Note: This report was updated 4/12/17; see Appendix F: Errata for more information.
Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. On January 14, Jimmy Morales of the National Convergence Front (FCN) party was sworn into office for a four-year term as president. International observers considered the presidential election held in 2015 as generally free and fair.
Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over the security forces.
Principal human rights abuses included widespread institutional corruption, particularly in the police and judicial sectors; security force involvement in serious crimes, such as kidnapping, drug trafficking, trafficking in persons, and extortion; and societal violence, including lethal violence against women.
Other human rights problems included arbitrary or unlawful killings, abuse and mistreatment by National Civil Police (PNC) members; harsh and sometimes life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; prolonged pretrial detention; failure of the judicial system to conduct full and timely investigations and fair trials; government failure to fully protect judicial officials, witnesses, and civil society representatives from intimidation and threats; and internal displacement of persons. In addition, there was sexual harassment and discrimination against women; child abuse, including the commercial sexual exploitation of children; discrimination and abuse of persons with disabilities; and trafficking in persons and human smuggling, including of unaccompanied children. Other problems included marginalization of indigenous communities and ineffective mechanisms to address land conflicts; discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity; and ineffective enforcement of labor and child labor laws.
The government cooperated with the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) to strengthen the rule of law and prosecute officials who committed abuses. Impunity continued to be widespread. Gangs, organized crime, and narcotics trafficking organizations committed numerous acts of violence; corruption and inadequate investigation made prosecution 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 several reports that the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings. As of August 31, the PNC and its Office of Professional Responsibility (ORP), the mechanism for investigating security force abuses, reported no complaints of homicide. The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office (PDH), however, reported one complaint of murder, and the Attorney General’s Office, commonly known as the Public Ministry, reported one case of homicide, three cases of manslaughter, and one case of premeditated murder by PNC officers through August. Local media reported that a PNC officer killed a grocery store owner on January 4 in Santiago Atitlan, Solola. The trial was pending at year’s end.
On October 9, authorities arrested 13 members of the military from the San Juan Sacatepequez military brigade for the alleged extrajudicial killing of Hector Donaldo Contreras Sanchez in December 2015. According to media reports, the soldiers accused Contreras of consuming marijuana and proceeded to beat him unconscious. Forensics report later found no evidence of the victim being under the influence of alcohol or drugs. The case was under Public Ministry investigation at year’s end.
On January 6, the Public Ministry arrested 14 high-ranking former military officers on charges of human rights violations for hundreds of extrajudicial executions during the internal armed conflict (1990-96) at former Military Zone 21, a site currently known as the Regional Training Command for Peacekeeping Operations (CREOMPAZ) in Coban, Verapaz. The CREOMPAZ case was assigned to a high-risk court, a special court created in 2009 with competence to hear cases that pose a serious risk to the judges, the prosecutor, the defense, or any other individual involved in the case. On June 7, the court found sufficient evidence to send eight individuals to trial. On September 14, the Public Ministry appealed the exclusion of a number of charges in the proceedings. At year’s end the trial date had not been confirmed.
Retrial proceedings restarted on March 16 against former head of state Efrain Rios Montt and his intelligence chief, Jose Mauricio Rodriguez Sanchez, in the case of genocide involving the Maya Ixil community. Proceedings had been suspended after the First Court of Appeals ruled that Rios Montt and Rodriguez Sanchez should be tried separately. Rios Montt had been found guilty of genocide and crimes against humanity and was originally sentenced to 80 years in prison. Later the Constitutional Court overturned the conviction on procedural grounds and returned the case to a different court for rehearing. In 2015 a high-risk court determined that Rios Montt was mentally unfit for public trial but ordered that the trial continue behind closed doors and with a guardian present. It also ruled that any verdict could be used only for the application of corrective measures on behalf of the victims and that Rios Montt cannot be sentenced to prison.
On November 16, in a different case against Rios Montt, a high-risk court dismissed a motion by the defense team to suspend criminal prosecution for genocide and crimes against humanity. The defense argued that Rios Montt was mentally unfit to stand trial. The court was scheduled to rule on February 9, 2017, on whether to send Rios Montt to trial. At year’s end the retrial dates had not been set for either case.
As of December the government had paid $14.2 million in reparations to families affected by the Chixoy Hydro-Electric Dam. During the dam’s construction (1975-85), more than 400 individuals died and thousands were displaced. As part of a 2014 reparations agreement, the government agreed to pay $156 million over 15 years in individual and community reparations to those who were affected.
There were no new reports of politically motivated disappearances. The government took actions to investigate and prosecute cases of forced disappearances from the internal armed conflict period (1960-96). On January 6, four high-ranking retired army officers were arrested for the 1981 forced disappearance of minor Marco Antonio Molina Theissen. On August 22, the Attorney General’s Office presented new charges against retired army general Benedicto Lucas Garcia, who was also charged in the CREOMPAZ mass graves case. On October 25, a high-risk court found sufficient evidence to charge Lucas Garcia with illegal detention, torture, and sexual violence, and it accepted new charges of aggravated sexual assault for the other four defendants. The court was to determine whether all five defendants would go to trial on January 13, 2017.
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
Although the constitution and law prohibit torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, there were credible reports of abuse and other mistreatment by PNC members.
In October preliminary hearings, a court ordered the trial of PNC agents Carlos Baten Perez, Rogelio Perez Hernandez, Nancy Evelia Rodriguez Alai, and Cesar Augusto Funes Morales for the torture and illegal detention of four suspects in April 2015 in the Villa Nueva suburb of Guatemala City. As of November the case was in the evidentiary phase, during which the Public Ministry presents all available evidence in advance of the trial.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening, with multiple instances of inmates killing other inmates. Sexual assault, inadequate sanitation and medical care, and gross overcrowding continued to place prisoners at significant risk. On July 18, prisoner Byron Lima Oliva, a former army captain, was killed, along with 12 others, inside the Pavon prison. Lima Oliva was serving a 20-year sentence for the 1998 murder of human rights defender Bishop Juan Jose Gerardi and had alleged ties to political corruption and narcotics-trafficking networks. At year’s end CICIG was investigating the case.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding continued to be a problem. According to the prison system registry, as of September 6, there were 20,743 inmates, including 1,974 women, held in facilities designed to hold 6,742 persons. Physical conditions including sanitation and bathing facilities, dental and medical care, ventilation, temperature control, and lighting were wholly inadequate. Prisoners had difficulty obtaining potable water, complained of inadequate food, and often had to pay for additional sustenance. Illegal drug sales and use continued to be widespread. Prison officials continued to report a loss of safety and control, including escape attempts, gang fights, inability to control the flow of contraband goods into prisons, and the fabrication of weapons. Prisoners continued to direct criminal activity both inside and outside of prisons. From January through September 5, at least 55 inmates died of unnatural causes while in prison.
Conditions for male and female prisoners were generally comparable throughout the country. Media and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) reported that female and juvenile inmates faced continuing physical and sexual abuse. Female inmates reported unnecessary body searches and verbal abuse by prison guards. Children below age four could live in prison with their mothers, although the penitentiary system provided inadequate food for young children, and many suffered from illness. Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex (LGBTI) rights groups alleged that other prisoners often sexually assaulted LGBTI individuals and that there were insufficient facilities to protect LGBTI individuals under custody. The Ministry of Government approved treatment standards for LGBTI prisoners in 2015, and NGOs trained authorities on their implementation during the year, although NGOs considered the improvements to be minimal. Occasionally authorities held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners, juveniles with adults, and male and female detainees together.
Media reported similar conditions of abuse and overcrowding at the four juvenile detention centers administered separately by the Secretariat of Social Welfare. In October a judge ordered the closing of the annex of one of the detention centers for one year and mandated reform of the facilities.
Administration: The government’s independent Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) and the National Office for the Prevention of Torture (NOPT), whose responsibilities include prisoner rights, received complaints and conducted oversight of the prison system. The PDH and the NOPT can submit recommendations to the prison system based on complaints. No independent agency or unit, however, had a mandate to change or implement policy or to act on behalf of prisoners and detainees. Recordkeeping remained inadequate.
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 of inhuman conditions and treatment or to document the results of such investigations in a publicly accessible manner.
Independent Monitoring: The government permitted visits by local and international human rights groups, the Organization of American States (OAS), public defenders, and religious groups. The PDH and the NOPT also periodically visited prison facilities. The PDH reported it was sometimes difficult to gain access to the juvenile detention centers administered by the Secretariat of Social Welfare.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The constitution and law prohibit arbitrary arrest and detention, but there were credible reports of extrajudicial arrests, illegal detentions, and denial of timely access to a magistrate and hearing, as required by law.
ROLE OF THE POLICE AND SECURITY APPARATUS
The PNC, which is overseen by the Ministry of Government and headed by a director general appointed by the ministry, is responsible for law enforcement and maintenance of order 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 in internal security and policing as permitted by the constitution.
Civilian authorities in some instances failed to maintain effective control over the PNC, and the government lacked effective mechanisms to investigate and punish abuse and corruption. Despite a 5 percent increase in its operating budget, the PNC remained understaffed, inadequately trained, and insufficiently funded, all of which substantially impeded its effectiveness.
There were reports of impunity involving security forces. In cases involving police forces, the ORP is responsible for internal investigations and the Public Ministry is responsible for external investigations. Authorities arrested approximately 272 police officials through August, similar to the previous year’s rate. A Police Reform Commission, established under a previous administration, has a legal mandate to make necessary changes to reform the police forces. Under this framework the commission developed software to improve PNC information systems, including through a new automated victim support system that consolidates information from victims as soon as they interact with PNC at the police station; created a professional school for officers and a formal education policy; and provided almost all of the country’s 54 Victim Support Offices with improved facilities and upgraded information systems.
During the year there were 747 complaints of police extortion and 206 for abuse of authority, compared with 31 and 856, respectively, in 2015. The PNC routinely transferred officers suspected of wrongdoing rather than investigating and punishing them.
Critics accused police of indiscriminate and illegal detentions when conducting antigang operations in some high-crime neighborhoods. Security officials allegedly arrested and imprisoned suspected gang members without warrants or on fabricated drug charges. The local press also reported police involvement in kidnappings for ransom.
On March 3, a soldier, Guilber Josue Barrios, allegedly drugged and raped a 14-year-old student at a civil-military institute administered by the Ministry of Defense. The suspect absconded, which prevented his trial from moving forward. A number of NGOs asserted that the Ministry of Defense demonstrated a lack of effective collaboration with civilian authorities to prevent this type of incident.
The ORP conducted internal investigations of misconduct by police officers. In the first eight months of the year, the ORP reported receiving 1,462 complaints alleging misconduct by police personnel.
All new PNC and military soldiers receive some training in human rights and professional ethics. During the year the Ministry of Defense elevated its Office of Human Rights to a directorate, providing it direct access to the minister; more than doubled its personnel; and conducted active outreach to human rights organizations.
The government took actions to investigate and prosecute cases of sexual abuse from the internal armed conflict period. On February 26, retired army officers Esteelmer Reyes and Heriberto Valdez were sentenced to 120 and 240 years of prison, respectively, for sexual violence and domestic and sexual slavery involving 15 indigenous women in Sepur Zarco in 1982-83.
ARREST PROCEDURES AND TREATMENT OF DETAINEES
The law requires presentation of a court-issued warrant to a suspect prior to arrest unless police apprehend a suspect while in the act of committing a crime. Police may not detain a suspect for more than six hours without bringing the case before a judge. Authorities did not regularly respect this right and did not promptly inform some detainees of the charges against them. After arraigning suspects, the prosecutor generally has three months to complete the investigation and file a case in court or seek a formal extension of the detention period. The law prohibits the execution of search warrants between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless the government has declared a state of siege. Judges can order house arrest for some suspects. The law provides for access to lawyers and bail for most crimes. The government provides legal representation for indigent detainees and detainees have access to family members. A judge has the discretion to determine whether bail is permissible for pretrial detainees.
Arbitrary Arrest: There were no reliable data on the number of arbitrary detentions, although most accounts indicated that police continued to ignore writs of habeas corpus in cases of illegal detention, particularly during neighborhood anti-gang operations.
Pretrial Detention: As of September 6, prison system records indicated 46 percent of prisoners were in pretrial detention. The law establishes a three-month limit for pretrial detention but authorities regularly held detainees past their legal trial or release dates. Lengthy investigations and frequent procedural motions by both defense and prosecution often led to lengthy pretrial detentions, delaying trials for months or years. Authorities did not release some prisoners after completing their full sentences due to the failure of judges to issue the necessary court order or other bureaucratic delays.
Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: Suspects are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention. If successful, their release is not immediate and usually takes several days. There was no compensation for those ruled unlawfully detained.
e. Denial of Fair Public Trial
The constitution and the law provide for an independent judiciary. The judicial system failed to provide fair or timely trials due to inefficiency, corruption, insufficient personnel, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses.
Judges, prosecutors, plaintiffs, and witnesses continued to report threats, intimidation, and surveillance, most often from drug-trafficking organizations. By the end of September, the special prosecutor for crimes against judicial workers received 192 complaints of threats or aggression against workers in the judicial branch, compared with 202 for the same period in 2015.
CICIG assisted the Ministry of Government and Public Ministry with the investigation of cases, including allegations of extrajudicial executions, extortion, trafficking in persons, improper adoptions, corruption, and drug trafficking.
The Supreme Court continued to seek the suspension of judges and to conduct criminal investigations of improprieties or irregularities in cases under its jurisdiction. The Judicial Disciplinary Unit investigated 1,178 complaints of wrongdoing against judges, technicians, and judiciary administrative staff through October, held hearings on 570 complaints, and applied sanctions in 360 cases, including disciplinary suspension without pay (277 cases) and recommending dismissal (34 cases).
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 have access to government-held evidence relevant to their case and may confront adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. The law provides for plea bargaining 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. Officials conduct trials in Spanish, the official language, although many citizens only speak one of the 23 officially recognized indigenous languages. The law extends the above rights to all defendants.
The Public Ministry, acting semi-independently of the executive branch, 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.
POLITICAL PRISONERS AND DETAINEES
On July 22, a high-risk court released seven community leaders from Huehuetenango because kidnapping charges against them could not be substantiated. The seven had been arrested in 2015 for detaining 11 hydroelectric company workers in 2013 and had been held in preventive prison for 18 months. The court confirmed that the prisoners were community leaders or indigenous authorities mediating between the community and the hydroelectric company and expressed concern over criminalization of the rights to assemble and protest. Specifically, the presiding judge stated, “attempting to mediate a community conflict is not a crime.”
Local human rights NGO Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders registered 68 cases of criminalization of human rights defenders through October. Charges included defamation, legal complaint, and arbitrary detention.
CIVIL JUDICIAL PROCEDURES AND REMEDIES
Individuals and organizations have access to administrative and judicial remedies to bring lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, a human rights violation or other alleged wrongs. While the judiciary was generally impartial and independent in civil matters, it suffered from inefficiencies, excessive workload, and a legal system that often permits time-consuming but spurious complaints.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The constitution and the law prohibit such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions. On September 5, President Jimmy Morales dismissed Jorge Lopez, the secretary of administrative and security matters of the president, and his deputy, Cesar Sagastume, for alleged illegal surveillance. At year’s end the Public Ministry was investigating their suspected involvement in the illegal monitoring of journalists, human rights defenders, business owners, and politicians. Media sources reported that former presidential advisor and current member of congress Herbert Melgar’s name also appeared in the criminal complaint filed with the Public Ministry, but he continued to serve in congress and had not been formally charged.
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 ages 18 and older. Members of the armed forces, police, and incarcerated individuals are not eligible to vote. Electoral Law reforms enacted during the year would permit absentee and overseas voting in subsequent elections, but funding for implementation had not been budgeted.
Elections and Political Participation
Recent Elections: In 2015 Jimmy Morales of the FCN party defeated National Unity of Hope candidate Sandra Torres by 67.4 to 32.3 percent in a second round of voting and was sworn in as president on January 14. An OAS international election observation mission characterized the elections as generally free and fair. The Attorney General’s Office continued to investigate allegations of illicit campaign financing in the 2015 elections. The Supreme Electoral Court cancelled former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizon’s party, LIDER (Democratic Liberty Renewed), in February for campaign law violations. LIDER was appealing the decision.
Participation of Women and Minorities: The law provides the rights of women and minorities to vote, run for office, serve as electoral monitors, and otherwise participate in political life. Traditional and cultural practices, however, limited the political participation of women and members of indigenous groups.
Twenty-four women served in the 158-seat Congress, and there were two women in the 14-member cabinet. Seven women served on the 13-member Supreme Court, and five women served on the 10-member Constitutional Court–the most women in either court’s history.
While the indigenous population constituted 44 percent of the population, according to the latest 2002 government census, indigenous representation in national government was minimal. There was one indigenous member in the cabinet, one on the Constitutional Court, and one on the Supreme Court. There were approximately 20 indigenous members of Congress. Indigenous individuals comprised a larger share of elected local government officials, filling 113 of the 333 mayoral seats elected in 2015.
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, many of which the Public Ministry and CICIG investigated and prosecuted on charges including money laundering, illegal political party financing, and bribery.
Corruption: The Comptroller General’s Office and the Public Ministry are responsible for combating corruption. The comptroller general’s mandate is to monitor public spending, and the attorney general’s mandate is to prosecute related crimes. Although both agencies actively collaborated with civil society and were relatively independent, they lacked adequate resources, which affected their ability to carry out their mandates.
On June 2, the Public Ministry accused former president Otto Perez Molina and former vice president Roxana Baldetti of money laundering and illegal political party financing. The Public Ministry/CICIG investigation eventually linked the case to additional charges against the former ministers of defense, government, energy and mines, and communications for using illicit funds to provide lavish gifts to Perez Molina and Baldetti. The government issued approximately 70 arrest warrants targeting former government officials and the highest levels of the banking, state procurement, telecommunications, media, construction, agricultural, and pharmaceutical sectors. On August 4, a high-risk court sent 28 defendants who were deemed a flight risk to pretrial detention and ordered house arrest for 19 more. Perez Molina and Baldetti were in pretrial detention since 2015.
On September 13, President Morales announced that his son Jose Manuel Morales and brother Sammy Morales would cooperate in a corruption investigation based on the allegation that they procured false invoices in 2013. The case involved former public registrar Anabella de Leon, who allegedly used these invoices in a corruption scheme that defrauded the government through phony contracts.
Financial Disclosure: Public officials who earn more than 8,000 quetzals ($1,064) 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.
Public Access to Information: The law provides for the right of citizens to access public information and establishes fines for government agencies that obstruct such access. The disclosure law contains exceptions for national security, sets reasonably short timelines for disclosure, and allows for a reasonable processing fee. There are no sanctions for noncompliance. The government granted access to public information for citizens and noncitizens, including foreign media, although at times in a slow and incomplete manner. Human rights groups criticized the delay by the Ministry of Defense in releasing information related to transitional justice cases. While there was no formal mechanism to appeal denials of requests, petitioners often successfully appealed to the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman for assistance relating to a government denial of public information.