While Guatemala holds regular elections that are generally free, organized crime and corruption severely impact the functioning of government. Violence and criminal extortion schemes are serious problems, and victims have little recourse to justice. Journalists, activists, and public officials who confront crime, corruption, and other sensitive issues risk attack.
- COVID-19 cases began to spike in Guatemala in May and reached a peak in July. By year’s end, over 138,000 people had been infected and over 4,800 died, according to researchers at the University of Oxford. The government closed borders, instituted a stringent lockdown, and approved a large relief package under emergency powers.
- Following the 2019 departure of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), efforts to tackle systemic corruption and impunity deteriorated, prosecutions stalled, and attacks against judges, prosecutors, and civil society actors intensified.
- The election of justices to high courts has been delayed for over a year due to procedural irregularities, alleged corruption, and the legislature’s noncompliance with selection criteria required by the Constitutional Court.
- The approval of a controversial 2021 budget set off massive protests in November, which were met with repression and arrests.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution stipulates a four-year presidential term, and prohibits reelection. In the August 2019 runoff, Alejandro Giammattei of the Vamos party won 58 percent of the vote, defeating former first lady Sandra Torres of the center-left National Unity for Hope party (UNE). While the results were judged as credible, Organization of American States (OAS) electoral observers noted irregularities including disturbances, ballot burning, voter intimidation, and acts of violence. Giammattei took office in January 2020.
The campaign was also marked by successful efforts to disqualify presidential candidates. Union of National Change (UCN) candidate Mario Estrada was disqualified after he was arrested on charges of drug trafficking in the United States in April 2019, and Fuerza party candidate Mauricio Radford was barred over an ongoing corruption case. Zury Ríos, the Valor party candidate and daughter of former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, was disqualified because of a legal provision that bars members of his family from holding office. Former attorney general Thelma Aldana, who pursued a high-profile corruption case against former president Otto Peréz Molina (2012–15), was barred and fled to the United States after receiving threats, allegedly issued by the targets of her investigations. Electoral crimes prosecutor Óscar Schaad fled Guatemala days before the first round in June 2019 after he and his family were threatened; Schaad resigned in November.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?||3.003 4.004|
Members of the unicameral, 160-seat Congress are elected to four-year terms. Legislators were elected in June 2019, concurrently with the first round of the presidential election and 340 mayoral races. The UNE won 53 seats while President Giammattei’s Vamos party won 16 seats. The UCN won 12, and the remaining 79 seats were split between 16 parties, none of which won more than 10 seats.
The 2019 election results were deemed credible, but observers noted irregularities, disturbances, and threats of violence. A number of local races were nullified or rescheduled by the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) due to death threats against electoral officials and violent incidents. Election monitors received complaints from female officeholders and candidates who reported discrimination.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?||2.002 4.004|
Authorities and lawmakers in recent years have taken some steps to reform election administration. In 2016, the legislature approved reforms that included stronger oversight of party finances and enhanced sanctioning powers for the TSE. The 2019 elections were the first to be held under the new system, but the implementation of these reforms was incomplete.
The 2016 reforms included a provision to restrict the practice of switching party affiliation, or transfuguismo, for legislators. However, OAS election monitors reported that this provision was inconsistently applied during the 2019 elections.
In March 2020, after months of delay and amid the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Congress elected new TSE magistrates (2020−26) in a session featuring little transparency. Several of those elected are reportedly associated with officials accused of corruption.
|Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings?||3.003 4.004|
Political groups and organizations generally operate without encountering legal restrictions. However, new groups sometimes face bureaucratic delays from the TSE when attempting to register.
Elections take place within an inchoate multiparty system in which new parties are frequently created, often without sufficient resources and infrastructure to gain broad support. A historic lack of party finance regulations has allowed some candidates and parties access to vast resources.
|Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections?||3.003 4.004|
Elections at the national and local levels are competitive, and new parties routinely gain significant quotas of power. Guatemalan politics are unstable and power rotates between parties frequently, which can discourage a traditional opposition from coalescing. Political candidates risk attack during campaign periods; civil society organization Electoral Watch reported that at least 10 candidates were killed during the 2019 election period.
|Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means?||2.002 4.004|
Verbal harassment and physical violence against voters are common during elections, and can deter political participation. Weak campaign finance regulations have historically permitted lopsided resource advantages, as well as financing of candidates by special interests and organized criminal groups, distorting the political choices of citizens. Presidential candidate Estrada, who was arrested in the United States, was accused of promising cabinet positions to Sinaloa drug cartel associates in return for their support. Observers reported that armed groups and criminal organizations have attempted to sway the results of local races. Direct vote buying is also common.
|Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities?||2.002 4.004|
Members of ethnic and other minority groups struggle to fully exercise their political rights, and there are no affirmative measures in place to promote the election of representatives of Indigenous peoples. While as much as 60 percent of the population is Indigenous, only one Indigenous presidential candidate ran in 2019. No Indigenous persons or Afro-Guatemalans hold cabinet-level positions.
Women are underrepresented in politics, though small women’s rights groups, mainly those working on addressing violence against women, have some visibility in the political sphere. President Giammattei has appointed three woman ministers to his cabinet. Only 19 percent of the Congress is female.
The first openly gay man to enter Congress was elected in 2019; in 2020, he was the target of attacks and homophobic messages from fellow legislators. Political opportunities remain rare for the LGBT+ community.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?||2.002 4.004|
The elected government and legislature determine government policies, but they are frequently subject to influence by outside interests. President Giammattei came to the presidency backed by a group of former military officials; such networks possess significant economic power and frequently oppose the peace process that Guatemala has been fitfully implementing since 1996.
Recent investigations of electoral and party finance corruption have shed light on the influence of unelected and illicit groups over the government. There are serious allegations of links between drug trafficking and the political elite. In August 2020, US prosecutors charged a former minister of the economy with laundering millions of dollars in drug money. Business groups continue to hold significant sway over the executive and legislative branches.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?||1.001 4.004|
Corruption, which is often related to organized crime, remains a serious problem. The CICIG operated for 12 years before the government succeeded in shutting it down in 2019. Since its closure, authorities and lawmakers have continued to obstruct the fight against corruption, prosecutions have stalled, and many high-profile cases have lost momentum due to a lack of support. The Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) has pressed forward with investigations of high-level officials in current and past administrations. However, lack of support for FECI from the Attorney General’s Office (FGR) has furthered weakened efforts to curb corruption.
Since the CICIG’s departure, judges, prosecutors and civil society actors have increasingly been the targets of attacks, threats, lawsuits, and defamation campaigns for their prior support of CICIG and continuing commitment to tackling corruption.
The COVID-19 pandemic provided opportunities for corruption due to the easing of regulations for contract procurement and decreased access to government information. In April, two deputy health ministers were fired and placed under investigation for allegedly engaging in pandemic-related graft.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?||1.001 4.004|
Public information offices frequently fail to publish data about public expenditures as required. The Law on Access to Information is poorly enforced, and dedicated nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continue to file grievances over its nonapplication and, together with the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH), work to encourage the government to adhere to its provisions.
The government’s contracting and budgeting processes are opaque and racked with corruption. This worsened in 2020 due to the easing of procurement requirements in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which strained the already precarious health system and made it harder for relief to reach affected communities in a timely manner. Civil society observers also criticized the government’s general mismanagement of the pandemic, including severe deficiencies in transparency and accuracy regarding case numbers and regional patterns.
|Are there free and independent media?||2.002 4.004|
While the constitution protects freedom of speech, journalists face threats and self-censor when covering sensitive topics including drug trafficking, corruption, organized crime, and human rights violations. Threats come from public officials, illicit actors, the police, and individuals aligned with companies operating on Indigenous lands. Physical attacks against journalists occur regularly. The Association of Guatemalan Journalists registered dozens of acts of intimidation, threats, and assaults in 2020, and at least two journalists were killed during the year: Bryan Guerra was murdered in Chiquimula in February, and Mario Ortega was shot in November in San José. Journalists have demanded that the government implement a protection program that was agreed to in 2012, but little progress has been made. Media ownership is also highly concentrated. The country’s cybercrime laws have failed to protect outlets and reporters from harassment by trolls for hire, while officials abuse unrelated laws to censor media outlets.
Rural, Indigenous, and women journalists are afforded little protection from discrimination, threats, and frivolous legal action, and reporters covering regional news suffered attacks and detentions on several occasions in 2020. In September, Indigenous journalist Anastasia Mejía Tiriquiz was arrested and charged with multiple serious offenses, including sedition and arson, after covering protests regarding alleged corruption by local authorities.
Journalists raised serious concerns regarding obstacles to covering the COVID-19 pandemic, including difficulty in accessing official information, censorship by government officials, arbitrary detentions, and defamation campaigns. President Giammattei was highly combative with reporters throughout the year, and journalists Marvin del Cid and Sonny Figueroa, who have published articles examining alleged misdeeds by the president and members of his inner circle, faced repeated threats and police harassment.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?||4.004 4.004|
The constitution guarantees religious freedom, and individuals are free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in practice. Public religious gatherings were prohibited as part of the pandemic-related restrictions. In September religious services were allowed to restart, with face masks, attendance restrictions, and social distancing required.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?||3.003 4.004|
Although the government does not interfere with academic freedom, scholars have received death threats for questioning past human rights abuses or continuing injustices.
|Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution?||2.002 4.004|
Many Guatemalans take precautions when speaking about social and political issues outside of their homes due to a high level of insecurity in the country. Journalists and human rights defenders reported incidents of harassment and surveillance throughout 2020. This stepped-up surveillance, along with increased intimidation and harassment of perceived opponents of the government, has encouraged greater self-censorship among ordinary citizens.
|Is there freedom of assembly?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but this right is not always protected. Police frequently threaten force, and at times use violence against protesters. Protests related to environmental or Indigenous rights issues have been met with harsh resistance from the police and armed groups.
In March 2020, the government declared a state of emergency due to the outbreak of COVID-19 and instituted mandatory curfews and restrictions on gatherings and activities. By September, the police had detained more than 40,000 people for violating the curfew restrictions.
In November, massive protests erupted following the congressional approval of the 2021 budget, which included sharp cuts to key services while allocating money to agencies plagued by corruption allegations. While most protesters—many of whom demanded President Giammattei’s resignation—were peaceful, sporadic violence occurred, including the setting of a fire that damaged Congress. Journalists and the PDH reported excessive use of force by the security forces against demonstrators; at least 22 people were injured, two of them with severe eye injuries. At least 35 protesters were detained, though most charges were later dismissed.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?||2.002 4.004|
The constitution guarantees freedom of association, and a variety of NGOs operate. However, groups associated with human rights, Indigenous rights, and environmental rights face increasing violence and criminalization of their work. The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), an NGO, documented 15 killings and 22 assassination attempts in 2020, as well as hundreds of less severe incidents. Despite a 2014 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights requiring a comprehensive public policy to protect human rights defenders, the government failed to advance such a policy; indeed, rights advocates criticized the closure of several agencies that were central to implementation of human rights provisions of the 1996 peace accords.
In February, legislators approved an amendment to the law governing NGOs that introduces a more onerous registration process, expands the state’s authority to deregister groups, and restricts NGOs’ control of funds received from abroad. In March, however, the Constitutional Court provisionally suspended enactment of the law; at year’s end, a final ruling had not been issued.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?||2.002 4.004|
Guatemala is home to a vigorous labor movement, but workers are frequently denied the right to organize and face mass firings and blacklisting. Trade union members are also subject to intimidation, violence, and murder, particularly in rural areas. Labor laws obstruct union membership and impede strikes.
|Is there an independent judiciary?||2.002 4.004|
The judiciary is hobbled by corruption, inefficiency, incapacity, and intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses, both by outside actors and influential figures within the judiciary. The Constitutional Court (CC) demonstrated independence in several rulings in 2020. However, continued attempts to remove CC magistrates and public attacks against them, along with consistent refusal by Congress and the Supreme Court to comply with CC rulings, raised serious concerns about the weakening of the judiciary’s independence.
Corruption also affected the process to select new Supreme Court and appellate court judges, who were supposed to assume office in 2019. In February 2020, FECI uncovered a corruption network seeking to influence nominations, prompting the CC to suspend the selection process. In May, the CC issued a ruling laying out clear guidelines for the selection of justices to the high courts. However, as of year’s end, Congress had refused to abide by the ruling and carry out the selection process.
In June and again in November, the Supreme Court granted requests to lift the immunity of four CC magistrates, alleging that their ruling on the judicial selection process amounted to criminal conduct. Civil society groups described the efforts as retaliation for CC rulings upholding the rule of law.
In November, the Supreme Court pushed through the election of Roberto Molina Barreto to the CC, despite questions about the process and Molina’s independence, given his vote to overturn Ríos Montt’s genocide conviction in 2013 and subsequent run for vice president on a ticket with Zury Ríos in the 2019 election.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?||1.001 4.004|
Due process rights are guaranteed in the constitution, but those rights are inconsistently upheld, due in part to corruption in the judiciary and an ineffective police force in which many officers routinely violate the law and the rights of citizens. Access to justice remains difficult, especially for the Indigenous community. Conviction rates are low.
In recent years, judges and prosecutors have reported threats and harassment, been targeted by smear campaigns, and been subjected to malicious criminal and disciplinary complaints in apparent retaliation for their work on sensitive cases related to corruption and human rights abuses. More than 40 lawsuits have been filed against FECI prosecutors in an attempt to close down its investigations. In October 2020, the FGR approved nine administrative complaints against FECI prosecutors, filed mostly by individuals facing FECI investigations. PDH head Jordán Rodas, regarded as an independent advocate for human rights, also faced criminal complaints and legislative motions for his removal on the basis of allegedly promoting abortion rights and displaying pro-LGBT+ bias.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?||2.002 4.004|
High levels of violence, kidnappings, and extortion at the hands of the police, drug traffickers, and street gangs continue, with related fears and risks routinely affecting the lives of ordinary people. Links between the state, politicians, the military, and illicit actors complicate a cohesive response to the country’s security challenges. Despite these challenges, the homicide rate dropped for the 11th straight year; the authorities reported a 28 percent drop in homicides in 2020 compared to 2019. Prison facilities are grossly overcrowded and rife with gang and drug-related violence and corruption. Prison riots are common, and are frequently deadly.
Since taking office in January 2020, the Giammattei administration has also declared states of siege, which restrict constitutional guarantees and allow for the deployment of security forces, in eight municipalities. Authorities justified the measures on the presence of armed groups and need to restore order, but no specific events were cited, and NGOs and Indigenous groups raised concerns that the orders were intended to facilitate evictions and promote megaprojects in the affected areas. In some areas, the measures resulted in the illegal detention of community leaders.
Efforts to bring perpetrators of past human rights abuses to justice continued in 2020, but progress was mixed. In November, a former special forces officer was ordered to stand trial for his participation in the infamous 1982 Dos Erres massacre; six former military officers have previously been sentenced in connection with the case. The COVID-19 pandemic paralyzed judicial activity, resulting in the temporary suspension of judicial proceedings in several ongoing civil war–era criminal trials. In January 2019, Congress began considering legal measures to offer amnesty for civil war–era crimes. Despite a Constitutional Court provisional ruling to suspend debate later that year, the bill remained pending in Congress throughout 2020.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?||1.001 4.004|
Equal rights are guaranteed in the constitution, but minorities continue to face unequal treatment. Indigenous communities suffer from high rates of poverty, illiteracy, and infant mortality. Indigenous women are particularly marginalized. Discrimination against the Mayan community is a major concern.
LGBT+ people face discrimination, violence, and police abuse and are unprotected by legislation. The PDH has stated that people living with HIV/AIDS also face discrimination.
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender, but women continue to face gender-based inequality; women are usually paid less for their labor than men, and sexual harassment in the workplace is not penalized.
In March 2020, an agreement signed with the United States in 2019 that forces migrants passing through Guatemala to claim asylum there first was temporarily suspended due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the United States continued to deport migrants, many of whom tested positive for COVID-19, and deportees were at times subjected to social ostracism upon their return due to fears of contagion.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?||3.003 4.004|
While there are no permanent restrictions on free movement, violence and the threat of violence by gangs and organized criminal groups inhibits this right in practice, and has prompted the displacement of thousands of people. Guatemalans saw their freedom of movement restricted due to the COVID-19-linked state of emergency, as did communities living in regions where states of siege were implemented.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?||2.002 4.004|
Protections for property rights and economic freedom rarely extend beyond Guatemalans with wealth and political connections. Land protections are especially limited for the Indigenous community, and for women in particular. A series of Constitutional Court rulings in June and July 2020 reinforced communal landholding rights in Indigenous communities. In September, however, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights condemned a wave of murders of Indigenous land rights’ defenders.
Business activity is hampered by criminal activity including extortion and fraud. An inefficient state bureaucracy, rife with unclear and complicated regulations, also contributes to difficulties in establishing and operating a business.
|Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance?||2.002 4.004|
Physical and sexual violence against women and children remains high, with perpetrators rarely facing prosecution. According to the police, 358 women were killed in Guatemala in 2020, and more than 3,000 have been killed since 2015. The law permits abortion only when a pregnancy threatens the life of the woman. Teen pregnancy remains high; in 2017, a decree banned marriages for children under the age of 18, though the law is not effectively enforced. The coronavirus lockdown resulted in increased reports of violence against women throughout the country, while transport reductions limited women’s access to support services.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?||1.001 4.004|
The Indigenous community’s access to economic opportunities and socioeconomic mobility remains limited, with more than 70 percent of the Indigenous population living in poverty. Income distribution is among the most unequal worldwide, with the wealthiest 10 percent of the population holding nearly 50 percent of the national wealth. Significant barriers to accessing education persist, particularly for girls, Indigenous children, and rural residents. These obstacles were exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, which shuttered classrooms throughout the country, as well as by hurricanes Eta and Iota, which struck in November and left at least 60 people dead and tens of thousands displaced, along with large-scale damage to crops and property centered in majority-indigenous areas.
Child labor persists, especially among Indigenous children, as does sexual exploitation of vulnerable groups including children, LGBT+ people, and Indigenous people. Gangs often force children and young men to join their organizations or perform work for them.
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Global Freedom Score49 100 partly free