Guatemala is a multiparty constitutional republic. On January 14, Alejandro Eduardo Giammattei Falla of the We’re Going for a Different Guatemala Party was sworn into office for a four-year term as president. International observers considered the presidential election held in 2019 as generally free and fair.
The National Civil Police, which is overseen by the Ministry of Government and headed by a director general appointed by the minister, is responsible for law enforcement in the country. The Ministry of National Defense oversees the military, which focuses primarily on operations in defense of the country, but the government also used the army to support the National Civil Police in internal security operations, as permitted by the constitution. Civilian authorities, at times, did not maintain effective control over the security forces. Members of security forces committed some abuses.
Significant human rights issues included: unlawful or arbitrary killings, including extrajudicial killings arranged by government officials; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; serious restrictions on the press, including violence, threats of violence, or unjustified arrests or prosecutions against journalists; widespread corruption; lack of investigation of and accountability for violence against women; crimes involving violence or threats of violence targeting persons with disabilities, members of indigenous groups, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and intersex persons; and use of forced labor, including child labor.
Impunity continued to be widespread. Corruption, concerted efforts by organized criminal actors, and lack of political will made meaningful investigation and prosecution of crimes difficult.
Section 1. Respect for the Integrity of the Person, Including Freedom from:
c. Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
The law prohibits torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, but there were reports alleging government workers employed them at the Federico Mora National Hospital for Mental Health (see section 6). The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) noted that documentation and reporting mechanisms for torture and other cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment remained weak, thereby hindering a full understanding of the prevalence of the problem.
According to the Conduct in UN Field Missions online portal, in February an allegation was made that Guatemalan peacekeepers deployed to a UN peacekeeping mission, raped a child. As of October the government was investigating the allegation.
Impunity within the PNC was not a pervasive and systemic issue. Impunity from prosecution for serious crimes within the PNC has generally been in decline for more than a decade, with several high-profile convictions of PNC officers now serving prison sentences. Lesser crimes of negligence and bribery by officers continued, however, with few convictions. Negligence by officers was largely the result of a lack of sufficient training. The law requires officers to hold at least a high school degree, but they often had much less, and some individuals had as little as six months of police training before being sent out on the streets. Small monthly salaries of approximately 4,000 quetzals ($535) created an incentive to extort bribes. A large number of PNC officers were removed from the force over the past three years based on allegations of bribery. There were also anecdotal reports that the military extorted bribes and arbitrarily and temporarily detained persons when acting in support of the PNC. These instances seemed scattered and not related to military orders.
Prison and Detention Center Conditions
Prison conditions were harsh and potentially life threatening, with multiple instances of inmates killing other inmates. Sexual assault, inadequate sanitation, poor medical care, and significant overcrowding placed prisoners at significant risk. Authorities occasionally held pretrial detainees together with convicted prisoners, juveniles with adults, and male with female detainees.
Physical Conditions: Prison overcrowding was a problem. As of October 8, according to prison authorities, there were 25,691 inmates, including 2,883 women, held in facilities designed to hold 6,997 persons. To ease prison overcrowding, the Rehabilitation Sub-Directorate of the penitentiary system processed 1,519 early release requests from April to October. Better coordination between sentencing judges and defense attorneys led to 750 inmates being granted early release by the courts during the same period.
As of September 22, there were 657 juvenile inmates in four traditional detention centers and the halfway house, which were designed for 549 inmates. Another 1,242 juvenile inmates were held in three new alternative measures facilities. Despite a reduction in overcrowding, there were 271 inmates in the Las Gaviotas juvenile detention facility, designed for 175 individuals. The courts had not sentenced approximately 28 percent of juvenile inmates held in detention.
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.
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 eight inmates died of unnatural causes while in prison. During the COVID-19 pandemic, at least 39 Barrio 18 gang leaders negotiated their transfer to Fraijanes II, the only detention center with a full clinic for treatment of COVID-19. When prison officials began sending Barrio 18 leaders to other facilities to prevent them from operating the gang from Fraijanes II, gang members took 10 prison guards hostage in El Infiernito Prison and four prison guards hostage at the preventive detention center in zone 18, demanding the return of their leaders to Fraijanes II. In both cases the prison guards were released after 24 hours.
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, and intersex (LGBTI) rights groups stated that other prisoners often sexually assaulted LGBTI individuals, and there were insufficient facilities to protect LGBTI individuals in custody. NGOs claimed admittance procedures for LGBTI 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 wellbeing of prisoners are respected, also periodically visited prison facilities.
Improvements: The Secretariat of Social Welfare improved the juvenile system by opening a training academy and adding a K-9 unit to search for narcotics and cell phones. The adult penitentiary system moved toward a new correctional model that includes polygraphs and training for prison staff. On October 9, the government announced the creation of a unit for electronic monitoring to ease prison overcrowding through greater use of house arrest.
Section 2. Respect for Civil Liberties, Including:
a. Freedom of Expression, Including for the Press
The law provides for freedom of expression, including for the press, and the government generally respected this right. The intimidation of, and violence against, journalists resulted in significant self-censorship, however.
Freedom of Speech: Independent journalist Sonny Figueroa claimed harassment after he published a report claiming the director of the presidential commission Centro de Gobierno, Miguel Martinez, engaged in nepotism. Figueroa said the government denied him access to press events, and PNC officers harassed him on multiple occasions after he published the report.
Freedom of Press and Media, Including Online Media: Independent media were active and expressed a wide variety of views. Nonetheless, reporters covering organized crime, including its links to corrupt public officials, acknowledged practicing self-censorship due to the danger investigative journalism created for them and their families.
Violence and Harassment: Members of the press reported receiving pressure, threats, and retribution from public officials and criminal organizations regarding the content of their reporting. Online attacks against independent journalists and media outlets continued throughout the year. These included hacking journalists’ private social media accounts, publishing stolen or falsified personal information, and conducting apparent coordinated attempts to undermine specific journalists and the press.
On February 27, unidentified gunmen entered journalist Bryan Guerra’s home and killed him. Before the incident, Guerra had reported threats on social media. On November 10, unidentified assailants on motorcycles attacked television director Mario Ortega in Post San Jose. Ortega died from his injuries on November 15. Media reported he had received telephone calls demanding extortion money.
The PNC arrested Anastasia Mejia, director of a local television and radio service, following her live radio and video reporting on an August 24 protest at the Joyabaj mayor’s office that resulted in damage to municipal property. Mejia was a vocal critic of the mayor and reported on allegations of corrupt practices by the mayor in awarding public contracts. As of November, Mejia’s case was under investigation in the Public Ministry’s Municipal Prosecution Office of Joyabaj. On October 28, Judge Susy Perez formally charged Mejia with sedition, attempted acts of violence, aggravated arson, and aggravated robbery. Judge Perez granted Mejia bail while her trial continued.
Public hearings began on November 16 in the “Journalists Case,” in which former congressman Julio Antonio Juarez Ramirez was accused of ordering the murders of two journalists in Suchitepequez in 2015.
The government failed to establish a journalist protection program, a commitment the country accepted in 2012 during the Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council. In December 2019 the Public Ministry inaugurated the Prosecutor’s Office for Crimes against Journalists. The office reported 73 complaints of attacks or threats against journalists from January to August, compared with 51 during the same period of 2019, and one homicide compared with none reported in the same period of 2019.
Nongovernmental Impact: Organized crime exerted influence over media outlets and reporters, frequently threatening individuals for reporting on criminal activities.
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.