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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 4. Corruption and Lack of Transparency in Government

The law provides criminal penalties for official corruption, but officials frequently engaged in corrupt practices with impunity. Despite numerous allegations of corruption among the legislative and executive branches of the government, few high-profile cases were prosecuted during the year, and anticorruption efforts within the judiciary stalled. Prominent anticorruption prosecutors were fired or removed from significant cases, and corrupt actors threatened independent judges by filing complaints based on spurious charges to strip them of immunity to prosecution.

On July 23, Attorney General Porras abruptly fired the head of the Office of the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity, Juan Francisco Sandoval. On the evening of July 23, Sandoval fled the country after he held a press conference at the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, in which he implicated several sitting and former government officials in corruption cases. Over the following weeks, protesters demonstrated in support of Sandoval and called for the attorney general’s removal. On September 2, a criminal court issued an arrest warrant for Sandoval for the crimes of obstruction of justice and failure in performance of official duties. On November 30, the Public Ministry announced a new set of charges against Sandoval including abuse of authority, fraud, and conspiracy related to deals Sandoval allegedly made with cooperating witnesses in corruption cases. As of December 16, Sandoval remained out of the country.

Threats against independent judges also posed a threat to anticorruption efforts. Judges who presided over high-profile criminal cases faced continued efforts to strip them of their immunity, which would expose them to potential prosecution and retaliation for their judicial rulings.

The Presidential Commission Against Corruption serves the administrative function of introducing reforms that promote transparency, but it lacked both the resources and the mandate to actively investigate corruption cases. During the year civil society representatives criticized the commission for a perceived lack of independence.

Corruption: As of November former communications minister Jose Luis Benito remained a fugitive, and authorities requested an Interpol Red Notice for his arrest. In October 2020 the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity seized approximately 122 million quetzals ($15.9 million) in cash found in 22 suitcases inside Benito’s home in the city of Antigua, and the Public Ministry subsequently issued an arrest warrant for Benito on charges of money laundering.

On May 12, the special prosecutor against impunity presented formal charges against former member of congress Alejandro Sinibaldi in the Transurbano case. Sinibaldi had originally been expected to cooperate as a witness in the prosecution of the case but was eventually formally charged with money laundering and other crimes. The Transurbano case involving former president Alvaro Colom, 10 of his ministers, and former chief of staff Gustavo Alejos Cambara, involved a 2008 agreement signed by the ministers that allowed the urban bus company to form anonymous corporations and begin siphoning funds from a prepaid fare program. Sinibaldi was previously implicated in the Odebrecht case, involving bribes allegedly paid to himself and former presidential candidate Manuel Baldizon; the Construction and Corruption case, in which Sinibaldi was accused of money laundering and paying bribes while communications minister from 2012 to 2014; and a case of alleged illegal campaign financing in 2011.

The case known as Cooptation of the State continued against former president Otto Perez Molina, former vice president Roxana Baldetti and her chief of staff Juan Carlos Monzon, and dozens of coconspirators for illegal campaign financing, money laundering, and illegal payments for public contracts, among other charges. Several injunctions filed by the multiple defendants continued to stall the case. On May 19, the government dropped some of the charges levied against Perez Molina, including one linked to money laundering. On the same day, in a move that was widely criticized by domestic and international civil society, the government arrested Juan Francisco Solorzano Foppa, a former investigator on the original case that brought Perez Molina’s case to trial, and Anibal Arguello, a lawyer who had worked for the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala and who was a witness in the main case against Perez Molina. As of December both Foppa and Arguello remained under house arrest.

Section 6. Discrimination and Societal Abuses

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.

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.

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.

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