Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. The country last held national and local elections in 2019. Voters elected Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei Falla of the We’re Going for a Different Guatemala political party as president for a four-year term beginning January 2020. International observers considered the presidential election 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. There were credible reports that members of security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; politically motivated reprisals against individuals in another country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence, threats of violence, and unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, or operation of nongovernmental and civil society organizations; serious government corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities and members of indigenous groups; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or intersex persons; and use of forced labor, including child labor.
Impunity continued to be widespread. Corruption, concerted efforts by organized criminal actors, and undermining of anticorruption institutions and the judiciary by corrupt political actors made meaningful investigation and prosecution of crimes, including corruption, involving public officials difficult.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties
e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons
The government does not officially recognize the existence of internally displaced persons (IDPs) within its borders, except for those displaced by climate change and natural disasters. Organizations that monitor and support IDPs stated this lack of recognition stifled efforts to manage and address the movement of persons within the country displaced due to violence, among other factors, because official statistics did not exist for IDPs. The government indicated a more open posture to discussing the issue, framed as a matter of vulnerable or “at-risk” communities, but critics claimed this definition did not address the full range of causes and effects of the movement of IDPs. Women, youth, and LGBTQI+ individuals, as well as indigenous populations, remained at heightened risk of displacement.
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. Despite numerous allegations of corruption among the legislative and executive branches of the government, few high-profile cases were prosecuted during the year, and anticorruption efforts within the judiciary stalled. Prominent anticorruption prosecutors were fired or removed from significant cases, and corrupt actors threatened independent judges by filing complaints based on spurious charges to strip them of immunity to prosecution.
On July 23, Attorney General Porras abruptly fired the head of the Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, Juan Francisco Sandoval. On the evening of July 23, Sandoval fled the country after he held a press conference at the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, in which he implicated several sitting and former government officials in corruption cases. Over the following weeks, protesters demonstrated in support of Sandoval and called for the attorney general’s removal. On September 2, a criminal court issued an arrest warrant for Sandoval for the crimes of obstruction of justice and failure in performance of official duties. On November 30, the Public Ministry announced a new set of charges against Sandoval including abuse of authority, fraud, and conspiracy related to deals Sandoval allegedly made with cooperating witnesses in corruption cases. As of December 16, Sandoval remained out of the country.
Threats against independent judges also posed a threat to anticorruption efforts. Judges who presided over high-profile criminal cases faced continued efforts to strip them of their immunity, which would expose them to potential prosecution and retaliation for their judicial rulings.
The Presidential Commission Against Corruption serves the administrative function of introducing reforms that promote transparency, but it lacked both the resources and the mandate to actively investigate corruption cases. During the year civil society representatives criticized the commission for a perceived lack of independence.
Corruption: As of November former communications minister Jose Luis Benito remained a fugitive, and authorities requested an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest. In October 2020 the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity seized approximately 122 million quetzals ($15.9 million) in cash found in 22 suitcases inside Benito’s home in the city of Antigua, and the Public Ministry subsequently issued an arrest warrant for Benito on charges of money laundering.
On May 12, the special prosecutor against impunity presented formal charges against former member of congress Alejandro Sinibaldi in the Transurbano case. Sinibaldi had originally been expected to cooperate as a witness in the prosecution of the case but was eventually formally charged with money laundering and other crimes. The Transurbano case involving former president Alvaro Colom, 10 of his ministers, and former chief of staff Gustavo Alejos Cambara, involved a 2008 agreement signed by the ministers that allowed the urban bus company to form anonymous corporations and begin siphoning funds from a prepaid fare program. Sinibaldi was previously 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; and a case of alleged illegal campaign financing in 2011.
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. On May 19, the government dropped some of the charges levied against Perez Molina, including one linked to money laundering. On the same day, in a move that was widely criticized by domestic and international civil society, the government arrested Juan Francisco Solorzano Foppa, a former investigator on the original case that brought Perez Molina’s case to trial, and Anibal Arguello, a lawyer who had worked for the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala and who was a witness in the main case against Perez Molina. As of December both Foppa and Arguello remained under house arrest.
Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses
HIV and AIDS Social Stigma
The law prohibits discrimination based on HIV/AIDS status. Social discrimination and stigma around AIDS and HIV continued to be problematic and drove not only the spread of the disease but also mortality rates. Some government authorities required citizens to reveal HIV/AIDS test results to receive certain public benefits, and some employers required similar disclosure to be hired.
Discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons with HIV or AIDS was particularly common and affected access to HIV-prevention programs, especially for transgender individuals.
Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity
Extreme violence against LGBTQI+ persons remained a persistent issue and escalated during the year. According to an annual report from the Lambda Association, there were 17 killings of LGBTQI+ persons from January to July in which the violence could plausibly be linked to the victims’ sexual orientation or gender identity. The Lambda Association also reported that most homicides and general crimes of prejudice against LGBTQI+ persons occurred either in the capital, Guatemala City, or in Izabal. In June three of the 17 killed were killed in the span of one week. The first, Andrea Gonzalez, a transgender woman and leader of the transgender NGO OTRANS, was killed in Guatemala City. The second, also a member of OTRANS, Cecy Caricia Ixtapa, was killed in the interior of the country. Government authorities originally reported Ixtapa’s death as caused by complications from cancer, but her family members and members of OTRANS reported she was attacked by two unknown assailants. The third of the June killings was a gay man who was shot and killed in Morales, Izabal.
Openly gay and HIV-positive congressman Aldo Davila reported death threats because of his public denunciations of corrupt officials. The threats often included harassing mentions of his sexual orientation.
According to NGOs that work on gender matters, the government reversed progress in recognition and acceptance of sexual and gender diversity, as evidenced by the minister of education cancelling a public-school module that taught sexual diversity and the increased discrimination against sexual education overall as ordered in the Executive Policy of the Protection of Life and the Family announced by President Giammattei in July.
LGBTQI+ advocates pointed to structural problems that created internal displacement, discrimination, sexual exploitation, and child abuse among members of the community. The largest of these remained government-issued national identification cards that are used to access basic services and education resources but that do not allow transgender persons to receive identification cards with their chosen names or correct gender identification. Without identification that reflected the name and gender under which they lived, transgender persons were denied many government services.
LGBTQI+ groups claimed lesbian, bisexual, and queer women experienced specific forms of discrimination, such as forced marriages and “corrective” rape intended to cause pregnancy, although these incidents were rarely, if ever, reported to authorities.
According to LGBTQI+ activists, gay and transgender individuals often experienced police abuse. LGBTQI+ human rights groups stated, for example, that police regularly engaged in extortion and harassed male and transgender individuals whom they alleged to be sex workers.
Lambda and other LGBTQI+ organizations reported a lack of will on the part of police to investigate fully hate crimes and violence against LGBTQI+ persons. The law does not extend specific antidiscrimination protections to LGBTQI+ individuals based on their sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, or sex characteristics.
There was general societal discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons in access to education, health care, employment, and housing. The government made minimal efforts to address this discrimination.
Section 7. Worker Rights
c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment
The law does not prohibit all 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 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 generally 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 inspectorate and labor court systems. The government devoted insufficient resources to prevention programs.
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. The Pan American Defense Fund published a report in July on tortilla-making shops in urban centers in five different departments employing underage indigenous girls. The report found that more than one-half of the girls worked more than 15 hours per day, worked in departments outside of where their families were, and were mostly paid less than the legal minimum wage. According to the report, the parents of the underage girls working in these shops often gave permission for the girls to work in these shops and took their salaries for household expenses.
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.
d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation
The law explicitly prohibits discrimination with respect to employment or occupation based on race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin or citizenship, age, and disability. The government did not effectively enforce the law and related regulations. Penalties were not commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred. Anecdotally, wage discrimination based on race and sex occurred often in rural areas. Upon returning to Guatemala, some deportees had difficulty joining the workforce and were discriminated against, for suspicion of being involved in gang activity.
e. Acceptable Conditions of Work
Wage and Hour Laws: The law sets national minimum wages for agricultural and nonagricultural work and for work in garment factories. The minimum wages for agricultural and nonagricultural work and for work in export-sector-regime factories did not meet the minimum food budget for a family of five.
The Ministry of Labor conducted some inspections to monitor compliance with minimum wage law provisions but often lacked the means of transportation for proper enforcement. The legal workweek is 48 hours with at least one paid 24-hour rest period. The law prohibits workers from working more than 12 hours a day. The law provides for 12 paid annual holidays and paid vacation of 15 working days after one year’s work. Daily and weekly maximum hour limits do not apply to domestic workers. Workers in the formal sector receive the standard pay for a day’s work for official annual holidays. Time-and-a-half pay is required for overtime work, and the law prohibits excessive compulsory overtime.
Labor inspectors reported uncovering numerous instances of overtime abuse, but effective enforcement was undermined due to inadequate fines and labor courts’ reluctance to use compulsory measures, such as increased fines and referrals to the criminal courts, to obtain compliance. During the pandemic these problems worsened as the labor courts closed to the public, performing minimal administrative duties as officials tried to work from home. Other factors contributing to the lack of effective enforcement included labor court inefficiencies, employer refusal to permit labor inspectors to enter facilities or provide access to payroll records and other documentation, and inspectors’ lack of follow-up inspections in the face of such refusals.
Trade union leaders and human rights groups reported employers required workers to work overtime without legally mandated premium pay. Management often manipulated employer-provided transportation to worksites to force employees to work overtime, especially in export-processing zones located in isolated areas with limited transportation alternatives. Noncompliance with minimum wage provisions in the agricultural and informal sectors was widespread. Advocacy groups estimated most workers in rural areas who engaged in daylong employment did not receive the wages, benefits, or social security allocations required by law. Many employers in the agricultural sector reportedly conditioned payment of the minimum daily wage on excessive production quotas that workers generally were unable to meet. To meet the quota, workers believed themselves compelled to work extra hours, sometimes bringing family members, including children, to help with the work. Because of having to work beyond the maximum allowed hours per day, workers received less than the minimum wage for the day and did not receive the required overtime pay.
Local unions highlighted and protested violations by employers who failed to pay employer and employee contributions to the national social security system despite employee contribution deductions from workers’ paychecks. These violations, particularly common in export and agricultural industries, resulted in limiting or denying employees’ access to the public health system and reducing or underpaying workers’ pension benefits during their retirement years.
Many employers of domestic servants routinely paid less than minimum wage, failed to register their employees with the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security, and demanded 16-hour days for six or more days a week for live-in staff. Many of these same employees were summarily dismissed at the beginning of the pandemic or advised to stay in the home of their employer without traveling back to their own families or communities due to concern about spreading the virus. An undetermined number of dismissed employees returned to their previous employers as conditions stabilized.
Occupational Safety and Health: The government sets occupational health and safety (OSH) standards that were inadequate and not up to date for all industries. The government did not effectively enforce OSH laws. Penalties for OSH violations were not commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence. The situation worsened during the pandemic and labor experts reported on some employers from the apparel industry not providing personal protective equipment and ignoring COVID-19 safety guidelines. The law does not provide for the right of workers to remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment.
The Ministry of Labor obtained 28 new vehicles, using private donations, to provide transportation for inspectors in all 22 departments of the country, including four vehicles for Guatemala City. These vehicles had yet to be deployed as of November but were needed, since inspectors often lacked vehicles or fuel to carry out inspections, and in some cases they failed to take effective action to gain access to worksites in response to employers’ refusal to permit labor inspectors access to facilities. Inspectors were encouraged to seek police assistance as required. Inspections were generally not comprehensive, and if complaint driven, focused on investigating the alleged violation rather than attempting to maximize limited resources to determine compliance beyond the individual complaint. The ministry did not employ enough labor inspectors to deter violations, and many of them performed reviews on paper or administrative duties rather than clearly defined inspection duties. Although the labor inspectorate hired seven additional officers and started the process to hire seven more, the number of inspectors was still insufficient to successfully enforce labor law.
In July the ministry reopened its in-person service windows in Guatemala City to receive labor complaints. During the pandemic the ministry had closed its offices to the public, and workers were unable to present complaints in person; however, the ministry opened a call center and created a website to receive labor violation complaints remotely. The ministry established a hotline to receive complaints, but workers stated that often no one answered their calls. The ministry later developed a web portal for complaints, but not all workers had access to internet. The number of inspections conducted decreased during the pandemic.
Due to inefficient and lengthy court proceedings, the resolution of labor court cases was often delayed, in many instances for several years. Employers failing to provide a safe workplace were rarely sanctioned, and a law requiring companies with more than 50 employees to provide onsite medical facilities for their workers was not enforced.
Informal Sector: According to ILO statistics, 74 percent of the workforce worked in the informal sector and outside the basic protections afforded by law. Types of informal work include street and market vendors, recyclers and trash pickers, day laborer construction workers, day laborers, and short-term (20 to 30 day) agricultural workers usually hired through recruiters and without a labor contract or direct-hire relationship with the employer.
Informal economy workers had no formal labor relationship that would make them subject to labor law. They were not directly hired by an employer and were not subject to wage, hour, OSH, or inspection laws. They were not subject to Social Security and had no way to accumulate credits for health care or pension. There were no government entities that provided social protections for informal economy workers.