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El Salvador

Executive Summary

El Salvador is a constitutional multiparty republic with a democratically elected government. In 2019 voters elected Nayib Bukele as president for a five-year term. The election was generally free and fair, according to international observers. Municipal and legislative elections took place on February 28 and were largely free and fair.

The National Civilian Police, overseen by the Ministry of Justice and Public Security, is responsible for maintaining public security. The Ministry of Defense is responsible for maintaining national security. Although the constitution separates public security and military functions, it allows the president to use the armed forces “in exceptional circumstances” to maintain internal peace and public security “when all other measures have been exhausted.” The military is responsible for securing international borders and conducting joint patrols with the civilian police. Civilian authorities at times did not maintain effective control over security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful killings of suspected gang members and others by security forces; forced disappearances by military personnel; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including violence or threats of violence against journalists and censorship; substantial interference with the freedom of peaceful assembly and freedom of association; serious acts of government corruption; lack of consistent investigation and accountability for gender-based violence; significant barriers to accessing reproductive health; and crimes involving violence by security forces against lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex individuals.

Impunity persisted in the security forces, executive branch, and justice system. In some cases authorities investigated and prosecuted persons accused of committing crimes and human rights abuses. Impunity for official corruption remained endemic.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes. They committed killings and acts of extortion, kidnapping, human trafficking, intimidation, and other threats and violence. They directed these acts against police, judicial authorities, the business community, journalists, women, and members of vulnerable populations.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports that the government or its agents committed politically motivated killings. There were reports, however, of security force involvement in extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members. As of October 25, the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDDH) was investigating seven cases of extrajudicial killings, six attributed to the members of the National Civilian Police (PNC) and one to the armed forces.

On January 31, PNC officers arrested three men on charges of double homicide after they killed two supporters of opposition party Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front (FMLN) following a soccer match. The three perpetrators worked for the Ministry of Health. President Bukele tweeted that the attack was a plot hatched by his political rivals to damage his Nuevas Ideas party’s chances in the February 28 legislative and municipal elections, but there was no evidence of a plot.

On July 19, PNC officers in Guacotecti, Cabanas Department, killed two brothers suspected of being members of transnational gang MS-13. According to relatives, PNC officers arrived at the house to arrest the two brothers who had outstanding warrants, and the brothers fled with rifles when they saw the police officers. The victims’ father said his two sons previously received threats from police, claiming the PNC officers planned the shooting and told him, “We are going to kill your children.”

The First Justice of the Peace of Santa Tecla, La Libertad Department, ordered the provisional arrest of four soldiers for the aggravated homicide of a 30-year-old engineer on August 12. The soldiers from the Apolo Task Force claimed the victim attacked them with a firearm from his vehicle and that the soldiers returned fire. The Scientific Technical Police found no firearms or bullet casings in the vehicle, and the victim’s hands did not have traces of gunpowder.

On February 7, the First Trial Court of Santa Tecla convicted three PNC officers of aggravated homicide and sentenced each of them to 25 years in prison for the 2017 extrajudicial killings of three persons in San Jose Villanueva, La Libertad Department. The PNC officers claimed they received information that the three persons in the vehicle were armed gang members, but the prosecutor showed that the PNC officers intercepted the vehicle and shot the victims without confrontation.

b. Disappearance

Media reports alleged that security and law enforcement officials were involved in unlawful disappearances. According to reports, the PNC recorded 989 disappearances between January 1 and June 29, an increase from the same period in 2020 when the PNC tracked 728 cases. The PNC reported that 545 of those reported missing were later found alive and 51 found dead. Minister of Justice and Public Security Gustavo Villatoro explained that many disappeared persons were victims of homicide, as criminals hid the bodies of their victims to avoid charges of homicide.

On April 7, the Foundation for Studies for the Application of Law released a study stating that the illegal practice of disappearing a person was no longer exclusive to gangs and that police, soldiers, and extermination groups viewed unlawful disappearances as a low-cost, effective way of resolving conflicts. According to a Human Rights Observatory of the Central American University (OUDH) report published in September, extermination groups operated with police, military, and civilian members, simulating legal actions such as searches, raids, and police operations in addition to illegal actions such as arbitrary detentions and killings. The report also noted that between 2015 and 2020, the Attorney General’s Office identified approximately 15 extermination groups in the country.

On May 31, Minister of Justice and Public Security Gustavo Villatoro criticized families who posted photographs of their missing relatives on social media accounts and asked them instead to file a formal complaint with the PNC or the Attorney General’s Office. Villatoro accused the families of psychologically damaging their missing children who eventually are found and stated most persons leave their families because they want to leave their life partner or because they did not get enough attention at home.

On June 1, the daily newspaper El Diario de Hoy reported that the Attorney General’s Office stopped the regular practice of publishing the photographs and information of missing persons following the arrival of the new attorney general, Rodolfo Delgado, on May 1. The Attorney General’s Office recorded more missing persons (5,381) than homicides (2,940) during the first two years of the Bukele administration, with most of the victims disappeared in areas with a high presence of gangs.

The Attorney General’s Office reported 66 minors as missing in the first 10 months of the year, 15 boys and 51 girls. All cases were under investigation.

On December 1, the daily newspaper La Prensa Grafica reported the findings from a study by the OUDH showing that between June 2019 and June 2021, only four cases of missing persons ended in a conviction. This number represented well less than 1 percent of the total cases of missing persons initiated by the Prosecutor’s Office.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The law prohibits such practices, but there were reports of violations. As of August 31, the PDDH had received 13 complaints of torture or cruel or inhuman treatment by the PNC and one by the armed forces, compared with 15 and two complaints, respectively, as of August 2020. The PDDH also received 62 complaints of mistreatment and disproportionate use of force by the PNC and seven by the armed forces, compared with 55 and four complaints, respectively, as of August 2020.

As of September the PNC registered a total of 95 accusations against police officers involved in crimes and offenses. Of the 95 accusations, 38 concerned homicides committed by police officers. The PNC received 296 complaints of general misconduct in the same period, including but not limited to torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading acts of punishment. Three of the 296 complaints were referred to the Attorney General’s Office for prosecution, while the 293 unresolved cases remained under investigation by the PNC.

On March 12, the Attorney General’s Office issued arrest warrants for four PNC officers for the torture of a minor and a woman in 2017 in Sensuntepeque, Cabanas Department. According to a video widely circulated on social media, PNC officers Cristian Neftali Franco Vasquez, Elvis Alirio Montenegro Beltran, Omar Alexander Pineda Chevez, and Mario Enrique Perez Chavez beat the minor to force him to reveal the hiding location of drugs and weapons. One of the officers fired a warning shot when a woman who witnessed the beating began to complain.

On April 30, El Diario de Hoy reported that an armed forces officer was arrested for shooting Rene Alfredo Lainez Andasol in the face in Victoria, Cabanas Department. The Attorney General’s Office accused the soldier of attempted homicide.

On June 23, the Sentencing Court of Cojutepeque, Cuscatlan Department, sentenced PNC officer Juan Carlos Portillo Velasquez to 12 years in prison for the aggravated rape of an adolescent in 2018. According to the Attorney General’s Office, Portillo Velasquez abused his position by ordering a 17-year-old girl to enter her home and remove her clothes under the guise of checking for gang-related tattoos. His partner caught him in the act of rape and informed his supervisors.

According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, there were no new allegations against El Salvadoran peacekeepers brought in the year. The most recent allegation was submitted in March 2020 concerning sexual exploitation and abuse by Salvadoran peacekeepers deployed to the UN Mission in South Sudan, allegedly involving an exploitative relationship with an adult. As of October the United Nations had found the allegation of sexual exploitation or abuse to be unsubstantiated but found evidence of fraternization and repatriated the perpetrator.

Impunity was a problem in the PNC and armed forces. Factors contributing to impunity included politicization and general corruption. The Attorney General’s Office investigates whether security force killings were justifiable and pursues prosecutions, and the PDDH investigates complaints of such killings. The government provided annual training to military units to dissuade any potential for gross abuses of human rights, such as the training provided to the Marine Infantry Battalion by the navy’s Legal Unit on the need to respect human rights. The government repeatedly defied a June 2020 judicial order to allow expert witnesses access to inspect military archives to determine criminal responsibility for the 1981 El Mozote massacre.

Previous government efforts to counter impunity were also eliminated. In June President Bukele ended the cooperative agreement with the Organization of American States to back the International Organization Against Impunity in El Salvador. Civil society organizations condemned this action and characterized it as a step backwards in the fight against impunity and corruption in the country. The government pursued actions against members of other parties governing in past administrations and judges who had served a long time in a so-called effort to “clean house” of influence of officials appointed under previous administrations. Civil society organizations criticized many of these actions as politically motivated.

Impunity in the executive branch also remained a problem. From January through September, the Attorney General’s Office reported that it processed 150 cases of embezzlement, illicit negotiations, illicit enrichment, and bribery perpetrated by government employees. Of these cases, only seven resulted in convictions.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison and detention center conditions remained harsh and life threatening due to gross overcrowding, unhygienic conditions, and gang activity.

Physical Conditions: Overcrowding was a serious threat to prisoners’ health and welfare. The prison system had a capacity for 30,864 inmates, but as of April 19, held more than 36,500 inmates. Director of Penal Centers Osiris Luna reported that the General Directorate of Penal Centers (DGCP) reduced the overcrowding of prisons from 50 percent to 12 percent and stated one of the objectives of the government’s Territorial Control Plan was to reduce the number of prisons from 23 to 10. Police holding facilities were equally crowded. In May the director of the National Civilian Police stated that there were approximately 5,000 persons in police holding cells, including prosecuted and convicted individuals who could not be transferred to the overcrowded prisons. Convicted inmates and pretrial detainees were sometimes held in the same prison cells.

Gangs remained prevalent in prisons. As of April the DGCP reported approximately 51 percent (18,652 prisoners) of the prison population were active or former gang members.

According to the PDDH, many prisons had inadequate sanitation, potable water, ventilation, temperature control, medical care, and lighting. Inmates experienced gastrointestinal illnesses and skin problems due to poor water quality.

According to the DGCP, 94 inmates died between January 2020 and February 2021. PDDH deputy attorney Beatriz Campos said most of the deaths were due to chronic diseases, including kidney failure, respiratory diseases, and HIV. Campos said the DGCP received nine to 15 complaints daily, with 90 percent related to inquiries about health.

Administration: The PDDH has authority to investigate credible allegations of inhuman conditions. The government suspended visits to prisons in March 2020, which continued as of November. According to February 14 media reports, relatives of inmates had not communicated with inmates in a year. Despite an article of the PDDH law that allows the PDDH to have free and immediate access to prisons to inspect and guarantee the human rights of the inmates, the DGCP denied entry to PDDH staff in March. On August 12, the DGCP again denied the PDDH access to prisons despite the Second Peace Court authorizing the PDDH entry to visit three former government officials in prison after receiving complaints from the officials’ relatives on their state of health.

On June 17, La Prensa Grafica reported that relatives of an inmate who died inside Mariona Prison in San Salvador Department on June 7 learned of the death through Facebook. Prison Directorate personnel failed to inform the family of the deceased in a timely manner.

Independent Monitoring: The prison system was closed to visits during the year, allowing only employees to enter. Professional and family visits, inspections of institutions, and visits by international organizations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), churches, and others were suspended, although there were reports of sporadic entries granted based on personal connections with prison officials to members of the clergy and nonprofits.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court is responsible for addressing these types of cases.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The constitution requires a written warrant of arrest except in cases where an individual is caught in the act of committing a crime. Authorities generally apprehended persons with warrants based on evidence and issued by a judge, although this was frequently ignored when allegations of gang membership arose. Police generally informed detainees promptly of charges against them.

The law permits release on bail for detainees who are unlikely to flee or whose release would not impede the investigation of the case. The bail system functioned adequately in most cases. The courts generally enforced a ruling that interrogation without the presence of counsel is coercive, and that evidence obtained in such a manner is inadmissible. As a result PNC authorities typically delayed questioning until a public defender or an attorney arrived. The constitution permits the PNC to hold suspects for 72 hours before presenting them to court. The law allows up to six months for investigation of serious crimes before requiring either a trial or dismissal of the case; this period may be extended by an appeals court. Many cases continued beyond the legally prescribed period.

Arbitrary Arrest: As of August 31, the PDDH reported 25 complaints of arbitrary detention or illegal detention, compared with 22 from January to August 2020.

According to media reports, on April 22, the Attorney General’s Office accused PNC officers Miguel Angel Hernandez, Luis Edgardo Chavez, Cesar Ernesto Menjivar, Milton Cesar Hernandez, Oscar Antonio Mancia, and Jose Leodan Menjivar of at least a dozen illegal acts, including arbitrarily detaining citizens.

On July 21, the Original Blue organization, a local NGO that seeks social transformation and supports vulnerable populations, reported that young persons in areas identified as having high presence of gangs were victims of arbitrary or illegal detentions by the PNC. The report included testimony from 12 individuals who said they were detained illegally.

On September 1, a vocal critic of President Bukele’s proposal to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender of El Salvador was arrested without a warrant and without explanation of the reason of his arrest. He was released the same day with no charges filed.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a significant problem. Some persons remained in pretrial detention longer than the maximum legal sentences for their alleged crimes. In such circumstances detainees were permitted to request a Supreme Court review of their continued detention.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution provides for an independent judiciary, the government did not always respect judicial independence, and the judiciary was burdened by inefficiency.

While the government generally respected court orders, some agencies ignored or minimally complied with orders.

As of August 31, the PDDH received 65 complaints of lack of a fair public trial, compared with 12 such complaints as of August 2020.

On May 1, during the first plenary session of the newly elected Legislative Assembly, legislators of the majority Nuevas Ideas, a political party founded by President Bukele, and their allies voted to dismiss all five magistrates of the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice and the attorney general without granting any of them due process. Critics contended the dismissals lacked legal cause and amounted to an unconstitutional power grab. The president defended the votes, claiming the Legislative Assembly had the authority to do this according to the constitution. On June 30, the Legislative Assembly installed new judges loyal to the president to replace the five dismissed magistrates.

On August 31, the Legislative Assembly used an emergency waiver process to pass two judicial career laws, instead of following the constitutionally prescribed process that judicial reforms must originate from the Supreme Court. The laws mandate the retirement of judges and prosecutors aged 60 or older and also those who have completed 30 years of service or more. In addition the attorney general and Supreme Court were given authority, at their discretion, to transfer prosecutors and judges between districts. While the Legislative Assembly justified the actions as an effort to rid the courts of corruption, legal analysts argued the laws were unconstitutional and were enacted to allow the ruling political party to appoint loyal replacement judges. More than 200 judges were forced by the new laws to retire, including Judge Jorge Guzman Urquilla, the magistrate overseeing the prosecution of 13 surviving former military officers for the alleged El Mozote massacre of more than 800 civilians in 1981. Although the Supreme Court offered him a one-time exception to remain in his position, Judge Guzman resigned in protest before the law went into effect.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and an independent judiciary generally enforced this right, although some trial court judges were subject to political, economic, or other corrupting influences. By law juries hear only a narrow group of cases, such as environmental complaints. In those cases, after the jury determines innocence or guilt, a panel of judges decides the sentence.

Defendants have the right to be present in court (except in virtual trials; see below), question witnesses, and present witnesses and evidence. The constitution further provides for the presumption of innocence, the right to be informed promptly and in detail of charges, the right to a trial without undue delay (seldom observed), protection from self-incrimination, the right to communicate with an attorney of choice, the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, freedom from coercion, the right to appeal, and government-provided legal counsel for the indigent.

In criminal cases a judge may allow a private plaintiff to participate in trial proceedings (calling and cross-examining witnesses, providing evidence, etc.), assisting the prosecuting attorney in the trial procedure. Defendants have the right to free assistance of an interpreter. Authorities did not always respect these legal rights and protections. Although a jury’s verdict is final, a judge’s verdict is subject to appeal. Trials are public unless a judge seals a case.

The law allows for virtual trials for gang membership charges to proceed without the defendants present, although with defense counsel participating. The law requires judicial and prison authorities to provide a video copy of the virtual trial to the defendants within 72 hours so they may exercise their right to defense.

Virtual trials often involved group hearings before a judge, with defense lawyers physically present in the courtroom but defendants appearing by video, unable to consult with their defense lawyers in real time. This practice continued throughout the year due to precautionary measures taken by the courts to curb the spread of COVID-19. The number of virtual trials increased but continued to involve delays due to lack of equipment, technical problems, and lack of coordination between courts and penitentiaries.

Legal experts identified overall issues with the legal system, pointing to an overreliance on witness testimony, as opposed to the use of forensics or other scientific evidence. For example the justice system lacked DNA analysis and other forensic capabilities.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no clear reports of political prisoners or detainees, but media reported several detentions of opposition party members and questioned the legitimacy of the detentions.

On June 4, Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado ordered the arrest of former mayor of San Salvador and prominent opposition politician Ernesto Muyshondt for the charge of misappropriation of tax withholdings to the detriment of the Public Treasury while mayor. The arrest occurred minutes after the Second Investigative Court of San Salvador ordered house arrest for Muyshondt for the crimes of electoral fraud and illicit associations for allegedly negotiating with gangs in exchange for votes in the 2015 legislative elections. As he was escorted from the court, Muyshondt declared himself as “the first political prisoner of the Bukele dictatorship.” Despite a court order from the Third Criminal Chamber again granting house arrest for Muyshondt, the General Directorate of Penal Centers never released him, claiming it did not have an available ankle-monitoring bracelet. On October 1, newly appointed judges in the Third Criminal Chamber overturned the house arrest order, and Muyshondt remained in prison.

In July, five former FMLN party officials were detained but were not immediately informed of the reason for their detention. Several hours later they learned about the charges against them during a press conference. The officials remained in prison while awaiting the investigation of their crimes and were denied visitation despite a court order granting visitation by family and attorneys.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

The law provides for access to the courts, enabling litigants to submit civil lawsuits seeking damages for, as well as cessation of, human rights violations. Domestic court orders generally were enforced. Most attorneys pursued criminal prosecution and later requested civil compensation.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The constitution prohibits such actions, and there were no reports the state intelligence service tracked journalists or collected information regarding their private lives.

In many neighborhoods gangs and other armed groups targeted certain persons and interfered with privacy, family, and home life. Efforts by authorities to remedy these situations were generally ineffective.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The constitution provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, although the government at times did not respect this right. The law permits the executive branch to use the emergency broadcasting service to take control of all broadcast and cable networks temporarily to televise political programming.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Journalists from several digital and print media outlets publicly accused President Bukele, his administration, and his supporters of a pattern of harassment designed to constrain media. In public statements and in testimony to the Legislative Assembly, journalists claimed the president and his cabinet officials bullied them on Twitter, threatened them with physical harm, launched unwarranted financial investigations into their taxes and funding sources, denied them access to press conferences, and surveilled them. Senior officials, such as legal advisor Javier Argueta, called for actions against journalists who criticized the government. The increased villainization of the role of media inspired supporters of the president to threaten journalists as well. The president denied threatening journalists and dismissed accusations he was stifling freedom of the press.

On September 29, the jury of the Maria Moors Cabot award from Columbia University, the Governing Council of the Gabriel Garcia Marquez Foundation, Reporters without Borders, and the Inter American Press Association issued statements in which they demanded that President Bukele cease attacks against critical media in the country.

In November the president of the Association of Salvadoran Journalists (APES) stated at a journalism forum that journalists were seen by the government as enemies of the state. He also confirmed that an increasing number of journalists were under attack by the government.

Violence and Harassment: On June 6, Minister of Justice and Public Security Gustavo Villatoro confirmed during a radio interview that the government was investigating and monitoring many journalists for what he alleged was their irresponsible coverage of crime.

On July 7, a PNC officer slapped a journalist in the face, claiming the journalist had entered a crime scene. A video showed PNC officer Raul Martinez Velasquez hit Jorge Beltran, a journalist for El Diario de Hoy, while Beltran was reporting on the recovery of the body of a missing student kidnapped and killed by gang members in Apopa, San Salvador Department. In response the PNC issued memorandums on July 20 and July 22 instructing police officers to act with professionalism and to adhere to the law and respect for human rights when interacting with citizens.

As of August 30, APES had registered 173 violations of the exercise of journalism, an increase of 73 percent, compared with 2020. Among these were physical aggression, digital harassment, blocking access to public information, intimidation, and sexual harassment. APES noted 84 violations against the exercise of journalism during the February 28 municipal and legislative elections, most of which the PNC perpetrated. As of August 31, the PDDH had received four complaints of violence against journalists by government officials, compared with 10 as of August 2020.

On April 14, the digital newspaper El Faro published the preliminary results of the audit the Ministry of Finance had performed on the newspaper over a one-year period. According to the ministry’s audit, El Faro evaded approximately $34,000 in taxes in 2017. The newspaper disputed the finding, saying it was an attempt by the government to again harass and threaten the organization, and it vowed to fight the finding in court if needed.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: On May 5, the Legislative Assembly reformed the printing law to eliminate tax exemptions on the importation of raw materials, machinery, and equipment for printing materials. The Inter American Press Association described the reform as a “serious attack against democracy” that would impact the local newspaper industry. Romeo Auerbach, a legislative assembly member from the Grand Alliance for National Unity (GANA) party, justified the reform by arguing that the print media had evaded paying taxes for decades.

On June 14, the First Justice of the Peace of Santa Ana, Santa Ana Department, ordered the local investigative magazine Factum to take down its June 12 article about killings in Chalchuapa, Santa Ana Department, because the article included details of the crimes that were declared confidential. The Attorney General’s Office supported the court’s decision by citing the Special Comprehensive Law for a Life Free of Violence for , which prevents the disclosure of the victim’s identifying information. Factum sourced its article from a witness statement that detailed the names, dates, and modus operandi of 13 killings that occurred in Chalchuapa in 2020 and 2021, directly contradicting the government’s claim that the homicides occurred more than a decade ago.

On June 21, Minister Villatoro accused independent media of causing anxiety and deceiving persons and asked citizens to inform themselves through state-owned media instead.

On July 6, the General Directorate of Migration and Foreigners (DGME) denied a work permit to Mexican journalist Daniel Lizarraga of El Faro because he allegedly could not prove that he was a journalist. The DGME notified Lizarraga that he had five days to leave the country. On July 9, the DGME also denied the work permit of Roman Gressier, another El Faro journalist. According to the DGME, Gressier failed to comply with the provision to remain in the country while his permit was in process.

On July 15, Minister Villatoro stated the PNC would further limit access to crime scenes to prevent the publication of violent images. Villatoro justified the restriction to protect the mental health of children.

Nongovernmental Impact: APES noted journalists who reported on gangs and narcotics trafficking were subject to kidnappings, threats, and intimidation. Observers reported that gangs also charged print media companies to distribute in their communities, costing media outlets as much as 20 percent of their revenues.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but there were times the government limited these freedoms (see section 7.a.).

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

On September 5, La Prensa Grafica reported that PNC officers using professional equipment took photographs of persons protesting the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice’s ruling allowing for the re-election of the president.

On September 15, thousands of protesters marched against the Supreme Court ruling allowing the re-election of the president, the dismissal of justices older than age 60, bitcoin adoption as legal tender in the country, and other recent actions by the government. Some of the marchers included Legislative Assembly staff and judges. On September 17, 75 employees of the Legislative Assembly were arbitrarily dismissed. The union representing Legislative Assembly staff members said the employees who attended the September 15 protests were among those fired. The dismissed staff members had worked in the communications, radio, and television units as well as the Access to Public Information Office. The Legislative Assembly used police to escort the dismissed employees out of their workplace.

On September 26, some judges claimed that they were transferred to preside in remote courts in retaliation for their participation in the September 15 protest.

Freedom of Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, although many nongovernmental organizations that were critical of the government or whose activities did not align with government policies faced threats or restrictions during the year (see section 5).

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The constitution provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights, although in many areas the government could not ensure freedom of movement due to criminal gang activity.

In-country Movement: The major gangs controlled access to their specific territories. Gang members did not allow persons living in another gang’s area to enter their territory, even when travelling via public transportation. Gangs forced persons to present government-issued identification cards (containing their addresses) to determine their residence. If gang members discovered that a person lived in a rival gang’s territory, that person risked being killed, beaten, or denied entry to the territory. Bus companies paid extortion fees to operate within gang territories, often paying numerous fees for the different areas in which they operated. The extortion costs were passed on to customers.

On April 12, gang members in Santa Tecla, La Libertad Department, beat a 77-year-old priest who tried to circumvent heavy traffic and accidentally entered a neighborhood with gang presence. When the priest slowed down to ask for directions, gang members surrounded his vehicle and demanded to know why he was in their neighborhood. The gang members then beat the priest and took photographs of his identity documents.

On August 25, gang members killed a 25-year-old man in Ciudad Delgado, San Salvador Department. The victim was helping change a tire on his friend’s vehicle when MS-13 gang members approached them to demand their identity documents, where they lived, and what they were doing in the neighborhood. When the gang members realized the victim and his friend resided in a different neighborhood, the gang members shot the victim, while the friend managed to escape.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center (IDMC) estimated there were 114,000 new instances of internal forced displacement due to violence during 2020 and reported the causes included threats, extortion, and assassinations perpetrated by criminal gangs. The IDMC also reported 17,000 additional internally displaced persons (IDPs) due to hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020.

More than 30 families that lived in Panchimalco, San Salvador Department, abandoned their homes on May 25 after receiving threats from gang members. The families, some of whom had lived in Panchimalco for more than 40 years, feared their lives would be in danger after the gang threatened to hold the village responsible for the disappearance of a gang member.

Comprehensive, up-to-date data on internal displacement was not available, but the NGO Cristosal counted 200 persons displaced between January and June. As of August 31, the PDDH reported 53 cases of forced internal displacement. Beatriz Campos, a PDDH attorney, said 90 percent of forced internal displacement cases were caused by gangs in their community and the other 10 percent due to PNC harassment of youth in high-risk communities.

Although the government passed new IDP legislation in January 2020, authorities had yet to take substantial action to fund or implement the law. The government failed to allocate sufficient funding to the Unit of Attention to Victims of Internal Forced Displacement, the entity tasked with the implementation of the law. According to the Due Process of Law Foundation, implementation of the law was further hindered by the lack of clear implementing regulations and available records of IDPs in the country.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and some assistance to refugees, asylum seekers, and other persons of concern, although this was often difficult in gang-controlled neighborhoods.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees, but it has major regulatory and operational gaps. The Commission for the Refugee Status is responsible for refugee status determinations but does not have its own budget.

The legal framework requires persons with international protection needs to file their claim within five days of entering the country; the criteria for case decisions is unclear; and the appeals process is decided by the same government entity that issues the initial decision.

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 universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The most recent legislative and municipal elections occurred in February. Nuevas Ideas, the party affiliated with President Bukele, won 56 of 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly and 152 of 262 mayorships. The election reports published by the Organization of American States (OAS) and the EU electoral mission noted the election generally met international standards.

Observers noted that political and economic conditions prior to the elections may have been instrumental in swaying public support towards the Nuevas Ideas party, thus creating an unfair advantage for Nuevas Ideas candidates. Beginning in June 2020, the government withheld funding to the municipalities through the Social Development Fund, citing lack of funds due to the pandemic. Municipalities were not able to pay their employees and their bills and provided only limited services to residents. The lack of funding may have created the impression among voters that the sitting municipal leaders, who all belonged to oppositional political parties, were ineffective. Nuevas Ideas candidates then campaigned to bring about improvements to the political and economic situation within municipalities.

Before the February elections, the government failed to provide campaign finances to all political candidates as required by law, severely limiting the ability of the opposition parties to advertise their candidates. Candidates from the Nuevas Ideas party were not limited by the lack of government campaign financing because they had received campaign funds through private sources. As a result the election advertisements were predominantly from Nuevas Ideas candidates.

Political Parties and Political Participation: While the law prohibits public officials from campaigning in elections, the provision was not consistently enforced.

On May 5, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court of Justice ordered the Legislative Assembly to make the necessary regulatory adjustments to provide suffrage to Salvadorans living abroad and allow all citizens to register and run as candidates for the legislative and municipal elections in 2024.

On September 3, the Constitutional Chamber approved a ruling to allow for the immediate re-election of the president despite the express prohibition on re-election by the constitution. The Constitutional Chamber determined that historical interpretations of the constitutional limits on re-election were erroneous and that sitting presidents may run for re-election if they resign the office six months prior to the end of the presidential term. Critics decried the ruling as an attack on democracy and pointed out that the Constitutional Chamber issuing the ruling was composed of five magistrates appointed by the Legislative Assembly on May 1 in a maneuver that was itself controversial.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law requires all registered political parties to have at least 30 percent of their candidates for the Legislative Assembly be women. On May 1, El Diario de Hoy reported a low rate of women’s participation in politics, stating that women held 24 of the 84 seats in the Legislative Assembly, two seats fewer than in the previous Legislative Assembly. Women held 30 of the 262 mayoralty offices.

According to the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, 328,215 persons with disabilities registered to vote in the February 28 elections. The tribunal launched a campaign to encourage the political participation of persons with disabilities and added accommodations such as braille ballots.

The February 28 election was the first time in the country’s history to include a transgender candidate and an openly gay candidate. Alejandra Menjivar, a transgender woman, ran as a candidate for the Central American Parliament from the FMLN party. Erick Ivan Ortiz, an openly gay man, ran as a candidate for the Legislative Assembly from the Nuestro Tiempo party. Neither candidate won their respective election.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for conviction of corruption by officials. Although the Supreme Court investigated corruption in the executive and judicial branches and referred some cases to the Attorney General’s Office for possible criminal indictment, corruption and impunity remained endemic.

Multiple officials in the executive branch were accused of engaging in corrupt acts. In many instances the government either ignored the actions or took steps to actively prevent prosecution of those officials unless the officials were political opponents or were members of previous administrations.

Corruption: On August 23, El Faro followed up on its September 2020 story accusing the Bukele administration of negotiating with senior gang leaders since 2019 to obtain electoral support and a reduction in homicides prior to this year’s legislative and municipal elections. Citing photographs and audio recordings, El Faro reported that former attorney general Raul Melara’s investigation found evidence that the Bukele administration negotiated with the MS-13 and 18th Street gangs and that the DGCP removed hard drives and hundreds of logbooks documenting the negotiations four days after the publication of the initial article.

On September 19, El Faro reported that the Attorney General’s Office under former attorney general Melara found evidence that Bureau of Prisons Director Osiris Luna embezzled $1.6 million worth of food between September and November 2020 from the Public Health Emergency Program, a government food program assisting families during the pandemic. There was also evidence that Luna then resold these goods to a merchant who was known to sell contraband.

According to media reports, President Bukele dismissed Minister of Justice and Public Security Eduardo Rogelio Rivas Polanco in March due to Rivas Polanco diverting public funds to a private account to finance his presidential candidacy in the 2024 elections.

On May 6, the Legislative Assembly approved the Law for the Use of Products for Medical Treatments in Exceptional Public Health Situations Caused by the COVID-19 Pandemic. The law includes provisions to shield vaccine manufacturers from liability and allows the government to bypass procurement and transparency regulations. According to the NGO Democracy, Transparency, and Justice Foundation, the new law seeks to retroactively protect government officials from misuse of public money for pandemic spending that occurred before the approval of the law.

On June 4, President Bukele announced the termination of the cooperation agreement with the OAS, bringing an end to the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). The president claimed the termination was in response to the OAS announcing the hiring of former San Salvador mayor Ernesto Muyshondt as an advisor to the OAS. The president explained that Muyshondt faced criminal proceedings for negotiating with gangs for electoral support and therefore the government could not continue to work with an organization that hired a criminal as an advisor. Analysts and media reported that CICIES was investigating Bukele administration officials and speculated that the president used the Muyshondt issue as a pretense to terminate the CICIES agreement to stymie the investigations into his administration. In July, OAS representatives stated they offered Muyshondt an honorary contract but did not formally hire him and that the contract was never signed. Head of CICIES Ronalth Ochaeta said CICIES sent 12 cases of possible corruption from five government institutions to the Attorney General’s Office on April 7. As of September 13, the Attorney General’s Office had not revealed the details of those investigations.

Officials from the Attorney General’s Office raided the headquarters of opposition party, the Nationalist Republican Alliance (ARENA) on July 2 and seized assets to recover funds embezzled from a donation by Taiwan made between 2003 and 2004. Attorney General Rodolfo Delgado stated that former president Antonio Saca financed his electoral campaign with $10 million donated by Taiwan for reconstruction projects following two earthquakes in 2001.

On July 22, the PNC arrested five former government officials on charges of illicit enrichment for having received illegal side payments that exceeded their salaries authorized by law. All five served in the administration of former president Mauricio Funes, who remained under political asylum protection in Nicaragua to evade charges of illicit enrichment. Attorney General Delgado also issued arrest warrants for four more government officials, including former president Salvador Sanchez Ceren, who left the country in December 2020 and became a citizen of Nicaragua on July 30. Funes, Ceren, the five arrested officials, and the other former officials with arrest warrants all belonged to opposition party FMLN.

As of August 10, the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP) failed to fulfill its legal obligation to publish the 2020 report on public entities. The report, approved in November 2020, evaluated the transparency performance of 98 government institutions and 60 municipalities and was expected to cover information related to purchases, contracts, or tenders made during the COVID-19 pandemic. After President Bukele appointed three commissioners to the IAIP, the institute decided in December 2020 to postpone publication of the report. As of August 20, the Ethics Tribunal reported that it had opened 170 administrative proceedings against 240 public officials. The Ethics Tribunal imposed sanctions on 19 cases and referred 18 cases to the Attorney General’s Office.

On September 8, the Legislative Assembly approved reforms to the criminal procedure code to remove the statute of limitations and apply the law retroactively to crimes of corruption.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups critical of the Bukele administration and Nuevas Ideas party were subjects of government investigations and surveillance. Government officials were not cooperative and responsive to their views.

On June 2, President Bukele gave a speech announcing the beginning of “the battle of the people against the ideological apparatus,” referring to civil society organizations and media as an “internal enemy” that controls the people’s way of thinking.

On July 30, the president summoned representatives from civil society organizations for a four-hour closed-door meeting at the Presidential House. The civil society organizations reported that the president agreed to reduce confrontational speeches attacking the press and civil society and made a commitment to not persecute journalists or others critical of the government. Observers noted the president has not kept his promise.

On November 12, the Ministry of Finance presented to the Attorney General’s Office evidence of alleged money laundering and tax evasion by a nongovernmental organization dedicated to economic and social development. The ministry claimed their audit showed the organization moved $50 million to a tax haven on a Caribbean island. Although the press announcement did not include the name of the organization, representatives of the Salvadoran Foundation for Economic and Social Development later confirmed they were the subject of the audit. They said that they were innocent of the accusations and claimed the organization and other NGOs who were critical of the actions of the government had been persecuted.

In November several members of NGOs, civil society organizations and journalists received an alert on their cellphones from Apple saying they may have been the target of state-sponsored espionage. Among the recipients of the alert were members of the Institute of Human Rights of the Central American University, Cristosal, and the Democracy, Transparency and Justice Foundation as well as journalists from El Faro, La Prensa Grafica, El Diario de Hoy, Disruptiva Magazine, Gato Encerrado magazine, Diario El Mundo, and independent journalists.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The principal human rights investigative and monitoring body is the autonomous PDDH, whose ombudsman is nominated by the Legislative Assembly for a three-year term. The PDDH regularly issued advisory opinions, reports, and press releases on prominent human rights cases. The PDDH ombudsman, Jose Apolonio Tobar, requested access to monitor conditions in the prisons but had not been allowed to enter the prisons since the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020. In addition the budget approved by the Legislative Assembly for the PDDH in the coming year was again significantly cut.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, and the law’s definition of rape may apply to spousal rape, at the judge’s discretion. The law requires the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute rape cases whether or not the victim presses charges, and the law does not permit the victim to withdraw the criminal charge. The penalty for conviction of rape is generally imprisonment for six to 10 years. Laws against rape were not effectively enforced.

The law prohibits domestic violence and generally provides for sentences for conviction ranging from one to three years in prison, although some forms of domestic violence carry higher penalties. The law also permits restraining orders against offenders. Laws against domestic violence remained poorly enforced, and violence against women, including domestic violence, remained a widespread and serious problem.

According to a newly published survey, the first of its kind carried out by the General Directorate of Statistics and Census (DIGESTYC), six of 10 women older than age 15 suffered some type of sexual violence in their life. The data was collected in 2019 but not disclosed until March due to difficulties caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.) Sixty-three percent of women ages 15 to 19 and 72 percent of women ages 30 to 34 reported having suffered sexual violence.

Between January and April, the Attorney General’s Office received 441 complaints of domestic violence, which encompasses domestic violence toward any member of the family, including children. Observers noted this number likely did not capture most domestic violence cases, particularly those perpetrated against women. On November 3, several women’s organizations discussed in a forum the 2019 National Data System on Violence against Women of the Ministry of Justice and DIGESTYC, which showed that 68 percent of women older than 15 years suffered sexual violence, but only 5.3 percent sought help. The organizations attributed this low reporting number to women’s distrust of state institutions.

On January 15, the Specialized Sentencing Court for a Life Free of Violence for Women sentenced David Eliseo Diaz Ramirez to 35 years in prison for femicide. Diaz Ramirez and several gang members killed a woman in Tutunichapa, San Salvador Department, in 2019 because she refused to have sex with them.

On May 8, the PNC found more than a dozen bodies, most of them girls and women, buried in the house of former police officer Hugo Ernesto Chavez Osorio, who was arrested on May 6 for the murders of two women. According to the PNC investigation, Chavez Osorio raped his victims and then killed them before burying their bodies in his house.

The Organization of Salvadoran Women for Peace (ORMUSA) reported that the Ministry of Health registered 6,938 pregnant girls or adolescents in the first six months of the year, including 156 girls ages 10 and 11 who were raped and became pregnant. During the first half of the year, the number of pregnancies among girls between the ages of 10-14 increased 9 percent as compared to the same period in 2020. ORMUSA attributed this to several causes, including a lack of government policy for preventing pregnancies in girls and adolescents, a lack of comprehensive sexual and reproductive health education, and an increase in sexual violence. According to the Feminist Collective, families did not report the rapes to the PNC and the Attorney General’s Office because the rapist was commonly a relative of the victim and the families considered it an embarrassment.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment and establishes sentences if convicted of five to eight years’ imprisonment. Courts also may impose additional fines in cases in which the perpetrator held a position of trust or authority over the victim. The law mandates that employers take measures against sexual harassment and create and implement preventive programs. The government, however, did not enforce sexual harassment laws effectively.

On March 11, the Second Sentencing Court sentenced Jose Misael Maldonado Palacios, a corporal of the Third Infantry Brigade of the San Miguel Armed Forces, to six years in prison for improper sexual conduct against two employees. The Specialized Attention Unit for Crimes related to Children, Adolescents, and Women stated that in March 2020, Maldonado Palacios offered to pay two women in exchange for sexual acts inside the barracks.

On March 19, the Attorney General’s Office announced the arrest of Salvador Alcides Villegas, general manager of the Council of Mayors of Usulutan. Villegas was formally accused of sexual harassment of three women, including touching and improper sexual expressions. The victims told the authorities that Villegas touched their legs, breasts, and buttocks.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

The law bans abortion. Civil society advocates expressed concern that the ban led to the wrongful incarceration of women who suffered severe pregnancy complications, including miscarriages.

In March the Inter-American Court of Human Rights concluded that the government violated the right to personal freedom, life, health, and justice of Manuela, a woman sentenced to 30 years in prison in 2008 for the aggravated homicide of her unborn child. Manuela died from cancer in 2010 after not receiving timely and appropriate treatment in prison.

On June 2, the Citizen Group for the Decriminalization of Abortion in El Salvador reported that at least 17 women were in prison on charges of having an abortion after suffering out-of-hospital obstetric emergencies. One of the women, Sara Rogel, received early parole, and the Second Court of Penitentiary Surveillance in Cojutepeque, Cuscatlan Department, released her from prison on June 7. Rogel suffered an obstetric emergency in 2012 when she slipped while washing clothes and was sentenced to 30 years in prison for aggravated homicide for allegedly having an abortion. The court commuted Rogel’s sentence to 10 years in January, and Rogel received early parole after the Attorney General’s Office declined to appeal the decision.

The government-run Institute for Women’s Development implements the National Care System which aims to improve the care, protection, and access to justice for victims of sexual and other types of violence. The specialized comprehensive care includes medical care, counseling, family planning, medical examinations, and treatment of sexually transmitted infections in victims of sexual violence and services were generally available throughout the country.

ORMUSA reported that the closure of Ciudad Mujer health centers throughout the country since June 2019, shortly after President Bukele became president, had created a barrier to women and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons receiving timely health services. Following the closure of the centers, women and LGBTQI+ persons were subjected to long delays to see doctors, and the doctors were not specialized in the field of reproductive health and health issues specific to the LGBTQI+ community, as were the doctors in the Ciudad Mujer health centers.

Discrimination: The constitution grants women and men the same legal status in family, religious, personal status, and nationality laws. There were no reports of discrimination in marriage, divorce, child custody, education, and judicial processes. The law also provides equal rights for men and women in the areas of property rights, inheritance, employment, access to credit, business ownership, and housing. The law establishes sentences of one to three years in prison for public officials convicted of denying a person’s civil rights based on gender and six months to two years for employers convicted of discriminating against women in the workplace, but employees generally did not report such violations due to fear of employer reprisals.

Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination

Systemic racial discrimination existed towards those in the Afro-descendent community and indigenous groups. There are several laws to protect members of racial or ethnic minorities or groups from violence and discrimination. The law provides for individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples to practice ethnic minority traditions, participate in decision-making on issues that affect their rights, and for protection against discrimination. In 2018 the government implemented the Public Policy for Indigenous Communities in El Salvador, which focused on the inclusion of ethnic groups in all social and economic aspects. The government did not enforce the laws effectively, and the administration took no further action to implement the 2018 policy. The government did not recognize indigenous persons of the Afro-descendent community in the last population census in 2007.

Indigenous Peoples

The constitution recognizes indigenous peoples and states that the government will adopt policies to maintain and develop the ethnic and cultural identity, world view, values, and spirituality of indigenous peoples. The law provides for the preservation of languages and archeological sites. The municipalities of Cacaopera and Yucuaiquin, in the eastern part of the country, have special laws to recognize their indigenous cultural heritage.

The law does not include the right to be consulted regarding development and other projects envisioned on indigenous land, nor does it provide indigenous peoples the right to share in revenue from exploitation of natural resources on historically indigenous lands. The government did not demarcate any lands as belonging to indigenous communities. Because few indigenous persons possessed title to land, opportunities for bank loans and other forms of credit remained limited.

According to the most recent census, from 2007, there were 60 indigenous groups, making up 0.4 percent of citizens, mainly from the Nahua-Pipl, Lencas, Cacaopera (Kakwira), and Maya Chorti groups. According to the Institute of the Faculty of Sciences and Humanities of the University of El Salvador, political parties did not consider proposals in favor of indigenous peoples as part of their electoral platforms.

On January 10, Nahuat language teacher Hector Martinez reported that the indigenous Nahuat language was only spoken in four municipalities: Santo Domingo de Guzman, Cuisnahuat, Nahuizalco, and Tacbua. The 2007 census showed there were only 197 Nahuat speakers, but Martinez said the number was drastically fewer because the Nahuat speakers were all elderly and living in extreme poverty. According to the culture law, Spanish is the official language of the country, but “the state is obliged to promote and conserve the rescue, teaching, and respect of ancestral languages throughout the territory.”

On October 17, members of indigenous groups marched against the current administration, demanding visibility of their complaints a stop to the destruction of their sacred places and ceremonial sites such as Tacushcalco and Nexapan archeological sites and the Sensunapan River.

Members of indigenous groups said they do not feel represented by the government or any public official. They said that the government has not responded to their various requests, which included the return of indigenous lands taken by the government, respect for ancestral form of governance, and more access to health care, education, social welfare, and employment.

Indigenous communities reported they faced racial discrimination and economic disadvantage. On November 11, the EU, International Organization for Migration, and the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reported that 27 percent of the indigenous population planned to migrate out of the country. According to the report, the main cause of migration intention was a lack of employment options.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country and from their parents. The law requires parents to register a child within 15 days of birth or pay a small fine. Failure to register may result in denial of school enrollment.

Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious and widespread problem. The law gives children the right to petition the government without parental consent. Penalties for conviction of breaking the law include losing custody of the child and three to 26 years’ imprisonment, depending on the nature of the abuse.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum age for marriage is 18. The law bans child marriage to prevent child abusers from avoiding imprisonment by marrying their underage victims, and the law likewise bans exceptions to child marriage in cases where the minor is pregnant.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: Child sex trafficking is prohibited by law. Prison sentences for convicted traffickers stipulate imprisonment from 16 to 20 years.

The minimum age for consensual sex is 18. The law classifies statutory rape as sexual relations with anyone younger than age 18 and includes penalties for conviction of four to 13 years’ imprisonment.

The law prohibits paying anyone younger than age 18 for sexual services. The law prohibits participating in, facilitating, or purchasing materials containing child pornography and provides for prison sentences of up to 16 years for conviction of violations. Despite these provisions, sexual exploitation of children remained a problem.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish community totaled approximately 150 persons. There were no reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

Persons with disabilities do not have access to education, health services, public buildings, or transportation on an equal basis with others.

The percentage of children with disabilities enrolled in the public school system is very low. The Ministry of Education’s last reported statistics in 2018 indicated only 1,158 students with disabilities were enrolled in high schools across the country, representing fewer than 0.01 percent of all secondary students. Disability advocates said that this low percentage was due to the lack of ramps and other accommodations for students with disabilities. The government provided very little support for schools to include accommodations, and there were few teachers trained to teach students with disabilities.

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities, but the government did not enforce these laws. The National Council for Comprehensive Attention to Persons with Disability (CONAIPD), composed of representatives from multiple government entities, is the governmental agency responsible for protecting disability rights, but it lacked enforcement power. According to a CONAIPD representative, the government did not effectively enforce legal requirements for access to buildings, information, and communications for persons with disabilities. Few access ramps or provisions for the mobility of persons with disabilities existed.

CONAIPD stated there was no mechanism to verify compliance with the law requiring businesses and nongovernment agencies to hire one person with disabilities for every 25 hires. CONAIPD reported employers frequently fired persons who acquired disabilities and would not consider persons with disabilities for work for which they qualified. In addition some academic institutions did not accept children with disabilities.

No formal system existed for filing with the government a discrimination complaint involving a disability.

On May 24, Elba Chacon, coordinator of the human rights program at the Network of Survivors and Persons with Disabilities Foundation, asked the government to update the statistics on persons with disabilities. CONAIPD last carried out the National Survey of in Persons with Disabilities 2015. Chacon said the government did not have updated statistics on access to government services and resources for persons with disabilities.

Organizations of persons with disabilities protested outside the Ministry of Finance on August 30 to demand the government comply with the Special Law on the Inclusion Persons with Disabilities of that was implemented in January. The law includes plans to create a new CONAIPD with greater autonomy to hear complaints and impose sanctions for noncompliance with the law; however, the ministry did not allocate a budget to carry out the law.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

Although the law prohibits discrimination based on HIV/AIDS status, Entre Amigos, an NGO that works on issues concerning LGBTQI+ persons, reported HIV-related discrimination was widespread. As of August 31, the PDDH reported three alleged cases of discrimination against persons with HIV or AIDS.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Police and gangs continue to commit acts of violence against LGBTQI+ individuals. These actions were tolerated by the government, and perpetrators were rarely prosecuted.

On February 20, the Attorney General’s Office announced three MS-13 gang members were convicted of homicide for the 2017 murders of two transgender women in San Luis Talpa, La Paz Department, and each was sentenced to more than 60 years in prison. The Prosecutor’s Office handled the case as a quarrel between gangs and not as a crime related to gender identity of the victims, and as a result the Prosecutor’s Office did not categorize the homicides as hate crimes.

On April 25, Zashy del Cid, a transgender woman, died in San Miguel after she was shot in the back while walking down the street. As of June 5, police had made no arrests. A report by Association Communicating and Training Trans Women in El Salvador (COMCAVIS Trans) found that gangs were responsible for nearly two-thirds of the violence against the LGBTQI+ community.

LGBTQI+ activists reported to the Attorney General’s Office that they received death threats on social media. Police generally failed to act on these reports. NGOs reported that public officials, including police, engaged in violence and discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons. Persons from the LGBTQI+ community stated the PNC and officials from the Attorney General’s Office harassed transgender and gay individuals who reported cases of violence against LGBTQI+ persons, including by conducting unnecessary and invasive strip searches.

In 2020 the Bukele administration eliminated five presidential secretariats created under the previous administration, including the Secretariat of Inclusion. The responsibilities of the secretariat moved to the Gender and Diversity Office in the Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which has no authority to influence policy and insufficient support to implement programs. It did not provide any significant public services.

The law prohibits discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity, which applies to discrimination in housing, employment, nationality, and access to government services. Gender identity and sexual orientation are included in the law covering hate crimes, along with race and political affiliation. Despite the existence of these laws, the government has not taken enforcement actions against violators.

As of August 31, the PDDH reported seven alleged cases of discrimination against LGBTQI+ persons. The PDDH confirmed on February 14 that they opened an investigation into the possible discrimination against an army officer who complained of being discharged due to his sexual orientation. On January 31, the Lieutenant Cristian Adalberto Castro Grijalva was discharged from the army for “public or private conduct that is notoriously immoral or contrary to good customs or public order.” Castro Grijalva said his sexual orientation was not a secret and that it never affected his performance.

Supreme Electoral Tribunal guidelines state individuals may not be denied the right to vote because the photograph on their identification card does not match their physical appearance. Nonetheless, media documented cases of transgender persons who faced harassment while voting in the municipal elections during the year because their name and photograph on their national identification document did not match their expression of gender identity.

COMCAVIS Trans reported that the LGBTQI+ community faced discrimination when obtaining health care. Lesbian women said their gynecologists only focused on HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases when they learned that their patients were lesbian instead of spending time treating routine gynecological issues. According to COMCAVIS Trans, transgender persons also faced discrimination from medical staff when they insisted on calling patients by their legal name instead of their chosen names.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of most workers to form and join independent unions, to strike, and to bargain collectively. The law also prohibits antiunion discrimination, although it does not require reinstatement of workers fired for union activity. Military personnel, national police, judges, and high-level public officers may not form or join unions. The labor code does not cover public-sector workers and municipal workers, whose wages and terms of employment are regulated by the 1961 civil service law. Only citizens may serve on unions’ executive committees. The labor code also bars individuals from holding membership in more than one trade union.

Unions must meet complex requirements to register, including having a minimum membership of 35 individuals. If the Ministry of Labor denies registration, the law prohibits any attempt to organize for up to six months following the denial. Collective bargaining is obligatory only if the union represents a majority of workers.

Unions experienced lengthy delays by the Ministry of Labor in processing their credentials, some facing up to eight months when it previously took a maximum of two months. Without credentials, unions cannot participate in collective bargaining. According to media reports, the Ministry of Labor rewarded like-minded unions with expedited credentials and punished unions critical of the government with delays in their certification. Minister of Labor Rolando Castro stated the delays were due to incorrect or incomplete information in their paperwork.

The law contains cumbersome and complex procedures for conducting a legal strike. The law does not recognize the right to strike for public and municipal employees or for workers in essential services. The law does not specify which services meet this definition, and courts therefore applied this provision on a case-by-case basis. The law requires that 30 percent of all workers in an enterprise must support a strike for it to be legal and that 51 percent must support the strike before all workers are bound by the decision to strike. Unions may strike only to obtain or modify a collective bargaining agreement or to protect the common professional interests of the workers. Unions must engage in negotiation, mediation, and arbitration processes before striking, although many unions often skipped or expedited these steps. The law prohibits workers from appealing a government decision declaring a strike illegal.

In lieu of requiring employers to reinstate illegally dismissed workers, the law requires employers to pay those workers the equivalent of 30 days of their basic salary for each year of service. The law specifies 30 reasons for which an employer may terminate a worker’s contract without triggering any additional responsibilities, including consistent negligence, leaking private company information, or committing immoral acts while on duty. An employer may legally suspend workers, including due to an economic downturn or market conditions.

The government did not effectively enforce the laws on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, and penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. Judicial procedures were subject to lengthy delays and appeals. According to union representatives, the government inconsistently enforced labor rights for a wide range of workers, and enforcement was dependent upon the political affiliations of their labor unions. Unions reported that their members frequently faced violence or threats of violence and that viable legal recourse against such violence was unavailable. Gang activity made it difficult for workers, who continued to be harassed and exposed to violence, to exercise their union activities freely.

Most unions functioned independently from the government and political parties, although many generally were aligned with political parties of Nuevas Ideas, GANA, ARENA, and the FMLN. Workers at times engaged in strikes regardless of whether the strikes met legal requirements.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government generally did not effectively enforce such laws. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. The Ministry of Labor did not report on forced labor; however, it increased investigations. and adults were exposed to forced begging, domestic work, agricultural labor, construction, textile industry, and street work. Adults from neighboring countries were forced to work in construction, domestic work, and other informal sector jobs, sometimes under threat of physical violence. Gangs subjected children to forced labor in illicit activities, including selling or transporting drugs and committing homicides (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the employment of children younger than age 14 but does not prohibit all the worst forms of child labor. The law allows children between ages 14 and 18 to engage in light work if it does not damage the child’s health or development or interfere with compulsory education. The law prohibits children younger than 16 from working more than six hours per day and 34 hours per week; those younger than 18 are prohibited from working at night or in hazardous occupations. The Ministry of Labor maintained a list of types of hazardous work, which included repairing heavy machinery, mining, handling weapons, fishing and harvesting mollusks, and working at heights above five feet while doing construction, erecting antennas, or working on billboards. Children ages 16 and older may engage in light work on coffee and sugar plantations and in the fishing industry if it does not harm their health or interfere with their education.

The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcing child labor laws but did not effectively enforce the law. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Labor inspectors focused almost exclusively on the formal sector. According to the ministry, from January through August 2020, officials conducted 220 child labor inspections in the formal sector and found no minors working. By comparison, in 2017, according to the ministry, there were 140,700 children and adolescents working, of whom 91,257 were employed in “dangerous work” in the informal sector. No information on any investigations or prosecutions by the government was available. The ministry did not effectively enforce child labor laws in the informal sector, which represented almost 75 percent of the economy.

There were reports of children younger than age 16 engaging in the worst forms of child labor, including in coffee cultivation, fishing, shellfish collection, and fireworks production. Children were subjected to other worst forms of child labor, including commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6, Children) and recruitment into illegal gangs to perform illicit activities in the arms and narcotics trades, including committing homicide. Children were engaged in child labor, including domestic work, construction, work in textiles, the production of cereal grains and baked goods, cattle raising, and sales. Orphans and children from poor families frequently worked as street vendors and general laborers in small businesses despite the presence of law enforcement officials.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution, labor laws, and state regulations prohibit discrimination based on age, race, color, sex, religion, political opinion, national origin (except in cases determined to protect local workers), social origin, gender, disability, language, or HIV-positive status. The government did not effectively enforce those laws and regulations, and penalties were not commensurate to laws related to civil rights, such as election interference. Sexual orientation and gender identity are not protected in the constitution or labor law, although the PDDH and the Ministry of Labor actively sought to protect workers against discrimination on those grounds.

Discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to age, gender, disability, and sexual orientation or gender identity (see sections 6 and 7.e.). According to the Ministry of Labor, migrant workers have the same rights as citizens, but the ministry did not effectively protect their rights.

On January 27, the Legislative Assembly approved the Special Law for the Protection of the Elderly, which prohibits establishing an age limit for job applications, using age as a cause to dismiss an employee, or forcing an employee to retire due to age.

On August 31, the Legislative Assembly approved reforms to the Law of the Judicial Career, establishing that all judges older than 60 years or with more than 30 years of service must be removed from their position. The law affected 156 judges across the country but excluded the Supreme Court of Justice, which may grant exceptions to the judges of their choosing (see section 1.e.).

Although the law provides for equal pay between men and women, women did not receive equal pay. In July the United Nations reported that women made 18 percent less than men in the same jobs. The report also stated that 53 percent of the population in the country were women and that one-third of households were supported only by the income of women.

On April 19, a Mr. Wings restaurant in Soyapango, San Salvador Department, fired an employee for being pregnant. On April 20, the Ministry of Labor confirmed that the employee had been reinstated after an intervention by a team of inspectors from the ministry. The ministry also warned the restaurant against seeking any retaliation against the employee.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

The government sets the minimum wage, which varies by sector. All the wage rates were above poverty income levels.

Wage and Hour Laws: The Ministry of Labor is responsible for enforcement of wage and hour laws. The law sets a maximum normal workweek of 44 hours – limited to no more than six days and to no more than eight hours per day – but allows overtime, which is to be paid at double the usual hourly wage. The law mandates that full-time employees receive pay for an eight-hour day of rest in addition to the 44-hour normal workweek. The law provides that employers must pay double time for work on designated annual holidays, a Christmas bonus based on the time of service of the employee, and 15 days of paid annual leave. The law prohibits compulsory overtime for all workers other than domestic employees, such as maids and gardeners, who are obligated to work on holidays if their employer makes this request. In such cases they are entitled to double pay. The government did not adequately enforce these laws, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

Occupational Safety and Health: The Ministry of Labor is responsible for setting and enforcing occupational safety and health (OSH) standards, and the law establishes a tripartite committee to review these. The law requires employers to take steps to meet OSH requirements in the workplace, including providing proper equipment and training and a violence-free environment. Employers who violate labor laws may be penalized, but penalties were not commensurate with those for other similar crimes; some companies reportedly found it more cost effective to pay the fines than to comply with the law. The law promotes occupational safety awareness, training, and worker participation in OSH matters. While the laws were appropriate for the main industries and the government trained its inspectors on these standards, it did not effectively enforce them.

The number of inspectors was insufficient to deter violations. Inspectors did not have the authority to initiate unannounced inspections or sanctions. Inspections were scheduled under a calendar set by the Inspections Directorate or to verify a complaint, and labor inspectors did not notify the company prior to their arrival. Allegations of corruption among labor inspectors continued. The Labor Ministry received complaints regarding failure to pay overtime, minimum wage violations, unpaid salaries, and cases of employers illegally withholding benefits (including social security and pension funds) from workers.

Reports of overtime and wage violations existed in several sectors. According to the Labor Ministry, employers in the agricultural sector routinely violated the laws requiring annual bonuses, vacation days, or rest days. Women in domestic service faced exploitation, mistreatment, verbal abuse, threats, sexual harassment, and generally poor work conditions. Workers in the textile industry reportedly experienced violations of wage, hour, and safety laws. According to the Women Transforming Association, certain apparel companies violated women’s rights through occupational-health violations and unpaid overtime. The government was ineffective in pursuing such violations.

In some cases the country’s high crime rate undermined acceptable conditions of work as well as workers’ psychological and physical health. Some workers, such as bus drivers, bill collectors, messengers, and teachers in high-risk areas, reported being subject to extortion and death threats by gang members. The PNC received 1,131 complaints of extortion from January to August. In 2020 extortion victims totaled 1,345 for the entire year, in which five months were mandatory national lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As of August the average of extortion complaints was five per day, while in all of 2020 the total was four per day.

On January 11, Diario El Mundo reported that coffee farmers complained that gangs operating near the farms did not allow cutters from outside the neighborhood to enter the farms to work unless they paid an extortion fee.

After the killing of a bus employee on July 2, there was a seven-day work stoppage of public buses on Route 151 in San Jose Villanueva, La Libertad Department, forcing approximately 5,000 persons who used the 24 buses on the route to walk or find more costly detours. Although the PNC did not present a motive for the killing, residents claimed that gang members shot and killed the man for not paying the extortion fee.

Workers may legally remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment, but authorities did not effectively enforce this law.

Informal Sector: The informal sector represented almost 75 percent of the economy. Workers in the informal sector were not protected by labor laws and were not inspected by the Ministry of Labor. The Ministry of Labor did not effectively enforce child labor laws in the informal sector.

Guatemala

Executive Summary

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.

b. Disappearance

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.

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 48 complaints of illegal detention by police, compared with two in 2020. Reports indicated police ignored writs of habeas corpus in cases of illegal detention, particularly during neighborhood antigang operations.

On May 19, the PNC arrested Juan Francisco Foppa, former head of the Tax Administration Superintendency, for alleged falsification of documents when registering a new political party. Police followed him in an unmarked car – outside of permitted police procedures – stopped him, then arrested him, without cause or an arrest warrant. He was released on June 11 pending a hearing on the charges of irregularities related to the documents he submitted to register a political party. As of November there was no progress in this case. Domestic human rights and anticorruption activists cited his arrest as an example of the government’s pattern of harassing anticorruption advocates.

Pretrial Detention: As of October prison system records indicated 46 percent of prisoners were in pretrial detention, approximately the same percentage as in 2020, 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. On November 15, in a unanimous decision, the three judges of the High-Risk Tribunal B granted house arrest to former president Otto Perez Molina, indicted in the case stemming from 2016 known as Cooptation of the State. The court also stated that the change to house arrest would enter into effect on the condition that he pay a fine of 13 million quetzals ($1.69 million). Molina’s legal team argued against the fine, stating that the sum was unaffordable and was imposed to keep him in prison. Perez Molina has been in pretrial detention since 2015. According to press reports, although Perez Molina would have been able to pay the fine, he would not have been released from prison because he was also indicted in another case stemming from 2015, known as The Line, where the judge in charge, Miguel Angel Galvez, had repeatedly refused his requests for house arrest.

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 failures of judges to issue the necessary court order or other bureaucratic delays.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary. The judicial system generally failed to provide fair or timely trials due to inefficiency, corruption, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses.

Judges, prosecutors, plaintiffs, and witnesses continued to report threats, intimidation, and surveillance, including from government officials, such as harassment of prosecutors from the Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity and judges from the High-Risk Court. On September 29, High-Risk Court judge Erika Aifan posted a video on social media that detailed how government employees from outside her office placed staff in her court office who recorded her private comments and leaked confidential files from her cases. From January through August 31, the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Judicial Workers and Unionists received 69 complaints of threats or aggression against workers in the judicial branch and 53 complaints against prounion activists, for a total of 122 complaints, compared with 194 in 2020.

On October 11, Attorney General Porras announced the reassignment of lead human rights prosecutor Hilda Pineda to an office that investigates crimes against tourists. Pineda was known for aggressively pursuing prosecution of human rights abuses by the military during the civil war, including genocide against the Maya Ixil community and the Diario Militar case. Civil society decried the move as politically motivated and expressed concern the move would weaken the prosecutions of these cases.

Since May prosecutors and judges associated with the Diario Militar case reported increased threats and surveillance. The Human Rights Prosecutor’s Office requested security support from the Public Ministry, but as of November none had been provided.

On April 13, the Congressional Executive Board swore in seven of the 10 new Constitutional Court members for the 2021-2026 term starting on April 14. Congress refused to seat re-elected independent incumbent Constitutional Court magistrate Gloria Porras, citing a provisional injunction. In view of her consequent loss of immunity after not being sworn in for a new term on the Constitutional Court, Porras departed the country on April 14 and remained abroad as of November 29. Civil society expressed concern that as of November the court had consistently ruled in favor of the governing coalition.

The selection process for the election by congress of 13 Supreme Court and 135 appellate court magistrates continued largely unresolved. As of August 31, congress successfully completed the voting procedure for only one candidate for the appellate court in a total of 270 candidates. The sitting Supreme Court and 269 appellate court judges remained in their positions. In 2019 the Constitutional Court halted the selection process for Supreme Court and appellate court magistrates, ruling that formal evaluation procedures were not followed within the selection committees after a process that suffered widespread manipulation of selection committees by politicians, judicial operators, and other influential citizens. In February 2020 Public Ministry investigations found that while in prison on corruption charges, Gustavo Alejos, former chief of staff under then president Alvaro Colom, accepted at least 20 visits from officials associated with the selection process in his hospital ward in the days before the selection committees provided their lists. The Constitutional Court issued a final ruling in May 2020 requiring removal of candidates associated with Gustavo Alejos and a voice vote for each position in congress, but as of November congress had not complied with the ruling.

Trial Procedures

The constitution provides for the right to a fair and public trial, the presumption of innocence, the defendant’s right to be present at trial, and the right to legal counsel in a timely manner. The law requires the government to provide attorneys for defendants facing criminal charges if the defendant cannot find or afford an attorney. Defendants and their attorneys may confront adverse witnesses and present their own witnesses and evidence. The law provides for abbreviated processing (similar to plea bargaining) for minor offenses with short-term prison sentences and the right of appeal. The Constitutional Court left in place the temporary suspension of the 2019 plea bargaining law. The law was suspended in 2020 for potentially violating due process. Three-judge panels render verdicts. The law provides for oral trials and mandates free language interpretation for those needing it; however, interpreters were not always available, including for indigenous victims in the High-Risk courts. Officials conduct trials in Spanish, the official language, although many citizens speak only one of the 23 officially recognized indigenous languages.

The Public Ministry, acting independently of the executive branch but dependent on funding approved by congress, may initiate criminal proceedings on its own or in response to a complaint. Private parties may participate in the prosecution of criminal cases as plaintiffs.

Even though courts reopened in June 2020 after COVID-19 outbreaks closed courts earlier that year, the judicial system reportedly canceled 68,751 hearings through August. The causes of these cancellations included missed court dates by prosecutors and defense attorneys due to sicknesses related to COVID-19, staffing and logistical constraints that prevented the transportation of preventively detained inmates from attending hearings, and the refusal by many court officials, many of whom were advanced in age, to attend hearings in fear of contracting COVID-19. Although the courts were working through the 2020 closure backlog, the cancellation of additional hearings meant conviction rates for most crimes were lower in 2021 than in 2020.

International and domestic observers considered the number of judges insufficient. Lack of sufficient personnel, training, and evidence hampered Public Ministry prosecutors’ ability to bring cases to trial.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Politically Motivated Reprisal Against Individuals Located Outside the Country

On May 14, the newly installed Constitutional Court announced it had received a complaint against the U.S.-based former International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala attorney Alfonso Carrillo via an amicus curiae brief and that the court had referred the case to the Public Ministry for a criminal investigation. The brief, presented by Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, director of the Foundation Against Terrorism, stated that Carrillo violated the civil and commercial procedure code by filing legal actions and injunctions against recent Constitutional Court magistrates’ nominations. On May 18, civil society organizations, including Justicia Ya and UDEFEGUA, released a statement that criticized the court’s action on social media accusing the court of protecting a corrupt group of state actors.

Threats, Harassment, Surveillance, and Coercion

Juan Francisco Sandoval, former head of the Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, reported that police interviewed his parents and entered their home looking for him even though his whereabouts in the United States had been widely reported.

On September 29, High-Risk Court judge Erika Aifan claimed through her social media account that for years officials implicated in cases she presided over monitored her by placing staff into her courtroom and office, and that these workers often leaked details of important cases to those accused of corruption.

Prosecutors from the Public Ministry’s Human Rights Department who were prosecuting civil war era war crime cases against former military members reported that after the May arrests connected to the Diario Militar case, they were followed by unmarked vans and experienced threatening gestures from other vehicles.

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 permitted spurious complaints.

Property Seizure and Restitution

Negotiations between the government and families affected by the construction of the Chixoy hydroelectric dam continued. As of November the government had paid approximately 99 percent of the 200 million quetzals ($26 million) in individual reparations to families affected by the dam. Fifteen cases of reparations remained unresolved. During the dam’s construction from 1975 to 1985, more than 400 individuals died, and thousands were displaced.

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 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, but the government did not always respect this right. The intimidation of journalists increased during the year and resulted in significant self-censorship.

Freedom of Expression: Many journalists reported being followed or having to flee the country after publishing work that was critical of influential citizens. In August Marvin del Cid, an independent journalist, left the country after receiving threats due to the publication of a book he wrote exposing alleged improprieties in President Giammattei’s campaign funds in the 2019 presidential election.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other 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.

Lower advertising revenue, whether due to the COVID-19 pandemic or as pressure from companies against reports of corruption, resulted in media outlets becoming less independent.

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.

Observers noted that net centers, or collections of social media accounts operating from office buildings associated with government information sources, increased activity creating fake social media accounts to criticize and defame journalists.

On September 7, government prosecutors dropped all charges against Anastasia Mejia. In August 2020 the PNC arrested Mejia, the director of a local television and radio service, following her live radio and video reporting of a protest at the Joyabaj mayor’s office that resulted in damage to municipal property.

As of November the case against former congressman Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez, accused of ordering the 2015 killings of two journalists in Suchitepequez, continued being litigated.

The Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists reported 60 complaints of attacks or threats against journalists from January to August, compared with 73 during the same period of 2020, and no homicides, compared with one reported in the same period of 2020.

Nongovernmental Impact: Organized crime exerted influence over media outlets and reporters, frequently threatening individuals for reporting on criminal activities.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or censor online content, and there were no credible reports that the government monitored private online communications without appropriate legal authority.

Human rights defenders, journalists, as well as judges and lawyers on high-profile cases, reported social media attacks, including the hacking of their private social media accounts, publishing of stolen or falsified personal information, publishing of photographic surveillance of them and family members, and online defamation and hate speech. The government took little action to protect these individuals.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The constitution provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, but the government did not always respect these rights. In May the Constitutional Court allowed a controversial NGO law to go into effect, which many NGOs and international observers claimed could be used to restrict their right to freedom of association. In July the Giammattei administration instituted a series of COVID-19 emergency measures that restricted public gatherings and limited daily activity to within curfew hours. Some critics alleged these states of calamity were attempts by the administration to suppress protests.

On October 4 in El Estor, Izabal, a group of 20 Mayan Q’eqchi’ activists protested the continued operation of the Fenix mine and exclusion of the group from the court-ordered consultations over the operation of that mine. On October 23, more than 700 police officers fired tear gas at the crowd of approximately 120 protesters. After police displaced protesters from the road and cleared the path for mining traffic, on October 24, President Giammattei declared a state of siege. Congress approved the state of siege two days later and imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. In the five days following the declaration, the PNC conducted 26 raids and arrested 15 persons for crimes including starting wildfires, possession of drugs, and threatening violence. Some activists claimed police raided the homes of suspected protesters and local journalists who had been critical of the government reaction.

On July 23, Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras fired the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, Juan Francisco Sandoval, who was investigating accusations of widespread corruption in the Giammattei administration (see section 4). The firing led to protests throughout the country, with protesters asking for the resignation of the president and the attorney general. The government generally respected the protesters’ rights, although there were some reports of excessive use of force against protesters by government forces.

Freedom of Association

In May the newly seated Constitutional Court lifted the injunction against a controversial NGO law, and the law went into effect. 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 by December. Many internationally funded NGOs expressed concern that complex and arbitrary regulations outlined in the law potentially give the government the ability to close NGOs at will. Civil society groups continued to oppose the NGO law, saying it could be used to shutter organizations that oppose the current administration. Some NGOs claimed the law also increased their operating costs, since they had to hire lawyers to prepare a defense in case the government tried to close them down.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/international-religious-freedom-reports/.

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation. The government generally respected these rights. States of siege or prevention place limits on freedom of movement. Therefore, at certain points for up to 30 days, citizens in the affected areas did not have this right, such as in El Estor, Izabal, where on October 24, President Giammattei declared, and congress approved, a state of siege for 30 days that imposed a curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m., limited large groups of persons from amassing, and allowed police to detain and interrogate those suspected of disturbing the peace with suspension of some due process.

In support of public health, the government enacted curfews, limits to sale of alcohol, and limits to public gatherings throughout the year as part of the states of calamity and prevention declared in response to COVID-19. President Giammattei declared a state of public calamity on August 14, which included a 10 p.m. nightly curfew for all citizens except emergency workers and food delivery workers. On August 23, congress rejected the widely unpopular declaration.

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.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government made efforts, with significant support from the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations, in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for receiving and adjudicating asylum claims to grant refugee status to qualifying individuals. UNHCR reported that identification and referral mechanisms for potential asylum seekers were inadequate and requirements to travel to Guatemala City for parts of the process continued to limit access. Despite regulations published in 2019, there continued to be gaps and lack of clarity in the procedures for implementing the legal framework.

Asylum claims are processed by the Department of Refugee Status Determination of the Guatemalan Migration Institute. Recommendations on recognition are formulated by the National Commission for Refugees (CONARE), which is composed of delegates from four government entities: the Ministry of Labor and Social Security, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Interior, and Guatemalan Migration Institute. The National Migration Authority approves or denies asylum requests based on the recommendations made by CONARE. This interministerial process contributed to major delays on final case decisions and an increased backlog. With the intervention of central authorities and the PDH, some individuals in need of protection were able to access the asylum process, although only 29 of the 486 cases filed in 2020 were adjudicated as of October. CONARE was still processing cases from 2019 and 2020 and had yet to assess cases filed during the year, according to observers familiar with the process.

Access to Basic Services: Documentation needed to access government services, including health care, remained expensive and time-consuming to complete. Provisional Status, which must be renewed every 30 days, conferred a legal status to individuals who had undergone an interview as part of an application for refugee status and were awaiting a decision on their recognition as a refugee. Temporary Residence was accessible to recognized refugees, but the total cost was more than 3,000 quetzals ($388). Access to education for refugees was difficult due to the country’s onerous requirements for access to formal education, including documentation from the country of origin, although a mechanism existed to allow asylum seekers who might not have full documentation of prior education to be integrated into the education system. Adult asylum seekers often could not obtain accreditation of their foreign university degrees to practice their profession.

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.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: The Organization of American States and other international observers found some irregularities in the electoral process for the last national elections in 2019, but none was significant enough to discredit the legitimacy and validity of the elections. President Alejandro Giammattei and the elected congressional deputies took office in January 2020 without disturbance. The Public Ministry continued to investigate allegations of illicit campaign financing in the 2015 elections, including a case against Sandra Torres and the National Unity of Hope Party. A substitute judge in High-Risk Court A granted Sandra Torres house arrest during her pretrial detention; on August 30, a three-judge appellate panel granted her permission to participate in political activities with her party while under house arrest.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did, to an extent, participate. Traditional and cultural practices, discrimination, institutional bias, and difficulty traveling to polling places in rural areas, however, limited participation of women and members of indigenous groups. There were two women serving in the 13-member cabinet, 31 in the 160-member congress, and nine among the 340 municipal mayors. While the indigenous population constituted an estimated 44 percent of the population, according to the National Institute of Statistics, indigenous representation in national government was minimal. There was one indigenous member on the Constitutional Court and one on the Supreme Court. There were approximately 16 indigenous members of congress, of whom four were women. Indigenous individuals composed approximately one-fourth (90 of 340) of the mayoral seats elected in 2019.

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 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Many of these groups, however, were the subject of harassment and threats, and they faced pressure and attacks from government actors.

Several NGOs, human rights workers, and trade unionists reported threats, violence, and intimidation. UDEFEGUA reported five killings of human rights defenders from January through June and 551 attacks against human rights defenders in the same period, compared with 677 attacks in the same period in 2020. NGOs asserted the government did little to investigate the reports or prevent further incidents.

NGOs also reported the government, fringe groups, and private entities used threats of legal action as a form of intimidation. According to UDEFEGUA, from January to June, there were at least 26 new unfounded judicial cases filed against human rights defenders, compared with 13 for the same period in 2020. As of November the Foundation Against Terrorism, led by Ricardo Mendez Ruiz, had filed 31 new cases, both civil and criminal, against human rights and transitional justice NGOs, human rights defenders, and judicial workers in addition to more than 100 cases filed in 2020.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: On September 13, the government renewed the OHCHR mandate for one year. In 2020 the government reduced the OHCHR’s three-year mandate to one-year increments.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The PDH monitors the human rights set forth in the constitution and reports to congress. NGOs generally considered the PDH to be an effective institution but with limitations in rural areas. While the ombudsman attempted to operate independently and issued public reports and recommendations as in past years, because congress withheld part of the funding for the office, the institution was less effective than in previous years. In March the Constitutional Court ordered that congress disburse the allocated funds to the ombudsman. Congress did not comply with this order until November 24. The Congressional Committee on Human Rights drafts and provides guidance on legislation regarding human rights. The law requires all political parties represented in congress to have a representative on the committee. Some NGOs did not consider the committee to be an effective forum for human rights promotion and protection.

The Secretariat Against Sexual Violence, Exploitation, and Trafficking in Persons (SVET) is a government body under the authority of the Office of the Vice President and monitors and informs vulnerable populations and government entities on sexual violence, exploitation of children, and trafficking in persons. SVET reported congress withheld its funds by exercising line-item approval for all its projects.

The President’s Commission on Human Rights formulates and promotes human rights policy, represents the country in international human rights forums, enacts international recommendations on human rights, and leads coordination of police protection for human rights and labor activists.

In July 2020 President Giammattei announced a new 11-member, ministerial-level Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights to replace the President’s Commission, the Secretariat for Peace (created to enact government commitments in the 1996 Peace Accords), and the Secretariat of Agricultural Affairs, which mediates land conflict. Starting in August 2020 the three governmental entities replaced by the Presidential Commission for Peace and Human Rights had 90 days to transfer their files to existing institutions such as the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman and the Secretariat for Planning and Programming. As of November this had not been completed. Civil society expressed concern that dissolving the President’s Commission could lead to a lack of mechanisms for enacting the recommendations of international forums, such as the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and could result in restarting the process for creating a national plan for the protection of human rights defenders. As of November it was not clear which government entity would continue negotiations for Chixoy reparations (see section 1.e.).

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, and sets penalties between five and 50 years in prison. Police had minimal training or capacity to investigate sexual crimes or assist survivors of such crimes, and the government did not enforce the law effectively. Rape and other sexual offenses remained serious problems.

The government took steps to combat femicide and violence against women. The judiciary continued to operate a 24-hour court in Guatemala City to offer services related to violence directed toward women, including sexual assault, exploitation, and trafficking of women and children. The judiciary also operated specialized courts for violence against women throughout the country, but not in every department. The Public Ministry maintained a 24-hour victim service center to provide medical, psychosocial, and legal support to victims, including restraining orders for their immediate protection. The ministry also maintained a national alert system for finding disappeared women. Sexual violence remained widespread despite these advances. The ministry reported that 6,307 women were victims of rape from January to August, compared with 3,684 women in all of 2020.

The law establishes penalties for femicide of 25 to 50 years in prison without the possibility of reducing the sentence; however, femicide remained a significant problem. The NGO Mutual Support Group reported that from January to August, 395 women were killed, compared with 302 in the same period in 2020. According to judicial system data, no one was convicted of femicide as of November, compared with 34 in the same period in 2020. Mutual Support Group pointed to the lack of convictions as partly due to a judicial backlog stemming from COVID-19 closures in 2020 and partly to the judicial branch’s lack of attention to these crimes.

Violence against women, including sexual and domestic violence, remained widespread and serious. The law establishes penalties of five to eight years in prison for physical, economic, and psychological violence committed against women due to their gender. The Public Ministry estimated that reports of domestic violence decreased by more than 75 percent compared with the previous year, noting 410 cases of “intrafamily violence” in the first six months, perhaps due to fewer stay-at-home orders issued compared with 2020. The Public Ministry recorded 44,229 instances of violence against women from January to August, compared with 39,399 in the same period of 2020. The ministry noted that the judicial system convicted 1,118 perpetrators of violence against women from January to August, compared with 424 in the same period of 2020.

The case against Francisco Cuxum Alvarado and seven codefendants remained in the evidence-gathering phase. In January 2020 PNC officers arrested Cuxum Alvarado immediately after his deportation from the United States. The Public Ministry indicted him on charges of crimes against humanity and aggravated sexual assault against 36 Maya Achi women in Rabinal between 1981 and 1985. The Public Ministry indicted seven other defendants, former members of the civil defense patrols, on the same charges in 2018.

Sexual Harassment: Although several laws refer to sexual harassment, no single law, including laws against sexual violence, addresses it directly. Human rights organizations reported sexual harassment was widespread.

Women with disabilities and members of the LGBTQI+ community with disabilities remained at greater risk of being victims of continued sexual violence. Most persons with disabilities, especially women, did not report situations of violence and abuse because the reporting processes are complex and discriminate against them, among other reasons.

Reproductive Rights: Forced sterilization was purportedly common in persons with disabilities but reporting on these abuses was rare. There were no official reports during the year of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Cultural, geographic, and linguistic barriers hampered access to reproductive health care including contraceptives, particularly for indigenous women in rural areas, where contraceptives were also least likely to be available locally. The prevalence of modern contraceptive use remained low among indigenous women compared with all other women, and a lack of culturally sensitive reproductive and maternal health-care service providers deterred some indigenous women from accessing reproductive health care services.

In July the government approved the Policy for the Protection of Life and the Institutionality of the Family, an executive policy that sets forth policy principles, including a definition of family as a nuclear family with one male and one female parent, and a definition of life as starting at conception.

The government provided survivors of sexual violence who sought medical attention some services through the Model for Integrated Attention for Women Victims of Violence (MAINA) and the Model of Integrated Attention for Children and Adolescents (MAIMI) systems, administered by the Ministry of Public Health. The MAINA and MAIMI models provided victims with access to emergency contraceptives and antiviral medicines to prevent sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancy resulting from rape in addition to some justice services. Some hospitals classified sexual assault as a medical emergency; however, many survivors did not seek medical care due to cultural and geographic barriers. Authorities within the justice system commented that on occasion some hospital clinics did not have the required pills in stock to protect rape victims against sexually transmitted diseases or pregnancy.

According to a report by the Ministry of Health published in 2020, the maternal mortality rate among indigenous communities was 156 per 100,000 live births, compared with the national average of 108 per 100,000 live births.

One-half of all the maternal deaths occurred in four departments in the northwest of the country (Huehuetenango, San Marcos, Quiche, and Alta Verapaz), most of them in rural and dispersed areas with high rates of malnutrition, poverty, and concentrated populations of indigenous persons.

Most maternal deaths were due to preventable causes – hemorrhages (47 percent), hypertension (23 percent), infections (14 percent), and unsafe abortion (8 percent). Factors such as the lack of medical services available in indigenous languages and lack of providers and equipment in remote areas also played a role in these deaths. During the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, prenatal care decreased by 16 percent.

The NGO The Reproductive and Sexual Health Observatory reported that from January to October, there were 60,464 births to mothers who were adolescents: 58,820 births to mothers between ages 15 and 19 and 1,644 to mothers between ages 10 and 14.

Access to menstrual products and the lack of separate boys’ and girls’ bathrooms in some rural schools continued to negatively affect adolescent girls’ access to education in rural areas of the country.

Discrimination: Although the constitution establishes the principle of gender equality, stating that all individuals are equal and have the same rights and that men and women enjoy the same opportunities and responsibilities, women, and particularly indigenous women, faced discrimination and were less likely to hold management positions. The law establishes equal pay for women and men in government offices by not allowing differences in pay based on “personal identity” but does not prohibit discrimination based on gender or prohibit sexual harassment in the workplace in the private sector. There are laws that restrict women from working in certain sectors, including in jobs deemed morally inappropriate. The law does not prohibit discrimination in access to credit based on gender.

The law provides for equality between men and women in divorce to both provide for care of the children and responsibility to provide financial and housing assistance to the children’s caretakers, who are often the women, both during and after the divorce. The PDH reported that divorce proceedings had improved in the last 20 years with regards to fairness between men and women. Observers, however, reported that men availed themselves of procedural delays involved with complications for women who must register children from previous relationships, thereby creating obstacles to child support for women in those cases.

Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination

There are no laws, policies, or state programs that specifically contribute to the reduction of racism, according to international human rights organizations. The constitution provides for protections against discrimination, and the law provides for a penalty of one to three years’ imprisonment and a fine of up to 3,000 quetzals ($388) for acts of discrimination. Other legal and material efforts to combat discrimination include litigation instructions for discrimination crimes by the Public Ministry.

The government generally did not effectively enforce laws against discrimination. Of the 12 agreements that make up the Peace Accords signed in 1996, the two in which the government had made the least progress in implementing were those specifically dealing with matters related to indigenous persons: the Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the Agreement on Socioeconomic Aspects and Agrarian Issues.

According to the OHCHR, there was a significant increase in attacks and incidents of defamation and intimidation against indigenous defenders of indigenous land, territory rights, and natural resources.

Indigenous spiritual leaders, such as Mayan spiritual guide Jesus Choc Yat in Quiche, were attacked or killed.

The executive branch lacked a coordinated approach to address poverty and unemployment concentrated mainly in indigenous and Afrodescendant communities, although there were some government programs directed at the needs of these populations. In January the Cabinet for Social Development officially introduced an executive policy to support the integration of midwives into the health-care system. The policy promotes the inclusion of midwives in health-care institutions, which international human rights organizations noted should help fight discrimination against indigenous persons’ cultural practices.

Indigenous Peoples

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. The government is party to the International Labor Organization convention 169 (ILO 169) on Indigenous Peoples’ Rights, which stipulates that the government must consult with indigenous groups prior to implementing large infrastructure projects in indigenous territories. Observers indicated the government did not always consult with all affected parties and indigenous leaders, and activists regularly reported being harassed and threatened for their work. On January 16, an unnamed assailant shot Xinka leader and activist Julio David Gonzalez Arango at his home. Gonzalez Arango, a public leader for the Xinka people in the case of the Pan American Silver Escobal mine, later recovered.

Indigenous lands were not effectively demarcated, making the legal recognition of titles to the land problematic. Indigenous representatives claimed actors in several 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. On December 10, the government declared the successful conclusion of the ILO 169 consultations with those indigenous groups they designated as participants in the process. The community’s self-determined governance structure, the Ancestral Council of Q’eqchi Peoples, was excluded from the consultations, and critics claimed that the government purposely neglected to include the group. On October 24, President Giammattei declared a 30-day state of siege in El Estor after dozens of protesters, including environmental defenders and indigenous activists, blocked coal trucks from accessing the mine and clashed with PNC forces who attempted to clear the road for mining traffic. According to local observers present at the scene, a police force outnumbering protesters by a ratio of seven to one broke up the protest and allowed mining traffic to continue along the road.

Between May 21 and November 26, the Ministry of Energy and Mines held four court-ordered ILO-169 preconsultations with Xinka authorities to discuss the Pan American Silver mine (formerly San Rafael) at Escobal. Another three meetings are planned for early 2022 to finish the preconsultation process. 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.

Discrimination against indigenous cultures and customs existed in the health-care system. Civil society organizations of indigenous midwives in rural areas reported that their services were not recognized by government health-care institutions under the Ministry of Public Health such as Centers of Integral Maternal Care. This lack of recognition of indigenous midwives and the vital role they play as authorities, leaders, and family members in rural indigenous communities created a cleavage between the government and indigenous communities.

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.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship by birth within the country or from their parents. UNICEF described low birth registration as a “serious problem,” and UNHCR reported problems in registering births were especially acute in indigenous communities due to inadequate government registration and documentation systems. Lack of registration restricted children’s access to some public services and created conditions that could lead to statelessness.

Education: While primary education is free and compulsory through age 15, access was limited in many rural areas; education through the secondary level is not obligatory. International observers noted boys were prioritized for high school education in rural communities due to the need to travel long distances and girls’ perceived value in the home. UNICEF noted improvements in school feeding programs that increased access to nutrition for underserved communities and celebrated the government’s October reforms to the school nutrition program that increased expenditures on elementary and pre-elementary school feeding programs by 50 percent per student.

Child Abuse: Child abuse remained a serious problem. A unit under the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Children and Adolescents handled child abuse cases. The Public Ministry opened an integrated 24-hour care model providing medical, psychosocial, and legal support to children and adolescent victims of violence. The ministry reported 2,250 reports of abuse of minors of all types, approximately 1,700 fewer than in 2020. The ministry reported 48 convictions for child abuse from January through August, compared with 14 during the same period in 2020.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal age for marriage is 18. The National Registry of Persons reported no attempts to register new underage marriages. Registry officials, however, reported they registered nine underage marriages unreported from previous years, all of which were entered before the 2017 prohibition of underage marriage took effect.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law provides sentences ranging from 13 to 24 years in prison, depending on the victim’s age, for engaging in sex with a minor. The minimum age of consensual sex is 18.

The law prohibits child pornography and establishes penalties of six to 10 years in prison for producing, promoting, and selling child pornography and two to four years’ imprisonment for possessing it. The Public Ministry and the PNC conducted several raids against alleged online child pornography networks. The Regional Unit against Trafficking in Persons, responsible for eight departments in the Western Highlands and launched in 2018, expanded the government’s investigative capacity against child pornography offenders. The commercial sexual exploitation of children, including child sex tourism, remained a problem, including in privately run orphanages. The COVID-19 pandemic forced most schools to operate virtually. According to SVET this led to more children spending unsupervised time online, which led to increased online exploitation of children. In July the PNC, acting on information from Interpol, rescued eight children from a child pornography trafficking ring in Zacapa.

Displaced Children: Criminals and gangs often recruited street children, many of them victims of domestic abuse, for purposes of theft, extortion, commercial sexual exploitation, transporting contraband, and conducting illegal drug activities.

Institutionalized Children: More than 800 children and adolescents lived in shelters operated by the Secretariat for Social Welfare (SBS).

Overcrowding was common in both private and SBS shelters, and government funding for orphanages remained limited. The SBS reported there were no infrastructure improvements during the year, but that Hogar Esperanza, a state-run shelter, adjusted staffing to maintain specialized personnel. International human rights organizations reported Hogar Esperanza was housing children in spaces that resembled cages and that there was a clear need for reform to care adequately for children with disabilities. Observers also stated private shelters were often better than SBS shelters.

A criminal court set the date for public arguments in the Hogar Seguro fire case for March 2022. Hogar Seguro is a state-run orphanage under the authority of the SBS. Former SBS secretary Carlos Rodas and former deputy secretary for protection and shelter services Anahi Keller remained in pretrial detention with four others on charges of murder, abuse of authority, breach of duty, and abuse against minors following the deaths of 41 girls in the 2017 fire at the Hogar Seguro orphanage.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The Jewish population numbered approximately 1,500. Jewish community representatives reported no anti-Semitic incidents as of November.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

Discrimination against persons with disabilities continued to be a problem, with such persons experiencing discrimination based on the specific disability, gender, age, place of residency, and sexual orientation, among others. These factors combined with lingering effects of the COVID-19 pandemic made it more difficult for persons with disabilities to exercise their rights.

Persons with disabilities were unable to access education, health services, public buildings, and transportation on an equal basis with others. No law requires such access, nor does the law mandate that persons with disabilities have access to information or communications.

Children with disabilities attended school at all levels at a significantly lower rate than other children; most did not attend school at all.

Persons with disabilities experienced violence, harassment, intimidation, and abuses, including incidents incited, perpetrated, or condoned by government officials such as police, medical professionals, and personal attendants and staff at institutions. Persons with disabilities, especially underrepresented groups, experienced higher levels of violence and abuse, including sexual assault. According to the Public Ministry, from January 2019 to June 7, a total of 826 persons with disabilities were registered as victims in a criminal or civil cases or complaints, of which 729 were aggravated assault cases (88 percent). Of these, 64 percent of victims were women and 36 percent men; 21 percent were minors and 9 percent were older than 60. Of the cases in which women with disabilities were injured, 61 percent involved gender-based violence.

Nongovernmental organizations that advocate for persons with disabilities reported the government violated the right to education for students with disabilities, especially those with intellectual disabilities. Reports indicated the lack of access to resources and technologies, such as internet connectivity and computers, caused the deficiency in virtual education during COVID-19 shutdowns, especially in rural and poor areas. Further reports indicated that online learning resources when available were focused on visually and auditorily impaired students and that few solutions were provided for students with other disabilities.

Observers noted little progress was made in access to voting for persons with disabilities. Mechanisms for persons with intellectual disabilities did not exist. Voting in braille existed, but it did not guarantee secret voting.

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

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of workers, except for security force members, to form and join trade unions, conduct legal strikes, and bargain collectively. The law, however, places some restrictions on these rights. For example, legal recognition of an industrywide union requires that the membership constitute a majority of the workers in an industry and restricts union leadership to citizens. Ministries and businesses are required to negotiate only with the largest union, as determined by annual membership. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and employer interference in union activities and requires employers to reinstate workers dismissed for organizing union activities. A strike must have the support of the majority of a company’s workforce. Workers are not restricted to membership in one union or one industry.

The president and cabinet may suspend any strike deemed gravely prejudicial to the country’s essential activities and public services. The government defined essential services more broadly than international standards, thus denying the right to strike to many public workers, such as those working in education, postal services, transport, and the production, transportation, and distribution of energy. Public employees may address grievances by means of conciliation for collective disputes and arbitration directly through the labor courts. For sectors considered essential, arbitration is compulsory if there is no agreement after 30 days of conciliation. In the maquila sector, employees organized work stoppages particularly around occupational health and safety issues and failure to pay workers during the pandemic; however, these work stoppages did not rise to the level of strikes as officially recognized by the government or labor rights NGOs. In September and October, there were work stoppages in Puerto Quetzal and Santo Tomas de Castillo ports. In the case of Puerto Tomas de Castillo, police used force to remove workers from blocking entrances to the factory as part of the work stoppage, and after the work stoppage several union leaders were fired.

The law prohibits employer retaliation against workers engaged in legal strikes. If authorities do not recognize a strike as legal, employers may suspend or terminate workers for absence without leave. A factory or business owner is not obligated to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement unless at least 25 percent of workers in the factory or business are union members and request negotiations. Once a strike occurs, companies are required to close during negotiations. Strikes were extremely rare, but work stoppages were common.

The government did not effectively enforce the law. Government institutions, such as the Ministry of Labor and the labor courts, did not effectively investigate, prosecute, or punish employers who violated freedom of association and collective bargaining laws. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. Labor courts also failed to compel compliance with reinstatement orders, including payment of back wages, for workers illegally dismissed for engaging in union activities, especially in the rural areas. There was a substantial backlog of cases in the labor courts that caused delays of up to three years per case. The Public Ministry was ineffective in responding to labor court referrals for criminal prosecution in cases where employers refused to comply with labor court orders. In the labor inspection system and the labor courts, employers routinely influenced authorities to favor their interests or simply refused to comply. According to the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes Against Unionists, 70 percent of complaints in 2020 involved persistent employer refusal to comply with judicial orders.

The Ministry of Labor has the authority to sanction employers for violating union and collective bargaining rights. Business groups complained the time frame to investigate and verify compliance with Ministry of Labor remediation orders was too short and resulted in more cases being referred to the labor courts without an opportunity to conciliate. Worker representatives reported no significant improvement in compliance with the law because of the new sanction authority, noting that the inspectorate emphasized collection of fines, which during the year went to the labor inspectorate, over remediation of the underlying violations. Lack of information about the law’s implementation made it difficult to assess its impact on improving labor law enforcement.

The Unit for Crimes against Unionists within the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights in the Public Ministry was responsible for investigating attacks and threats against union members as well as for noncompliance with judicial orders in labor cases. Staffing for the unit remained stagnant, and successful prosecutions remained a challenge exacerbated by the pandemic.

The National Tripartite Commission on Labor Relations and Freedom of Association encouraged social dialogue between the Ministry of Labor, unions, and businesses, and monitored and facilitated implementation of the 2013 ILO roadmap and its 2015 indicators.

Three subcommissions established under the National Tripartite Commission – on legislation and labor policy, on mediation and dispute settlement, and on implementation of the roadmap – met in April. After being inactive in the first quarter of 2020, the National Tripartite Commission met virtually after March 2020. As of November the Ministry of Government did not convene the Interagency Committee to Analyze Attacks against Human Rights Defenders, including trade unionists, on a regular basis due to the pandemic.

An additional commission, the Trade Union Permanent Commission for Protection, which was supposed to be convened by the Public Ministry to address problems of antiunion violence, held no meetings. As of November this commission had not held regular meetings since 2018.

Procedural hurdles, restrictions on and delays in forming unions, and impunity for employers rejecting or ignoring court orders limited freedom of association and collective bargaining. The Labor Ministry reopened during the year after closing because of COVID-19 restrictions, but its labor rights enforcement performance did not improve. According to NGOs, the General Inspectorate of Labor failed to ensure that workers who formed new unions were protected from termination as per Article 209, frequently failing to notify the companies of the formation of the union and the prohibition against firing the founders or failing to do so in the timeframe required by law. The General Directorate of Labor also failed to emit resolutions of requests for union registration in the prescribed timeframe, per Article 218 (e) that requires the directorate to respond to the request for certification within 20 days of receiving the request.

An emblematic case was the formation of the union of Hoosier manufacturing workers. The workers formed a union and presented their request for notification of the prohibition of termination and their request for certification on August 1 to the Ministry of Labor. Receiving no response from the ministry, they followed up their request in writing on September 22, asking that the company be notified of the formation of the union and that the directorate act on the request for certification. The government notified the employer of the workers’ intention to register a union on November 2, more than 80 days after the workers’ application to register. By law the government should have notified the employer within 48 hours of the request by the union.

From January to September, an NGO registered one case of kidnapping, one death threat, and 32 acts of criminalization against trade unionists and labor activists. Authorities did not thoroughly investigate most acts of violence and threats and often discarded trade union activity as a motive from the outset of the investigation, allowing these acts to go unprosecuted. Several labor leaders reported death threats and other acts of intimidation. The Special Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Judicial Workers and Unionists reported that from January to August, it had received 53 complaints of crimes or offenses against trade unionists and labor activists.

Labor rights defenders noted an increase in reported cases, including mass firings, use of force against collective action, criminalization of worker protest, and disguised violence using gang members to commit workplace threats and violence at the employers’ request.

Employers routinely resisted attempts to form unions, delayed or only partially complied with agreements resulting from direct negotiations, and ignored judicial rulings requiring the employer to negotiate with recognized unions. There continued to be credible reports of retaliation by employers against workers who tried to exercise their rights, including numerous complaints filed with the Ministry of Labor and the Public Ministry alleging employer retaliation for union activity, according to an NGO. Employers who were found in violation of respecting union rights increased alleged noncompliance accusations on employees involved in union organizing. A 2020 labor rights defenders’ report noted that 70 percent of the claims before the Public Ministry concerning labor violations were for failure on the part of the employers to respect a judicial order in the labor case. The failure of the authorities to enforce labor laws resulted in complaints of retaliation against union members by employers to languish. Local unions reported businesses used fraudulent bankruptcies, ownership substitution, and reincorporation of companies to circumvent legal obligations to recognize newly formed or established unions, despite legal restrictions on such practices.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. The government failed to enforce the law effectively. Reports persisted of men and women subjected to forced labor in agriculture and domestic service. Penalties were not commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Criminal penalties for forced labor range from eight to 18 years’ imprisonment and a fine. The government has specialized police and prosecutors who handle cases of human trafficking, including forced labor, although local experts reported some prosecutors lacked adequate training. There were also reports of forced child labor in agriculture, production of garments, domestic work, street begging, making corn tortillas, and vending (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

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.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

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.

Mexico

Executive Summary

Mexico is a multiparty federal republic with an elected president and bicameral legislature. Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador of the MORENA party coalition won the presidential election in generally free and fair multiparty elections in 2018. In the June midterm elections, citizens voted for all members of the Chamber of Deputies, 15 governors, state legislators, and mayors across the country. The elections were generally free and fair.

The National Guard and state and municipal police are responsible for enforcing the law and maintaining order. The National Guard, which began operations in 2019, is a civilian institution reporting to the Secretariat of Public Security and Civil Protection. In 2019 the Federal Police was disbanded, and in May 2020 all remaining assets and personnel transferred to the National Guard. A 2019 constitutional amendment grants the president the authority to use the armed forces to protect internal and national security through 2024. Most National Guard personnel are seconded from the army and navy and have the option to return to their services after five years. State preventive police report to state governors, while municipal police report to mayors. The Secretariat of National Defense and Secretariat of the Navy also play a role in domestic security, particularly in combating organized criminal groups. The National Migration Institute, under the authority of the Interior Secretariat, is responsible for enforcing migration law. Although authorities generally maintained effective control over the security forces, there were instances in which security force elements acted independently of civilian control. There were credible reports that members of security forces committed some abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings by police, military, and other governmental officials; forced disappearance by government agents; torture and degrading treatment by security forces; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest or detention; restrictions on free expression and media, including violence against journalists; acts of corruption; insufficient investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence, including but not limited to domestic and intimate partner violence; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities; and crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex persons.

Impunity and extremely low rates of prosecution remained a problem for all crimes, including human rights abuses and corruption. There were reports some government agents were complicit with international organized criminal gangs, and prosecution and conviction rates were low for these abuses.

Organized criminal elements, including local and transnational gangs, and narcotics traffickers, were significant perpetrators of violent crimes and committed acts of homicide, torture, kidnapping, extortion, human trafficking, bribery, intimidation, and other threats, resulting in high levels of violence and exploitation, particularly targeting vulnerable groups. The government investigated and prosecuted some of these crimes, but the vast majority remained uninvestigated and unprosecuted.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were several reports that government entities or their agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings, often with impunity. The National Human Rights Commission (CNDH) is responsible for independently investigating security force abuses, including killings, and can issue nonbinding recommendations for prosecution. State human rights commissions investigate state and municipal police forces and can issue similar recommendations. State and federal prosecutors are independent of the executive branch and have the final authority to investigate and prosecute security force abuses.

In February authorities arrested 12 state police officers in Camargo, Tamaulipas, on homicide charges in connection with the massacre and burning of the bodies of three smugglers and 16 Guatemalan migrants en route to the United States. As of August 16, the suspects remained in detention awaiting trial. In March police officers broke the neck of Salvadoran refugee Victoria Salazar. The Quintana Roo prosecutor general confirmed police officers used disproportionate force during the arrest. Authorities arrested four police officers and charged them with femicide (killing a woman because of her gender). As of August 27, the suspects were awaiting trial.

Human rights and environmental activists, many from indigenous communities, continued to be targets of violence. The CNDH reported that assailants killed 12 human rights defenders from January to July.

As of September 13, three municipal police officers from Ixtlahuacan de los Membrillos, Jalisco, remained in pretrial detention for the killing of Giovanni Lopez. The Jalisco government disarmed the municipal police force of Ixtlahuacan and turned over public security duties to the National Guard and the Jalisco Secretariat for Public Security.

In July the army provided reparations to two of the three families of persons killed in July 2020 by soldiers in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, during an encounter with suspected cartel members. On October 7, the army relieved Colonel Miguel Angel Ramirez Canchola, accused of ordering the killings, of his posting, but as of October prosecutors had not taken action against the soldiers.

On October 1, a judge sentenced Fidel Figueroa, mayor of Zacualpan, state of Mexico, to 236 years in prison for murder. Figueroa collaborated with criminal organizations to kidnap the prosecutor general of Ixtapan de la Sal, state of Mexico, and others in 2019, resulting in the death of one of the prosecutor general’s bodyguards.

Organized criminal groups were implicated in numerous killings, acting with impunity and at times in collusion with corrupt federal, state, local, and security officials. On June 19, a dispute between factions of the Gulf cartel killed 15 persons in the state of Tamaulipas. Security forces responded by killing four suspects and arresting 25.

b. Disappearance

Disappearances remained a persistent problem throughout the country, especially in areas with high levels of cartel or gang-related violence. There were reports of numerous forced disappearances by organized crime groups, sometimes with allegations of state collusion with authorities. Investigations, prosecutions, and convictions for the crime of forced disappearance were rare.

Federal and state databases were incomplete and had data-crossing problems; forensic systems were highly fragmented between the local, state, and federal levels; and the sheer volume of unsolved cases was far greater than the forensic systems were capable of handling. In its data collection, the government often merged statistics on forcibly disappeared persons with missing persons not suspected of being victims of forced disappearance, making it difficult to compile accurate statistics on the extent of the problem.

As of December 2020 the Prosecutor General’s Office reported a total of 2,041 federal investigations underway into disappearances involving approximately 3,400 persons. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and family members of disappeared persons alleged the prosecutors undercounted the actual number of cases.

Through a nationwide assessment process, the National Search Commission (CNB) revised the government’s official number of missing or disappeared persons repeatedly as additional data became available. As of July the CNB reported that there were 89,572 missing or disappeared persons in the country. Some cases dated back to the 1960s, but the vast majority occurred since 2006. The year 2020 had the second-highest number of cases on record, with 8,626 reported missing or disappeared, down from 9,185 cases reported in 2019. The states of Guanajuato, Jalisco, Mexico, Michoacan, Nuevo Leon, Sinaloa, Sonora, Tamaulipas, and Zacatecas, plus Mexico City, accounted for 76 percent of reported disappearances from 2018 to June 30.

The federal government and states continued to implement the law on forced disappearances. On August 30, the Extraordinary Mechanism for Forensic Identification became fully operational. It was created in 2019 to bring together national and international forensic experts to help identify 37,000 unidentified remains held in government facilities, coordinate implementation of the general law on forced disappearances, and allocate resources to state search commissions. In July 2020 the CNB launched a public version of the National Registry of Disappeared and Missing Persons. Between January 1 and August 4, it received 4,119 reports of missing persons and located 3,805 alive and 277 deceased.

In July the CNB reported it had recovered more than 1,100 pounds of charred human remains from La Bartolina, Tamaulipas, a clandestine cremation site found in 2017. Nationwide the CNB reported the exhumation of the remains of at least 3,025 persons in 1,749 clandestine graves between December 1, 2018, and June 30. The CNB reported that during that period, of the 3,025 bodies exhumed, authorities identified 1,153 and returned 822 to their families.

The government increased the CNB budget 8 percent over the 2020 budget. According to NGOs, however, the state search committees often lacked the capacity to fulfill their mandate. Civil society and families of the disappeared stated the government’s actions to prevent and respond to disappearances were largely inadequate to address the scale of the problem.

The federal government created a National System for the Search of Missing Persons as required by law, but as of August it had not established the required National Forensic Data Bank. The Prosecutor General’s Office owned a previous genetics database, which consisted of 63,000 profiles, and was responsible for the new database. The previous platform lacked interconnectivity between states and failed to connect family members effectively to the remains of their missing relatives.

In July the Supreme Court ruled that authorities at all levels must investigate enforced disappearances, search for disappeared persons, and inform victims of the process.

The government made efforts to prevent, investigate, and punish acts of disappearance involving government agents. From January to June, the CNDH received nine complaints accusing government agents of forced disappearances, including five against the army and four against the National Guard. In April authorities arrested 30 members of the navy and charged them with forced disappearances in Nuevo Laredo, Tamaulipas, in 2018. As of October the accused were in a military prison awaiting trial. In July the secretary of the navy publicly apologized to families of the victims, marking the first time the armed forces apologized for committing forced disappearances.

Investigations continued into the 2014 disappearances of 43 students from the Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College in Iguala, Guerrero. Victims’ relatives and civil society continued to criticize handling of the original investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, noting there had been no convictions related to the disappearances of the 43 students. In June President Lopez Obrador announced that forensic scientists at the University of Innsbruck conclusively identified the remains of Jhosivani Guerrero, marking the third body identified of the 43 disappeared students.

As of October the Special Unit for the Investigation and Litigation of the Ayotzinapa case had arrested more than 80 suspects, including army captain Jose Martinez Crespo, an Iguala municipal police officer, and the Iguala municipal police chief. The government continued to pursue the extradition of Tomas Zeron from Israel. Zeron led the investigation of the case by the former criminal investigations unit in the Attorney General’s Office at the time of the students’ disappearances. In March 2020 a federal judge issued an arrest warrant for Zeron on charges related to his conduct of the investigation, including torturing alleged perpetrators to force confessions, conducting forced disappearances, altering the crime scene, manipulating evidence, and failing to perform his duties. He fled to Israel, and the government requested that the Israeli government issue an arrest warrant and extradite him.

In addition to the outstanding Zeron arrest warrant, the Special Unit for the Investigation and Litigation of the Ayotzinapa case issued 12 warrants and made 10 arrests for investigative irregularities, such as torture and obstruction of justice. As of September no alleged perpetrators of the disappearances had been convicted, and 78 of those initially accused were released due to lack of evidence, generally due to irregularities in their detention, including confessions obtained through torture. As of October the special unit had reissued arrest warrants for 11 of the 78 released detainees, including municipal police officers, but made no arrests.

State search collectives reported being victims, at times fatal, of attacks, threats, and other acts of harassment. In June unknown assailants killed Javier Barajas Pina in the state of Guanajuato. He was a member of a search collective and the state search commission. The state search commission paused all search efforts between May and June due to increased levels of insecurity for family search collectives, according to civil society groups. As of August 16, authorities had not arrested any suspects.

In July unknown assailants abducted and killed Aranza Ramos in the state of Sonora. Ramos had been searching for her missing husband for the previous seven months as a member of two search collectives. As of August 16, authorities had not arrested any suspects. Following Ramos’ killing, Cecilia Flores, the leader of one of the search collectives in which Ramos participated, received death threats. Flores received temporary protection from the Interior Secretariat protection mechanism.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Federal law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, as well as the admission of confessions obtained through illicit means as evidence in court. Despite these prohibitions, there were reports of security forces torturing suspects.

Between January and August, the CNDH registered 26 complaints of torture and 123 for arbitrary detention. Most of these complaints were against authorities in the Prosecutor General’s Office, National Guard, Interior Secretariat, and the armed forces. As of August, 25 of 32 states had specialized prosecutor’s offices for investigating torture, or specialized investigative units within the state attorney general’s office as called for by law. Between January and May there were an additional 20 complaints of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment against the National Guard, 20 against the army, and 11 against the National Migration Institute. The CNDH did not report on the merits of the complaints.

In February the Attorney General’s Office arrested former Puebla governor Mario Marin and charged him with torturing journalist Lydia Cacho, who exposed Marin and several business leaders’ involvement in a child sex trafficking ring in 2005. As of August 23, Marin was awaiting trial. In June authorities sentenced Quintana Roo police officer Miguel Mora Olvera to five years in prison for his role in torturing Cacho.

Impunity for torture was prevalent among the security forces. NGOs stated authorities failed to investigate torture allegations adequately. As of December 2020 the Prosecutor General’s Office was investigating 3,703 torture-related inquiries under the previous inquisitorial legal system (initiated prior to the 2016 transition to an accusatorial system) and 565 investigations under the accusatorial system. According to the Mexican Commission for the Promotion of Human Rights, from 2006 to 2020, federal authorities issued 27 sentences for torture. There were accusations of sexual abuse against authorities during arrest and detention. There is no single independent oversight mechanism to review police actions, but many federal and state security and justice sector institutions have internal affairs units providing internal supervision and promoting best practices for transparency and accountability. The government’s National Council of Norms and Labor Competencies certified law enforcement internal affairs investigators and created standard internal affairs training to promote transparency and accountability. Most internal affairs units, however, were insufficiently staffed and funded. The army and the navy have human rights units to create protocols and training. The armed forces operated a military justice system to hold human rights abusers accountable.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Conditions in prisons and detention centers were often harsh and life threatening.

Physical Conditions: According to the Federal Prison System, as of June there were 220,393 inmates in 288 state and federal facilities with a designed capacity for 217,064. Some prisons were undersubscribed, while others were overcrowded. The CNDH’s 2020 National Diagnostic of Penitentiary Supervision reported that state prisons were understaffed and suffered from poor sanitary conditions as well as a lack of separation between those sentenced and those awaiting trial. The report noted 40 state prisons experienced overcrowding. The report singled out Hidalgo, Nayarit, Puebla, Sinaloa, Sonora, and Tamaulipas as the states with the worst prison conditions. The CNDH noted significant understaffing at all levels in federal prisons, which affected access to programs, activities, medical services, and opportunities to report possible human rights abuses.

Organized criminal groups reportedly continued to oversee illicit activities from within penitentiary walls, and rival drug cartel members often fought in prison. In June media outlets reported that a fight between two rival groups of inmates left six inmates dead and nine wounded at a prison in Villahermosa, Tabasco.

According to civil society groups, migrants at some detention centers faced abuse when commingled with gang members and other criminals.

As of July 13, a total of 3,501 prisoners had contracted COVID-19 and 75,162 had received vaccines, according to the CNDH. In response to a 2020 civil society organization lawsuit, a Mexico City court ruled authorities must implement COVID-19 detection and preventive health protocols for detainees and their families in prisons in Mexico City and psychiatric wards nationwide.

The CNDH in its report on COVID-19 measures in holding facilities found most detention facilities could not comply with social distancing measures or several other health recommendations due to lack of space, personnel, or equipment.

Administration: Authorities did not always conduct investigations into credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted independent monitoring of prison conditions by the International Committee of the Red Cross, CNDH, and state human rights commissions.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

Federal law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court; however, the government sometimes failed to observe these requirements.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The constitution allows any person to arrest another if the crime is committed in his or her presence. A warrant for arrest is not required if an official has direct evidence regarding a person’s involvement in a crime, such as having witnessed the commission of a crime; in a 2018 report, the domestic think tank Mexico Evalua determined that 90 percent of all arrests fell under this category. Bail is available for most crimes, except for those involving organized crime and a limited number of other offenses. In most cases the law requires detainees to appear before a judge for a custody hearing within 48 hours of arrest, during which authorities must produce sufficient evidence to justify continued detention. This requirement was not followed in all cases, particularly in remote areas of the country. In cases involving organized crime, the law allows authorities to hold suspects up to 96 hours before requiring them to seek judicial review.

The procedure known in Spanish as arraigo (a constitutionally permitted form of pretrial detention employed during the investigative phase of a criminal case before probable cause is fully established) allows, with a judge’s approval, for certain suspects to be detained prior to filing formal charges. Following the introduction of the accusatorial justice system, however, there was a significant reduction in the number of persons detained in this manner, falling from more than 1,900 in 2011 to 21 in 2018.

Some detainees complained of a lack of access to family members and to counsel after police held persons incommunicado for several days and made arrests arbitrarily without a warrant. Police occasionally failed to provide impoverished detainees access to counsel during arrests and investigations as provided for by law, although the right to public defense during trial was generally respected. Authorities held some detainees under house arrest.

Arbitrary Arrest: Allegations of arbitrary detentions persisted throughout the year. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention, and NGOs expressed concerns regarding arbitrary detention and the potential for it to lead to other human rights abuses. Between January and August the CNDH recorded 123 complaints of arbitrary detention.

On July 21, Merida, Yucatan, municipal police detained Jose Eduardo Ravelo Echeverria. According to the victim’s mother, police detained and interrogated him without reasonable suspicion or probable cause. Media outlets reported authorities tortured and sexually abused Ravelo. A forensic doctor at the Yucatan Prosecutor General’s Office confirmed that he had suffered sexual abuse. On August 3, Ravelo died from his injuries. On August 7, Yucatan governor Mauricio Villa announced the arrest of four police officers, but on August 14, a judge set them free due to a lack of evidence.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention was a problem, and authorities did not always promptly release those detained unlawfully. The law provides time limits and conditions on pretrial detention, but federal authorities sometimes failed to comply with them since caseloads far exceeded the capacity of the federal judicial system. Abuses of time limits on pretrial detention were endemic in state judicial systems. The UN Office for the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) documented cases in the states of Mexico and Chiapas in which detainees remained in pretrial detention for more than 12 years. A 2019 constitutional reform increased the number of crimes for which pretrial detention is mandatory and bail is not available, including armed robbery, electoral crimes, fuel theft, and weapons possession. An additional February reform mandated pretrial detention for femicides, sexual violence against minors, forced disappearances, and corruption. As a result the number of pretrial detainees increased 25 percent since 2018, and pretrial detainees comprised 40 percent of all prisoners, according to government figures.

Reports indicated that women suffered disproportionately from pretrial detention. As of June, 58 percent of women in federal prison and 51 percent in municipal and state prisons were in pretrial detention, while 42 percent of men in the federal and local judicial system were in pretrial detention, according to a report from the Secretariat of Security and Civilian Protection. In October 2020 authorities announced they would release Brenda Quevedo Cruz, who had been in prison without trial since 2007. Nonetheless, Quevedo Cruz remained in detention as of September 11.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

Although the constitution and law provide for an independent judiciary, court decisions were susceptible to improper influence by both private and public entities, particularly at the state and local level, as well as by transnational criminal organizations. Authorities sometimes failed to respect court orders, and arrest warrants were sometimes ignored. Across the criminal justice system, many actors lacked the necessary training and capacity to carry out their duties fairly and consistently in line with the principle of equal justice.

Trial Procedures

In 2016 all civilian and military courts officially transitioned from an inquisitorial legal system based primarily upon judicial review of written documents to an accusatorial trial system reliant upon oral testimony presented in open court. In most states alternative justice centers employed mechanisms such as mediation, negotiation, and restorative justice to resolve minor offenses outside the court system.

Under the accusatorial system, judges conduct all hearings and trials and follow the principles of public access and cross-examination. Defendants have the right to a presumption of innocence and to a fair and public trial without undue delay. Defendants have the right to attend the hearings and to challenge the evidence or testimony presented. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. The law also provides for the rights of appeal and of bail in most categories of crimes. Defendants have the right to an attorney of their choice at all stages of criminal proceedings. By law attorneys are required to meet professional qualifications to represent a defendant. Not all public defenders were qualified, however, and often the state public defender system was understaffed. According to the Center for Economic Research and Teaching, most criminal suspects did not receive representation until after their first custody hearing, thus making individuals vulnerable to coercion to sign false statements prior to appearing before a judge.

Defendants have the right to free assistance of an interpreter, if needed, although interpretation and translation services for indigenous languages were not always available. Indigenous defendants who did not speak Spanish sometimes were unaware of the status of their cases and were convicted without fully understanding the documents they were instructed to sign.

In July 2020 legislators approved a law making all judicial sentences public.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens have access to an independent judiciary in civil matters to seek civil remedies for human rights abuses. For a plaintiff to secure damages against a defendant, authorities first must find the defendant guilty in a criminal case, a significant barrier due to the relatively low number of criminal convictions.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits such practices and requires search warrants. There were some complaints of illegal searches or illegal destruction of private property. By law the government collected biometric data from migrants.

According to the NGO Freedom House, “Researchers continued to document cases of journalists, human rights lawyers, activists, and political figures targeted with Pegasus spy software. After denying they existed, in 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office provided evidence of Pegasus licensing contracts in 2016 and 2017.” In July Public Safety Secretary Rosa Isela Rodriguez revealed that the Felipe Calderon and Enrique Pena Nieto administrations signed 31 contracts for $61 million to buy Pegasus spy software. In July a joint investigation by media outlets reported a leaked Pegasus list of more than 15,000 individuals as possible targets for surveillance in 2016 and 2017. The list named at least 50 persons linked to President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador, politicians from every party, as well as journalists, lawyers, activists, prosecutors, diplomats, judges, and academics.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, and the government generally respected this right. Most newspapers, television stations, and radio stations were privately owned. The government had minimal presence in the ownership of news media but remained a significant source of advertising revenue for many media organizations, which at times influenced coverage. Media monopolies, especially in small markets, at times constrained freedom of expression.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views without restriction but often self-censored due to fear of reprisal. Journalists could criticize the government and discuss matters of general interest with no restrictions. Politicians publicly discredited and criticized such journalists, however.

On August 7, several journalist organizations, including the Puebla Network of Journalists, National Network of Journalists, Communication, and Information on Women, and International Network of Journalists with a Gender Vision, issued a statement denouncing increased levels of violence against female journalists in Puebla from security forces and criminal organizations. The group reported 16 acts of aggression against female journalists between January and July and called on the Puebla governor to guarantee the adoption of public policies to respect, protect, and guarantee the exercise of journalism.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were killed or subjected to physical and cyberattacks, harassment, and intimidation (especially by state agents and transnational criminal organizations) in response to their reporting. This limited media’s ability to investigate and report, since many of the reporters who were killed covered crime, corruption, and local politics. High levels of impunity, including for killings or attacks on journalists, resulted in self-censorship and reduced freedom of expression and the press.

According to NGO Article 19, lethal attacks occurred against journalists in Sonora, including the killings of Benjamin Morales on May 3 and Ricardo Lopez Dominguez on July 22 and the disappearance of Jorge Molontzin on March 16.

The Interior Secretariat registered 224 verbal and physical attacks against journalists in 2020 and a total of 1,052 between 2015 and 2020, 41 percent of which the secretariat attributed to public servants. The most common aggressions were intimidation and harassment, followed by threats and physical attacks, according to civil society groups. In the first six months of the year, Article 19 registered 362 attacks against journalists and accused public officials of committing 134 of them.

Between 2017 and August the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Crimes against Journalists, a unit in the Prosecutor General’s Office, charged 136 public servants for crimes against journalists. For example, the office issued three arrest warrants in the case of the August 2020 killing of Juan Nelcio Espinosa, an independent journalist in Piedras Negras, Coahuila, who died while in police custody. The investigation continued as of August 30.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: Human rights groups reported that some state and local governments censored media. Journalists reported altering their coverage due to a lack of protection from the government, attacks against members of media and newsrooms, and threats or retributions against their families, among other reasons. There were reports of journalists practicing self-censorship due to threats from criminal groups and government officials.

Freedom of expression advocacy groups reported the government, despite reductions in its advertising budgets, continued to have a strong financial impact and influence on the largest media companies. According to advocacy groups, no information was available concerning the criteria through which the government chooses media outlets for public advertising.

Libel/Slander Laws: There are no federal criminal laws against defamation, libel, or slander; however, eight states have criminal laws on these acts. In Baja California Sur, Guanajuato, Michoacan, Nayarit, Nuevo Leon, and Yucatan, the crimes of defamation and libel are prosecuted, with penalties ranging from three days to five years in prison and fines for committing defamation or slander, both considered “crimes against honor.” Slander is punishable under the criminal laws of the states of Campeche, Nuevo Leon, Sonora, Yucatan, and Zacatecas, with sentences ranging from three months to six years in prison and fines. Five states have laws that restrict the publishing of political caricatures or “memes.” These laws were seldom applied.

In addition to criminal libel and defamation laws, civil law defines “moral damage” as similar to defamation concerning harm to a person’s “feelings, affections, beliefs, dignity, honor, reputation, and privacy,” according to the NGO Committee to Protect Journalists. A 2016 ruling by the Supreme Court removed the cap on fines for moral damages, leaving journalists vulnerable to exorbitant fines. In 2019 a Mexico City court ordered academic Sergio Aguayo, a columnist of the daily newspaper Reforma, to pay a fine of 10 million pesos ($530,000) in moral damages to former Coahuila governor Humberto Moreira. In July 2020 the Supreme Court agreed to analyze the case but as of August 23 had not issued a ruling.

According to civil society, libel and defamation proceedings tripled from 11 cases in 2019 to 33 cases in 2020. The Puebla state government sued the news outlet E-Consulta seven times due to its reporting.

Nongovernmental Impact: Organized criminal groups exercised a grave influence over media outlets and reporters, threatening individuals who published critical views of crime groups. Concerns persisted regarding organized criminal groups’ use of physical violence in retaliation for information posted online, which exposed journalists, bloggers, and social media users to the same level of violence faced by traditional journalists. For example, journalists in Nogales, Sonora, said they were aware of unspoken red lines in covering organized crime and that crossing lines, such as mentioning the name of an alleged assailant, could result in personal harm.

The government’s National Protection Mechanism to Protect Journalists and Human Rights Defenders provided panic buttons, bodyguards, and temporary relocation to journalists and human rights defenders. According to the Interior Secretariat, between 2018 and July assailants killed seven journalists and two defenders under protection of the mechanism.

On June 17, while journalist Gustavo Sanchez Cabrera was riding his motorcycle, two unidentified individuals in a car crashed into him, exited the car, and fatally shot him. Sanchez was a reporter for Facebook-based Panorama Pacifico and was in the protection mechanism after suffering an attempt on his life in July 2020. According to civil society, the protections the mechanism provided after the attempt to his life were lacking. As of August 27, there were no updates in this investigation.

On August 8, self-proclaimed members of Cartel Jalisco New Generation released a video showing a group of armed men threatening to kill journalist Azucena Uresti for reporting on self-defense groups fighting the cartel in Michoacan. As of August 18, authorities had not confirmed whether the threatening video was genuine. President Lopez Obrador condemned the threats, and the Interior Secretariat confirmed that authorities would grant Uresti protection measures.

The threat against journalists by organized crime was particularly high in the state of Guerrero. Journalists in Iguala, Guerrero, received anonymous messages through social networks, such as Facebook and WhatsApp, threatening them and their families, according to civil society. Following the August 2020 killing of Pablo Morrugares, El Diario de Iguala newspaper published a note blaming organized crime and Governor Hector Astudillo Flores’ administration for violence against journalists and impunity. In August 2020 attackers fired multiple shots at the building housing the printing facilities of El Diario de Iguala.

In June a federal judge sentenced Juan Francisco Picos Barrueto to 32 years in prison for the 2017 murder of journalist Javier Valdez Cardenas. Also in June a federal judge sentenced the former mayor of Chinipas, Chihuahua, Hugo Amed Schultz Alcaraz, to eight years in prison for his role in the 2017 murder of Miroslava Breach, a prominent La Jornada newspaper correspondent who reported on organized crime and corruption. In August 2020 a federal judge sentenced Juan Carlos “El Larry” Moreno Ochoa to 50 years in prison for killing Breach.

Internet Freedom

The government did not restrict or disrupt access to the internet or block or filter online content. Freedom House’s 2021 Freedom on the Net report categorized the country’s internet as partly free, noting concerns regarding online manipulation tactics, potential for politicized content removals, high levels of violence against digital reporters, and investigations surrounding abusive surveillance practices.

In June the Federal Telecommunications Institute, an autonomous agency created to increase the transparency of media regulation, released internet neutrality guidelines for internet service providers. The guidelines allow internet service providers to deny access to certain applications, content, and services based on commercial criteria, in breach of their obligations to protect neutrality. Some public officials blocked critical journalists and media from following their social media accounts.

According to Google Report, Google received 24 requests from authorities in 2020 to remove content – 13 from police, eight from government officials, and three from unspecified sources. The most common reason to remove content was defamation, followed by privacy and security. Google received more removal requests from government agents in 2020 than in any other year except 2014. Digital media journalists covering stories such as crime, corruption, and human rights violations experienced physical violence and online abuse. Online discrimination, harassment, and threats were problems particularly for women journalists and politicians, as well as any individuals and organizations advocating for women’s rights.

NGOs alleged that provisions in laws threatened the privacy of internet users by forcing telecommunication companies to retain data for two years, providing real-time geolocation data to police, and allowing authorities to obtain metadata from private communications companies without a court order. While the Supreme Court upheld the provisions, it noted the need for authorities to obtain a judicial warrant to access user metadata.

Twitter users posted threats against journalists. Journalists who asked difficult questions of government officials during press engagements received attacks via Twitter. Tweets disseminated their identities and their media outlets and also made veiled threats.

Academic Freedom and Cultural Events

There were no government restrictions on academic freedom or cultural events.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The law provides for the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, and the government generally respected these rights, with some exceptions. There were reports of security forces using excessive force against demonstrators. Twelve states have laws restricting public demonstrations. Government failures to investigate and prosecute attacks on protesters and human rights defenders resulted in impunity for these crimes, consistent with high impunity rates for all crimes. NGOs reported that acts of excessive use of force and arbitrary detention occurred against female protesters, especially those protesting gender-based violence.

In May in Chicoloapan, state of Mexico, municipal police beat and detained supporters of feminist groups as they led a protest against gender-based violence and political parties. Municipal police arrested eight women and one man, later releasing all detainees.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

Federal law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, and the government generally respected these rights.

In-country Movement: There were numerous instances of armed groups limiting the movements of migrants, including by threats and acts of kidnapping, extortion, and homicide. Organized criminal groups dominated migrant smuggling operations and often kidnapped, threatened, and extorted migrants to pay a fee for facilitating northbound travel.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

The NGO Mexican Commission for the Defense and Promotion of Human Rights identified 15 incidents between January and July of mass forced internal displacement (defined as the displacement of at least 10 families or 50 individuals) due to violence. Violence by organized criminal groups often prompted the incidents, which took place in 10 states and displaced 11,560 persons as of August. Land conflicts, social and ethnic violence, or local political disputes caused other incidents. Forced internal displacement disproportionally affected indigenous communities. There was a lack of comprehensive data on internally displaced persons (IDPs). The COVID-19 pandemic generated additional risks and exacerbated vulnerabilities for IDPs, including overcrowding in shelters and difficulty accessing food, basic health care, and education. The government, in conjunction with international organizations, made efforts to promote the safe, voluntary return, resettlement, or local integration of IDPs.

According to civil society organizations, up to 3,250 persons, mostly women and children from indigenous communities, were forcibly displaced in July in Chenalho and Pantelho, Chiapas, due to territorial disputes between armed groups. This mass displacement elevated the group’s risk of malnutrition and health maladies. Three states have state-level IDP laws, but the country does not have a federal internal displacement law, which created challenges in resource allocation and interagency governmental coordination.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government cooperated with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, or asylum seekers, as well as other persons of concern.

Access to Asylum: Federal law provides for granting asylum, refugee status, or complementary protection to those fleeing persecution or facing possible threats to their life, security, or liberty in their country of origin; this right was generally respected. The government has an established procedure for determining refugee status and providing protections. The government worked with UNHCR to improve access to refugee status and the procedure to determine refugee status, reception conditions for vulnerable migrants and refugee applicants, and integration in local communities (including access to school, work, and other social services) for those approved for refugee and complementary protection status.

Abuse of Migrants and Refugees: The press, international organizations, and NGOs reported targeting and victimization of migrants by criminal groups and in some cases by police, immigration officers, and customs officials, including at land borders and airports. There were numerous instances of criminal armed groups extorting, threatening, or kidnapping asylum seekers and other migrants. In many parts of the country, human smuggling organizations wielded significant power, and media alleged frequent collusion among local authorities. There were credible reports of sexual assaults against migrants, particularly women, while migrating in and through the country.

On January 11, the government ended migratory detention for children. The government generally exempted accompanying adults from detention to preserve family unity. Children constituted 19 percent of irregular migrant flows identified by authorities; 30 percent of them were unaccompanied. Child protection authorities lacked sufficient capacity to shelter and process migrant children and families, and the government made modest headway to increase that capacity.

In a June International Organization for Migration survey, 20 percent of citizens and 35 percent of third-country migrants reported using a smuggler to arrive to the U.S.-Mexico border. The government increased efforts to target human smuggling organizations. In July the Prosecutor General’s Office arrested seven members, including the leader, of the Tamayo human smuggling organization. Authorities accused the suspects of smuggling 20 to 80 migrants per day through Baja California into the United States for more than a decade.

Obstacles to accessing international protection related most closely to capacity limitations and lack of coordination between the relevant agencies, as opposed to government policy. The Interior Secretariat reaffirmed its commitment to protect refugee applicants even as the country experienced an unprecedented number of applicants. From January to August the Mexican Commission to Assist Refugees (COMAR) received 77,559 applications for refugee status, a 41 percent increase from the same period in 2019, and anticipated that it would receive up to 120,000 applications in total by the end of the year. Between January and July COMAR processed approximately 25,000 cases. COMAR’s budget increased modestly in recent years but was not commensurate with the growth in refugee claims in the country.

Between August 23 and August 27, hundreds of migrants from Haiti, Cuba, and Central America protested in front of the National Migration Institute offices in Tapachula, Chiapas, to demand expedited refugee proceedings that would allow them to move freely throughout the country. Unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving at the country’s southern border and requesting refugee status stretched the refugee agency’s capacity to process requests.

On August 28, approximately 500 migrants, the majority from Haiti, started a caravan from Tapachula to Mexico City to obtain expedited asylum processing. The government deployed hundreds of security forces to contain the caravan. Various news outlets showed a video of two National Migration Institute agents with riot gear and shields grabbing one migrant, knocking him to the ground, and kicking him. On August 31, the government suspended the two agents for inappropriate conduct.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

Federal law provides citizens the ability to choose their government through free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot and based on universal and equal suffrage.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: International observers considered the midterm elections (legislative, gubernatorial, and local) to be generally free and fair, with only minor reports of irregularities. Local commentators pointed to the electoral authorities’ quick and transparent publishing of results as increasing citizen trust in the electoral and democratic system. The midterm elections, the largest in the country’s history due to the record number of more than 20,000 offices up for election, had a 52 percent turnout, a record for a nonpresidential election.

In May voting in prisons occurred for the first time in the country’s modern history after the Federal Electoral Tribunal ruled prisoners in pretrial detention had the right to vote.

Political Parties and Political Participation: For the electoral process, the National Electoral Institute (INE) established the Three Out of Three Against Violence initiative, which required candidates to declare any history of domestic violence, sexual offenses, or failure to pay alimony. The INE requested information from all 32 states, reviewed a sample of 1,177 of the 6,962 federal deputy candidates, and canceled the registration of three candidates for filing false reports. In October 2020 the Electoral Tribunal granted registration to three new political parties: Solidary Encounter Party, Progressive Social Networks, and Social Force for Mexico. The same tribunal rejected registration challenges from four other parties, including former president Felipe Calderon’s Free Mexico Party, which the INE argued did not produce sufficient evidence of the origin of some funding it received. Authorities declared 10 political parties eligible to participate in the midterm elections.

During the electoral season (September 2020 to June), assailants killed 36 candidates and 64 politicians. The rate of aggression against political figures during the election cycle was on par with the 2018 election, one of the most violent political periods in recent history. The states where the most political violence occurred were Veracruz, followed by Guerrero and Guanajuato. Municipal candidates and challengers seeking to oust incumbents were the most common victims of political violence, with victims spread across the political spectrum. Security experts said government candidate protection programs, which did not cover all those eligible, had a negligible impact on curbing political violence.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit the participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate. The law provides for the right of indigenous persons to elect representatives to local office according to “uses and customs” law (see section 6, Indigenous Peoples) rather than federal and state electoral law.

The law establishes a requirement to observe parity in the designation of public officials at every level (federal, state, local) in all three branches of government. The law states that the principle of gender parity should be observed in the designation of cabinet members, selection of candidates for public office by every political party, and designation of members of the judiciary. The presidential cabinet had 19 secretariats, and as of August women headed seven.

Political parties nominated more female candidates for public office in the midterm elections than ever before, including half of their candidates for governor in the 15 races up for election. The midterms marked a large increase in female candidates. There were 46 female candidates for governor; from 2012 to 2018, there cumulatively only 42. From 1979 to 2020 only eight women had become governors. Six female candidates became governors, the largest number in the history of the country. Of the 500 legislators in the Chamber of Deputies, 250 were women, 1 percent more than after the 2018 elections.

Additionally, the INE introduced quotas to promote minority representation, requiring political parties to nominate a certain number of candidates belonging to minority groups, including from indigenous, Afro-Mexican, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) communities, as well as persons with disabilities. As a result the new Chamber of Deputies had 37 indigenous deputies, six Afro-Mexican deputies, four LGBTQI+ deputies (including two transgender deputies), and eight deputies with disabilities.

Between January and April the Office of the Special Prosecutor for Electoral Crimes in the Attorney General’s Office initiated 14 investigations related to gender-based political violence against women. During the electoral process the INE received 147 complaints of gender-based political violence, a significant increase from the 47 complaints it received during the 2017-2018 electoral process. The INE sanctioned 107 persons for gender-based political violence. Penalties ranged from monetary fines to the cancellation of candidacies.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, and the government took steps to increase its legal authority to pursue these crimes. On February 19, a constitutional reform eliminated presidential immunity for corruption and other crimes. On March 11, an anticorruption and antinepotism constitutional reform granted the Federal Judiciary Council – the administrative organ of the federal court system – more oversight over district and appeals courts and limited hiring authorities of individual judges.

Corruption: There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year. On June 6, authorities arrested former Nayarit governor Roberto Sandoval and his daughter Lidy Alejandra Sandoval Lopez for corruption and money laundering. Sandoval remained in pretrial detention as of August.

As of August 25, former governor of Chihuahua Cesar Duarte was awaiting an extradition decision. In July 2020 he was arrested in another country pursuant to a Mexican extradition request on charges that he diverted millions of dollars in public funds.

As of November authorities held Emilio Lozoya in pretrial detention. In July 2020 authorities extradited Lozoya, former director of PEMEX, the state-owned petroleum company, from Spain. In 2019 the Prosecutor General’s Office opened a corruption investigation against Lozoya for receiving up to $10 million in bribes from the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht. The Prosecutor General’s Office also obtained an arrest warrant against Lozoya’s mother for money laundering, and in 2019 Interpol agents arrested her in Germany. Lozoya accused high-level politicians representing multiple parties of complicity in his corrupt acts and was acting as a state’s witness in trials against them.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

A variety of domestic and international human rights groups generally operated without government restriction, investigating and publishing their findings on human rights cases. Government officials were mostly cooperative and responsive, with the president and cabinet officials meeting with human rights organizations, such as OHCHR, IACHR, and CNDH. Some NGOs alleged individuals who organized campaigns to discredit human rights defenders at times acted with tacit support from government officials.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The CNDH is a semiautonomous federal agency created by the government and funded by the legislature to monitor and act on human rights abuses.

The CNDH may call on government authorities to impose administrative sanctions or pursue criminal charges against officials, but it is not authorized to impose penalties or legal sanctions. If the relevant authority accepts a CNDH recommendation, the CNDH is required to follow up with the authority to verify that it is carrying out the recommendation. The CNDH sends a request to the authority asking for evidence of its compliance and includes this follow-up information in its annual report. When authorities fail to accept a recommendation, the CNDH makes that known publicly. It may exercise its power to call before the Senate government authorities who refuse to accept or enforce its recommendations.

All states have their own human rights commissions. The state commissions are funded by state legislatures and are semiautonomous. Some civil society groups, however, asserted that state commissions were subservient to the state executive branch. State commissions do not have uniform reporting requirements, making it difficult to compare state data and therefore compile nationwide statistics. The CNDH may take on cases from state-level commissions if it receives a complaint that the state commission has not adequately investigated the case.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: Federal law criminalizes the rape of men and women, including spousal rape, and conviction carries penalties of up to 20 years’ imprisonment. Spousal rape is criminalized in 26 of the 32 states. Between January and June, state authorities opened 10,458 new rape investigations. There were high rates of impunity for these crimes, consistent with high impunity rates for all crimes.

Federal law prohibits domestic violence and stipulates penalties for conviction of between six months’ and four years’ imprisonment. Of the 32 states, 29 stipulate similar penalties, although sentences were often more lenient. Federal law criminalizes spousal abuse. State and municipal laws addressing domestic violence largely failed to meet the required federal standards and often were unenforced. In June the government amended the General Law on Women’s Access to a Life Free of Violence to include media and digital violence as a form of violence against women.

According to the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (INEGI) 2016 survey, 18 percent of women ages 15 and older reported having experienced physical violence at the hands of their current or most recent partner, and 6.5 percent reported having experienced sexual violence. The increase in domestic violence cases that began during the start of the COVID-19 pandemic continued. The Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System reported 23,907 domestic violence cases in May, an all-time monthly record. Between January and June, state authorities opened 129,020 new domestic violence investigations.

In March authorities in Mexico City opened an investigation based on allegations of rape against Andres Roemer, a prominent writer, producer, consular officer, and former UNESCO goodwill ambassador. Since 2019 more than 60 women accused Roemer of sexual abuse, assault, and rape. In July the Mexico City Prosecutor General’s Office issued the fourth arrest warrant for Roemer. Authorities were attempting to extradite Roemer from Israel.

The Executive Secretariat of the National Public Security System reported more than 1,889 killings of women, including 672 femicides, from January to September. September had the highest incident rate, with an average of 84 women killed in each month. The 911 hotline received 139,554 calls reporting incidents of violence against women from January to June, an increase of 6 percent over the same months in 2020. The 27,751 calls to the hotline in May were the most since the creation of the hotline. Calls included reports of relationship aggression, sexual assault, sexual harassment, rape, and intrafamily violence. The National Shelter Network reported that the network assisted 12,000 women and children between January and August.

Femicide is a federal offense punishable by 40 to 70 years in prison. It is also a criminal offense in all states. The law describes femicide as a gender-based murder under any of the following seven circumstances: signs of sexual violence, previous violence, emotional connection to the perpetrator, previous threats, harassment history, victim held incommunicado prior to deprivation of life, or victim’s body exposure in a public place. According to National Security Secretariat statistics, between January and June, state-level prosecutors and attorneys general opened 495 femicide investigations throughout the country, exceeding the 477 state-level femicide investigations opened in the first half of 2020 (statistics from state-level reports often conflated femicides with all killings of women).

The National Commission to Prevent and Eradicate Violence against Women is responsible for leading government programs to combat domestic violence. Reforms to the Prosecutor General’s Office split the Office for Combating Violence Against Women and the Trafficking in Persons offices in an effort to elevate these issues by giving each its own special prosecutor general. Between January and June, the commission registered that 115,534 women received attention in Justice Centers for Women throughout the country, a 19 percent increase over the same period in 2020.

In addition to shelters, women’s justice centers provided services including legal, psychological, and protective; however, the number of cases far surpassed institutional capacity. According to multiple NGOs, due to COVID-19’s impact on the economy, funding sources for women’s shelters, including for indigenous women, were insufficient. Federal government funding for women’s shelters for the year was the same as in 2020. Federal funding assisted the operation of more than 69 shelters, external attention centers, emergency houses, and transition houses. NGOs operated 85 percent of the facilities, and government organizations operated the remaining 15 percent.

Sexual Harassment: Federal law prohibits sexual harassment and provides for fines from 250 to 5,000 times the minimum daily wage, but the law was not effectively enforced. Of the 32 states, 24 criminalize sexual harassment, and all states have provisions for punishment when the perpetrator is in a position of power. According to the National Women’s Institute, the federal institution charged with directing national policy on equal opportunity for men and women, sexual harassment in the workplace was a significant problem.

On February 6, the federal Law Against Digital Harassment took effect. The law criminalizes sharing, distributing, and publishing intimate sexual content (including photographs, audio, and videos) featuring individuals who have not explicitly given their consent, with penalties of up to six years in prison. Women’s rights activists supported the law as critical to combat the increasingly prevalent problem of online sexual harassment. In April authorities arrested and prosecuted Alexis Rafael Valadez Vazquez under the new law for publishing intimate photographs of women online, without their consent, to extort them.

Reproductive Rights: There were no confirmed reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

Federal authorities supported access to contraceptive methods, but states’ efforts varied widely. Barriers to accessing contraceptives stemmed from lack of knowledge, poverty, lack of access to health services, and sexual violence from family members, strangers, or friends. An Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation study on the use of contraceptives in Chiapas (the poorest state) found that older women were less likely to use family planning methods (13 percent of women ages 35 and older, versus 18 percent of women ages 20-34), while 23 percent of indigenous women opposed birth control for religious, cultural, or social reasons. The National Population Council estimated that in 2020 and 2021, a total of 1,172,000 women had limited access to contraceptives due to COVID-19. The National Population Council reported that in 2020 there were 373,661 pregnancies in women younger than age 19 (30 percent above 2019), of which 8,876 were in girls ages 14 or younger. The states with the most teenage pregnancies were Chiapas, Coahuila, and Guerrero, and Tabasco. Sometimes family members arranged marriages for girls younger than 18. INEGI found that 53 percent of women of reproductive age used modern contraception in 2018 (the most recent study).

By law government health providers are obliged to offer sexual and reproductive emergency health services for survivors of sexual violence within 120 hours of the sexual assault. Emergency contraception was available, including for survivors of sexual assault. Nevertheless, women nationwide faced obstacles to accessing emergency services due to health providers’ personal objections to emergency contraception or misunderstanding of their legal obligations to provide services.

Factors associated with maternal deaths included parents with lower levels of education, poor hospital infrastructure and human capacity, and lack of access to maternity care, especially for pregnant women living in rural areas. Southern states reported the lowest access to skilled health care during pregnancy due to geographic, financial, and cultural barriers. In rural areas in 2019, the cause of most maternal deaths was obstetric hemorrhage.

Discrimination: The law provides women the same legal status and rights as men and “equal pay for equal work performed in equal jobs, hours of work, and conditions of efficiency.” The law establishes penalties for discrimination based on gender, race, ethnicity, color, religion, language, pregnancy, political belief, or any other nature that violates human dignity. The government did not enforce the law effectively. Women tended to earn substantially less than men did for the same work. Women were more likely to experience discrimination in wages, working hours, and benefits.

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the median salary for full-time female employees was 19 percent less than that of full-time male employees. Only 7.5 percent of the members of the executive boards of publicly traded domestic companies were female, and men held 64 percent of managerial positions throughout the country. According to INEGI’s 2016 National Survey on the Dynamics of Household Relationships, 22 percent of working women reported experiencing labor discrimination within the previous 12 months.

Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on ethnicity, and a federal law prohibits all forms of discrimination. Nonetheless, discrimination was common against racial and ethnic minorities, including Black, Afro-Mexican, and indigenous groups. All states have additional laws against discrimination. In 2019 legislators passed a constitutional reform recognizing Afro-Mexicans as an ethnic group.

INEGI reported that 2 percent of the population (2.5 million) self-identified as Afro-Mexican. The National Council to Prevent Discrimination’s 2017 national survey on discrimination found 58 percent of Afro-Mexicans and 65 percent of indigenous persons considered their rights were respected “little or not at all.” The survey also reported 22 percent of persons said they would not share a household with an Afro-Mexican. The survey also reported that persons with darker skin completed 6.5 years of schooling, while those with white skin completed 10 years. A report from the Black Alliance for Just Immigration found black migrants faced widespread racial discrimination from individuals and authorities, particularly in accessing employment and services. Black migrants reported migration authorities detained Black migrants for longer periods than other migrants.

Indigenous Peoples

The constitution provides indigenous persons the right to self-determination, autonomy, and education. Most indigenous persons lived in marginalized communities, and the COVID-19 pandemic disproportionally affected these communities, according to the OHCHR. Conflicts arose from the interpretation of indigenous communities’ self-governing “normative systems.” Uses and customs laws apply traditional practices to resolve disputes, choose local officials, and collect taxes, with limited federal or state government involvement. Communities and NGOs representing indigenous groups criticized the government for failing to consult indigenous communities adequately when making decisions regarding extractive industry and natural resource development projects on indigenous lands. The CNDH maintained a human rights program to inform and assist members of indigenous communities.

The CNDH reported indigenous women were among the most vulnerable groups in society. They often experienced racism and discrimination and were frequently victims of violence. Indigenous persons generally had limited access to health care and education services.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, indigenous persons faced additional hardships in accessing educational services. Due to low internet penetration and television ownership in indigenous communities, distance learning was often inaccessible. Additionally, some indigenous students did not receive the breakfasts and lunches normally included in the full-time school meal program, according to a UNESCO study.

Several indigenous communities denounced the government’s plan to build the Mayan Train, an estimated $7.5 billion dual cargo-passenger railroad to cross the Yucatan Peninsula through indigenous lands. Several indigenous communities brought legal actions to oppose the construction, many of which were dismissed or denied. As in 2020, NGOs in Campeche and Yucatan submitted multiple civil injunctions against the project citing a lack of transparency regarding environmental impact assessments and adverse effects on indigenous cultural heritage. Members of the Mayan community in Campeche reported the National Tourism Board pressured them to cease protesting and agree to leave their lands. The board identified 3,286 homes in five states for relocation before completion of the construction project.

On July 14, 10 indigenous men from the Yaqui tribe living in Sonora disappeared while transporting cattle in Bacum. Their abduction followed the killings of two Yaqui activists and leaders: Thomas Rojo in May and Luis Urbano in June. In July the Sonora State Prosecutor General’s Office detained Rojo’s alleged killer.

In Chiapas in July an unidentified perpetrator killed Simon Pedro Perez Lopez, a human rights activist and member of the Las Abejas de Acteal civil society organization. Lopez had filed a complaint with the Interior Secretariat asking for greater government intervention in the indigenous Tsotsil regions following increased drug trafficking-related violence.

As of September authorities made no arrests regarding the 2020 killing of prominent indigenous and environmental rights defender Homero Gomez. Gomez had advocated against illegal logging and the destruction of the Michoacan monarch butterfly habitat.

Children

Birth Registration: Children derive citizenship both by birth within the country’s territory and from their parents. Citizens generally registered the births of newborns with local authorities. Failure to register births could result in the denial of public services such as education or health care.

Child Abuse: There were numerous reports of child abuse. The National Program for the Integral Protection of Children and Adolescents, mandated by law, is responsible for coordinating the protection of children’s rights at all levels of government.

As of August there were no developments in the case regarding the abduction and killing of seven-year-old Fatima Aldrighetti Anton. Authorities arrested Mario Reyes and Gladis Cruz in connection with the killing. In November 2020 a judge suspended five officials from the Mexico City Prosecutor General’s Office for failing to search for Fatima within 72 hours after she went missing.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The legal minimum marriage age is 18. Enforcement, however, was inconsistent across the states. All states prohibit marriage of persons younger than age 18. With a judge’s consent, children may marry at younger ages.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation of children, and authorities generally enforced the law. Nonetheless, NGOs and media reported on sexual exploitation of minors, as well as child sex tourism in resort towns and northern border areas. Government authorities also reported an increase of 73 percent in online child pornography distribution during the pandemic. In April the government passed a penal code reform eliminating the statute of limitations for sexual crimes against minors, including child pornography distribution, child sex tourism, corruption of minors, pederasty, sexual abuse, and rape.

Institutionalized Children: Civil society groups expressed concern regarding abuse of children with mental and physical disabilities in orphanages, migrant centers, and care facilities. The NGO Disability Rights International reported various instances of abuse, including the use of prolonged restraints and isolation rooms for children with disabilities in both public and private institutions. According to the NGO, institutional staff in Baja California reported that four children with disabilities died within days of each other with no known investigations. The NGO also reported the existence of multiple unregistered private institutions without licenses operating as orphanages.

In May 2020 the CNDH reported that children were subjected to abuses such as torture, sexual violence, and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment at Ciudad de los Ninos, a private institution in Salamanca, Guanajuato. Despite a 2017 injunction issued by a state district judge to prevent further grave abuses at the institution, the CNDH reported state authorities failed to supervise the conditions at Ciudad de los Ninos.

International Child Abductions: The country is party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.

Anti-Semitism

The 45,000-person Jewish community experienced low levels of anti-Semitism. On May 18, an exhibit in Mexico City on Israeli innovation was vandalized with anti-Semitic and anti-Israel messages. Jewish community representatives reported good cooperation with the government and other religious and civil society organizations in addressing rare instances of such acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

Federal law prohibits discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities. The government did not effectively enforce the law. The law requires the Secretariat of Health to promote the creation of long-term institutions for persons with disabilities in distress, and the Secretariat of Social Development must establish specialized institutions to care for, protect, and house poor, neglected, or marginalized persons with disabilities. NGOs reported authorities had not implemented programs for community integration. Public buildings and facilities often did not comply with the law requiring access for persons with disabilities.

In 2019 the federal government introduced pensions for persons with disabilities in a state of poverty. In May 2020 a constitutional amendment established the disability pension as a constitutional right, prioritizing children, indigenous, and Afro-Mexican persons with disabilities younger than age 64 who lived in poverty. The pension was 2,550 pesos ($125) every two months. In August the federal government signed a public-private partnership agreement with the Teleton Institute for it to provide rehabilitation services to 20,000 pension-receiving children.

The education system provided education for students with disabilities nationwide. Nevertheless, only 2 percent of schoolteachers in the country were trained to teach children with disabilities, according to the civil society organization Yo Tambien. with disabilities attended school at a lower rate than those without disabilities. Enrollment of children with disabilities decreased by 40 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Yo Tambien.

Abuses occurred in institutions and care facilities housing persons with mental disabilities, including those for children. Abuses of persons with disabilities included the use of physical and chemical restraints; physical and sexual abuse; human trafficking, including forced labor; disappearance; and the illegal adoption of institutionalized children. They were vulnerable to abuse from staff members, other patients, or guests at facilities where there was inadequate supervision. Documentation supporting a person’s identity and origin was lacking. Access to justice was limited. NGOs reported no changes in the mental health system to create community services or any efforts by authorities to have independent experts monitor human rights abuses in psychiatric institutions.

Institutionalized persons with disabilities often lacked adequate medical care and rehabilitation services, privacy, and clothing; they often ate, slept, and bathed in unhygienic conditions. For example, Felipe Orozco, hospitalized multiple times for mental disabilities, reported that mental health professionals from a psychiatric hospital in Puebla shackled him naked with a padlock during the nights for two and one-half weeks. As a result he was forced to urinate and defecate in his bed, according to Human Rights Watch.

Voting centers for federal elections were generally accessible for persons with disabilities, and ballots were available with a braille overlay for federal elections in Mexico City, but these services were inconsistently available for local elections elsewhere in the country.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

There were reports the government did not always investigate and punish those complicit in abuses against LGBTQI+ persons, especially outside Mexico City. Civil society groups claimed police routinely subjected LGBTQI+ persons to mistreatment while in custody.

There were 50 hate-crime homicides and four forced disappearances committed against the LGBTQI+ community in the first eight months, according to the National Observatory of Crimes Against LGBTQI persons. A 2019 CNDH poll found six of every 10 members of the LGBTQI+ community reported experiencing discrimination in the past 12 months, and more than half suffered hate speech and physical aggression.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against LGBTQI+ individuals. A Mexico City municipal law provides increased penalties for hate crimes based on sexual orientation and gender identity.

In July the Mexico City congress passed a law to provide, promote, and protect LGBTQI+ human rights. In August the Mexico City congress approved a reform allowing LGBTQI+ children ages 12 years and older to legally change their gender on their birth certificate. In August Yucatan passed a law legalizing same-sex marriage, increasing the number of states making it legal to 22 of the country’s 32 states. In August Baja California and Yucatan passed laws banning LGBTQI+ conversion therapy.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The government continued its efforts to strengthen freedom of association protections, promote union democracy, and improve the ability of workers to bargain collectively. Efforts focused on implementation of the 2019 labor law reform that transformed the labor justice system. The reforms provide workers with the right to freely elect union representatives and approve or reject collective bargaining agreements through a secret ballot process before they are registered. The reforms prevent the registration of collective bargaining agreements known as “protection contracts,” which nonrepresentative unions often negotiated and signed without the knowledge of workers and undermined genuine collective bargaining. The reforms call for the creation of independent labor courts to replace the Conciliation and Arbitration Boards (CABs) that favored corporatist unions in the resolution of disputes and facilitated the registration of protection contracts. The reforms also establish an expedited and more transparent judicial process for unions to obtain collective bargaining rights.

In addition to a more impartial and streamlined judicial process for labor disputes, the reforms transfer the registration of unions and collective bargaining agreements from the CABs to a new independent Federal Conciliation and Labor Registration Center. The Federal Center also carries out mandatory pre-judicial conciliations at the federal level, with local conciliation centers carrying out the same function at the state level. The reforms establish a four-year timeline for implementation designed to end May 1, 2023, but the government established an accelerated timeline to complete implementation by May 2022 and remained on track to meet that goal.

The government continued implementing the labor reforms in a phased manner, with the reform coming online in eight states in November 2020, and phase two started on November 3 with 13 states, and phase three to be concluded on May 1, 2022, for the remaining states. As of July, 39 percent of active unions under local jurisdiction had registered required amendments to their amended statutes to incorporate new secret ballot and gender equity requirements with the CABs. As of July, 94 percent of active unions under federal jurisdiction had registered their amended statutes with the Secretariat of Labor and Social Welfare (STPS), but only 39 percent of active unions under local jurisdiction had registered their amendments with the CABs. The deadline for unions to amend and register their statutes, originally set to expire in May 2020, was suspended due to COVID-19, reestablished in late 2020, and continued as of November.

Responsibility for registration of unions and collective bargaining agreements, including amendments to their statutes, shifted to the Federal Conciliation and Labor Registration Center in November 2020 for the eight phase-one states. The Federal Center took over registration functions nationwide on November 3 and was preparing to launch a national union registry to contain all files related to union registration and statutes, collective bargaining agreements, and union financial statements.

On May 1, the role of verifying the process for unions to organize a secret ballot vote for workers to approve or reject existing collective bargaining agreements within the four-year period established by the reforms (legitimization process) transitioned from the STPS to the Federal Center. As part of that process, the Federal Center published a new legitimization protocol to include a mechanism that allows for submission of complaints regarding alleged irregularities that may happen prior to, during, and after the vote. The Federal Center, however, estimated that only 10 to 15 percent of those collective bargaining agreements would undergo a legitimization vote because the worksite where the agreement was valid had closed, the work for which the agreement was negotiated had concluded, or the contract was a protection contract held by a nonrepresentative union. As of September workers had reviewed and voted on 1,790 collective bargaining agreements, less than 1 percent of the total number of agreements.

Federal labor law requires a minimum of 20 workers to form a union. To receive government recognition, unions and their leaders must file for registration with the Federal Center. The Federal Center and the new federal labor courts are designed to handle all matters related to collective bargaining agreements, but until the Federal Center establishes its offices in all the states, labor disputes in states without a Federal Center presence are to be handled by the CABs. The CABs operate under a tripartite system with government, worker, and employer representatives, with worker representation on the CABs selected based on majority representation, which was held by entrenched nondemocratic unions that sign “protection” contracts with complicit employers to secure low wages.

By law a union may call for a strike or bargain collectively in accordance with its own statutes. Under the labor reform, to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement, the union must first obtain a certificate of representativeness from the Federal Center demonstrating it has support from at least 30 percent of workers to be covered by the agreement. Before a strike may take place, a union must file a “notice to strike” with the appropriate CAB, or the appropriate labor court once they are operational. Workers, the employer, or an interested third party may request the CAB or court rule on the legality of the strike, which may find the strike is “nonexistent” and therefore illegal. In June the Supreme Court issued a unanimous decision confirming that the exercise of the right to strike suspends the processing of collective conflicts of an economic nature that may be pending before the court and the topics that they present, unless the workers express in writing their agreement to submit the conflict to the decision of the court. This decision prevented a protection union from attempting to stop the strike by filing a challenge to the Mineros Union’s control of the existing collective bargaining agreement at the San Martin mine in Sombrerete, Zacatecas.

The law prohibits employers from intervening in union affairs or interfering with union activities, including through implicit or explicit reprisals against workers. The law allows for the reinstatement of workers if the CAB finds the employer fired the worker without just cause and the worker requests reinstatement; however, the law also exempts broad categories of employees from this protection, including so-called employees of confidence and workers in the job for less than one year.

The government’s failure to enforce labor laws left workers with little recourse for violations of freedom of association, poor working conditions, and other labor provisions in states that had not yet implemented the new labor justice model. The CABs’ continued failures to administer and oversee procedures related to union activity impartially and transparently, such as union elections, registrations, and strikes, undermined worker efforts to exercise their rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

According to several NGOs and unions, many workers faced violence and intimidation perpetrated by protection union leaders and employers supporting them, as well as other workers, union leaders, and vigilantes hired by a company to suppress opposition to an existing union in bargaining-rights elections. Some employers attempted to influence bargaining-rights elections through the illegal hiring of temporary or fake employees immediately prior to the election to vote for the company-controlled union. The CABs were widely alleged to administer these elections with a bias against new, independent unions.

In April the STPS suspended a legitimization vote at the General Motors plant in Silao, Guanajuato, due to serious irregularities during the vote. Workers argued that the protectionist union holding the collective bargaining agreement pressured workers to legitimize the agreement, offered bribes, and tampered with ballots. After the STPS canceled the vote, in May the rapid response mechanism under the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement commenced, and the government agreed to review a denial of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights at the plant, confirming the denial of rights. In July an arrangement was reached on a course of remediation, which included a new collective bargaining agreement legitimization vote under the supervision of the STPS, with observers from the National Electoral Institute and the International Labor Organization. The new vote took place on August 17-18, and a majority of workers rejected the collective bargaining agreement. As a result other unions, including a new union formed by workers after the vote, gained the right to seek representation rights and negotiate a new agreement. The STPS certification of the new election set November 3 as the date for termination of the existing agreement, thus establishing that representation rights would be determined under the new labor reform rules and institutions.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The constitution and law prohibit all forms of forced or compulsory labor, but the government did not effectively enforce the law. While penalties for conviction of forced labor were commensurate with those for similar crimes, very few cases were successfully prosecuted. State governments reported investigating 12 suspected forced labor cases in 2020. Federal and state labor inspectorates conducted nearly 30,000 labor inspections in formally registered businesses in 2020 but did not conduct inspections in the informal sector.

Forced labor persisted in the domestic service and in child-care, manufacturing, mining, food-processing, construction, tourism, begging, street-vending, leather-goods-production, and agriculture sectors, especially in the production of chili peppers and tomatoes. Women and children were subjected to domestic servitude. Women, children, indigenous persons, persons with disabilities, LGBTQI+ persons, and migrants (including men, women, and children) were the most vulnerable to forced labor (see section 7.c.). Many workers were compelled into forced labor through debt bondage, threats of violence, and nonpayment of wages by recruiters and employers.

Day laborers and their children were the primary victims of forced and child labor in the agricultural sector, particularly in the production of chili peppers and tomatoes. In 2016, the most recent data available, INEGI reported that 44 percent of persons working in agriculture were day laborers. Of the day laborers, 33 percent received no financial compensation for their work, and only 3 percent had a formal written contract.

Indigenous persons in isolated regions reported incidents of forced labor in which cartel members forced them to perform illicit activities or face death. Minors were recruited or forced by cartels to traffic persons, drugs, or other goods across the border with the United States. Migrants were also recruited by criminal organizations to conduct illicit activities.

Criminal groups became increasingly involved in the illegal timber trade in Chihuahua, which accounted for 70 percent of the wood consumed in the country. Drug traffickers involved in illegal logging recruited and kidnapped indigenous persons and children in isolated or displaced communities, withheld their wages, forced them to conduct illicit activities, and often threatened death if they tried to leave.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The law prohibits children younger than age 15 from working and allows those ages 15 to 17 to work no more than six daytime hours in nonhazardous conditions daily, and only with parental permission and permission from the labor authority. The law requires children younger than 18 to complete compulsory basic education and to have a medical certificate to work. The minimum age for hazardous work is 18, including all work in the agricultural sector. The law prohibits minors from working in a broad list of hazardous and unhealthy occupations. The pandemic severely impacted the economy, resulting in a significant increase in the number of children engaging in child labor. Despite a government program to transmit public education classes via internet, television, and radio during the pandemic, reports suggested that at least 2.5 million children did not continue their basic education.

At the federal level, the Secretariat of Social Development, Prosecutor General’s Office, and National System for Integral Family Development share responsibility for inspections to enforce child labor laws and to intervene in cases in which employers violate such laws. The STPS is responsible for carrying out child labor inspections and refers cases of child labor to the Prosecutor General’s Office for sanctions. Penalties were commensurate with other similar laws but were rarely enforced. In 2020 the STPS Federal Labor Inspectorate conducted almost 30,000 labor inspections nationwide but reported finding only one case of child labor. State labor inspectors, however, reported finding evidence of child labor, particularly in agricultural establishments.

State-level prosecutors reported investigating at least 199 cases involving child trafficking victims in 2020. The government was reasonably effective in enforcing child labor laws in large and medium-sized companies, especially in the export-oriented factory (maquiladora) sector and other industries under federal jurisdiction.

Enforcement was inadequate in many small companies, in agriculture, and in construction, and nearly absent in the informal sector in which most child laborers worked. Inspectors generally were permitted to examine the informal sector only in response to complaints. Social programs to combat child labor did not address all sectors where child labor occurred. Children performed dangerous tasks in agriculture in the production of beans, chili peppers, coffee, cucumbers, eggplants, melons, onions, tomatoes, and tobacco. Children also produced garments, leather goods, and illicit crops such as opium poppies; engaged in illicit activities such as the production and trafficking of drugs; and experienced sexual exploitation, often as a result of human trafficking.

Underage children in urban areas earned money by begging, washing windshields, selling small items, or performing in public places.

According to a 2019 National Child Labor Survey, the number of children ages five to 17 in child labor, including in hazardous household work, was 3.3 million, or approximately 11.5 percent of children in the country. This represented an increase of 11 percent of children from the 2017 INEGI survey. Of all children, 7.1 percent, or two million, were younger than the minimum age of work or worked under conditions that violated federal labor law, such as performing hazardous work.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings/  as well as the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The constitution and law prohibit discrimination with respect to employment or occupation. Federal law specifically proscribes discrimination based on ethnicity, nationality, gender, age, disability, social status, health, religion, immigration status, political opinion, sexual preference, marital status, or pregnancy. The government did not effectively enforce the law or regulations. The law mandates that all discrimination cases, including sexual harassment, bypass formerly mandatory conciliation and proceed directly to the labor courts.

Penalties for violations of the law were commensurate with those for other similar laws. Discrimination in employment or occupation occurred against women, indigenous groups, persons with disabilities, LGBTQI+ individuals, and migrant workers. According to a 2017 INEGI survey, the most recent information available, 12 percent of women were illegally asked to take a pregnancy test as a prerequisite to being hired. Job announcements specifying desired gender, age, marital status, and parental status were common. INEGI reported in 2017 that 23 percent of working women experienced violence in the workplace within the past 12 months and that 6 percent experienced sexual violence. The government approved the National Work and Employment Program for People with Disabilities 2021-2024, aimed at strengthening labor inclusion of persons with disabilities and supporting the employment of persons with disabilities in decent work.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wage and Hour Laws: The tripartite National Minimum Wage Commission is responsible for establishing minimum salaries. In January 2020 the government raised the minimum wage. The new wage applied to all sectors and allowed an earner to reach or exceed the poverty line. In March the government amended federal labor law to define the minimum wage as the lowest cash amount a worker receives for services rendered during a workday and stipulated it should never be below the inflation rate. Most formal-sector workers (70 percent) received between one and three times the minimum wage.

Federal law sets six eight-hour days and 48 hours per week as the legal workweek. Any work in excess of eight hours in a day is considered overtime, for which a worker is to receive double pay. After accumulating nine hours of overtime in a week, a worker earns triple the hourly wage. The law prohibits compulsory overtime. The law provides for eight paid public holidays and one week of paid annual leave after completing one year of work.

Between September 2020 and June, the STPS reported conducting labor inspections in 22,350 work centers nationwide benefiting more than three million workers. Civil society organizations, however, reported that the number of labor inspections was not sufficient to secure compliance. There were 600 federal labor inspectors to cover the entire country; 60 percent of state level labor authorities had fewer than 10 inspectors. Criminal cases related to such violations were rarely carried out. Penalties for law violations regarding hours and minimum wage were commensurate with those for other similar laws but were rarely enforced.

According to labor rights NGOs, employers in all sectors sometimes used the illegal “hours bank” approach – requiring long hours when the workload is heavy and cutting down hours when it is light – to avoid compensating workers for overtime. This was a common practice in the maquiladora sector, in which employers forced workers to take leave at low moments in the production cycle and obliged them to work in peak seasons, including the Christmas holiday period, without the corresponding triple pay mandated by law for voluntary overtime on national holidays.

Many companies evaded taxes and social security payments by employing workers through subcontracting regimes or by submitting falsified payroll records to the Mexican Social Security Institute. On April 24, congress approved a reform to the labor law aimed at banning subcontracting of personnel for core or main economic activities in the public and private sectors. Subcontracting is allowed if it is used to perform specialized services unrelated to the main economic activity of businesses or public institutions. The law mandates the creation of a public registry of companies supplying specialized services to verify only registered companies fulfilling tax and administrative requirements may supply those services. According to the Mexican Social Security Institute, as a result of the law 2.7 million workers of the 4.6 million subcontractors moved from formal subcontracting status to a formal direct employment status. Approximately 23 percent of informal workers (6.8 million persons) were employed by formal businesses or organizations but paid in cash off the books to evade taxes and social security payments.

Observers from grassroots labor rights groups, international NGOs, and multinational apparel brands reported that employers in export-oriented supply chains increasingly used hiring methods that lessened job security. For example, manufacturers commonly hired workers on one- to three-month contracts and then waited a period of days before rehiring them on new short-term contracts to avoid paying severance and to prevent workers from accruing seniority. This practice violated federal law and restricted workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Observers noted that it also increased the likelihood of work-related illness and injury. Outsourcing practices made it difficult for workers to identify their legally registered employer, thus limiting their ability to seek redress of labor grievances.

Citizens hoping to obtain temporary, legal employment in the United States and other countries frequently paid recruiters hundreds or thousands of dollars in prohibitive fees to secure jobs, and many prospective workers were promised jobs that did not exist. The government rarely investigated cases of alleged abusive and fraudulent recruitment practices. Although the law requires entities recruiting for overseas employment to register with the STPS, there is no enforcement mechanism, and only a handful of recruiters complied.

The situation of agricultural workers remained particularly precarious, with similar patterns of exploitation throughout the sector. Labor recruiters enticed families to work during harvests with verbal promises of decent wages and a good standard of living. Rather than receiving daily wages once a week, as mandated by law, day laborers had to meet certain harvest quotas to receive the promised wage. Wages were illegally withheld until the end of the harvest to ensure that the workers did not leave. Civil society organizations alleged that workers were prohibited from leaving by threats of violence or by nonpayment of wages. Workers had to buy food and other items at the company store at high markups, at times leaving them with no money at the end of the harvest after settling debts. Civil society groups reported families living in inhuman conditions, with inadequate and cramped housing, no access to clean water or bathrooms, insufficient food, and without medical care. With no access to schools or child care, many workers took their children to work in the fields.

Occupational Safety and Health: The law requires employers to observe occupational safety and health regulations, issued jointly by the STPS and Institute for Social Security. Legally mandated joint management and labor committees set standards and are responsible for overseeing workplace standards in plants and offices. Individual employees or unions may complain directly to inspectors or safety and health officials. By law workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. The STPS has the authority to order labor inspections at any time in the event of labor law violations, imminent risk to employees, or workplace accidents. Penalties for law violations regarding occupational safety and health regulations were commensurate with those for other similar laws but were rarely enforced.

News reports indicated poor working conditions in some factories. These included low wages, contentious labor management, long work hours, unjustified dismissals, a lack of social security benefits, unsafe workplaces, and no freedom of association. Many women working in the industry reported suffering some form of abuse.

According to data from the Mexican Social Security Institute, in 2020 there were approximately 278,000 workplace accidents, resulting in 666 deaths.

Hundreds of thousands of workers continued to work in foreign-owned factories, mainly in northern border states, producing electronics, medical equipment, and auto parts. Several outbreaks of COVID-19 resulted in multiple deaths. Some companies reportedly did not implement effective protective measures for employees, and one factory, owned by Eaton Corporation in Baja California, was operating illegally and was closed after it placed chains on its doors to prevent 800 workers from leaving.

Informal Sector: According to INEGI informal workers represented 56 percent of total workers in the country as of the second quarter of the year. Labor inspections focused on the formal sector, leaving informal workers with no labor law protection. Informal workers were in every sector of the economy, with agriculture as the sector with the greatest number of informal workers. While on average informal workers earned less than the minimum wage, in some areas, such as near the northern border, informal employment could pay more than formal employment in the manufacturing sector. Informal workers lacked access to social protection mechanisms such as health care and retirement benefits.

Nicaragua

Executive Summary

Nicaragua has a highly centralized, authoritarian political system dominated by President Daniel Ortega Saavedra and his wife, Vice President Rosario Murillo Zambrana. Ortega’s Sandinista National Liberation Front party exercises total control over the country’s executive, legislative, judicial, and electoral functions. President Ortega awarded himself a fourth consecutive term in November elections after arbitrarily jailing nearly 40 opposition figures, barring all credible opposition political parties from participating, blocking legitimate international observation efforts, and committing widespread electoral fraud. Independent observer groups and international organizations characterized the electoral process as seriously flawed, lacking credibility, and defined by historically low voter turnout. The 2021 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and eliminated restrictions on re-election of executive branch officials and mayors. Observers noted serious flaws in municipal, regional, and national elections since 2008. Civil society groups, international electoral experts, business leaders, and religious leaders identified persistent flaws in the 2019 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections and noted the need for comprehensive electoral reform.

The Nicaraguan National Police is responsible for internal security. The army is responsible for external security but also has some domestic security responsibilities. Both report directly to the president, pursuant to changes in the police and army code in 2014. Parapolice, which are nonuniformed, armed, and masked units with tactical training and organization, act in coordination with government security forces, under the direct control of the government, and report directly to the national police. Civilian authorities maintained effective control over police and parapolice security forces. There were credible reports that members of the security forces committed numerous abuses.

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings; forced disappearances; torture and cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment by prison guards and parapolice; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detentions; political prisoners; politically motivated reprisal against individuals located in another country; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; arbitrary and unlawful interference with privacy; punishment of family members for offenses allegedly committed by an individual; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including threats of violence, unjustified arrests, censorship, criminal libel suits against journalists; substantial interference with the rights of peaceful assembly and freedom of association, including overly restrictive laws on the organization, funding, and operation of nongovernmental organizations and civil society organizations; severe restrictions on religious freedom; restrictions on freedom of movement within the country and the right to leave the country; inability of citizens to change their government peacefully through free and fair elections; serious and unreasonable restrictions on political participation; serious corruption; serious government restrictions on and harassment of domestic and international human rights organizations; lack of investigation of and accountability for gender-based violence; trafficking in persons; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting ethnic minorities and indigenous communities; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex persons; and the worst forms of child labor.

The government did not take steps to identify, investigate, prosecute, or punish officials who committed human rights abuses, including those responsible for at least 355 killings and hundreds of disappearances during the prodemocracy uprising of April 2018. The government did not address instances of widespread corruption. President Ortega actively strengthened impunity for human rights abusers who were loyal to him.

Police, parapolice, and individuals linked to the Ortega regime carried out a campaign of harassment, intimidation, and violence toward perceived enemies of the regime, such as former political prisoners and their families, farmworker activists, prodemocracy opposition groups, human rights defenders, private-sector leaders, and Catholic clergy.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

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. Human rights organizations and independent media alleged some killings were politically motivated, an allegation difficult to confirm because the government refused to conduct official inquiries.

Reports of killings were common in the north-central regions and the North Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACN). Human rights groups said these killings illustrated a continuation of a campaign of terror in the north-central and RACN regions, perpetrated by parapolice groups to stamp out political opposition to the ruling Sandinista National Liberation Front (FSLN) party. On March 29, unknown assailants shot Ernesto Jarquin five times in the chest in the north-central town of Mulukuku. Imprisoned in 2018 for participating in prodemocracy protests in Mulukuku, Jarquin was released with other political prisoners under a 2019 amnesty law. The Nicaraguan National Police (NNP) and official media reported Jarquin’s killing by focusing on the government’s previous allegations of Jarquin’s involvement in homicide, illegal weapons possession, collusion to commit crimes, and kidnapping in association with his participation in 2018 prodemocracy protests. As of October no arrests had been made in the case.

On August 23, land invaders linked to the ruling FSLN party killed at least 13 indigenous persons. The attack happened near Musawas, in the Sauni As territory, in a protected area of the Bosawas biosphere reserve. The attack included rape and dismemberment. On September 8, police stated the attack stemmed from a quarrel over an artisanal gold mining site and that police had identified 14 assailants and captured three. Witnesses and indigenous rights defenders disputed the findings and said police had arrested individuals other than those identified as perpetrators by the community and had failed to address the root causes that lead to such attacks.

There was no indication the government investigated crimes committed by police and parapolice groups related to the 2018 prodemocracy uprising. In April 2018 President Ortega and Vice President Murillo ordered police and parapolice forces to suppress violence peaceful protests that began over discontent with a government decision to reduce social security benefits. By late November 2018, the ensuing conflict had left at least 355 persons dead; more than 2,000 injured; thousands forced into hiding; hundreds illegally detained and tortured; and as of September, more than 130,000 in exile in neighboring countries. Beginning in August 2018, the Ortega government instituted a policy of “exile, jail, or death” for anyone perceived as opposition, amended terrorism laws to include prodemocracy activities, and used the justice system to prosecute civil society actors as terrorists, assassins, and coup mongers. Police and the Public Prosecutor’s Office detained, brought to trial, and imprisoned many members of the prodemocracy opposition. Human rights organizations documented that the investigations and prosecutions did not conform to the rule of law. The government continued to make no effort to investigate several 2017 incidents of extrajudicial killings and torture in both the North and South Caribbean Autonomous Regions. The army continued to deny its involvement in cases perceived by human rights organizations as politically motivated extrajudicial killings.

b. Disappearance

Starting on May 28, police detained at least 40 members of the opposition and civil society leaders using a February change in the criminal procedural code that allows for a detention period of up to 90 days during the public prosecutor’s initial investigation, before presenting charges. While technically under custody of police or prison authorities, the 40 detained leaders did not have access to legal counsel or family visitations. Authorities did not reveal the location of these detainees, and judicial authorities rejected habeas corpus writs in their favor. National and international human rights organizations deemed the detention of these political prisoners effectively a form of forced disappearance. After authorities held them incommunicado for months, at least 25 of these political prisoners were formally charged in August, at which time they were allowed limited access to legal counsel and three 30-minute family visits.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

Although the law prohibits such practices, government officials intentionally carried out acts that resulted in severe physical or mental suffering for the purposes of securing information, inflicting punishment, and psychologically deterring other citizens from reporting on the government’s actions or participating in civic actions against the government. Members of civil society and student leaders involved in the protests that began in April 2018 were more likely than members of other groups to be subjected to such treatment.

On July 6, authorities detained prodemocracy student leader Lesther Aleman Alfaro without a warrant. The Public Prosecutor’s Office later announced it had accused Aleman of treason under the Law for the Defense of the Rights of the People to Independent Sovereignty and Self-Determination for Peace, or Law 1055, passed in December 2020. Prison authorities held Aleman incommunicado in solitary confinement at the El Chipote detention center, with no access to legal counsel or family visits, no access to sunlight, and with lights on 24 hours a day in his cell. He endured multiple interrogations a day. After 58 days in detention, he was briefly allowed to see a family member and a lawyer. Following Aleman’s arraignment, his lawyer said he appeared severely underweight and under deep psychological duress. Human rights groups characterized Aleman’s treatment by prison authorities as psychological torture. Other political prisoners suffered similar conditions while in detention, including several who had protective measures in place from the Inter-American Commission of Human Rights.

Human rights organizations reported female prisoners were regularly subjected to strip searches, degrading treatment, and rape threats while in custody of parapolice forces, prison officials, and police. Prison officials forced female prisoners to squat naked and beat them on their genitals to dislodge any supposedly hidden items.

Impunity persisted among police and parapolice forces in reported cases of torture, mistreatment, or other abuses. The NNP’s Office of Internal Affairs is charged with investigating police suspected of committing a crime. The Office of the Military Prosecutor investigates crimes committed by the army, under the jurisdiction of the Office of the Military Auditor General. With complete control over the police, prison system, and judiciary branch, however, the FSLN governing apparatus made no effort to investigate allegations that regime opponents were tortured or otherwise abused.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening. Overcrowding, poor sanitation, difficulties obtaining medical care, and violence among prisoners remained serious problems in prison facilities.

Physical Conditions: Prison conditions continued to deteriorate due to antiquated infrastructure and increasing inmate populations. Despite new temporary holding cells in the Directorate of Judicial Assistance, the rest of the prison system was in poor condition. The government reported overcrowding in five of the seven prisons for men, holding 15,333 prisoners with capacity for 12,600, or 22 percent over capacity in 2020. The government did not provide updated figures for the year. More than 1,000 of these inmates were held in the prison known as La Modelo. Human rights organizations continued to be concerned about prison overcrowding. Due to overcrowding, pretrial detainees often shared cells with convicted prisoners, and juveniles shared cells with adults.

Many prisoners suffered mistreatment from prison officials and other inmates. Human rights organizations confirmed that at least 16 men detained in the context of the 2018 protests were subjected to solitary confinement in maximum-security cells of La Modelo Prison, in some cases for months at a time. Political prisoners held since the government’s crackdown that began in May were detained in Directorate of Judicial Assistance temporary holding cells, known as El Chipote. Relatives of the prisoners reported that at least four women were held in solitary confinement in El Chipote since June.

Inmates also suffered from parasites, inadequate medical attention, frequent food shortages and food contamination, contaminated water, and inadequate sanitation. The COVID-19 pandemic compounded these conditions. The government failed to take adequate measures to protect inmates from illness. Prison authorities prohibited the delivery of health and hygiene kits provided by family members for inmates to protect themselves from COVID-19, particularly in the case of political prisoners. Human rights groups reported that prison authorities randomly fumigated prisons with inmates still inside their cells. Although sanitary conditions for female inmates were generally better than those for men, they were nevertheless unsafe and unhygienic. According to the most recently available government report, the Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office received five complaints related to prison conditions between January 2019 and September 2020, of which it resolved four and dismissed one as unsubstantiated. The Human Rights Office did not make updated numbers publicly available for the year.

Conditions in jails and temporary holding cells were also harsh. Most facilities were physically decrepit and infested with vermin; had inadequate ventilation, electricity, or sewage systems; and lacked potable water.

The government continued to release common criminals outside of lawfully prescribed procedures, telling them their release was “thanks to the president.” Between January and October, the government released up to 2,700 prisoners. Independent media and human rights organizations reported that following their release, some of these individuals were responsible for at least two femicides and one killing.

Administration: Although prisoners and detainees could submit complaints to judicial authorities without censorship and request investigation of credible allegations of inhuman conditions, authorities often ignored or did not process complaints. The extent to which the government investigated allegations of poor prison conditions was unknown. The government ombudsman could serve on behalf of prisoners and detainees to consider such matters as informal alternatives to incarceration for nonviolent offenders, although this generally did not occur.

The government restricted political prisoners’ access to visitors, attorneys, and physicians. Staff members of human rights organizations, family members, and other interested parties were not allowed access to the prison system or to prisoners in custody.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to some prisoners but denied prison visits by local human rights groups and media outlets. The government reportedly denied the ICRC access to 40 political prisoners detained since May 28, despite ICRC requests to see those detainees. Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) generally received complaints through family members of inmates and often were unable to follow up on cases until after the release of the prisoner due to lack of access. The government denied all requests from local human rights organizations for access to prison facilities.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. Human rights NGOs, however, noted hundreds of cases of arbitrary arrests by police and parapolice forces, although parapolice have no authority to make arrests. Human rights organizations reported police and parapolice agents routinely detained and released government opponents within a 48-hour window, beyond which the Public Prosecutor’s Office would have to request to extend detention for up to 90 days to continue its investigation. Detentions of political opponents mostly occurred without a warrant or formal accusation and for causes outside the legal framework.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires police to obtain a warrant from a judicial authority prior to detaining a suspect and to notify family members of the detainee’s whereabouts within 24 hours, but this rarely happened in the context of arrests related to civil unrest.

Police may hold a suspect legally for 48 hours before arraignment or release; however, a February amendment to the criminal procedural code allows for the Public Prosecutor’s Office to request an extension for 15 to 90 days if a judge deems the case complex. A judge then must order the suspect released or transferred to jail for pretrial detention. The suspect is permitted family member visits after the initial 48 hours. A detainee has the right to bail unless a judge deems there is a flight risk. The criminal code lists a number of crimes that may be tried by a judge without a jury and that would not qualify for bail or house arrest during the duration of the trial. Detainees have the right to an attorney immediately following their arrest, and the state provides indigent detainees with a public defender. In several instances authorities denied having detainees under custody in a specific jail, even to their family members or legal counsel. Police routinely rejected complaints filed by prodemocracy opposition activists.

The government used money laundering laws, a foreign agents law, and a law for the defense of sovereignty against political opponents. Human rights organizations and civil society activists asserted that these laws constituted part of a larger scheme by the ruling FSLN party to exert its own concept of sovereign security, laid out in the 2015 Sovereign Security Law, which significantly broadened the definition of state sovereignty and security, as a pretext to arrest protesters and citizens it deemed in opposition to its goals.

Arbitrary Arrest: According to NGOs and other human rights groups, arbitrary arrests occurred regularly, particularly of those the government deemed active opposition members or participants in previous prodemocracy protests. The government detained several members of the opposition for extended periods using Law 1055 (Law for the Defense of the Rights of the People to Independence, Sovereignty, and Self-Determination for Peace). The statute does not specify sentencing guidelines, and the individuals were eventually charged under other statutes.

For example, the 40 political prisoners detained between May and November were not allowed to choose their own legal counsel and were arbitrarily assigned a public defender for their initial pretrial hearings. After holding the political prisoners incommunicado for months, the government permitted most to choose their own legal counsel and allowed family visits on three occasions. The law allows for family visits ranging from every eight days to every 21 days. Family visits were restricted to once a month only to highly dangerous prisoners. Prison authorities held the political prisoners incommunicado for 50 to 80 days before allowing them to see an attorney of their choice and receive limited family visits. Their hearings were not public, and most lawyers did not receive a copy of the court records prior to the trial. In an effort to impede access to legal counsel, hearings for political prisoners were held inside the jail instead of a court of law, outside of normal working hours. Judicial officials did not record the hearings or give the defendant’s legal counsel a transcript of the hearings. Other prisoners also reported a lack of immediate access to an attorney or legal counsel and were not afforded one during their detention.

In many cases police and parapolice detained persons who had participated in prodemocracy protests in 2018 and 2019 but who were not currently participating in any activity deemed illegal or in opposition to the ruling party. Police often arrested these individuals without a warrant and occasionally entered private homes or businesses without a court order. In several cases police raided and ransacked the houses of those detained, also without court warrants. Many arrests were allegedly made without informing family members or legal counsel. Reports were common of armed, hooded men in plain clothes acting alone or together with police to arrest and detain prodemocracy protesters. In several cases groups of hooded men looted the homes of political opponents immediately after police left the scene. Human rights organizations indicated that delays in the release of prisoners after finishing prison terms led to many cases of arbitrary continuation of a state of arrest. Police also committed irregular arrests and detentions under the guise of investigations into armed opposition groups or other violent crimes in the north-central regions of the country.

Pretrial Detention: Lengthy pretrial detention continued to be a problem. Many opposition leaders and prodemocracy protesters were detained and held with no charges and without following due process. Observers noted that in several instances lengthy pretrial detention was intentional against specific protest leaders. Observers attributed other delays to limited facilities, an overburdened judicial system, judicial inaction, and high crime rates. No information was available on the percentage of the prison population in pretrial detention or the national average length of pretrial detention.

Detainee’s Ability to Challenge Lawfulness of Detention before a Court: While the law provides detainees the ability to challenge the legality of their detention before a court, the government generally did not allow those arrested during protests to challenge in court the lawfulness of their arrests or detentions. In cases of political opponents, judges regularly denied or ignored constitutional protections for detainees, including habeas corpus.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

The law provides for an independent judiciary, but the government did not respect judicial independence and impartiality. The law requires vetting of new judicial appointments by the Supreme Court of Justice, a process dominated by the government. Once appointed, most judges submitted to political pressure and economic inducements for themselves or family members that compromised their independence. The 40 political prisoners arrested between May 28 and November 10 were subjected to closed pretrial hearings without access to their own lawyers or notification of family members. The court arbitrarily assigned public defenders for these detainees. Although the Public Prosecutor’s Office announced these hearings afterwards, details were scarce. These detainees were held incommunicado for up to 80 days without access to independent private legal counsel or to family members. The justice system did not confirm the location of these detainees. The cases of these detainees did not appear in an online system for public access to legal cases. Five FSLN-aligned judges – Henry Morales, Nalia Ubeda, Abelardo Alvir, Karen Chavarria, and Gloria Saavedra – oversaw the pretrial hearings against these detainees. These judges routinely denied writs in favor of the defendants and in some cases denied defendants and their lawyers access to the accusations and other court documents before the hearings. After holding them incommunicado for months, the government permitted most political prisoners to choose their own legal counsel starting in August.

NGOs complained of delayed justice caused by judicial inaction and widespread impunity, especially regarding family and domestic violence and sexual abuse. In cases against political activists, judges at the bidding of the government handed down biased judgments, including adding charges for crimes not presented by the prosecutor’s office. Lawyers for political prisoners reported that judges routinely dismissed defendants’ evidence and accepted prosecutors’ anonymous sources as valid. In many cases trial start times were changed with no information provided to one or both sides of the trial, according to human rights organizations. Authorities occasionally failed to respect court orders.

Trial Procedures

The law provides the right to a fair and public trial. Changes to the law enacted in 2017, however, allow judges to deny jury trials in a wider range of cases, deny bail or house arrest based on unclear rules, and arbitrarily move a case from other judicial districts to Managua, to the disadvantage of defendants, their families, or their counsel. Defendants have the right to be fully and promptly informed of the charges against them and the right to a fair trial, although this was not respected. While the law establishes specific time periods for cases to come to trial, most cases encountered long delays. Trials are public, except in some cases involving minors or at the victim’s request. The law requires defendants must be present at their trial, although this was not always respected.

The hearings for many political prisoners detained between May and September did not conform to legal procedures. The defendants were detained without warrants and were not afforded legal counsel of their choice or access to their family members within 48 hours after their detention or during at least two initial hearings. Their location was not publicly disclosed, judges dismissed or ignored habeas corpus writs in their favor, hearings and trials were closed to the public and held within the detention center, and, when they finally had access to their legal counsel of choice, judicial and prison officials denied lawyers access to their clients and refused to provide lawyers with the court documents before trial, including the charges against their clients.

According to the constitution, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. Observers claimed, however, that the extension of time from 48 hours to up to 90 days that a detainee can be held during a pretrial investigation posed an undue presumption of guilt on defendants. In the case of the political prisoners detained between May and November, Chief of Police Francisco Diaz told official media that police had “enough proof to ensure that these terrorists, these vandals, these coup-mongers face the consequences.” Diaz gave the interview when the defendants were still awaiting trial and before any charges were confirmed. The Public Prosecutor’s Office presented police officers as witnesses in hearings on these charges. In her daily press briefings, Vice President Murillo frequently referred to political prisoners as “terrorists” and “coup-mongers,” although the prisoners were still awaiting trial.

Migration authorities confiscated the passports of at least 30 Nicaraguans at either the international airport or at land border crossings, although the individuals had no formal charges pending against them. Officials provided no explanation other than saying authorities higher up the chain of command had ordered migratory restrictions against the individuals. Some human rights defenders saw this as a de facto presumption of guilt without a formal accusation. The government also prevented a civil society leader from returning to the country, without reason or formal charge against the individual. Under the law defendants have the right to legal counsel, and the state provides public defenders for indigent persons. Defendants have the right to adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, but judges commonly failed to grant counsel’s access to the defendant. In several instances related to prodemocracy protests, defendants were not allowed to name their legal counsel, and the court appointed a public defender, which family members and human rights organizations claimed was detrimental to the defendant’s case. In many cases involving the government’s political opponents, private defense lawyers were barred from meeting with defendants and trial times were set outside of working hours in an effort to force the accused to accept a public defender appointed by a biased judiciary. Additionally, several pretrial hearings took place in detention centers rather than a courtroom, without notifying defendants’ legal counsel. In at least one instance, lawyers who entered the detention center to participate in the trial were threatened by a guard, who wondered aloud whether the lawyers would be allowed to leave the prison after the hearing. At least seven lawyers defending political prisoners were forced to flee the country due to harassment and death threats against them. Although the constitution recognizes indigenous languages, indigenous defendants were not always granted court interpreters or translators. Under the law defendants may confront and question witnesses and have the right to appeal a conviction. Defendants may present their own witnesses and evidence in their defense; however, some judges refused to admit evidence on behalf of the defense. Defendants may not be compelled to testify or confess guilt. Nevertheless, many defendants continued to be interrogated by police and prison guards while their trials were in process.

Women’s rights organizations believed the court system continued to operate under unofficial orders not to impose jail time or pretrial detention in domestic violence cases. The policy reportedly applied only to domestic violence cases that authorities considered mild.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

Human rights NGOs characterized as political prisoners those detained in the context of prodemocracy protests and those detained as part of the government’s crackdown on the political opposition starting in May. The government does not recognize political prisoners as an inmate category and considers all prisoners to be common criminals. According to human rights organizations, the government continued to hold more than 150 political prisoners as of September, with at least 20 of them in solitary confinement.

Political prisoners did not receive appropriate health care, including while suffering COVID-19 symptoms. Several political prisoners were severely undernourished, with no access to sunlight or appropriate health-care services. Some political prisoners were denied access to medicine and medical treatment for chronic illnesses.

Political prisoners were kept together with common criminals. Advocacy groups reported that prison authorities instigated quarrels between the general prison population and political prisoners by blaming political prisoners for any withheld privileges, often resulting in violence. Human rights organizations received several reports of political prisoners being beaten, threatened, held in solitary confinement for weeks, and suffering from poor ventilation and poisoned or contaminated food and water.

The government did not permit access to political prisoners by local human rights groups.

Politically Motivated Reprisal against Individuals Located Outside the Country

Groups of exiles in Costa Rica alleged political persecution by parapolice and FSLN sympathizers who crossed the border to target exiles. Family members of opposition exiles were surveilled and harassed in an attempt to force exiles to return to the country and face arrest. In at least one instance, migration authorities withheld documentation for a minor to exit the country in an effort to force the exiled father to return to Nicaragua and face arrest. The Public Prosecutor’s Office accused three exiled Nicaraguans of conspiring to undermine national integrity.

In October 2020 the National Assembly approved the politically motivated Cybercrimes Law, which establishes the government may use the international extradition system to pursue Nicaraguans abroad who commit so-called cybercrimes.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Individuals and organizations may file suit in civil courts to seek damages for alleged human rights violations, but authorities did not always respect court decisions.

The lack of an effective civil law system resulted in some civil matters being pursued as criminal cases, which were often resolved more quickly. In several instances, individuals and groups appealed to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), which passed their cases to the Inter-American Court of Human Rights. The government regularly dismissed or ignored orders from the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, including orders to protect or release certain political prisoners.

Property Seizure and Restitution

The government regularly failed to take effective action with respect to seizure, restitution, or compensation of private property. These failures were exacerbated by the social upheaval in 2018, in which groups of persons, including members of the FSLN, illegally took over privately owned lands, with implicit and explicit support by municipal and national officials. Some land seizures were politically targeted and directed against specific individuals, such as business owners traditionally considered independent or against the ruling party. In August the government seized the house of independent journalist Patricia Orozco while she was in exile, and police evicted her parents from the house. On September 7, the government revoked a 2008 donation of property to the National Public Accountant’s College. The revocation happened several days after the Public Prosecutor’s Office summoned the coordinator of the college for questioning regarding the government’s politically motivated money laundering case against a foundation run by a presidential precandidate.

The Office of the Attorney General routinely either rejected requests to evict illegal occupants of real property or failed to respond to the requests altogether. National and local police also routinely refused to evict illegal occupants of real property. Police often took no action against violence perpetrated by illegal occupants, while acting swiftly against any use of force by legitimate property owners. The judicial system delayed final decisions on cases against illegal occupants. Members of the judiciary, including those at senior levels, were widely believed to be corrupt or subject to political pressure. When judges issued orders in favor of landowners, enforcement of court orders was frequently subject to nonjudicial considerations. In the face of government inaction, some landowners were forced to pay squatters to leave their real property. As of September nine NGOs still did not have a legal resolution or any type of compensation after the National Assembly annulled their legal status and the government seized their properties in 2018.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits arbitrary or unlawful interference with privacy, family, home, and correspondence. The government, however, failed to respect these prohibitions. In several trials against political opposition members, the Public Prosecutor’s Office presented messages, emails, and documents exchanged through private phones and computers, obtained by police through raids without judicial warrants. FSLN grassroots organizations such as the Citizen Power Councils colluded with parapolice or party loyalists to target the homes of prodemocracy protesters. Without a warrant and under no legal authority, these groups illegally raided homes and detained occupants. Police routinely stationed police vehicles and officers outside the homes of opposition members, harassing visitors and often prohibiting opposition members from leaving their houses. These actions were widespread in large cities, particularly Managua, Matagalpa, Esteli, Masaya, Rivas, Leon, and Jinotega.

The Ministry of Health continued to hold several buildings seized by the Interior Ministry in 2018 from independent television station 100% Noticias and news magazine Confidencial and nine NGOs when it annulled the legal status of the media groups and NGOs. The ministry ordered the seized assets transferred to government ownership to create a Comprehensive Attention and Reparation Fund for the Victims of Terrorism. The government carried out this de facto confiscation without following due process or providing appropriate compensation to the lawful owners. Police again raided the offices and television studio of Confidencial on May 20, acting without a judicial warrant and seizing television equipment, computers, and documents from the news outlet.

Domestic NGOs, Catholic Church representatives, journalists, and opposition members alleged the government monitored their email and telephone conversations. Church representatives also stated their sermons were monitored. As part of a continuing social media campaign against prodemocracy protests, ruling party members and supporters used social media to publish personal information of human rights defenders and civil society members. Progovernment supporters marked the houses of civil society members with derogatory slurs or threats and then published photographs of the marked houses on social media. On several occasions the markings were accompanied by or led to destruction of private property. Although the law prohibits the use of drones, some members of the opposition claimed FSLN supporters used drones to spy on their houses.

Inhabitants in northern towns, particularly in the departments of Nueva Segovia, Jinotega, and Madriz, as well as the RACN and the South Caribbean Autonomous Region (RACS), alleged repeated government interrogations and searches without cause or warrant, related to supposed support for armed groups or prodemocracy protests, while government officials claimed they were confronting common criminals. Several opposition members who were former Contras claimed they were regularly surveilled, stopped, and detained by police for questioning for several hours, usually in connection with alleged contact with rearmed groups or antigovernment protests. The individuals also said progovernment sympathizers verbally threatened them outside their homes and surveilled and defaced their houses.

The ruling party reportedly required citizens to demonstrate party membership to obtain or retain employment in the public sector and have access to public social programs.

Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties

a. Freedom of Expression, Including for Members of the Press and Other Media

The law provides for freedom of expression, including for members of the press and other media, but the government did not respect this right. Restrictions on press freedom, the absence of an independent judiciary, and a nondemocratic political system combined to inhibit freedom of expression, including for members of media. Although the law provides that the right to information may not be subjected to censorship, the government and actors under its control retaliated against the press and radio and television stations by blocking transmissions, impeding the import of ink and paper, and committing violence against journalists. The government sought to control information on the COVID pandemic by restricting news coverage and blocking independent media access to public health briefings, as well as using government-aligned media to publish misinformation.

Freedom of Expression: The government used reprisals and Law 1055 to restrict the ability of individuals to criticize the government. Persons who criticized the government, the ruling party, or its policies were subjected to police and parapolice surveillance, harassment, imprisonment, and abuse. Beginning in May, the government used the law as a pretext to arrest and imprison presidential candidates, independent journalists, civil society members, opposition leaders, NGO workers, student leaders, human rights defenders, farmworker advocates, and private-sector leaders who criticized the government. Progovernment supporters considered the use of the national flag and the national colors of white and blue as acts of defiance and attacked opposition activists flying the flag or national colors.

Freedom of Expression for Members of the Press and Other Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views, albeit mainly through online venues due to the government’s restrictions and intimidation. In June and July, the government arrested five independent journalists, including three presidential precandidates, and the general manager of the country’s largest print daily newspaper on charges of “undermining national integrity.” As of October the general manager and three of the journalists were awaiting trials while in prison, and two journalists remained under house arrest. The Public Prosecutor’s Office summoned at least 32 journalists as part of an investigation into alleged money laundering against the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation, an NGO that supported independent media by offering journalism training programs. In some cases the journalists had received seed funding to pursue new digital startups or other forms of independent journalism. At least 30 journalists fled into exile due to threats or summons from the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which in the case of other independent journalists and political opponents resulted in imprisonment.

Independent media outlets experienced vandalism, seizure of broadcast equipment, cyberattacks, and criminal defamation charges. On August 13, after a public complaint by the newspaper La Prensa that the Customs Office had withheld its paper and printing material for months, police raided the newspaper’s headquarters and detained the general manager, preventing him from accessing legal counsel and detaining him for several weeks without bringing him before a judge. Police held La Prensa journalists and staff for hours inside the newspaper’s offices and allowed progovernment media to enter and film the police raid. Police later announced the raid was part of an investigation into the newspaper for money laundering and tax evasion. La Prensa, the last remaining daily print newspaper with national distribution, moved to online-only content and dismissed half its employees in September because of government persecution.

The government repeatedly denied broadcasting licenses and other permits for independent media. Independent news outlets faced restrictions on speech, such as not being permitted to attend official government events, being denied interviews by government officials, and receiving limited or no direct access to government information. Official media, however, were not similarly restricted. The government published false COVID-19 data that minimized the spread of the illness in the country. International reports and unpublished official documents showed the government intentionally misled the public about the severity of the pandemic to avoid an economic downturn.

Independent media faced official and unofficial restrictions, reprisals, and harassment, but they were nonetheless successful in expressing a variety of views. Journalists from many stations were threatened and harassed with the purpose of limiting their editorial independence. According to a September report by the Violeta Barrios de Chamorro foundation titled Assault on Independent Press in Nicaragua between December 2020 and June 2021, there were 1,176 assaults on journalists while they performed their duties. Of those, 426 assaults were perpetrated against female journalists and included sexual violence and threats of rape.

Significant state influence, ownership, and control over the majority of media outlets continued. National television was largely controlled either by business associates of the president or directly owned and administered by his family members. Eight of the 10 basic channels available were under direct FSLN influence or owned and controlled by persons with close ties to the government. Media stations owned by the presidential family generally limited news programming and served as outlets for progovernment or FSLN propaganda and campaign advertisements. On June 30, the governing authority for telecommunications published a decree obliging all private cable stations to lock in their broadcasts to official television and radio for emergency or special interest messaging. This decree compounded the already established obligation for open-air television and radio stations to do the same. This obligation was enforced every time the president participated in a public event, even when it was a political party event. Press and human rights organizations claimed the use of state funds for official media, as well as biased distribution of government advertising dollars, placed independent outlets at an extreme disadvantage.

Violence and Harassment: Journalists were subject to government violence, harassment, and death threats. Four journalists remained in prison: three after they indicated they would run as presidential candidates and one for expressing his views on social media. Two others remained under house arrest. Since May more than 30 journalists fled into exile with pending accusations against them from the Public Prosecutor’s Office. At least 90 journalists had already fled following the government’s crackdown on protesters in 2018. The Ministry of Health took possession of offices belonging to television station 100% Noticias and news magazine Confidencial, which had been closed and under police custody since a 2018 raid of those facilities.

Censorship or Content Restrictions: The government continued to arbitrarily penalize those who published items counter to the ruling party’s ideology. The government restricted access to public events, obligated independent press to use official media to cover presidential activities, and actively used troll farms to amplify its own messaging or attack independent media websites. In November, Meta (Facebook’s parent company) announced the removal of troll farms operated by the government, implicating the telecommunications regulator TELCOR, the Supreme Court of Justice, and the Social Security Institute.

Restrictions in acquiring broadcast licenses and equipment prevented media from operating freely. Beginning in 2008, media outlets were unable to apply for new broadcasting licenses while the General Law (Law 200) on Telecommunications was under review in the National Assembly. The government extended the validity of existing licenses indefinitely. Human rights groups and independent media also reported that the failure to approve or deny Law 200 resulted in uncertainty surrounding the purchase and import of goods related to broadcasting. As a result, independent radio owners continued to defer long-term investments.

Some independent-media owners also alleged the government exerted pressure on private firms to limit advertising in independent media, although other observers believed the lack of advertising was the result of self-censorship by private companies or a business decision based on circulation numbers. Many journalists practiced self-censorship, fearing economic and physical repercussions for investigative reporting on crime or official corruption. In addition media outlet owners exercised self-censorship by choosing not to publish news that affected public perceptions of the government or the FSLN.

Libel/Slander Laws: In February FSLN-aligned judge Jose Ernesto Martinez found journalist David Quintana guilty on trumped-up slander charges after Quintana was accused by a staff member of an official television station in 2020. Another FSLN-aligned judge, Fatima Rosales, denied Quintana’s request for appeal in April. In June a judge denied an appeal on behalf of independent radio station director Kalua Salazar in a slander case brought against Salazar by FSLN municipal workers. Slander and libel are both punishable by fines ranging from 120 to 300 times the minimum daily wage.

National Security: Human rights NGOs and civil society organizations argued the Sovereign Security Law exemplified the government’s failure to respect civil liberties. Although not cited in specific cases, the law applies to “any other factor that creates danger to the security of the people, life, family, and community, as well as the supreme interests of the Nicaraguan nation.” The government used and threatened further use of the Cybercrimes Law, which includes as online crimes social media posts deemed dangerous by the regime and grants law enforcement access to information systems and other data. On September 7, the Public Prosecutor’s Office accused indigenous rights activist Amaru Ruiz of cybercrimes after he reported extensively on social media about the killing of 13 indigenous persons by individuals suspected by human rights groups to have ties to the government. Penalties for online crimes include prison time and hefty fines, disproportionate to the crimes as broadly defined by the law.

A police regulation restricts criticism of government policies and officials under the guise of protecting national security.

b. Freedoms of Peaceful Assembly and Association

The government restricted freedoms of peaceful assembly and association.

Freedom of Peaceful Assembly

The government did not respect the legal right to public assembly, demonstration, and mobilization. Prodemocracy marches and protests continued to be banned during the year. Police and parapolice actively persecuted, harassed, and occasionally impeded private meetings of NGOs, civil society groups, and opposition political organizations. Police failed to protect peaceful protesters from attacks; they also committed attacks and provided logistical support to other attackers. Human rights organizations reported police stopped traffic for and otherwise protected progovernment demonstrations.

Police routinely surrounded, surveilled, and threatened meetings of political parties and civil society organizations. Police entered private meeting spaces to disrupt gatherings of opposition parties and civil society organizations.

Freedom of Association

The law provides for freedom of association, including the right to organize or affiliate with political parties; nevertheless, the Supreme Electoral Council and National Assembly used their accreditation powers for political purposes. National Assembly accreditation is mandatory for NGOs to receive funding, have bank accounts, or legally employ workers. The Ministry of the Interior has oversight of regulatory compliance by NGOs and provides certificates. Many NGOs that worked on topics of democracy, human rights, and women’s issues complained the ministry purposefully withheld certification to hinder their work and access to funding.

Beginning in February, the government began enforcing the 2020 Foreign Agents Law with far-reaching implications for entities and employees of entities receiving funding from outside the country. The law requires anyone receiving funding from foreign sources to register with the Ministry of the Interior and provide monthly, detailed accounts of how funds are intended to be used. Additionally, NGOs need to present their legal accreditation, subject to annual renewal by the ministry. Many NGOs complained that the ministry purposefully withheld or delayed this accreditation, which led to the loss of their legal status. Individuals who register as foreign agents cannot participate in internal politics or run for elected positions for up to one year after being removed from the registry. Failure to register can lead to fines, judicial freezing of assets, and the loss of legal status for associations or NGOs. The Violeta Barrios de Chamorro Foundation decided to close before the deadline to register to avoid being labeled a foreign agent. The government, through the Public Prosecutor’s Office, accused the NGO, its staff, and the beneficiaries of its grants of money laundering. Up to 142 individuals, including vendors, consultants, staff, and 32 journalists, were summoned for the investigation. Some NGO staff remained imprisoned during the government’s 90-day investigation period. In June the government placed Cristiana Chamorro, the foundation’s former executive director and a leading opposition presidential precandidate, under house arrest on related accusations of money laundering.

c. Freedom of Religion

See the Department of State’s International Religious Freedom Report at https://www.state.gov/religiousfreedomreport/.

d. Freedom of Movement and the Right to Leave the Country

The law provides for freedom of internal movement, foreign travel, emigration, and repatriation, but the government did not always respect these rights. On July 16, the government denied Lesther Javier Aleman entry to the country despite being a Nicaraguan citizen and showing a valid Nicaraguan passport. Aleman was ordered to fly out of the country the same day. Aleman was the father of student leader Lesther Aleman Alfaro, who was arrested on July 6 in a crackdown on the opposition. The government strictly controlled the entry of persons affiliated with some groups, specifically humanitarian and faith-based organizations. The government may prevent the departure of travelers with pending legal cases; the government used this authority against individuals involved in the political opposition and media who had not been charged with any crimes. The law requires exit visas for minors.

In-country Movement: Police consistently restricted the travel of opposition members to cities other than their hometown. In many cases police restricted the movement of political opponents outside their homes, although these individuals did not have pending charges against them or judicially imposed restrictions on their movement.

Foreign Travel: Migration authorities confiscated the passports of at least 15 Nicaraguans who were trying to leave the country. Authorities told the individuals that migration restrictions had been levied on them, although the individuals had no formal accusations or charges against them.

Citizenship: On August 6, the ruling FSLN party used its control over government agencies to revoke the Nicaraguan nationality of opposition leader Carmella Rogers Amburn (also known as Kitty Monterrey) without due process. The ruling party, however, issued citizenship to ideologically aligned foreigners fleeing corruption charges in their countries, such as former Salvadoran president Salvador Sanchez Ceren and several of his close family members, bypassing the law and procedures.

e. Status and Treatment of Internally Displaced Persons

According to contacts and local media, hundreds of participants in the 2018 prodemocracy protests and others who ran afoul of the Ortega regime remained in hiding to evade government persecution, including arbitrary arrest, detention, and torture. These individuals reported being unable to find work or study due to fear of government reprisals. As the root cause of this forced displacement, the government did not promote the safe, voluntary, dignified return, resettlement, or local integration of internally displaced persons. The government does not have policies and protections for internally displaced persons in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

f. Protection of Refugees

The government does not cooperate with the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations in providing protection and assistance to refugees, returning refugees, asylum seekers, stateless persons, and other persons of concern. The government has not provided updated information on refugees or asylum seekers since 2015.

Access to Asylum: The law provides for the granting of asylum or refugee status, and the government has established a system for providing protection to refugees. Only the executive branch or the country’s embassies abroad may grant asylum for political persecution. The Nicaraguan National Commission for Refugees has not met since 2015.

Durable Solutions: The government recognized 61 persons as refugees in 2015, the most recent year for which information was available. By year’s end partner agencies estimated there were more than 1,300 refugees or persons in refugee-like situations in the country.

g. Stateless Persons

Registration of births in rural areas was difficult due to structural constraints, and the government took no measures to address this, resulting in a number of de facto stateless persons in the country (see section 6, Children).

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

While the law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections based on universal and equal suffrage and conducted by secret ballot, the government restricted freedom of expression, peaceful assembly, and association. Institutional fraud, among other obstacles, precluded opportunities for meaningful choice.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In November President Ortega awarded himself a fourth term in office following a deeply flawed electoral process characterized by historically low voter turnout. Ortega and his FSLN party cancelled the legal registration of all credible opposition political parties, jailed opposition presidential candidates on spurious charges, and committed blatant electoral fraud. Independent observer groups and international organizations characterized the electoral process as not credible. The government did not allow credible, independent electoral observers into the country. The 2021 elections expanded the ruling party’s supermajority in the National Assembly, which previously allowed for changes in the constitution that extended the reach of executive branch power and the elimination of restrictions on re-election for executive branch officials and mayors. On November 12, a total of 25 member states of the Organization of American States (OAS) voted in favor of a resolution declaring the elections were “not free, fair or transparent, and lack democratic legitimacy.”

The 2019 Caribbean regional and 2017 municipal elections were marred by widespread institutional fraud and heavy security force presence.

Civil society groups expressed concerns over the lack of a transparent and fair electoral process leading up to the 2021 national elections, the 2019 Caribbean regional elections, and the 2017 municipal elections. Electoral experts, business leaders, representatives of the Catholic Church, and civil society organizations reported that a lack of accredited domestic or international observation, in addition to the ruling party’s control over all aspects of the official electoral structure and all branches of government, combined to impede holding free and fair elections.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The Supreme Electoral Council (CSE) announced on May 18 that it had cancelled the legal status of the opposition Democratic Restoration Party. On May 19, the CSE announced it cancelled the legal status the Conservative Party. On August 6, the CSE revoked the legal status of a third opposition party, Citizens for Liberty. The remaining political parties were controlled by the Ortega regime, paving the way for Ortega to run unopposed in the November elections. In 2020 the National Assembly passed a law that bars anyone from running for office whom the government designated as a “traitor,” defining the term so broadly that it could be applied to anyone who expressed opposition to the ruling party. In June the ruling party used this law to jail at least six individuals who had signaled they would run as opposition presidential candidates.

The government used state resources for political activities to enhance the FSLN’s electoral advantage in recent elections. Independent media, human rights groups, and opposition parties reported the government used public funds to provide subsidized food, housing, vaccinations, access to clinics, and other benefits directly through either FSLN-led “family cabinets” (community-based bodies that administer government social programs) or party-controlled Sandinista leadership committee (CLS) systems, which reportedly coerced citizens into FSLN membership while denying services to opposition members. The regime also made party membership mandatory for an increasing number of public-sector employees. Observers noted government employees continued to be pressured into affiliating with the FSLN and participating in party activities. During the year the government pressured public servants to participate in mass public gatherings including sports events, political rallies, and marches despite the dangers of spreading COVID-19 via mass gatherings.

The FSLN also used its authority to decide who could obtain national identity cards. Persons seeking to obtain or retain public-sector employment, national identity documents, or voter registration were obliged to obtain recommendation letters from CLS block captains. Those without identity cards were unable to vote and had difficulty participating in the legal economy or conducting bank transactions. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership. Civil society organizations continued to express concern about the politicized distribution of identity cards, alleging this was one way the FSLN manipulated past elections and that the CSE failed to provide identity cards to opposition members while widely distributing them to party loyalists.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups, including persons with disabilities; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and intersex (LGBTQI+) persons; and indigenous persons, in the political process, and they did participate, although observers noted most women in elected positions at the municipal and national levels held limited power or influence in their respective bodies.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, although the government did not implement the law effectively. There were numerous reports of government corruption during the year, including in the police force, the CSE, the Supreme Court, customs and tax authorities, and other government organs. The Supreme Court and lower-level courts remained particularly susceptible to bribes, manipulation, and political influence, especially by the FSLN. Companies reported that bribery of public officials, unlawful seizures, and arbitrary assessments by customs and tax authorities were common. Municipal governments and regional governments of the Caribbean Coast were also plagued by corruption. The Managua municipal government reportedly engaged in corrupt practices related to infrastructure projects.

A general state of permissiveness hindered the possibility of addressing the problem effectively. A lack of strong institutions, a weak system of checks and balances, and the regime’s absolute control of government institutions allowed for corruption to continue with impunity.

Corruption: The Office of the Comptroller, responsible for combating corruption within government agencies and offices, did not carry out a complete verification of the government’s full financial statements. For example, the comptroller maintained that Albanisa, a private company controlled by regime insiders that imported and sold Venezuelan petroleum products, as well as associated revenue under the Venezuela oil cooperation agreement, was not subject to audit because the National Assembly did not approve the agreement. The Financial Analysis Unit did not fully implement its mandate in prosecuting money laundering of government officials and focused on investigating President Ortega’s political opposition.

Executive branch officials continued to be involved in businesses financed by economic and developmental assistance funds lent by the Venezuelan-led Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), all of it outside the normal budgetary process controlled by the legislature. This included the Nicaraguan Electric Transmission Enterprise, which funneled ALBA funding and other oil-based assistance into privately owned businesses. Media reported that companies linked to previous ALBA-funded contracts and with links to the president’s family were tightly controlled by members of Ortega’s inner circle, with little public oversight. Cases of mismanagement of these funds by public officials were reportedly handled personally by FSLN members and President Ortega’s immediate family, rather than by the government entities in charge of public funds.

Section 5. Governmental Posture Towards International and Nongovernmental Investigation of Alleged Abuses of Human Rights

The government imposed significant and increasing burdens on the limited number of human rights organizations it allowed to operate in the country. The Nicaraguan Center for Human Rights remained deprived of its legal status, hindering its ability to investigate human rights abuses. The Nicaraguan Pro-Human Rights Association continued to operate from exile in Costa Rica and focused more on the Nicaraguan exile community. Other human rights organizations faced significant harassment and police surveillance. Humanitarian organizations faced obstacles to operating or denial of entry, and government officials harassed and intimidated domestic and international NGOs critical of the government or the FSLN. Some NGOs reported government intimidation created a climate of fear intended to suppress criticism.

The government continued to prevent non-FSLN-affiliated NGOs and civil society groups from participating in government social programs, such as Programa Amor, which provides social protections to children and adolescents, and Hambre Cero, a program that distributes livestock for smallholder production. The government frequently used FSLN-controlled family cabinets and party-controlled CLSs to administer these programs. Government programs purportedly created to provide support for victims of the violence since 2018 benefited only FSLN party members. Increased government restrictions on domestic NGOs’ ability to receive funding directly from international donors seriously hindered the NGOs’ ability to operate. In addition, increased control over the entry of foreign visitors or volunteer groups into the country hindered the work of humanitarian groups and human rights NGOs. The Swedish NGO We Effect discontinued its activities in the country in December after 30 years of humanitarian aid work, citing difficulties in complying with the foreign agents law. Some groups reported difficulties in moving donated goods through customs and said government officials were rarely cooperative or responsive to their complaints.

Several domestic NGOs reported that the Ministry of the Interior purposefully denied receipt of their compliance documentation and withheld or unduly delayed providing certifications in order to revoke the legal status of NGOs. NGOs under government investigation reported problems accessing the justice system and delays in filing petitions, as well as pressure from state authorities. Many NGOs believed comptroller and tax authorities audited their accounts as a means of intimidation. While legally permitted, spot audits were a common form of harassment and often used selectively, according to NGOs. NGOs reported difficulties in scheduling meetings with authorities and in receiving official information due to a growing culture of secrecy. Local NGOs reported having to channel requests for meetings with ministry officials and for public information through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These requests were generally not processed. NGOs also reported government hostility or aggression when questioning or speaking with officials on subjects such as corruption and the rule of law. Groups opposing the construction of a proposed interoceanic canal also reported being harassed and placed under surveillance. Three members of the Farmworker’s Movement opposing the canal were arrested, including a presidential precandidate, and many more fled into exile.

The government enforced the law that requires any citizen working for “governments, companies, foundations, or foreign organizations” to register with the Interior Ministry, report monthly their income and spending, and provide prior notice of how the foreign funds are intended to be spent. The law establishes sanctions for those who do not register.

The United Nations or Other International Bodies: The government did not allow the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) or IACHR to send working groups to monitor the human rights situation in the country. The government did not cooperate with these groups, as noted in OHCHR and IACHR reports.

The government continued to block the entrance of the OAS high-level commission to help resolve the country’s sociopolitical crisis. The government did not send a representative to any of the 2021 IACHR sessions. The attorney general participated in a May IACHR hearing on protective measures awarded to the human rights NGO CENIDH. The attorney general rejected any claims of wrongdoing and stated the government was acting according to its laws. In several instances progovernment supporters detained or harassed protesters protected by IACHR precautionary measures.

Government Human Rights Bodies: The Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights, led since 2019 by Darling Rios, a sociologist with no previous human rights experience, and Adolfo Jarquin, also with no previous human rights experience, was perceived as politicized and ineffective. In 2019 the UN Human Rights Council demoted the Office of the Ombudsman for Human Rights from category A to B for its lack of independence.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence: The law criminalizes all forms of rape of men or women, regardless of the relationship between the victim and the accused. Sentences for those convicted of rape range from eight to 12 years’ imprisonment. The law criminalizes domestic violence and provides prison sentences ranging from one to 12 years.

The government failed to enforce rape and domestic violence laws, leading to widespread impunity and reports of increased violence from released offenders emboldened by their release. The NGO Catholics for the Rights to Decide reported that there were 46 femicides as of July, most of them committed after the victims suffered sexual violence. The government continued to use FSLN-led family cabinets and CLSs in mediation processes in cases of domestic violence. Both processes were politicized and did not operate according to the rule of law. The government employed limited public education, shelters, hotlines, psychosocial services, and police training in nominal and unsuccessful attempts to address the problem.

Observers reported a general increase in sexual crimes and violence against women during the year; however, data were unreliable. NGOs working on women’s issues reported that violence against women remained high and that police generally understated its severity. The government did not coordinate with women’s rights NGOs and actively blocked their operations and access to funding.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment, and those convicted face one- to three-year sentences in prison, or three to five years if the victim is younger than 18. No information was available on government efforts to prevent or prosecute complaints of sexual harassment.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

While there were no cultural barriers that adversely affected women’s access to health-care services, rural women’s access to health care during pregnancy and childbirth was hindered by long distances to appropriate health-care facilities in scarcely populated areas with poor transportation infrastructure. Women in some areas, such as the RACN and the RACS, lacked widespread access to medical care or programs, and maternal death affected poor rural women more than their urban counterparts. This also affected indigenous and Afro-descendant women in the RACN and the RACS more than nonindigenous women in other regions. In addition, adolescents often faced social stigma when seeking contraception methods.

The government provided limited access to sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence. The Ministry of Health had a standing protocol for the provision of health services to survivors of sexual violence, which included the provision of emergency contraception within five days of the assault as well as treatment of HIV or sexually transmitted diseases. Women’s rights organizations, however, claimed the Ministry of Health did not always provide this treatment due to fear of subverting the government’s strict prolife policy, directed by the president and vice president. While no legal barriers impede adolescent girls’ access to education due to pregnancy or motherhood, economic hardships and a lack of social safety nets to protect young mothers often impeded continued education for pregnant girls or young mothers.

Discrimination: The law provides for gender equality in access to education, labor rights, and civil rights. Nevertheless, women often experienced discrimination in employment, obtaining credit, and receiving equal pay for similar work, as well as in owning and managing businesses. While the government enforced the law effectively in the public sector, women in positions of power faced limitations, and their authority was limited compared with that of men. For example, despite a law that requires equal participation of men and women in elected positions, male political party leaders often made decisions on public policy without internal debate or input from female political leaders. Enforcement was not effective in the private sector or the larger informal sector.

Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination

Exclusionary treatment based on race, skin color, and ethnicity was common, especially in higher-income urban areas. Darker-skinned persons of African descent from the RACN and the RACS, along with others assumed to be from those areas, experienced discrimination, such as being subjected to extra security measures and illegal searches by police. Indigenous and other ethnic groups from the RACN and the RACS alleged that discriminatory attitudes toward ethnic and racial minorities were responsible for the lack of government resources devoted to those regions. The government focused attention and resources on maintaining political control over decision-making bodies in the regions where most indigenous groups lived.

Indigenous Peoples

Indigenous persons constituted approximately 5 percent of the population and lived primarily in the RACN and the RACS. Despite having autonomous governing bodies, decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, or the exploitation of energy, minerals, timber, and other natural resources on their lands were largely made or approved by national government authorities or by FSLN representatives. Individuals from five major indigenous groups – the Miskito, Sumo/Mayangna, Garifuna (of Afro-Amerindian origin), Creole, and Rama – the alleged government discrimination through underrepresentation in the legislative branch.

NGOs and indigenous rights groups denounced the increasing number of killings of indigenous persons at the hands of nonindigenous populations encroaching on their lands in the RACN and the RACS, and they claimed the government failed to protect the civil and political rights of indigenous communities. In August armed gold miners attacked an artisanal gold mining site and killed up to 13 indigenous persons in an effort to drive indigenous populations away from the site. The attack occurred in the Sauni As territory in the Bosawas protected biosphere. During the raid the attackers also raped two women and dismembered some of the bodies of their victims. Police announced the arrests of three of 14 individuals accused of the crime, but many observers doubted the government’s narrative, particularly because those arrested were indigenous persons, including a sibling of one of the rape victims. Some observers alleged government and FSLN involvement in the violence against Miskito populations in the RACN along the Coco River, either by failing to defend indigenous populations or as accomplices to nonindigenous groups invading indigenous lands. Indigenous groups continued to complain of rights violations in connection with government plans to build an interoceanic canal through their territory.

Indigenous persons from rural areas often lacked birth certificates, identity cards, and land titles. While the government did not deny these rights if requested, it favored FSLN party members over other constituents. Additionally, indigenous groups alleged the government provided identity cards to outsiders who encroached on indigenous lands in the RACS and the RACN, leading to overrepresentation of FSLN-aligned, nonindigenous persons in regional governing bodies. Most indigenous individuals in rural areas lacked access to public services, and deteriorating roads hindered access to health care for many.

Indigenous women faced multiple levels of discrimination based on their ethnicity, gender, and lower economic status. For example, indigenous women do not receive medical attention, education, police protection, or representation in government at the same level as nonindigenous women.

Throughout the year indigenous leaders alleged that regional and national governments granted logging and mining concessions to private firms and to government-affiliated businesses, such as ALBA-Forestal, without adequate consultation of the indigenous community, and that logging and mining continued in violation of national autonomy laws in the RACS and the RACN.

Children

Birth Registration: Citizenship is derived by birth within the country’s territory and from one’s parents. Local civil registries register births within 12 months, although many persons, especially in rural areas, lacked birth certificates. Registration in rural areas was difficult due to structural constraints, and the government took no measures to address this, resulting in a growing number of de facto stateless persons in the country. Persons without citizenship documents were unable to obtain national identity cards and consequently could not vote and had difficulty participating in the legal economy and conducting bank transactions. Such persons also were subject to restrictions in employment, access to courts, and land ownership.

Child Abuse: According to the criminal code, prison sentences for rape committed against minors range from 12 to 15 years and for child abuse from seven to 12 years. Government efforts were insufficient to combat child abuse and sexual violence against minors. High rates of sexual violence against teenage girls contributed to high rates of teenage pregnancy, according to UNICEF.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18 for men and women, or 16 with parental authorization. There were credible reports of forced early marriages in some rural indigenous communities. UNICEF’s 2019 State of the World’s Children, the most recent data available, reported 35 percent of women 20 to 24 years of age were married or in a union by age 18, and 10 percent were married by age 15. No information was available on government efforts to address or prevent forced and early marriage.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits sexual exploitation in general and designates enticing children or adolescents to engage in sexual activity as an aggravating condition. The government generally did not enforce the law pertaining to child sex trafficking. Penalties include 10 to 15 years in prison for a person who entices or forces any individual to engage in sexual activity and 19 to 20 years in prison for the same acts involving children or adolescents. The law defines statutory rape as sexual relations with children ages 14 or younger.

The law also prohibits child pornography, and the government generally enforced it. The penalty for inducing, facilitating, promoting, or using a minor for sexual or erotic purposes is 10 to 15 years in prison.

The country was a destination for child sex tourism. The law imposes a penalty of five to seven years in prison for those convicted of child-sex tourism.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Parental Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

The country has a very small Jewish population. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

The law requires persons with disabilities to have access to education, health services, public buildings, and transportation, although this did not occur in practice. Persons with disabilities faced severe problems accessing schools, public health facilities, and other institutions. with disabilities attended schools with nondisabled peers; specialized school materials were not readily available and on occasion were blocked by the Ministry of Education. Anecdotal evidence suggested that children with disabilities completed secondary education at a significantly lower rate than other children. Public schools were rarely well equipped, and teachers were poorly trained in providing appropriate attention to children with disabilities. Police stations and public health-care facilities did not have staff trained in sign language, making persons with hearing disabilities dependent on caretakers. Many voting facilities were not accessible. Advocates for persons with disabilities complained of a lack of accessible public transportation. Some persons with disabilities reported taxi drivers often refused them service due to the perceived extra burden on the driver to aid customers with disabilities. Advocates for persons with disabilities claimed interpreters for the deaf were not accessible at schools and universities, making it difficult for these persons to obtain education. Government clinics and hospitals provided care for veterans and other persons with disabilities, but the quality of care was generally poor.

Discrimination against persons with physical, sensory, intellectual, and mental disabilities was widespread, despite being prohibited by law. Laws related to persons with disabilities do not stipulate penalties for noncompliance, although penalties may be issued under the general labor inspection code. The Ministry of the Family, Ministry of Labor, and Human Rights Office are among government agencies responsible for the protection and advancement of rights of persons with disabilities. The government did not enforce the law effectively; did not mandate accessibility to buildings, information, and communications; and did not make information available on efforts to improve respect for the rights of persons with disabilities. Advocacy organizations for persons with disabilities reported persons with disabilities accounted for less than 1 percent of public-sector employees, despite the legally mandated minimum representation of 2 percent. Further reports indicated public institutions did not sufficiently coordinate with the Labor Ministry to accommodate persons with disabilities in the workplace. While there were no official reports of violence, harassment or intimidation against persons with disabilities by government officials, there were several anecdotal reports of violence and harassment. These incidents generally went unreported mainly because victims did not want to face the burdensome process of filing a complaint.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law provides specific protections for persons with HIV or AIDS against discrimination in employment and health services, but such persons continued to suffer societal discrimination. An administrative resolution issued by the Ministry of Health continued in effect, declaring that HIV/AIDS patients should not suffer discrimination and making available a complaints office.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

LGBTQI+ groups reported discrimination, a lack of access to justice, and a lack of response from police. The government and FSLN supporters frequently targeted LGBTQI+ participants in civil protests in particular, using online smear campaigns and physical attacks in some cases. LGBTQI+ opposition members were particularly targeted with sexual violence by police, parapolice, and progovernment supporters. The Observatory for Human Rights Violations Against LGBTQI+ Persons stated there were 43 attacks against LGBTQI+ in the first six months of the year, one-half against transgender women. LGBTQI+ activists said LGBTQI+ political prisoners hid their orientation, fearing increased abuse from prison guards. Reliable data on the breadth of such discrimination were not available. No specific laws exist to punish hate crimes against LGBTQI+ persons.

Transgender women detained for participating in prodemocracy protests were particularly harassed while in custody. They were held with male inmates, forced to strip in front of their peers, and specifically harangued by guards. The law does not recognize the right to gender identity self-determination, and as such the penitentiary system is not required to separate inmates based on gender identity. Celia Cruz, a political prisoner and transgender woman, was given amnesty and released in April, although her trial continued and an appeals court ratified her guilty sentence in June.

Although it does not mention sexual orientation and gender identity specifically, the law states all persons are equal before the law and provides for the right to equal protection. No laws specifically criminalize consensual same-sex sexual conduct between adults. LGBTQI+ persons, however, continued to face widespread societal discrimination and abuse, particularly in housing, education, and employment. LGBTQI+ organizations continued to complain the law curtailed the rights of LGBTQI+ households by defining families as necessarily headed by a man and a woman; this definition particularly affected LGBTQI+ households’ access to social security, survivor benefits, and adoption rights.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for the right of all workers in the public and private sectors, except for those in the military and police, to form and join independent unions of their choice without prior authorization and to bargain collectively. The government’s control of all major unions effectively nullified those rights. The ruling party used its control over major unions to harass and intimidate workers in several sectors, including education, health care, the public sector, and free trade zones. The constitution recognizes the right to strike, although it places some restrictions. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination but does not provide for measures to protect against rights violation. Burdensome and lengthy conciliation procedures and government control of all major unions impeded workers’ ability to call strikes. In smaller businesses where major unions were not present, the government created parallel labor unions to confuse and diffuse efforts to organize strikes or other labor actions. In addition, if a strike continues for 30 days without resolution, the Ministry of Labor may suspend the strike and submit the matter to arbitration.

Collective bargaining agreements last up to two years and are automatically renewed if neither party requests its revision. Collective bargaining agreements in the free trade zone regions, however, are for five-year periods. Companies in disputes with their employees must negotiate with the employees’ union if one exists. By law several unions may coexist at any one enterprise, and the law permits management to sign separate collective bargaining agreements with each union.

The government sought to foster resolution of labor conflicts through informal negotiations rather than formal administrative or judicial processes. The law does not establish specific fines for labor law violations, and penalties were commensurate with those for other laws involving denials of civil rights, such as discrimination. Although the law establishes a labor court arbitration process, it was subject to long wait times and lengthy and complicated procedures, and many labor disputes were resolved out of court.

Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were not respected, and the government often intervened for political reasons. The government did not effectively enforce the laws. Most labor unions were historically allied with political parties, but in recent years the government reportedly dissolved unions and fired workers not associated with the ruling FSLN. Independent labor experts reported the Ministry of Labor denied or unduly delayed providing legal recognition to unions that were not aligned with the FSLN.

Politically motivated firings continued to be a problem. Most of the doctors and university staff from the public sector fired for political reasons since 2018 had not received severance pay as of September. Labor experts highlighted similar instances of public-sector employees being fired without receiving severance pay. FSLN party affiliation or letters of recommendation from party secretaries, family cabinet coordinators, or other party officials were allegedly required from applicants seeking public-sector jobs.

The government restricted the organizing of trade unions and teachers perceived to be in opposition to the government.

There were no known documented instances of strikes being declared illegal. Under the law, during a strike employers may not hire replacement workers, but unions alleged this practice was common. Wildcat strikes – those without union authorization – were historically common.

Employers interfered in the functioning of workers’ organizations and committed other violations related to freedom of association and collective bargaining. Labor leaders noted employers routinely violated collective bargaining agreements and labor laws with impunity.

Official union federations were accused of protecting employer interests by identifying and isolating workers who attempted to organize as well as frustrating such attempts through arbitrary procedural barriers that delay approval processes. Federations also permitted illegal firings of workers who tried to organize themselves; the workers faced retaliation and permanent exclusion from jobs in the free trade zones.

Many employers in the formal sector continued to blacklist or fire union members and did not reinstate them. Many of these cases did not reach the court system or a mediation process led by the Ministry of Labor. Employers often delayed severance payments to fired workers or omitted the payments altogether. Employers also avoided legal penalties by organizing employer-led unions lacking independence and by frequently using contract workers to replace striking employees. There were reports FSLN party dues were automatically deducted from paychecks.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

The law prohibits all forms of forced or compulsory labor. There was no information available regarding government enforcement of these laws. Penalties were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping. Despite reported political will to combat human trafficking, including labor trafficking, during the year the government did not take sufficient action to address the scope of the problem and provided only limited information about its law enforcement efforts.

Observers noted reports of forced labor, including of men, women, and children in agriculture, construction, mining, street begging, and domestic servitude. Victim identification, prosecution, and conviction remained inadequate, and victims’ family members were often complicit in their exploitation. Traffickers lured residents of rural or border regions with the promise of high-paying jobs in urban and tourist areas but then subjected them to sexual exploitation and forced labor.

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits the worst forms of child labor. The law establishes the minimum age for employment at 14 and limits the workday for any individual between ages of 14 and 18 to six hours and the workweek to 30 hours. Those between 14 and 16 must have parental approval to work or enter into a formal labor contract. The law prohibits teenage domestic workers from sleeping in the houses of their employers. It is illegal for minors to work in places the Ministry of Labor considers harmful to their health or safety, such as mines, garbage dumps, and night entertainment venues, and to undertake certain agricultural work. The government mostly enforced the law in the formal sector, but enforcement was insufficient in the much larger informal sector, where child labor was more prevalent. Legal penalties for persons employing children in dangerous work were commensurate with those for other analogous serious crimes, such as kidnapping.

The government used limited resources to concentrate on child labor violations in select sectors in narrow geographic areas, such as coffee-growing regions, and gave only limited attention to the large informal sector. The government reported having separated nine children from work between January 2019 and the first semester of 2020.

The government signed thousands of cooperative agreements with employers to prevent the hiring of minors and continued Programa Amor, which aimed to eradicate child labor by reintegrating abandoned children into society. Information on the program’s activities, funding, and effectiveness was unavailable, but independent observers deemed it insufficient.

Laws to eliminate child labor were not fully implemented and lacked a consistent mechanism to coordinate efforts to address child labor. The government also divested resources from child labor prevention. Attendance in secondary schools remained much lower than in primary schools, increasing the risk of older children engaging in exploitative labor. The country made minimal advancement in efforts to eliminate the worst forms of child labor.

Fifteen percent of children lacked birth certificates, which increased their risk for human trafficking, including for the purposes of commercial sexual exploitation.

Child labor remained widespread. According to organizations that worked on children’s rights, this likely increased to almost 320,000 children working in some form of child labor. A common feature of child labor was the prevalence of unpaid family work, and the National Institute of Development Information stated 80 percent of children and adolescents were unpaid workers.

Children engaged in the worst forms of child labor, including in commercial sexual exploitation (see section 6). Most child labor occurred in forestry, fishing, and the informal sector, including on coffee plantations and subsistence farms. Child labor also occurred in the production of dairy products, oranges, bananas, tobacco, palm products, coffee, rice, and sugarcane; cattle raising; street sales; garbage-dump scavenging; stone crushing; gold mining and quarrying of pumice and limestone; construction; marijuana and other drug production and trafficking; street performing; domestic work; and transport. Persons with disabilities and children were subjected to forced begging, particularly in Managua and near tourist centers.

Children working in agriculture suffered from sun exposure, extreme temperatures, and dangerous pesticides and other chemicals. Children working in the fishing industry were at risk from polluted water and dangerous ocean conditions.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law and regulations prohibit discrimination regarding race, sex, gender, disability, language, sexual orientation or gender identity, HIV or other communicable disease status, or social status. The government did not deter such discrimination because it did not effectively enforce the law and regulations. Penalties for violations were commensurate with laws related to civil rights, such as election interference.

Discrimination in employment took many forms. Although women generally had equal access to employment, few women had senior positions in business and worked in the informal sector in higher numbers than men; in the public sector or in elected positions, an autocratic ruling political party limited women’s independence and influence. In addition, women’s wages were generally lower when compared with those of male counterparts, even for the same position and work performed. Workplace challenges for persons with disabilities included inadequate infrastructure, lack of educational opportunities, and a generally low rate of public-services positions, despite a legal requirement that a certain percentage be available to them. LGBTQI+ organizations reported that sexual orientation and gender identity continued to be a basis for discriminatory behavior.

Workers who disagreed with government recommendations were fired, and only those with a membership card of the ruling party were hired.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wage and Hour Laws: The law establishes a statutory minimum wage for 10 economic sectors. According to the Ministry of Labor, the average legal minimum wage covered only 35 percent of the cost of basic goods. The ministry, together with workers’ unions aligned with the ruling party, agreed to a 3 percent wage increase for the year. Public-sector employees received a 5 percent salary increase in August. Free trade zone regions had a wage increase of 8 percent, prenegotiated in a five-year agreement expected to expire in 2022. The salary increase remained unchanged despite free trade zone representatives reporting unsteady industry performance.

The minimum wage was generally enforced only in the formal sector, estimated to be 20 percent of the economy. The Ministry of Labor is the primary enforcement agency.

The standard legal workweek is a maximum of 48 hours, with one day of rest. The law dictates an obligatory year-end bonus equivalent to one month’s pay, proportional to the number of months worked. The law mandates premium pay for overtime, prohibits compulsory overtime, and sets a maximum of three hours of overtime per day not to exceed nine hours per week. Penalties for violations of minimum wage and overtime laws were not commensurate with those for similar crimes, such as fraud.

According to International Labor Organization guidelines, the number of labor inspectors was insufficient for the size of the workforce, which included approximately three million workers. The law allows inspectors to conduct unannounced inspections and initiate sanctions for egregious violations.

Occupational Safety and Health: The National Council of Labor Hygiene and Safety, including its departmental committees, is responsible for implementing worker safety legislation and collaborating with other government agencies and civil society organizations in developing assistance programs and promoting training and prevention activities. According to labor contacts, the council was inactive throughout the year. The government did not allocate adequate staff or other measures to enable the Office of Hygiene and Occupational Safety to enforce occupational safety and health (OSH) provisions. Penalties for violations of OSH laws were commensurate with those for crimes such as negligence, but they were infrequently enforced and only in the formal sector.

OSH standards also were not widely enforced in an expanding large informal sector, which represented 77 percent of employment and 88 percent of businesses, according to 2016 reports from the Consultants for Business Development and the Nicaraguan Foundation for Economic and Social Development. Although more recent statistics on informality were not available, experts viewed this indicator as necessarily rising because of sociopolitical unrest and the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic. By law workers may remove themselves from situations that endanger their health or safety without jeopardy to their employment. It was unclear whether authorities effectively protected employees in such cases.

Informal Sector: The informal sector included the bulk of workers in street sales, agriculture and ranching, transportation, domestic labor, fishing, and minor construction. Legal limitations on hours worked often were ignored by employers, who claimed workers readily volunteered for extra hours for additional pay. Violations of wage and hour regulations in the informal sector were common and generally not investigated, particularly in street sales, domestic work, and agriculture, where children continued to work in tobacco, banana, and coffee plantations. Compulsory overtime was reported in the private-security sector, where guards often were required to work excessive shifts without relief.

Panama

Executive Summary

Panama is a multiparty constitutional democracy. In 2019 voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that international and domestic observers considered generally free and fair.

The country has no military forces. The Panama National Police is principally responsible for internal law enforcement and public order, and the National Border Service handles border security. The country also has a National Aeronaval Service that is responsible for carrying out naval and air operations. Civilian authorities maintained 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: serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on free expression and media, including censorship and the existence of criminal libel laws; and serious government corruption.

Impunity among security forces existed due to weak and decentralized internal control mechanisms for conduct and enforcement. Corruption was a serious problem in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches as well as in the security forces. The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively.

Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person

a. Arbitrary Deprivation of Life and Other Unlawful or Politically Motivated Killings

There were no reports the government or its agents committed arbitrary or unlawful killings.

b. Disappearance

There were no reports of disappearances by or on behalf of government authorities.

c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment

The constitution prohibits such practices, and there were no reports that government officials employed them.

Impunity among security forces existed due to weak and decentralized internal control mechanisms for conduct and enforcement, in addition to a culture of corruption. Poor availability of data made the extent of impunity difficult to gauge. The National Criminal Statistics Directorate was unable to provide thorough data on the police’s internal affairs, as the government rarely made cases of police abuse or corruption public. The Panama National Police’s internal affairs office is responsible for enforcing conduct violations but was inefficient and resisted efforts to modernize. National police authorities provided training and information to officers to discourage involvement in narcotics trafficking and corruption.

Prison and Detention Center Conditions

Prison conditions remained harsh due to overcrowding, insufficient internal security, a shortage of prison guards, lack of potable water, and inadequate medical services and sanitary conditions.

Physical Conditions: According to the Ministry of Government’s National Directorate of the Penitentiary System (DGSP), as of October the prison system held 19,169 prisoners in facilities with an intended capacity of 14,591. Pretrial detainees shared cells with convicted prisoners due to space constraints. Prison conditions for women were generally better than for men, but conditions for both populations were poor. Several facilities were overcrowded, and several others lacked adequate inmate security and medical care, basic supplies for personal hygiene, and potable water.

Nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) with access to prisons reported that self-described evangelical pastors and gang leaders continued to tightly control the pavilions inside the prisons. The NGOs reported perceived favoritism towards evangelical inmates who appointed themselves “leaders of the prison pavilions.” NGO representatives also reported that perceived corruption within the prison system enabled these “leader” inmates to receive privileges, most likely requiring the collaboration of police or civilian custodians. Other inmates had to secure approval of these “leaders,” which often involved payment of bribes, to obtain expedited transfers or access to their legal counselors.

Gang activity in prisons represented a daily threat to prisoner safety. NGO representatives said prison security personnel and inmates’ relatives were likely complicit in the smuggling of weapons. In March and April, cats and pigeons were used to smuggle illicit substances into the Colon Nueva Esperanza prison. In April and July, prison security agents caught drones entering the prisons’ perimeters carrying either weapons, drugs, or cell phones. Authorities found a dog serving as a message courier between gang members within the La Joya prison complex.

Despite various sanitary protocols implemented due to the pandemic, medical care overall was inadequate due to lack of personnel, transportation, and medical resources. As of August, the Ombudsman’s Office had received 377 complaints against prisons, 223 of them for human rights violations due to lack of medical care during the pandemic. Authorities transferred patients with serious illnesses to public clinics, but there were constant difficulties in arranging inmate transportation. During the year the DGSP adapted a truck to work as an ambulance to serve the La Joya complex. Transfer of inmates depended on the availability of police vehicles or the limited national ambulance system. Starting in February, DGSP began its nationwide vaccination program, which included vaccines against tuberculosis, hepatitis, measles, influenza, and COVID-19.

Administration: Authorities conducted investigations of credible allegations of mistreatment.

Independent Monitoring: The government permitted prison monitoring by independent nongovernmental observers. The Ombudsman’s Office prisons officer conducted several unannounced visits without restrictions. Human rights NGOs seeking access to prisons were required to send a written request to the DGSP 15 days in advance.

d. Arbitrary Arrest or Detention

The law prohibits arbitrary arrest and detention and provides for the right of any person to challenge the lawfulness of his or her arrest or detention in court. The government generally observed these requirements.

Arrest Procedures and Treatment of Detainees

The law requires arresting officers to inform detainees immediately of the reasons for arrest or detention and of the right to immediate legal counsel. During the pandemic there were several complaints of abuse of authority by police agents detaining persons during the quarantine and curfew. Most complaints focused on the verbal mistreatment of citizens at checkpoints.

Legal cases opened prior to the transition to the accusatory justice system (SPA) continued to be processed under the previous inquisitorial system. Courts’ ruling under the inquisitorial system in the Panama and La Chorrera judicial districts were scheduled to close permanently in December. Both systems demonstrated vulnerabilities to corruption, inefficiencies, and bureaucratic obstacles. Informality in the judicial processes, such as sending documents through mobile messenger platforms instead of official emails, became the norm for some lower-level court judges, thus jeopardizing the transparency of the judicial process.

Under the SPA, bail exists but was rarely granted because of implementation of a less costly provisional release system. Under the inquisitorial system, a bail procedure exists for a limited number of crimes but was largely unused. Most bail proceedings were at the discretion of the Prosecutor’s Office and could not be initiated by detainees or their legal counsel. Bail was granted in high-profile corruption cases, which prompted complaints by civil society that the Public Ministry was administering “selective” justice.

The law prohibits police from detaining adult suspects for more than 48 hours but allows authorities to detain minor suspects for 72 hours. Under the SPA, arrests and detention decisions were made on a probable cause basis.

Arbitrary Arrest: During the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals violating curfews established nationwide were arrested but had access to legal representation. They were released after paying the corresponding fine.

Pretrial Detention: According to official statistics, as of October approximately 37 percent of inmates had not been convicted. Full implementation of the SPA structure nationwide decreased the number of pretrial detainees consistently since 2016.

e. Denial of Fair Public Trial

While the law provides for an independent judiciary, the lack of criminal convictions for corruption reinforced widespread public opinion that the judicial system was susceptible to corrupt internal and external influence.

Most allegations of manipulation of the justice system continued to be related to the influence of political actors. Former president Ricardo Martinelli’s 2018 extradition from the United States to face illegal wiretapping charges resulted in an August 2019 “not guilty” verdict, but an appeal by the prosecutors was admitted by the Superior Court in November 2020. A new trial began in July; four of the six plaintiffs withdrew from the case at that time. The trial ended on November 9 with Martinelli’s acquittal, a decision decried by many prominent members of civil society.

Unlike in accusatory system cases, court proceedings for cases in process under the inquisitorial system were not publicly available. As a result, nonparties to inquisitorial case proceedings did not have access to them until a verdict was reached. Under the inquisitorial system, judges could decide to hold private hearings and did so in high-profile cases. Consequently, the judiciary sometimes faced accusations, particularly in high-profile cases, of procedural irregularities. Since most of these cases had not reached conclusion, the records remained under seal. Interested parties generally did not face gag orders, and because of this lack of transparency, it was difficult to verify facts.

Trial Procedures

The law provides for the right to a fair and public trial, and the judiciary generally enforced this right. The law provides that all citizens charged with crimes enjoy the right to a presumption of innocence. They have the right to be informed promptly and in detail of the charges (with free language interpretation available for non-Spanish-speaking inmates), to have a trial without undue delay, to have counsel of their choice and adequate time and facilities to prepare a defense, to refrain from incriminating themselves or close relatives, and to be tried only once for a given offense. The accused may be present with counsel during the investigative phase of proceedings.

By law the judicial branch is the only entity that schedules hearings within the SPA, while the Penitentiary System is in charge of facilitating logistics for detainees’ attendance at virtual in-person hearings. Detention centers faced problems with virtual hearings due to lack of sufficient equipment and reliable wireless connections to support many scheduled hearings, which created delays. Following a change in SPA leadership in January, there were reports that some courts unofficially transferred the authority to set dates for virtual hearings to the Penitentiary System. This change led to reports of unfair administration of justices, further delays or missed hearings, and a lack of accurate statistics on the number of hearings conducted throughout the year.

The fully implemented SPA system stipulates that trials must be completed in less than 12 months. Due to the pandemic, a Supreme Court decree in January extended the term to 30 months. Judges may order detainees to be present during the pretrial phase to provide or expand upon statements or to confront witnesses. Trials are conducted based on evidence presented by the public prosecutor. Defendants have the right to be present at trial and to consult with an attorney in a timely manner, along with the right to enter into a plea deal. During the pandemic many of these hearings were conducted virtually, but at times alleged technical issues caused further delays in the hearings. Defendants have a right to appeal. The Penitentiary System’s lack of equipment significantly reduced its capability to conduct virtual hearings. Most prisons were limited in their capacity to hold several hearings at once due a lack of available computers. Failure to hold a hearing meant that the affected inmates had to wait months, on average, for a rescheduled hearing. There were few if any hearings with multiple inmates.

The Public Defender’s Office continued to fail to initiate the formal process for early release of inmates in a timely fashion, despite written instructions from the judicial branch. No disciplinary actions were taken.

Political Prisoners and Detainees

There were no reports of political prisoners or detainees.

Civil Judicial Procedures and Remedies

Citizens have access to the courts to bring lawsuits seeking damages for, or cessation of, human rights violations, although most did not pursue such lawsuits due to the length of the process. There are administrative and judicial remedies for alleged wrongs, and authorities often granted them to citizens who followed through with the process. A court may order civil remedies, including fair compensation to the individual injured. Individuals or organizations that have exhausted domestic remedies may submit petitions alleging human rights violations to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights.

f. Arbitrary or Unlawful Interference with Privacy, Family, Home, or Correspondence

The law prohibits arbitrary interference with privacy, family, home, or correspondence, and the government generally respected these prohibitions.

Section 3. Freedom to Participate in the Political Process

The law provides citizens the ability to choose their government in free and fair periodic elections held by secret ballot based on universal and equal suffrage. In October citizens protested against the National Assembly’s proposed electoral reforms, which several members of civil society had criticized as politically motivated mechanisms that could increase corruption and clientelism.

Elections and Political Participation

Recent Elections: In May 2019 voters chose Laurentino Cortizo Cohen as president in national elections that independent observers considered generally free and fair. Elected at the same time were national legislators, mayors, local representatives, and council members. A group of international observers from the Organization of American States, the EU, electoral NGOs, regional electoral authorities, and the diplomatic corps considered the elections fair and transparent.

Political Parties and Political Participation: The law requires new political parties to meet strict membership and organizational standards to gain official recognition and participate in national campaigns. Political parties must obtain the equivalent of 2 percent of total votes cast to maintain legal standing. When the year began, there were six registered political parties, but three new political movements also received the Electoral Tribunal’s official recognition. The three new parties were Realizando Metas (Realizing Goals), led by former president Martinelli; Movimiento Otro Camino (Another Path Movement), led by the 2019 third runner-up, Ricardo Lombana; and Partido Alternativa Independiente Social (Alternative Social Independent Party, or PAIS), led by members of the evangelical community.

Participation of Women and Members of Minority Groups: No laws limit participation of women or members of minority groups in the political process, and they did participate.

Section 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for corruption by officials, but the government generally did not implement the law effectively. Corruption remained a serious problem in the executive, judicial, and legislative branches as well as in the security forces.

Corruption: In March the Public Ministry filed charges against 25 individuals accused of using $43 million in public funds to purchase the Editora Panama America newspaper group. In April the Public Ministry filed charges against two former presidents, Ricardo Martinelli and Juan Carlos Varela, and three former ministers, Demetrio “Jimmy” Papadimitriu, Frank De Lima, and Jaime Ford, for corruption related to the Odebrecht case. As of October the courts had not made a decision in either case.

In June a major scandal broke nationwide when journalists found a private clinic administering Pfizer vaccines for an alleged fee of $200. COVID-19 vaccines (Pfizer and AstraZeneca) were solely managed – purchased, guarded, and administered – by the Ministry of Health. In December the Public Ministry pressed criminal charges against two individuals involved in the case. Separately, former president Ernesto Perez Balladares publicly admitted to being vaccinated prior to national availability along with 10 members of his family at his residence. Meanwhile, the rest of the country, including President Cortizo, awaited their turn as dictated by the ministry’s strict guidelines on age, health conditions, and place of residence. The Public Ministry did not open investigations into the matter or file charges for abuse of authority or corruption.

Corruption and lack of accountability continued in the police force. The public forces lacked an impartial investigative body for internal investigations. The absence of clear standard operating procedures allowed for discretion by agents on a case-by-case basis. The lack of periodic audits over operations to oversee efficiency, efficacy, accountability, and transparency contributed to the problem. In September authorities arrested a corporal and two agents from the Institutional Protection Service in a counternarcotics sting that revealed a network of individuals trafficking drugs from Colombia.

As of October investigations continued in the 2020 case involving weapons and weapons-trafficking charges against more than 25 individuals, most of whom were high-level security officials during the previous government. The charges involved the illegal distribution to the officials of legally imported weapons, some designated “weapons of war.” The Public Security Affairs Directorate, the office within the Security Ministry that regulates and licenses firearms, was associated with corruption in the past, and at least two former officer directors were facing charges, with one of them implicated in the case. Some defendants filed legal proceedings before the Supreme Court alleging courts’ restrictions to their right to defense by lower courts. As of October the court had not ruled on the writ of mandamus.

There were no developments in the 2020 Public Ministry investigations of national government institutions allegedly overpaying for ventilators and purchasing used ventilators to treat COVID-19 patients.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

Women

Rape and Domestic Violence:The law criminalizes rape of men or women, including spousal rape, and stipulates prison terms of five to 10 years. Rapes continued to constitute most sexual crimes investigated by the National Police Directorate of Judicial Investigation. In April the Supreme Court found National Assembly member Arquesio Arias, a Guna Yala native, not guilty in both of his 2020 charges for sexual assault, alleging a “lack of evidence.” Arias was a physician in his indigenous comarca (a legally designated semiautonomous area) and was denounced by several Guna Yala women for sexual misconduct and abuse. Arias returned to his legislative seat on July 1. The law against gender violence stipulates stiff penalties for harassment, gender-based violence, and both physical and emotional abuse. For example, the law states that sentencing for femicide is 25 to 30 years in prison, whereas penalties for other forms of homicide range from 10 to 20 years in prison. The law was not effectively enforced. Officials and civil society organizations agreed that domestic violence continued to be a serious problem.

As of October the Public Ministry reported 13,013 new cases of domestic violence nationwide, including 12 attempted femicides and 16 femicides. The province of Panama Oeste and the Ngabe Bugle comarca led the numbers with four femicides each, followed by the Panama Province with three cases. In August, Panama City’s deputy mayor Judy Meana pressed charges against her partner for domestic violence. The alleged abuser was detained for several hours. The judge released him while requiring that the accused release his passport to the court, appear before the court’s office every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and adhere to a restraining order from Meana. The prosecutor filed an appeal, but the judge upheld the decision.

From January through August, the National Institute for Women’s Affairs continued to operate its hotline to give legal guidance to victims of domestic violence and extended its services to include mental health services for women facing stress as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Hours of operation were reduced from 24/7 to 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. due to a shortage of professional staff to support the hotline. If a caller were at risk during the call, the operator would make a connection with the Specialized Unit for Domestic and Gender Violence within the police department. After professional staff returned to in-person work in September, the hotline services were discontinued due to staffing limitations. The institute continued to work under a budget that did not allow for victim services and assistance.

Sexual Harassment: The law prohibits sexual harassment in cases of employer-employee relations in the public and private sectors and in teacher-student relations but not between colleagues. Violators face a maximum three-year prison sentence. The extent of the problem was difficult to determine because convictions for sexual harassment were rare, pre-employment sexual harassment was not actionable, and there was a lack of formal reports (only 16 cases had been reported as of September).

Investigations at the Public Ministry continued in the 2020 case of a National Aeronaval Service (SENAN) female pilot who filed a criminal complaint for sexual harassment against her immediate supervisor. Both the man accused of the harassment and the victim were transferred to other departments and given new duties. For months during the year, many restrooms for women at SENAN remained locked due to the pending case. In these cases, women needed to obtain a key from a specific office to access their restrooms. Restrooms for men continued to be open and unlocked at all times.

Reproductive Rights: There were no reports of coerced abortion or involuntary sterilization on the part of government authorities.

The law permits medical professionals to perform abortions only if the fetus, the mother, or both are in danger, or, in some very limited cases, if the pregnancy is the result of rape.

The government provided sexual and reproductive health services for survivors of sexual violence, including emergency contraception.

Discrimination: The law prohibits discrimination based on gender, and women enjoyed the same legal status and rights as men, but the law was not enforced. For example, SENAN permitted female pilots to fly only as copilots, while male newcomers with less seniority were allowed to fly as principal pilots without restrictions. The law recognizes joint property in marriages. The law does not mandate equal pay for men and women in equivalent jobs. Some employers continued to request pregnancy tests, although it is an illegal hiring practice. The law puts restrictions on women working in jobs deemed hazardous.

Systemic Racial or Ethnic Violence and Discrimination

Minority groups were generally integrated into mainstream society. Prejudice was directed, however, at recent legal immigrants, the Afro-Panamanian community, and indigenous Panamanians.

The Afro-Panamanian community continued to be underrepresented in governmental positions and in political and economic power. Areas where many Afro-Panamanians lived lagged in terms of government services and social investment. The government’s National Secretariat for the Development of Afro-Panamanians focused on the socioeconomic advancement of this community.

As of August, the Ombudsman’s Office had received six complaints of racism. Five of the complaints involved the use of traditional African costumes at work sites. The sixth report concerned a public school that barred a student’s use of hair braids. After the ombudsman contacted the school principal regarding the matter, the student was allowed to attend his virtual classes in braids.

The law prohibits discrimination in access to public accommodations such as restaurants, stores, and other privately owned establishments. Lighter-skinned individuals continued to be overrepresented in management positions and jobs that required dealing with the public, such as bank tellers and receptionists.

Indigenous Peoples

The law affords indigenous persons the same political and legal rights as other citizens, protects their ethnic identity and native languages, and requires the government to provide bilingual literacy programs in indigenous communities. Despite the law’s requirement, the government failed to assign funds necessary for completion of the bilingual literacy project. Indigenous persons have the legal right to take part in decisions affecting their lands, cultures, traditions, and the allocation and exploitation of natural resources. Nevertheless, they continued to be marginalized in mainstream society. Traditional community leaders governed comarcas for five of the country’s seven indigenous groups.

Several of the groups faced internal governance problems, since they either did not have legally elected authorities, or the government delayed the recognition of their duly elected authorities. This complicated the receipt of government funds, including those allotted to combat the spread of COVID-19. During the year the government issued an executive degree regulating elections in the Ngabe Bugle comarca, which had been on stand-by since 2017.

The government unofficially recognized eight other traditional indigenous government authorities, on the basis that these eight regions were traditionally organized indigenous settlements and territories that were excluded from the constitution when the original comarcas were designated in 1938. The traditional government authorities are organized under a national coordinating body for indigenous affairs, the National Coordinator of Indigenous Peoples. In August the coordinating body stated that high-level government authorities had ignored their meeting requests, which they considered discriminatory, since the government held meetings with other ethnic groups and associations. The coordinating body also expressed concern that the government was stalling full implementation of the Indigenous Peoples Development Plan.

Officials from various government entities continued to meet with traditional organized authorities from indigenous communities, many of whom requested recognition of their land via collective titles. No collective land titles were granted during the year, however, and land conflicts continued to arise. Several Embera communities in Darien Province claimed that illegal settlers continued to enter their lands during the COVID-19 pandemic, despite the nationwide movement restrictions, and that their complaints went unaddressed. The Supreme Court of Justice ruled the Naso comarca constitutional, and the legal process for its creation was underway. In June the Bri Bri people submitted a demand to the Supreme Court for protection of their human rights, requesting that the court overturn the denial of their application for collective title to their lands.

The Barro Blanco dam project, opposed by the Ngabe Bugle peoples, continued to operate unhindered. There were no plans by the government to halt dam operations.

Although the law is the ultimate authority in indigenous comarcas, many indigenous peoples had not received sufficient information to understand their rights. Additionally, due to the inadequate educational system available in the comarcas, many indigenous peoples were unaware of or failed to use available legal channels.

Societal and employment discrimination against indigenous persons was widespread. Employers frequently denied indigenous workers basic rights provided by law, such as a minimum wage, social security benefits, termination pay, and job security. Laborers on the country’s agricultural plantations (most of whom were indigenous persons) continued to work in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions. The Ministry of Labor conducted limited oversight of working conditions in remote areas.

Access to health care continued to be a significant problem for indigenous communities, primarily due to poor infrastructure and lack of personnel and supplies. During the year the Embera health and sanitary infrastructure collapsed under the increased influx of migrants emerging from Colombia. The Ngabe Bugle people closed the Interamerican Highway on several occasions, demanding significant improvements to their comarca’s road system. Deficiencies in the educational system deepened at all levels during the COVID-19 pandemic. Although the public school system remained operational through virtual education, the comarcas typically had very limited access to internet and radio signals. These technological barriers prevented indigenous students from accessing educational opportunities.

Children

Birth Registration: The law provides citizenship for all persons born in the country, but parents of children born in remote areas sometimes had difficulty obtaining birth registration certificates.

Child Abuse: Child abuse is illegal. The law has several articles pertaining to child abuse and its penalties, which depend on the type of abuse and range from six months to 20 years’ imprisonment if the abuse falls under a crime that carries a higher penalty. Public Ministry statistics as of September reported that 3,660 children were victims of different types of abuse; the Public Ministry believed these crimes were underreported. The Ministry of Social Development maintained a free hotline for children and adults to report child abuse and advertised it widely. The ministry provided funding to children’s shelters operated by NGOs.

In February the Women’s, Children, and Youth Commission of the National Assembly revealed the results of a study commissioned in 2019 of children’s shelters nationwide. The 700-page report, which was not made public but was widely discussed by legislators, allegedly revealed widespread abuse, including sexual abuse, negligence, lack of supply of medications, and administrative irregularities in the shelters investigated. These shelters were managed by NGOs, supervised by the National Secretariat for Children, Adolescents, and Family Affairs (SENNIAF), and operated with government funding.

In late August, SENNIAF announced that between May and July, it filed eight criminal complaints for alleged abuse in shelters, in response to a legislator who alerted the media about receiving anonymous complaints detailing additional abuse cases in SENNIAF-supervised shelters. As of September, the Public Ministry had opened 27 cases, charged 13 individuals, and convicted three others.

Child, Early, and Forced Marriage: The minimum legal age for marriage is 18. The government prohibits early marriage even with parental permission.

Sexual Exploitation of Children: The law prohibits the commercial sexual exploitation, sale, and offering for prostitution of children, in addition to child pornography. Officials from the Ministry for Public Security prosecuted cases of sexual abuse of children, including within indigenous communities. Ministry officials believed commercial sexual exploitation of children occurred, including in tourist areas in Panama City and in beach communities, although they did not keep separate statistics. As of September, there were no cases reported nationwide of child sexual tourism.

International Child Abductions: The country is a party to the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction. See the Department of State’s Annual Report on International Child Abduction at https://travel.state.gov/content/travel/en/International-Parental-Child-Abduction/for-providers/legal-reports-and-data/reported-cases.html.

Anti-Semitism

Jewish community leaders estimated there were 15,000 Jews in the country. There were no known reports of anti-Semitic acts.

Trafficking in Persons

See the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

Persons with Disabilities

Persons with disabilities faced difficulty accessing education, health services, public buildings, and transportation on an equal basis with others. Government information and communication is not provided in accessible formats, and there is no law requiring such access. The law mandates that persons with disabilities have access to education and health services, including rehabilitation and therapies, public transportation, public and private buildings, sports and cultural events, and jobs without discrimination. In practice, however, accessibility was limited.

Private schools started reopening in June, but public schools remained closed during the year due to the pandemic. Public schools taught via the public SerTV radio and television stations. Only occasionally did the Ministry of Education facilitate sign language interpretation for students with hearing disabilities during classes taught on television. Schools did not address other disabilities during home and virtual schooling.

Most of Panama City’s bus fleet remained wheelchair inaccessible. Public buses in the rest of the country were small and not adapted for persons with disabilities. The Panama City Metro elevators remained closed for most of the year, according to NGO representatives. A lack of ramps further limited access to older stations, although Metro Line 2 had ramp access.

HIV and AIDS Social Stigma

The law prohibits discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS in employment and education. Discrimination, however, continued to be common due to ignorance of the law and a lack of mechanisms for ensuring compliance. LGBTQI+ individuals with HIV or AIDS reported mistreatment by public health-care workers.

Employees are not obligated to disclose their condition to the employer, but if they do so, the employer must keep the information confidential. Employers may be fined for not keeping an employee’s medical condition confidential. The government was not active in preventing discrimination against persons with HIV and AIDS.

There were fewer public HIV/AIDS medical treatments and supplies available, since most medical resources were dedicated to fighting COVID-19. The University of Guatemala funded stigma-free “friendly clinics” for LGBTQI+ COVID-19 patients, but activists reported that staff members in these clinics were not friendly to their visitors.

During the year there was only one appointment per month at the Ministry of Health’s facilities for the HIV viral load test. Pregnant women who needed the test were prioritized for appointments over members of the LGBTQI+ community.

Acts of Violence, Criminalization, and Other Abuses Based on Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

During the COVID-19 pandemic, LGBTQI+ persons reported harassment by public-health officials, but there were no public reports of police harassment during the year.

In June, LGBTQI+ activists organized two Pride Month parades in Panama City. Early in the month, the private Museum of Liberty and Human Rights raised the Pride flag, but days later it was vandalized by a group of “profamily” and anti-same-sex marriage activists during a protest outside the museum. Part of the museum’s board decided not to raise the flag again. As a result, five board members submitted their resignations to the board’s president in protest. The Canal Museum also raised the Pride flag but later took it down upon receiving a government request citing a law that stipulate only the Panamanian flag can be flown in government buildings. The Canal Museum is a joint private-public venture and received public funding.

The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation. There was societal discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity, which often led to denial of employment opportunities. Same-sex marriage continued to be prohibited by law. As of October the Supreme Court had not ruled on the 2016 class-action lawsuit requesting the article of the family code that refers to marriage as “the union of a man and a woman,” and thus forbids same-sex legal unions, be declared unconstitutional. Panamanian same-sex couples who were married abroad were not allowed to legally register their marriage. In September the Supreme Court did not admit a writ of mandamus filed by a local law firm against the Civil Registry’s decision not to register the same-sex marriage of a Panamanian citizen and his Colombian spouse held in Colombia in 2017.

Section 7. Worker Rights

a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining

The law provides for private-sector workers to form and join independent unions, bargain collectively, and conduct strikes. Public-sector employees may organize to create a professional association to bargain collectively on behalf of its members, even though public institutions are not legally obliged to bargain with the association. Members of the national police are the only workers prohibited from creating professional associations. There were 14 public-worker associations registered. The National Federation of Public Servants (FENASEP), an umbrella federation of 31 public-sector worker associations, traditionally fought to establish rights similar to those of private-sector unions. The law prohibits antiunion discrimination and requires reinstatement of workers terminated for union activity but does not provide adequate means of protecting this right.

Unions and associations are required to register with the Ministry of Labor. If the ministry does not respond to a private-sector union registration application within 15 calendar days, the union automatically gains legal recognition, provided the request is submitted directly with the supporting documentation required. In the public sector, professional associations gain legal recognition automatically if the Ministry of Government does not respond to registration applications within 30 days. According to FENASEP leaders, most associations were approved, although some cases were denied for political reasons. According to official sources, the Ministry of Labor approved applications for the formation of two private-sector unions and one public-sector association during the year.

The law allows arbitration by mutual consent, at the request of employees or the ministry, in cases of collective disputes at privately held companies. It allows either party to appeal if arbitration is mandated during a collective dispute at a public-service company. The Ministry of Labor Board of Appeals and Conciliation has the authority to resolve certain labor disagreements within the private sector, such as internal union disputes, enforcement of the minimum wage, and some dismissal issues. For example, the Ministry of Labor, as a mediator in biennial minimum wage negotiations between unions and businesses in 2019, announced a minimum wage increase of 3.3 percent when negotiations failed.

Government regulations on union membership place some restrictions on freedom of association. The constitution mandates that only citizens may serve on a union’s executive board. In addition, the law requires a minimum of 40 persons to form a private-sector union (either by a company across trades or by trade across companies) and allows only one union per business establishment. The International Labor Organization criticized the 40-person minimum as too large for workers wanting to form a union within a company. Many domestic labor unions, as well as the public and private sectors, reiterated their support for keeping the figure at 40 individuals, since having a greater number of participants can strengthen a union’s influence.

In the public sector, professional associations represent the majority of workers. The law stipulates only one association may exist per public-sector institution and permits no more than one chapter per province. At least 50 public servants are required to form a professional association. No law protects the jobs of public-sector workers in the event of a strike. FENASEP contended there was no political will to allow all public servants within ministries to form unions, because this could eliminate positions for political appointees.

The law prohibits federations and confederations from calling strikes. Individual professional associations under FENASEP may negotiate on behalf of their members, but the Ministry of Labor can order compulsory arbitration. According to the labor code, the majority of private-sector employees must support a strike, and strikes are permitted only if they are related to improvement of working conditions, a collective bargaining agreement, repeated violations of legal rights, or support for another workers strike on the same project (solidarity strike). In event of a strike, at least 20 to 30 percent of the workforce must continue to provide minimum services, particularly public services defined by law as essential, such as transportation, sanitation, mail delivery, hospital care, telecommunications, and provision of necessary food.

Strikes in essential transportation services are limited to those involving public passenger services. The law prohibits strikes by Panama Canal Authority employees but allows professional associations to organize and bargain collectively on issues such as schedules and safety and provides arbitration to resolve disputes. The Canal Authority is an autonomous entity, independent of the national government and as such is subject to its own labor regulation.

The Ministry of the Presidency Conciliation Board is responsible for resolving public-sector worker complaints. The board refers complaints it cannot resolve to an arbitration panel, which consists of representatives from the employer, the professional association, and a third member chosen by the first two. If the dispute cannot be resolved, it is referred to a tribunal under the board. Observers, however, noted that the Ministry of the Presidency had not named the tribunal judges. The alternative to the board is the civil court system, but those procedures can take more than three years and usually result in negative outcomes for the employee. While Supreme Court decisions are final, labor organizations may appeal cases in international human rights courts.

The government did not consistently enforce the law in the formal sector and was less likely to enforce the law in most rural areas (see section 6, Indigenous Peoples). Throughout the year the administration continued to dismiss public workers, mostly without citing a legal basis and all without paying negotiated employment benefits such as paid vacation leave or severance pay. According to reports, these firings were due to the change in government and not the COVID-19 pandemic. An estimated 80,000 public workers had been dismissed since the start of President Cortizo’s administration in 2019. In August FENASEP presented a lawsuit to the Supreme Court for noncompliance with Decree 466 of 2020, which prohibits employees from being fired during the state of emergency imposed due to the pandemic. In the lawsuit FENASEP also claimed that workers were not paid for months after being called back to work during the pandemic.

The government and employers generally respected freedom of association. Penalties for violations were commensurate with those for similar offenses.

b. Prohibition of Forced or Compulsory Labor

Although the law prohibits all forms of human trafficking, including forced labor of adults and children, the penal code stipulates that a trafficking offense must include movement, which is inconsistent with international protocols. The law establishes criminal penalties commensurate with those for other similar serious crimes.

The government enforced the law in the formal sector. The Ministry of Labor investigated human trafficking for the purpose of forced labor, granted residency and work permits for foreign trafficking victims, and provided additional food and hygiene support to trafficking victims during the pandemic. Authorities prosecuted and convicted fewer perpetrators of labor exploitation and identified fewer potential forced labor victims, compared with previous years. In July the Public Ministry sentenced a person to 23 years in prison for the crimes of trafficking in persons (sexual servitude), kidnapping, and extortion. The convicted person was also disqualified from exercising public functions for five years after completing the prison term.

Forced labor occurred, mainly with sexual exploitation of adults and children. Labor traffickers reported using debt bondage, false promises, exploitation of migratory status, lack of knowledge of the refugee process and irregular status, restrictions on movement, and other indicators of forced labor. Migrant workers without work permits were vulnerable to forced labor. There also were reports of forced child labor (see section 7.c.).

Also see the Department of State’s Trafficking in Persons Report at https://www.state.gov/trafficking-in-persons-report/.

c. Prohibition of Child Labor and Minimum Age for Employment

The law prohibits all the worst forms of child labor. Minors younger than 16 may work no more than six hours per day or 36 hours per week, while children ages 16 and 17 may work no more than seven hours per day or 42 hours per week. Children younger than 18 may not work between 6 p.m. and 8 a.m. The law prohibits employment of children younger than 14, and children who have not completed primary school may not begin work until 15. The law allows children ages 12 to 15 to perform light work in agriculture if the work is outside regular school hours. The law also allows a child older than 12 to perform light domestic work and stipulates that employers must ensure the child attends school through primary school. The law neither defines the type of light work children may perform nor limits the total number of light domestic work hours children may perform. The law prohibits children younger than 18 from engaging in hazardous work but allows children as young as 14 to perform hazardous tasks in a work-training facility, in violation of international standards.

The government inconsistently enforced the law; criminal penalties were commensurate with those for similar crimes but were not enforced in all sectors. Children were exploited in forced labor, particularly domestic servitude, and subjected to sex trafficking and sexual exploitation. After the government prosecuted and convicted its first child-labor case in September 2020, it started investigating a second case and provided social services to 1,500 child victims and children at risk of child labor.

Child labor occurred. According to the observations of a well known NGO on child labor, before the pandemic, child labor was centered in the agricultural sector, but pandemic movement restrictions forced children and adolescents to also become street vendors in urban areas. Children worked in agriculture, where they could be subjected to hazardous work. Children from indigenous and Afro-descendent communities were most vulnerable to the worst forms of child labor.

Also see the Department of Labor’s Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/resources/reports/child-labor/findings  and the Department of Labor’s List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor at https://www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods .

d. Discrimination with Respect to Employment and Occupation

The law prohibits discrimination based on race, sex, religion, political opinion, citizenship, disability, social status, and HIV status. The law does not prohibit discrimination based on sexual orientation or gender identity. Although the country is a member of the International Equal Pay Coalition, which promotes pay parity between women and men, a gender wage gap continued to exist, and no law mandates equal pay for equal work. The law puts restrictions on women working in jobs deemed hazardous.

The government did not effectively enforce the law, and penalties were not commensurate with those for similar crimes. Despite legal protections, discrimination in employment and occupation occurred with respect to race, sex, disability, and HIV-positive status. During the job interview process, applicants, both citizens and noncitizens, must complete medical examinations, including HIV/AIDS testing. The law requires all laboratories to inform applicants that an HIV test will be administered, but private-sector laboratories often did not comply. It was common practice for private-sector human resources offices to terminate applications of HIV-positive citizens without informing the applicant. While private laboratories often informed law enforcement of HIV-positive migrants, the National Migration Service did not engage in deportation procedures based specifically on a migrant’s HIV status. NGOs noted that during job interviews, women were often asked if they were married, pregnant, or planned to have children. It was common practice for human resources offices to terminate the applications of women who indicated a possibility of pregnancy in the near future (see section 6, Women). Persons with disabilities continued to face discrimination in hiring and accessing the workspace.

e. Acceptable Conditions of Work

Wage and Hour Laws: The law provides for a national minimum wage only for private-sector workers. The wage was above the poverty line. Public servants received lower wages than their private-sector counterparts, but salaries were above the poverty line. Most workers formally employed in urban areas earned the minimum wage or more. According to some reports, the pandemic eliminated as much as 50 percent of formal jobs in the private sector.

The law establishes a standard workweek of 48 hours, provides for at least one 24-hour rest period weekly, limits the number of hours worked per week, provides for premium pay for overtime, and prohibits compulsory overtime. There is no annual limit on the total number of overtime hours allowed. If employees work more than three hours of overtime in one day or more than nine overtime hours in a week, excess overtime hours must be paid at an additional 75 percent above the normal wage. Workers have the right to 30 days of paid vacation for every 11 months of continuous work, including those who do not work full time.

Occupational Safety and Health: The Ministry of Labor is responsible for setting health and safety standards. Standards were generally current and appropriate for the industries in the country. The law requires employers to provide a safe workplace environment, including the provision of protective clothing and equipment for workers. Equipment was often outdated, broken, or lacking safety devices, due in large part to fear that replacement costs would be prohibitive. After the beginning of the pandemic, all workplaces were required to establish a health committee to enforce the mandatory health standards established by the Ministry of Health.

The Ministry of Labor generally enforced the law in the formal sector. The inspection office consists of two groups: the Panama City-based headquarters group and the regional group. The number of inspectors and safety officers was sufficient to enforce wage, hour, and safety regulations adequately in the formal sector. As of September, the ministry conducted 8,551 safety inspections, an increase of 110 percent from the same period in 2020. Penalties were not commensurate with those for similar violations. Employers often hired employees under short-term contracts to avoid paying benefits that accrue to long-term employees. Employers in the maritime sector also commonly hired workers continuously on short-term contracts but did not convert them to permanent employees as required by law. The law states that employers have the right to dismiss any employee without cause during the two-year tenure term. As a result, employers frequently hired workers for one year and 11 months and subsequently dismissed them to circumvent laws that make firing employees more difficult after two years of employment. This practice is illegal if the same employee is rehired as a temporary worker after being dismissed, although employees rarely reported the practice.

In workplaces 83 accidents were registered. Construction was the most dangerous sector for workplace accidents, accounting for 82 percent of all accidents registered. In some cases, equipment was outdated, broken, or lacking safety devices, and in other cases the employee failed to wear appropriate personal protective equipment. In February a construction worker died after falling from the 26th floor of a building under construction. The Public Ministry is charged with investigating these incidents. The most hazardous sectors were construction, agriculture, and mining.

Informal Sector: According to official sources, in September 2020, 53 percent of the working population worked in the informal sector, and some earned well below the minimum wage. The informal sector grew substantially over the past two years due to massive job dismissals in the formal sector because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

In August 2020 the government reformed the law to promote the creation and development of micro, small, and medium-sized enterprises. These reforms assisted the National Authority for Micro, Small, and Medium Sized Businesses to institute policies to help formalize the economy, including the creation of soft loans and policies to help employers pay required social security fees to employees.