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.
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 internal armed conflict period. The government did not comply, however, with an order from the high-risk courts, which handle sensitive cases often risky for judges to take on, to create a national commission on the search for disappeared persons and a national registry of victims.
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 1960-96 armed conflict. The courts needed to resolve several appeals and recusal motions filed in 2016 before a full trial could begin. The defense filed a request for house arrest for two former military officers indicted in the case, Byron Barrientos and Carlos Garavito, due to the heightened risk of COVID-19 in prison facilities. High-Risk Court A denied the request because the defendants’ charges made them ineligible for house arrest under the law. 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 reports alleging government workers employed them at the Federico Mora National Hospital for Mental Health (see section 6). 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.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, in February an allegation was made that Guatemalan peacekeepers deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission, raped a child. As of October the government was investigating the allegation.
Impunity within the PNC was not a pervasive and systemic issue. Impunity from prosecution for serious crimes within the PNC has generally been in decline for more than a decade, with several high-profile convictions of PNC officers now serving prison sentences. Lesser crimes of negligence and bribery by officers continued, however, with few convictions. Negligence by officers was largely the result of 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. Small monthly salaries of approximately 4,000 quetzals ($535) created an incentive to extort bribes. A large number of PNC officers were removed from the force over the past three years based on allegations of bribery. There were also anecdotal reports that the military extorted bribes and arbitrarily and temporarily detained persons when acting in support of the PNC. These instances seemed scattered and not related to military orders.
d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention
The law prohibits 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. Suspects are entitled to challenge in court the legal basis or arbitrary nature of their detention. There was no compensation for those ruled unlawfully detained.
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. After arraigning suspects, the prosecutor generally has three months to complete the investigation if the defendant is in pretrial detention and six months to complete the investigation if the defendant is granted house arrest. The law prohibits the execution of warrants between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. unless the government has declared a state of siege. Judges may 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: As of August 31, the PNC Office of Professional Responsibility had received two complaints of illegal detention by police, compared with 26 in 2019. Reports indicated police ignored writs of habeas corpus in cases of illegal detention, particularly during neighborhood antigang operations.
Pretrial Detention: As of October prison system records indicated 49 percent of prisoners were in pretrial detention, approximately the same percentage as in 2019 despite court closures due to COVID-19. The law establishes a one-year maximum for pretrial detention, regardless of the stage of the criminal proceeding, but the court has the legal authority to extend pretrial detention without limits as necessary. Authorities regularly held detainees past their legal trial-or-release date. Lengthy investigations and frequent procedural motions by both defense and prosecution often led to lengthy pretrial detention, delaying trials for months or years. Observers noted the slow pace of investigations and lack of judicial resources hampered efforts to reduce pretrial detention and illegal incarceration. Authorities did not release some prisoners after they completed their full sentences due to the failure of judges to issue the necessary court order or other bureaucratic delays.
Political Prisoners and Detainees
There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.
Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies
Individuals and organizations have access to administrative and judicial remedies to submit 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 and a legal system that often permits spurious complaints.
f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence
The law prohibits such actions, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. The intimidation of, and violence against, journalists resulted in significant self-censorship, however.
Freedom of Speech: Independent journalist Sonny Figueroa claimed harassment after he published a report claiming the director of the presidential commission Centro de Gobierno, Miguel Martinez, engaged in nepotism. Figueroa said the government denied him access to press events, and PNC officers harassed him on multiple occasions after he published the report.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Nonetheless, reporters covering organized crime, including its links to corrupt public officials, acknowledged practicing self-censorship due to the danger investigative journalism created for them and their families.
Violence and Harassment: Members of the press reported receiving pressure, threats, and retribution from public officials and criminal organizations regarding the content of their reporting. Online attacks against independent journalists and media outlets continued throughout the year. These included hacking journalists’ private social media accounts, publishing stolen or falsified personal information, and conducting apparent coordinated attempts to undermine specific journalists and the press.
On February 27, unidentified gunmen entered journalist Bryan Guerra’s home and killed him. Before the incident, Guerra had reported threats on social media. On November 10, unidentified assailants on motorcycles attacked television director Mario Ortega in Post San Jose. Ortega died from his injuries on November 15. Media reported he had received telephone calls demanding extortion money.
The PNC arrested Anastasia Mejia, director of a local television and radio service, following her live radio and video reporting on an August 24 protest at the Joyabaj mayor’s office that resulted in damage to municipal property. Mejia was a vocal critic of the mayor and reported on allegations of corrupt practices by the mayor in awarding public contracts. As of November, Mejia’s case was under investigation in the Public Ministry’s Municipal Prosecution Office of Joyabaj. On October 28, Judge Susy Perez formally charged Mejia with sedition, attempted acts of violence, aggravated arson, and aggravated robbery. Judge Perez granted Mejia bail while her trial continued.
Public hearings began on November 16 in the “Journalists Case,” in which former congressman Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez was accused of ordering the murders of two journalists in Suchitepequez in 2015.
The government failed to establish a journalist protection program, a commitment the country accepted in 2012 during the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council. In December 2019 the Public Ministry inaugurated the Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists. The office reported 73 complaints of attacks or threats against journalists from January to August, compared with 51 during the same period of 2019, and one homicide compared with none reported in the same period of 2019.
Nongovernmental Impact: Organized crime exerted influence over media outlets and reporters, frequently threatening individuals for reporting on criminal activities.
b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association
The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights. The Giammattei administration made ample use of states of exception, declaring 11 states of siege or prevention in various departments. The stated reasons for states of exception were combatting armed groups, preventing violence, resolving land conflict, and controlling a migrant caravan from Honduras. States of exception limit certain constitutional rights, including freedoms of association, assembly, and movement.
On February 11, congress passed the NGO Reform Law, which allows the government to cancel the registration of NGOs that it judged to be disturbing social order or breaking regulations. Under the law NGOs must register with up to half a dozen ministries, report international donations and income to the tax authority, and reregister any changes in function. President Giammattei signed the bill on February 27, but on March 2, the Constitutional Court granted a provisional injunction against the law for potential unconstitutionality.
Starting on November 21, thousands of demonstrators gathered in the capital and other cities across the country, protesting corruption and an opaque and irregular process used by the congress for the proposed 2021 national budget law. The government generally respected protesters’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. When a small group of individuals committed acts of vandalism and arson on November 21, including breaking into and setting fires inside the congressional building, the PNC used tear gas and nonlethal force to disperse the crowd. Protests continued over more than a two-week period. Media reports indicated the PNC displayed excessive use of force, which the PNC Internal Affairs Unit was investigating. On November 27, a justice of the peace ruled that PNC arrests on November 21 lacked merit and ordered a Public Ministry investigation of the PNC officers who participated in the arrests. PNC commanders ordered removal of all officers’ batons to avoid any perception of abuse.
Section 6. Discrimination, Societal Abuses, and Trafficking in Persons
The government’s National Institute of Statistics estimated indigenous persons from 24 ethnic groups made up 44 percent of the population. The law provides for equal rights for indigenous persons and obliges the government to recognize, respect, and promote the lifestyles, customs, traditions, social organizations, and manner of dress of indigenous persons. The government does not, however, recognize particular indigenous groups as having a special legal status provided by national law.
Indigenous communities were underrepresented in national politics and remained largely outside the political, economic, social, and cultural mainstream. This was mainly due to limited educational opportunities (contrary to law), limited communication regarding their rights, and pervasive discrimination. Government agencies dedicated to supporting indigenous rights lacked political support. These factors contributed to disproportionate poverty and malnutrition among most indigenous populations.
Indigenous lands were not effectively demarcated, making the legal recognition of titles to the land problematic. Indigenous rights advocates asserted that security authorities’ lack of familiarity with indigenous norms and practices engendered misunderstandings.
Indigenous representatives claimed actors in a number of regional development projects failed to consult meaningfully with local communities. In some cases indigenous communities were not able to participate in decisions affecting the exploitation of resources in their communities, including energy, minerals, timber, rivers, or other natural resources. They also lacked effective mechanisms for dialogue with the state to resolve conflicts.
The Russian conglomerate Solway, which bought the Fenix nickel mine in Izabal Department in 2014, continued to stand accused of violence against indigenous activists and illegal extraction of undeclared materials. Observers in Izabal reported that as of September, the mine continued operations despite the 2019 court order to suspend activities. Observers reported that Solway employees were giving baskets of food and other bribes to locals to keep them from protesting the mine, as protests routinely disrupted mine operations. Observers also reported Solway was believed to have bribed municipal officials in El Estor to keep news of a COVID-19 outbreak on the mine compound from becoming public. The 2019 Constitutional Court order required the provisional closure of the mine until the Ministry of Energy and Mines conducted consultations compliant with Convention 169 of the International Labor Organization (ILO) with local communities.
Xinka authorities reported the court-ordered consultations were not progressing in regards to the San Rafael mine. In 2018 the Constitutional Court ordered the Ministry of Energy and Mines to hold ILO Convention 169-compliant consultations with Xinka populations and upheld the suspension of the operating license of the San Rafael Mine until after conclusion of the consultations.