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 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person
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 five complaints of homicide by police, three more than in 2020. The PNC did not provide further information on any of these cases.
The nongovernmental organization (NGO) Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) alleged that at least seven members of rural and indigenous activist groups were killed or died in disputed circumstances between January and November. Some of the killings appeared to be politically motivated, and all the cases remained under investigation at year’s end. On September 20, indigenous rights defender Ramon Jimenez was found dead with gunshot and blunt weapon wounds in El Volcan, Jalapa. Jimenez worked for an indigenous collective that promotes indigenous rights and had clashed with local political and business leaders over his advocacy for fellow farmers and taxi drivers. As of November 29, a total of 10 activists or human rights defenders were killed.
The national government’s prosecution of Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez continued. Rodriguez Sanchez, former intelligence chief under former president Rios Montt, was accused of genocide against the Maya Ixil community during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict (1960-1996). On February 21, an appellate court ruled against the appeal of the 2018 ruling that acquitted Rodriguez Sanchez of all crimes. On March 19, the Public Ministry brought the case before the Supreme Court, but as of November 29, a final resolution had not been issued.
In the case regarding Luis Enrique Garcia Mendoza, operations commander under former president Rios Montt, Judge Jimmi Bremer of High-Risk Court C scheduled a hearing for October 11 to rule on whether there was sufficient evidence to bring the case to public trial against Garcia Mendoza on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity. The hearing was suspended and rescheduled for February 2022.
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 (1978-1982). Three high-ranking military officers, Cesar Octavio Noguera Argueta, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, and Benedicto Lucas Garcia, were charged in this case. The prosecution continued against Callejas and Lucas; Noguera died in November 2020. 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. On August 30, Judge Miguel Angel Galvez ruled there was sufficient evidence to bring the case to public trial. As of November 29, the trial had not been scheduled. Callejas and Lucas were both previously convicted of serious crimes in the Molina Theissen case and were serving 58-year prison 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 1960-1996 internal armed conflict period, although at times Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras stalled cases of genocide and disappearances from that period. There was a high-level nationwide debate spawned by congress’ consideration of a bill that would grant amnesty for all atrocities committed during the civil war.
On May 27, a High-Risk Court judge issued 17 arrest warrants for individuals materially involved with, or who directly enforced, disappearances, torture, rape, and extrajudicial executions in 1983 and 1985, as documented in a leaked military file referred to as Diario Militar. The PNC initially detained 11 of the 17 individuals and detained a 12th when he voluntarily attended a related judicial proceeding. Five more individuals remained at large and were being sought by victims’ families. Initial judicial hearings to proceed to trial began in September after months of stalling by the defendants’ lawyers and attempts to dismiss the judge.
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 1960-1996 armed conflict. The delay in resolving several appeals and recusal motions filed in 2016 prevented the opening of a full trial. Byron Barrientos and Carlos Garavito remained in custody. 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 cases of prison officials’ negligence that allowed prisoners to experience violence and degrading conditions. 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. The OHCHR also noted that many official complaints cited unsafe and cramped conditions at Federico Mora National Hospital for Mental Health during the COVID-19 pandemic. Most of these complaints remained unresolved.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there was one allegation submitted in February 2020 of sexual exploitation and abuse by a Guatemalan peacekeeper deployed to the UN Organization Stabilization Mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The allegation involved rape of a child. Both the government and the United Nations launched investigations into the allegation, but as of November both inquiries remained pending.
Impunity within the PNC was not a widespread or systemic issue. Impunity from prosecution for serious crimes within the PNC declined, with several high-profile convictions of PNC officers sentenced to imprisonment. Lesser crimes of negligence and bribery by officers continued, however, with few convictions. As of October more than 90 police officers were removed from the force based on bribery allegations. Most of the cases were documented in social media with videos taken by civilians. These removals formed part of PNC institutional policy to combat corruption. These instances appeared scattered and not related to military orders. Negligence by officers largely resulted from 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.
In some areas impunity remained a significant problem in the PNC and the military. Impunity was evident in the Port, Airports, and Border Points Division (DIPAFRONT) of PNC forces dedicated to investigating crimes involving national borders, such as drug trafficking, smuggling, contraband and evasion of paying taxes by moving money outside the country. International law enforcement organizations reported private-sector actors paid some DIPAFRONT officers to avoid investigations into their operations. Government records did not include internal investigations in the PNC of these bribes.
Impunity for high-level officials from disciplinary or criminal prosecution existed. In several instances when PNC or Public Ministry investigators opened a case against high-level officials, the investigators were subsequently removed.
The PNC utilizes three mechanisms to identify and investigate abuses: an anonymous tip line using a landline telephone number, a tip line to receive complaints using a messaging application, and in-person complaints. The PNC Internal Affairs Division conducts internal surveillance of PNC officers’ performance and follows a disciplinary process with an internal tribunal to decide cases. That division wiretaps criminal structures found to be working with corrupt PNC officers, but the unit was not authorized to investigate criminal structures within the PNC. The government’s main mechanism to rid the PNC of corruption is to remove PNC officers suspected of these abuses, often without investigation or tribunal. The PNC has a unit devoted to criminal investigation of human rights violations, funded by donor countries, but the unit lacked political and material support.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and 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.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding was a problem. As of August 31, according to prison authorities, there were 24,989 inmates held in facilities designed to hold 6,997 persons. To ease prison overcrowding, the Rehabilitation Subdirectorate of the penitentiary system processed 3,680 early release requests from April to October, more than double the previous year’s figure. Better coordination between sentencing judges and defense attorneys led to 1,398 inmates being granted early release by the courts during the same period.
As of December 10, there were 596 juvenile inmates in four traditional detention centers and the halfway house, which were designed for 557 inmates. Another 1,242 juvenile inmates were held in three new alternative measures facilities. Despite a reduction in overcrowding, there were 231 inmates in the Centro Juvenil de Privacion de Libertad para Varones juvenile detention facility, designed for 155 individuals. The courts had not sentenced approximately 18 percent of juvenile inmates held in detention.
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 17 inmates died of unnatural causes while in prison. On August 11, after prison officials transferred Barrio 18 gang leaders from the overcrowded El Infiernito Prison to other facilities, in part to curtail their extorsion practices and other criminal activity, gang members took 18 guards hostage, including the prison director. The hostages were released after officials returned the Barrio 18 leaders to El Infiernito. The adult penitentiary system added a K-9 unit to search for narcotics and cell phones in its new correctional model as a measure to reduce criminal activity.
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.
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, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) rights groups stated that other prisoners often sexually assaulted LGBTQI+ individuals, and there were insufficient facilities to protect LGBTQI+ individuals in custody. NGOs claimed admittance procedures for LGBTQI+ 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 well-being of prisoners are respected, also periodically visited prison facilities.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions, but there were credible reports of harassment of the families of officials. A prosecutor reported that in October, after her office removed her from a high-profile corruption case, unknown individuals in unmarked cars photographed her mother and sister outside their houses on several occasions.
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.