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.
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.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
The government’s National Institute of Statistics estimated indigenous persons from 24 ethnic groups made up 44 percent of the population. The law provides for equal rights for indigenous persons and obliges the government to recognize, respect, and promote the lifestyles, customs, traditions, social organizations, and manner of dress of indigenous persons. The government does not, however, recognize particular indigenous groups as having a special legal status provided by national law.
Indigenous communities were underrepresented in national politics and remained largely outside the political, economic, social, and cultural mainstream. This was mainly due to limited educational opportunities (contrary to law), limited communication regarding their rights, and pervasive discrimination. Government agencies dedicated to supporting indigenous rights lacked political support. These factors contributed to disproportionate poverty and malnutrition among most indigenous populations.
Indigenous lands were not effectively demarcated, making the legal recognition of titles to the land problematic. Indigenous rights advocates asserted that security authorities’ lack of familiarity with indigenous norms and practices engendered misunderstandings.
Indigenous representatives claimed actors in a number of regional development projects failed to consult meaningfully with local communities. In some cases indigenous communities were not able to participate in decisions affecting the exploitation of resources in their communities, including energy, minerals, timber, rivers, or other natural resources. They also lacked effective mechanisms for dialogue with the state to resolve conflicts.
The Russian conglomerate Solway, which bought the Fenix nickel mine in Izabal Department in 2014, continued to stand accused of violence against indigenous activists and illegal extraction of undeclared materials. Observers in Izabal reported that as of September, the mine continued operations despite the 2019 court order to suspend activities. Observers reported that Solway employees were giving baskets of food and other bribes to locals to keep them from protesting the mine, as protests routinely disrupted mine operations. Observers also reported Solway was believed to have bribed municipal officials in El Estor to keep news of a COVID-19 outbreak on the mine compound from becoming public. The 2019 Constitutional Court order required the provisional closure of the mine until the Ministry of Energy and Mines conducted consultations compliant with Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) with local communities.
Xinka authorities reported the court-ordered consultations were not progressing in regards to the San Rafael mine. In 2018 the Constitutional Court ordered the Ministry of Energy and Mines to hold ILO Convention 169-compliant consultations with Xinka populations and upheld the suspension of the operating license of the San Rafael Mine until after conclusion of the consultations.
Other Societal Violence or Discrimination
Vigilante mobs attacked and killed those suspected of crimes such as rape, kidnapping, theft, or extortion on several occasions. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported three persons were lynched and 45 injured in attempted lynchings by vigilante groups from January through August.
On June 6, villagers in San Luis, Peten, killed Domingo Choc, an indigenous spiritual guide and expert on medicinal plants and traditional healing methods. The mob confronted Choc in his house, where they beat him and burned him to death on allegations that he was practicing witchcraft. The mob violence was widely circulated in social media and caught national and international attention, due to its graphic nature and Choc’s ties with the anthropology departments of University of College London and Zurich University for research on indigenous healing practices. Multiple local NGOs and international organizations raised the killing as evidence of continued violent discrimination against indigenous peoples and their belief systems. While police continued to investigate the incident, observers and analysts noted the perpetrators, caught on video, seemed to be primarily motivated by religious animus against traditional Mayan spiritual practices and traditions, accusing Choc of being a witch. President Giammattei strongly condemned the incident and convened an interfaith group to discuss the need to prevent violence against indigenous spiritual guides in the future.