases. That division wiretaps criminal structures found to be working with corrupt PNC officers, but the unit was not authorized to investigate criminal structures within the PNC. The government’s main mechanism to rid the PNC of corruption is to remove PNC officers suspected of these abuses, often without investigation or tribunal. The PNC has a unit devoted to criminal investigation of human rights violations, funded by donor countries, but the unit lacked political and material support.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and life threatening, with multiple instances of inmates killing other inmates. Sexual assault, inadequate sanitation, poor medical care, and significant overcrowding placed prisoners at significant risk.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding was a problem. As of August 31, according to prison authorities, there were 24,989 inmates held in facilities designed to hold 6,997 persons. To ease prison overcrowding, the Rehabilitation Subdirectorate of the penitentiary system processed 3,680 early release requests from April to October, more than double the previous year’s figure. Better coordination between sentencing judges and defense attorneys led to 1,398 inmates being granted early release by the courts during the same period.
As of December 10, there were 596 juvenile inmates in four traditional detention centers and the halfway house, which were designed for 557 inmates. Another 1,242 juvenile inmates were held in three new alternative measures facilities. Despite a reduction in overcrowding, there were 231 inmates in the Centro Juvenil de Privacion de Libertad para Varones juvenile detention facility, designed for 155 individuals. The courts had not sentenced approximately 18 percent of juvenile inmates held in detention.
Prison officials acknowledged 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. Media reported that transnational criminal gangs and drug trafficking groups controlled major prisons. According to prison authorities, from January through August 31, at least 17 inmates died of unnatural causes while in prison. On August 11, after prison officials transferred Barrio 18 gang leaders from the overcrowded El Infiernito Prison to other facilities, in part to curtail their extorsion practices and other criminal activity, gang members took 18 guards hostage, including the prison director. The hostages were released after officials returned the Barrio 18 leaders to El Infiernito. The adult penitentiary system added a K-9 unit to search for narcotics and cell phones in its new correctional model as a measure to reduce criminal activity.
Physical conditions, including sanitation facilities, medical care, ventilation, temperature control, and lighting, were inadequate. Prisoners had difficulty obtaining potable water, complained of inadequate food, and often had to pay for additional sustenance. Illegal drug sales and use were widespread.
Media and NGOs reported female inmates faced 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, but the penitentiary system provided inadequate food for young children, and many suffered from illness. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) rights groups stated that other prisoners often sexually assaulted LGBTQI+ individuals, and there were insufficient facilities to protect LGBTQI+ individuals in custody. NGOs claimed admittance procedures for LGBTQI+ prisoners were not implemented, noting particular concern regarding procedures for transgender individuals.
Administration: 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 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 Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) and the National Office for the Prevention of Torture, both independent government bodies responsible for ensuring that the rights and well-being of prisoners are respected, also periodically visited prison facilities.
The law prohibits 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. There was no compensation for those ruled unlawfully detained.
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, including from government officials, such as harassment of prosecutors from the Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity and judges from the High-Risk Court. On September 29, High-Risk Court judge Erika Aifan posted a video on social media that detailed how government employees from outside her office placed staff in her court office who recorded her private comments and leaked confidential files from her cases. From January through August 31, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Judicial Workers and Unionists received 69 complaints of threats or aggression against workers in the judicial branch and 53 complaints against prounion activists, for a total of 122 complaints, compared with 194 in 2020.
On October 11, Attorney General Porras announced the reassignment of lead human rights prosecutor Hilda Pineda to an office that investigates crimes against tourists. Pineda was known for aggressively pursuing prosecution of human rights abuses by the military during the civil war, including genocide against the Maya Ixil community and the Diario Militar case. Civil society decried the move as politically motivated and expressed concern the move would weaken the prosecutions of these cases.
Since May prosecutors and judges associated with the Diario Militar case reported increased threats and surveillance. The Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office requested security support from the Public Ministry, but as of November none had been provided.
On April 13, the Congressional Executive Board swore in seven of the 10 new Constitutional Court members for the 2021-2026 term starting on April 14. Congress refused to seat re-elected independent incumbent Constitutional Court magistrate Gloria Porras, citing a provisional injunction. In view of her consequent loss of immunity after not being sworn in for a new term on the Constitutional Court, Porras departed the country on April 14 and remained abroad as of November 29. Civil society expressed concern that as of November the court had consistently ruled in favor of the governing coalition.
The selection process for the election by congress of 13 Supreme Court and 135 appellate court magistrates continued largely unresolved. As of August 31, congress successfully completed the voting procedure for only one candidate for the appellate court in a total of 270 candidates. The sitting Supreme Court and 269 appellate court judges remained in their positions. In 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 after a process that suffered widespread manipulation of selection committees by politicians, judicial operators, and other influential citizens. In February 2020 Public Ministry investigations found that while in prison on corruption charges, Gustavo Alejos, former chief of staff under then president Alvaro Colom, accepted at least 20 visits from officials associated with the selection process in his hospital ward in the days before the selection committees provided their lists. The Constitutional Court issued a final ruling in May 2020 requiring removal of candidates associated with Gustavo Alejos and a voice vote for each position in congress, but as of November congress had not complied with the ruling.
The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions, but there were credible reports of harassment of the families of officials. A prosecutor reported that in October, after her office removed her from a high-profile corruption case, unknown individuals in unmarked cars photographed her mother and sister outside their houses on several occasions.
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.
c. Freedom of Religion
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.
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.