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:
a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings
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.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
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.
Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees
The law requires presentation of a court-issued warrant to a suspect prior to arrest unless police apprehend a suspect while in the act of committing a crime. Police may not detain a suspect for more than six hours without bringing the case before a judge. Authorities did not regularly respect this right. 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.
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.
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.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals and organizations have access to administrative and judicial remedies to submit lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation or other alleged wrongs. While the judiciary was generally impartial and independent in civil matters, it suffered from inefficiencies 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.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.
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 5. Governmental Attitude Regarding 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.
A number of NGOs, human rights workers, and trade unionists reported threats, violence, and intimidation. The NGO Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) reported 10 killings of human rights defenders from January through June and 677 attacks against human rights defenders in the same period, compared with 494 attacks in all of 2019. According to UDEFEGUA, attacks related to land disputes and exploitation of natural resources, involving mainly indigenous communities, increased drastically after COVID-19 restrictions were implemented, affecting 70 communities between January and June. 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 13 new unfounded judicial cases filed against human rights defenders. As of October the Foundation Against Terrorism, led by Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, had on file more than 100 cases, both civil and criminal, against human rights and transitional justice NGOs, human rights defenders, and judicial workers.
The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The mandate of the UN International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) expired in September 2019 and was not renewed as it had been in previous years. CICIG cases were transferred to the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity in the Public Ministry. Subsequently, local CICIG employees reported harassment and spurious lawsuits for performing their duties for CICIG.
Government Human Rights Bodies: The PDH monitors the human rights set forth in the constitution and reports to congress. The PDH opposed several congressional bills during the year, including the NGO law (see section 2.b.). On July 8, the Congressional Committee on Human Rights voted to bring the ombudsman to a congressional plenary session to answer questions regarding the display of the LGBTI pride flag at the PDH offices and the circulation of a reproductive rights pamphlet after the Supreme Court banned the promotion of abortion. Civil society NGOs speculated the PDH was brought to congress as an intimidation tactic, perhaps even to call a dismissal vote. While the PDH attempted to operate independently and issued public reports and recommendations as in past years, congress applied significant political pressure, including threats to withhold the PDH’s funding. NGOs generally considered the Office of the PDH to be an effective institution with limitations in rural areas due to lack of resources.
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 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.
On July 30, 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 on August 1, the three had 90 days to transfer their files to existing institutions such as the PDH and the Secretariat for Planning and Programming. 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. It also was not clear which government entity would continue negotiations for Chixoy reparations. Civil society representatives said that dissolving the Secretariat for Peace could lead to a lack of mechanisms for payment of reparations to victims of the armed conflict and the loss of important files that could be used as evidence in transitional justice cases.