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:
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 two complaints of homicide by police, the same number of complaints as in 2019. The Public Ministry continued to investigate a case of alleged excessive use of force, in which video security surveillance captured PNC officers shooting and killing Edgar Ic Perez after COVID-19 curfew hours on June 17.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders alleged that at least 14 members of rural and indigenous activist groups were killed or died in disputed circumstances between January and August. Some of the killings appeared to be politically motivated, and all the cases remained under investigation at year’s end (see section 6, Indigenous People). In 2019, 15 activists or human rights defenders were killed.
The national government’s prosecution of former intelligence chief Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez continued. Rodriguez Sanchez was accused of genocide against the Maya Ixil community during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-96). On February 4, a military expert proposed by the Public Ministry testified in the case against Luis Enrique Garcia Mendoza, operations commander under former president Rios Montt. The testimony focused on the chain of command of the Ministry of Defense during that period, both as a means to provide expert witness against the defendants and to identify other officers that might have given the orders. Judge Jimmi Bremer of High-Risk Court C indicted Garcia Mendoza in November 2019 on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
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 (1978-82). Three high-ranking military officers, Cesar Octavio Noguera Argueta, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, and Benedicto Lucas Garcia, were charged in this case. 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. In November 2019 the courts found sufficient evidence in the Public Ministry’s preliminary investigation to order a deeper investigation. Judge Miguel Angel Galvez scheduled a hearing for September 1 to rule on whether there was sufficient evidence to bring the case to public trial against the three defendants, but the hearing was suspended. The defense filed a request for house arrest for Callejas y Callejas and Lucas Garcia due to the heightened risk of COVID-19 in prison facilities. Judge Galvez denied the request because the defendants’ charges made them ineligible for house arrest under the law. Callejas and Lucas were both previously convicted of serious crimes in the Molina Theissen case and were serving 58-year 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 internal armed conflict period. The government did not comply, however, with an order from the high-risk courts, which handle sensitive cases often risky for judges to take on, to create a national commission on the search for disappeared persons and a national registry of victims.
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 1960-96 armed conflict. The courts needed to resolve several appeals and recusal motions filed in 2016 before a full trial could begin. The defense filed a request for house arrest for two former military officers indicted in the case, Byron Barrientos and Carlos Garavito, due to the heightened risk of COVID-19 in prison facilities. High-Risk Court A denied the request because the defendants’ charges made them ineligible for house arrest under the law. 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 reports alleging government workers employed them at the Federico Mora National Hospital for Mental Health (see section 6). 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.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, in February an allegation was made that Guatemalan peacekeepers deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission, raped a child. As of October the government was investigating the allegation.
Impunity within the PNC was not a pervasive and systemic issue. Impunity from prosecution for serious crimes within the PNC has generally been in decline for more than a decade, with several high-profile convictions of PNC officers now serving prison sentences. Lesser crimes of negligence and bribery by officers continued, however, with few convictions. Negligence by officers was largely the result of 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. Small monthly salaries of approximately 4,000 quetzals ($535) created an incentive to extort bribes. A large number of PNC officers were removed from the force over the past three years based on allegations of bribery. There were also anecdotal reports that the military extorted bribes and arbitrarily and temporarily detained persons when acting in support of the PNC. These instances seemed scattered and not related to military orders.
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, poor medical care, and significant overcrowding placed prisoners at significant risk. Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners, juveniles with adults, and male with female detainees.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding was a problem. As of October 8, according to prison authorities, there were 25,691 inmates, including 2,883 women, held in facilities designed to hold 6,997 persons. To ease prison overcrowding, the Rehabilitation Sub-Directorate of the penitentiary system processed 1,519 early release requests from April to October. Better coordination between sentencing judges and defense attorneys led to 750 inmates being granted early release by the courts during the same period.
As of September 22, there were 657 juvenile inmates in four traditional detention centers and the halfway house, which were designed for 549 inmates. Another 1,242 juvenile inmates were held in three new alternative measures facilities. Despite a reduction in overcrowding, there were 271 inmates in the Las Gaviotas juvenile detention facility, designed for 175 individuals. The courts had not sentenced approximately 28 percent of juvenile inmates held in detention.
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.
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 eight inmates died of unnatural causes while in prison. During the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 39 Barrio 18 gang leaders negotiated their transfer to Fraijanes II, the only detention center with a full clinic for treatment of COVID-19. When prison officials began sending Barrio 18 leaders to other facilities to prevent them from operating the gang from Fraijanes II, gang members took 10 prison guards hostage in El Infiernito Prison and four prison guards hostage at the preventive detention center in zone 18, demanding the return of their leaders to Fraijanes II. In both cases the prison guards were released after 24 hours.
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, and intersex (LGBTI) rights groups stated that other prisoners often sexually assaulted LGBTI individuals, and there were insufficient facilities to protect LGBTI individuals in custody. NGOs claimed admittance procedures for LGBTI 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 wellbeing of prisoners are respected, also periodically visited prison facilities.
Improvements: The Secretariat of Social Welfare improved the juvenile system by opening a training academy and adding a K-9 unit to search for narcotics and cell phones. The adult penitentiary system moved toward a new correctional model that includes polygraphs and training for prison staff. On October 9, the government announced the creation of a unit for electronic monitoring to ease prison overcrowding through greater use of house arrest.
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 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. After arraigning suspects, the prosecutor generally has three months to complete the investigation if the defendant is in pretrial detention and six months to complete the investigation if the defendant is granted house arrest. The law prohibits the execution of 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: As of August 31, the PNC Office of Professional Responsibility had received two complaints of illegal detention by police, compared with 26 in 2019. Reports indicated police ignored writs of habeas corpus in cases of illegal detention, particularly during neighborhood antigang operations.
Pretrial Detention: As of October prison system records indicated 49 percent of prisoners were in pretrial detention, approximately the same percentage as in 2019 despite court closures due to COVID-19. 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 pretrial detention without limits as necessary. Authorities regularly held detainees past their legal trial-or-release date. Lengthy investigations and frequent procedural motions by both defense and prosecution often led to lengthy pretrial detention, delaying trials for months or years. Observers noted the slow pace of investigations and lack of judicial resources hampered efforts to reduce pretrial detention and illegal incarceration. Authorities did not release some prisoners after they completed their full sentences due to the failure of judges to issue the necessary court order or other bureaucratic delays.
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.
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.
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
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 and a legal system that often permits spurious complaints.
Negotiations between the government and families affected by the construction of the Chixoy hydroelectric dam continued. As of October the government had paid approximately 99 percent of the 200 million quetzals ($26 million) in individual reparations to families affected by the dam. During the dam’s construction from 1975 to 1985, more than 400 individuals died and thousands were displaced.
The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. The intimidation of, and violence against, journalists resulted in significant self-censorship, however.
Freedom of Speech: Independent journalist Sonny Figueroa claimed harassment after he published a report claiming the director of the presidential commission Centro de Gobierno, Miguel Martinez, engaged in nepotism. Figueroa said the government denied him access to press events, and PNC officers harassed him on multiple occasions after he published the report.
Freedom of Press and 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.
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.
On February 27, unidentified gunmen entered journalist Bryan Guerra’s home and killed him. Before the incident, Guerra had reported threats on social media. On November 10, unidentified assailants on motorcycles attacked television director Mario Ortega in Post San Jose. Ortega died from his injuries on November 15. Media reported he had received telephone calls demanding extortion money.
The PNC arrested Anastasia Mejia, director of a local television and radio service, following her live radio and video reporting on an August 24 protest at the Joyabaj mayor’s office that resulted in damage to municipal property. Mejia was a vocal critic of the mayor and reported on allegations of corrupt practices by the mayor in awarding public contracts. As of November, Mejia’s case was under investigation in the Public Ministry’s Municipal Prosecution Office of Joyabaj. On October 28, Judge Susy Perez formally charged Mejia with sedition, attempted acts of violence, aggravated arson, and aggravated robbery. Judge Perez granted Mejia bail while her trial continued.
Public hearings began on November 16 in the “Journalists Case,” in which former congressman Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez was accused of ordering the murders of two journalists in Suchitepequez in 2015.
The government failed to establish a journalist protection program, a commitment the country accepted in 2012 during the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council. In December 2019 the Public Ministry inaugurated the Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists. The office reported 73 complaints of attacks or threats against journalists from January to August, compared with 51 during the same period of 2019, and one homicide compared with none reported in the same period of 2019.
Nongovernmental Impact: Organized crime exerted influence over media outlets and reporters, frequently threatening individuals for reporting on criminal activities.
The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.
Human rights defenders, journalists, as well as judges and lawyers on high-profile cases, reported social media attacks, including the hacking of their private social media accounts, publishing of stolen or falsified personal information, publishing of photographic surveillance of them and family members, and online defamation and hate speech. The government took little action to protect these individuals.
There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The Giammattei administration made ample use of states of exception, declaring 11 states of siege or prevention in various departments. The stated reasons for states of exception were combatting armed groups, preventing violence, resolving land conflict, and controlling a migrant caravan from Honduras. States of exception limit certain constitutional rights, including freedoms of association, assembly, and movement.
On February 11, congress passed the NGO Reform Law, which allows the government to cancel the registration of NGOs that it judged to be disturbing social order or breaking regulations. Under the law NGOs must register with up to half a dozen ministries, report international donations and income to the tax authority, and reregister any changes in function. President Giammattei signed the bill on February 27, but on March 2, the Constitutional Court granted a provisional injunction against the law for potential unconstitutionality.
Starting on November 21, thousands of demonstrators gathered in the capital and other cities across the country, protesting corruption and an opaque and irregular process used by the congress for the proposed 2021 national budget law. The government generally respected protesters’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. When a small group of individuals committed acts of vandalism and arson on November 21, including breaking into and setting fires inside the congressional building, the PNC used tear gas and nonlethal force to disperse the crowd. Protests continued over more than a two-week period. Media reports indicated the PNC displayed excessive use of force, which the PNC Internal Affairs Unit was investigating. On November 27, a justice of the peace ruled that PNC arrests on November 21 lacked merit and ordered a Public Ministry investigation of the PNC officers who participated in the arrests. PNC commanders ordered removal of all officers’ batons to avoid any perception of abuse.
See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.
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. As part of the COVID-19 pandemic response, the government also temporarily limited interdepartmental travel.
In support of public health, the government enacted a curfew as part of the state of calamity declared in response to COVID-19, with start times varying from late afternoon to early evening and end times in the early morning hours. During this time only emergency workers and food delivery service were allowed to circulate. The PNC reported 42,842 persons were arrested from March to September for breaking curfew, including two members of congress.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) expressed concern regarding violence against internally displaced persons (IDPs). The country does not officially recognize the existence of IDPs within its borders, with the exception of those displaced by climate change and natural disasters. The OHCHR reported more than 100 families were displaced from the Maya Biosphere Reserve in 2017. The report added the families had not received adequate government assistance and continued to struggle with poverty and landlessness. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center reported 21,000 new displacements as of November 15, the majority the result of rainy and cold seasons as well as the impact of hurricanes.
The government cooperated with UNHCR and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, or other persons of concern.
Abuse of Migrants and Refugees, and Stateless Persons: In August, UNHCR reported the violent death of a Salvadoran transgender asylum seeker in Guatemala and highlighted the increased risks and protection needs of the LGBTI community.
Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. UNHCR reported that identification and referral mechanisms for potential asylum seekers were inadequate, and despite regulations published in 2019, there continued to be gaps and lack of clarity in the procedures for implementing the legal framework. According to UNHCR, due to the centralized nature of the asylum procedures and documentation issuance, asylum seekers outside the capital faced significant obstacles, especially after the outbreak of the pandemic, which made travel to and from the capital often impossible. In response to the pandemic, the government closed the borders. With the intervention of central authorities and the PDH, those in need of protection were able to access the asylum process, although as of December none of the 440 cases filed during the year were adjudicated. The government and UNHCR signed a memorandum of understanding, published in September 2019, to significantly strengthen the asylum and protection system and increase capacity to process asylum seekers.
Access to Basic Services: UNHCR reported documentation needed to access government services, including health care, could cost in excess of 1,500 quetzals ($200), a prohibitive sum for some refugees. The government did not offer exceptions or reduced cost documents. Furthermore, UNHCR reported 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. A 2019 ministerial education agreement helped to ease that burden by creating mechanisms that 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.