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.
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.
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.
Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process
The constitution provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on nearly universal and equal suffrage for those aged 18 and older. Members of the armed forces, police, and incarcerated individuals are not eligible to vote.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: The Organization of American States and other international observers found some irregularities in the electoral process for the June and August 2019 elections, but none was significant enough to discredit the legitimacy and validity of the elections. President Alejandro Giammattei and the elected congressional deputies took office in January 2020 without disturbance. The Public Ministry continued to investigate allegations of illicit campaign financing in the 2015 elections, including a case against Sandra Torres and the National Unity of Hope Party. A substitute judge in High-Risk Court A granted Sandra Torres house arrest during her pretrial detention.
Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process and they did, to an extent, participate. Traditional and cultural practices, discrimination and institutional bias, and difficulty traveling to polling places in rural areas, however, limited participation of women and members of indigenous groups. There were two women serving in the 13-member cabinet, 31 in the 160-member congress, and nine among the 340 municipal mayors. While the indigenous population constituted an estimated 43 percent of the population, according to the 2018 government census, indigenous representation in national government was minimal. There was one indigenous member on the Constitutional Court and one on the Supreme Court. There were approximately 16 indigenous members of congress, of whom four were women. Indigenous individuals composed approximately one-third (90 of 340) of the mayoral seats elected in 2019.
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
Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, and sets penalties between five and 50 years in prison. Police had minimal training or capacity to investigate sexual crimes or assist survivors of such crimes, and the government did not enforce the law effectively. Rape and other sexual offenses remained serious problems.
The government took steps to combat femicide and violence against women. The judiciary continued to operate a 24-hour court in Guatemala City to offer services related to violence directed toward women, including sexual assault, exploitation, and trafficking of women and children. The judiciary also operated specialized courts for violence against women throughout the country, but not in every department. The Public Ministry maintained a 24-hour victim service center to provide medical, psychosocial, and legal support to victims, including restraining orders for their immediate protection. The ministry also maintained a national alert system for finding disappeared women. Sexual violence remained widespread despite these advances. The ministry reported that 3,684 women were victims of rape from January to August, compared with 6,231 women in the previous year. NGOs partially attributed the lower number of cases filed to barriers to accessing the Public Ministry during the COVID-19 pandemic, including modified working hours for Public Ministry offices.
The law establishes penalties for femicide of 25 to 50 years in prison without the possibility of reducing the sentence; however, femicide remained a significant problem. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported that from January to August, 302 women were killed, compared with 477 in the same period in 2019. According to judicial system data, 34 persons were convicted of femicide from January to November.
Violence against women, including sexual and domestic violence, remained widespread and serious. The law establishes penalties of five to eight years for physical, economic, and psychological violence committed against women due to their gender. As the government closed down nonessential businesses and most forms of travel, imposing a strict curfew for COVID-19, several NGOs, international organizations, and the government noted an increase in domestic abuse and violence against women. Data was scarce and difficult to collect, as some analysts noted women were not able to leave their homes to report abuses confidentially to police. Mutual Support Group estimated that domestic violence cases increased by nearly 200 percent compared with the previous year, noting 2,657 cases of “intrafamily violence” in the first six months. The Public Ministry recorded 39,399 instances of violence against women from January to August, compared with 40,993 in the same period of 2019. The ministry noted that the judicial system convicted 424 perpetrators of violence against women from January to August, compared with 1,149 in the same period of 2019.
In January, PNC officers arrested Francisco Cuxum Alvaradeo, 64, immediately after his deportation from the United States. The Public Ministry indicted him on charges of crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual assault against 36 Maya Achi women in Rabinal between 1981 and 1985. The Public Ministry indicted seven other defendants, former members of the civil defense patrols, on the same charges in 2018. The case against Cuxum was in the presentation of evidence phase, awaiting a resolution regarding the opening of a public trial. Cuxum’s case reopened the overall Maya Achi sexual violence case, which had remained blocked after a previous judge dismissed the charges against the seven other defendants and ordered their release. The case remained mired in a series of unresolved appeals.
Sexual Harassment: Although several laws refer to sexual harassment, no single law, including laws against sexual violence, address it in a direct manner. Human rights organizations reported sexual harassment was widespread.
Reproductive Rights: Couples and individuals have the right to decide the number, spacing, and timing of their children free from discrimination, coercion, and violence. They did not always have the information and means to do so.
Cultural, geographic, and linguistic barriers hampered access to reproductive health care including contraceptives, particularly for indigenous women in rural areas, where contraceptives were also least likely to be available locally. A lack of culturally sensitive reproductive and maternal health-care service providers deterred some indigenous women from accessing these services.
The government made progress to ensure that survivors of sexual violence who sought medical attention received sexual and reproductive health services, with some hospitals classifying sexual assault as a medical emergency; however, many survivors did not seek medical care due to cultural and geographic barriers.
Coercion in Population Control: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.
Discrimination: Although the law establishes the principle of gender equality, women, and particularly indigenous women, faced discrimination and were less likely to hold management positions.
Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country or from their parents. UNICEF described low birth registration as a “serious problem,” and UNHCR reported problems in registering births were especially acute in indigenous communities due to inadequate government registration and documentation systems. Lack of registration restricted children’s access to some public services and created conditions that could lead to statelessness.
Education: While primary education is free and compulsory through age 15, access was limited in many rural areas; education through the secondary level is not obligatory. International observers noted boys were prioritized for high school education in rural communities due to the need to travel long distances and girls’ perceived value in the home. UNICEF criticized the government’s education plan during the COVID-19 pandemic, citing its exclusively distance-learning education plan as unrealistic and discriminatory against most indigenous children, who lacked access to stable internet connections and computers.
Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious problem. A unit under the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Children and Adolescents handled child abuse cases. The Public Ministry opened an integrated 24-hour care model providing medical, psychosocial, and legal support to children and adolescent victims of violence. The ministry reported 4,001 reports of abuse of minors of all types, approximately 3,000 fewer than in 2019. The ministry reported 14 convictions for child abuse from January through August, compared with 54 during the same period in 2019. Closure of the courts for COVID-19 affected convictions for these cases.
NGOs supporting at-risk youth reported adolescents detained by police were subject to abusive treatment, including physical assaults.
Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18. There continued to be reports of early and forced marriages in some rural indigenous communities and in the Lev Tahor religious community, but the National Registry of Persons reported no attempted registration of underage marriage.
Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law provides sentences ranging from 13 to 24 years in prison, depending on the victim’s age, for engaging in sex with a minor. The minimum age of consensual sex is 18.
The law prohibits child pornography and establishes penalties of six to 10 years in prison for producing, promoting, and selling child pornography and two to four years’ imprisonment for possessing it. The Public Ministry and the PNC conducted several raids against alleged online child pornography networks. The Regional Unit against Trafficking in Persons, responsible for eight departments in the Western Highlands and launched in 2018, expanded the government’s investigative capacity against child pornography offenders. The commercial sexual exploitation of children, including child sex tourism, remained a problem, including in privately run orphanages.
Displaced Children: Criminals and gangs often recruited street children, many of them victims of domestic abuse, for purposes of theft, extortion, prostitution, transporting contraband, and conducting illegal drug activities.
Institutionalized Children: More than 500 children and adolescents lived in shelters operated by the Secretariat for Social Welfare (SBS). In 2019 the Secretariat against Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking in Persons transferred control of three shelters to the SBS, as mandated by the government. Observers noted the SBS responsibly maintained and improved the shelters despite fears from human rights observers that the transfer happened too soon and the SBS was not prepared to handle control of the shelters.
Overcrowding was common in both private and SBS shelters, and government funding for orphanages remained limited. Local and international human rights organizations, including Disability Rights International, raised concerns that child abuse was rampant. The OHCHR reported Hogar Esperanza, a private shelter for orphans and child victims of violence, sheltered children with disabilities but had no specialists able to care for them. The OHCHR also reported Hogar Esperanza was housing children in spaces that resembled cages. The OHCHR stated private shelters were often better than SBS shelters, but in cases like Hogar Esperanza, there was a clear need for reform to care adequately for children with disabilities.
Former SBS secretary Carlos Rodas and former deputy secretary for protection and shelter services Anahi Keller remained in pretrial detention with four others on charges of murder, abuse of authority, breach of duty, and abuse against minors following the deaths of 41 girls in a 2017 fire at the Hogar Seguro orphanage. As of October the case remained locked in a series of unresolved appeals and delays. The Constitutional Court ruled in July that the court in charge of the trial must accept evidence on the nature of the fire that was previously rejected in 2018. Some nongovernment analysts noted the judges might be intentionally delaying the Hogar Seguro case to wait for the new appeals court judges to be appointed, a process delayed since 2019. There were also accusations the judges intentionally delayed the case because the defendants were close to former president Jimmy Morales; several judges recused themselves from the case amid allegations of bias in favor of the defendants. The government did not make significant structural changes to the national system following the Hogar Seguro fire.
International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at .
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.
Section 7. Worker Rights
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all of the worst forms of child labor. The Ministry of Labor regulations set the minimum age for employment at 15 years. The law bars employment of minors younger than age 15, but it also allows the Ministry of Labor to authorize children younger than 15 to work in exceptional cases. The ministry’s inspectorate reported it did not authorize any exceptions during the year. The law prohibits persons younger than 18 from working in places that serve alcoholic beverages, in unhealthy or dangerous conditions, at night, or beyond the number of hours permitted. The legal workday for persons younger than 14 is six hours; for persons 14 to 17, it is seven hours. Child labor was nonetheless prevalent in the agricultural sector, in dangerous conditions, and with parents’ knowledge and consent.
The Ministry of Labor’s Child Worker Protection Unit is responsible for enforcing restrictions on child labor and educating minors, their parents, and employers on the rights of minors. Penalties were not commensurate with those for analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The government did not effectively enforce the law, a situation exacerbated by the weakness of the labor inspection and labor court systems. The government devoted insufficient resources to prevention programs. During restrictions imposed due to the pandemic, the Protection Unit largely worked from home, ineffectively enforcing the law.
The NGO Conrad Project Association of the Cross estimated the workforce included approximately one million children ages five to 17. Most child labor occurred in rural indigenous areas of extreme poverty. The informal and agricultural sectors regularly employed children younger than 14, usually in small family enterprises, including in the production of broccoli, coffee, corn, fireworks, gravel, and sugar. Indigenous children also worked in street sales and as shoe shiners and bricklayer assistants. An estimated 39,000 children, primarily indigenous girls, worked as domestic servants and were often vulnerable to physical and sexual abuse and sex trafficking. Traffickers exploited children in forced begging, street vending, and as street performers, particularly in Guatemala City and along the border with Mexico. Traffickers particularly targeted indigenous individuals, including children, for forced labor, including in tortilla-making shops. Criminal organizations, including gangs, exploited girls in sex trafficking and coerced young males in urban areas to sell or transport drugs or commit extortion.