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.
- In July, the attorney general arbitrarily fired the head of the of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), Juan Francisco Sandoval, in violation of local and international laws, causing him to leave the country for fear of further retaliation. Sandoval had been investigating individuals within the president’s network for suspected acts of corruption. His removal was one of several measures taken by the attorney general to undermine efforts to curb corruption.
- In March, Congress pushed through the election of a new Constitutional Court made up of magistrates with links to corrupt actors and with known conflicts of interest. The legislature has also refused to allow Gloria Porras, a leading figure in efforts to tackle corruption, to assume her position as head of the Constitutional Court despite winning reelection that month. Porras is one of at least five justice officials forced into exile in the last few years.
- In October, the government decreed a 30-day state of siege in the El Estor municipality, where security forces clashed with peaceful Indigenous demonstrators protesting the continued operation of a mine despite a court order that suspended its license. Security forces used excessive force, including tear gas, against protesters, and the government enforced a curfew to end the demonstrators’ roadblocks.
|Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections?
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 2019, and Zury Ríos, the Valor party candidate and daughter of 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, was barred and fled the country after receiving threats, allegedly issued by the targets of her investigations.
|Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections?
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 mayoral races. The UNE won 53 seats while 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 women officeholders and candidates who reported discrimination.
|Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies?
In March 2020, after months of delay, 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 and drug trafficking , and have been accused of falsifying their academic titles.
In February 2021, the new TSE submitted to Congress reforms to the electoral law that would backtrack some of the key reforms adopted in 2016, including provisions that would reinstitute the practice of switching party affiliation, or transfugismo, for legislators, weaken the oversight role of the TSE, and reduce the sanctions against political parties that violate electoral norms. If approved by January 2023, the general elections scheduled to be held that year will be held under the new system.
|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?
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?
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?
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?
Members of ethnic and other minority groups struggle to fully exercise their political rights. There are no affirmative measures in place to promote the election of representatives of Indigenous peoples, who are underrepresented despite accounting for as much as 60 percent of the population. There are 16 Indigenous members of Congress, 4 of whom are women, and approximately 25 percent of mayors elected in 2019 were Indigenous. No Indigenous persons or Afro-Guatemalans currently 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 appointed three women ministers to his cabinet but two left their posts. Women hold only 31 seats in Congress, and only 11 mayorships out of 340.
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 LGBT+ people.
|Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government?
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.
Business groups continue to hold significant sway over the executive and legislative branches, and to serve on the governing bodies of various public institutions.
|Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective?
Corruption, which is often related to organized crime, remains a serious problem. Since the 2019 closure of the government’s anticorruption unit, called the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), authorities and lawmakers have obstructed the fight against corruption; prosecutions have stalled; and many high-profile cases have lost momentum. Judges, prosecutors, and civil society actors committed to tackling corruption have increasingly been the targets of physical attacks, threats, malicious lawsuits, and defamation campaigns. In September 2021, the Constitutional Court overturned a law that attempted to hold corrupt officials accountable. The law had barred individuals from paying a fine instead of serving a prison sentenced for corruption of five years or less.
Attorney General María Consuelo Porras has attempted to undermine efforts to curb corruption in recent years. In July 2021, Porras arbitrarily fired the head of the of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), Juan Francisco Sandoval, in violation of local and international laws, causing him to leave the country for fear of further retaliation. Sandoval had been investigating individuals within the president’s network for suspected acts of corruption.
Recent investigations of electoral and party finance corruption have shed light on the influence of unelected and illicit groups over the government. Serious allegations link drug trafficking to political elites. In July 2021, a US State Department report claimed that several individuals, including current and former Guatemalan government officials, are suspected of corruption.
The government’s easing of procurement regulations to combat the COVID-19 pandemic provided opportunities for corruption and decreased access to government information. In September, the minister of health resigned after weeks of demonstrations against the government’s handling of the pandemic and the collapse of the hospital network.
|Does the government operate with openness and transparency?
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 continue to file grievances over its nonapplication and, together with the Human Rights Ombudsperson’s Office, work to encourage the government to adhere to its provisions.
Contracting and budgeting processes are opaque and racked with corruption, which worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic due to the easing of procurement requirements.
|Are there free and independent media?
While the constitution protects freedom of speech, journalists self-censor when covering sensitive topics including drug trafficking, corruption, organized crime, and human rights violations. Public officials, illicit actors, the police, and individuals aligned with companies operating on Indigenous lands routinely threaten media workers. Physical attacks against journalists occur regularly. Throughout 2021, the Guatemalan Association of Journalists recorded 135 attacks and threats against journalists. At least one journalist was killed during the year; in July, activist and journalist Frank Stalyn Ramazzini was killed in Guatemala City. Reporters have demanded that the government implement a 2012 protection program, but little progress has been made.
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 2021. In October, at least four journalists from Prensa Comunitaria were allegedly attacked while covering the El Estor demonstrations, and others were also reportedly harassed and had equipment confiscated. Journalists Marvin del Cid and Sonny Figueroa, who have investigated alleged corruption within the current government, continued to face repeated threats and harassment throughout the year.
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 public officials abuse unrelated laws to censor media outlets.
|Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private?
The constitution guarantees religious freedom, and individuals are free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief.
|Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination?
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?
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 have reported incidents of harassment and surveillance, which, 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?
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but this right is not always protected. Police frequently threaten and at times use violence against protesters. Protests related to environmental or Indigenous rights have been met with harsh resistance from the police and armed groups.
The Giammattei administration has declared states of prevention and siege, emergency measures that enable the government to restrict constitutional guarantees, in response to protests. In October 2021, the government decreed a 30-day state of siege in the El Estor municipality, where security forces clashed with peaceful Indigenous demonstrators protesting the continued operation of a mine despite a court order that suspended its license. Security forces used excessive force, including tear gas, against protesters, and the government enforced a curfew to end the demonstrators’ roadblocks.
|Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work?
The constitution guarantees freedom of association, and a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate. However, groups associated with Indigenous, environmental, and human rights face increasing violence and criminalization of their work. Between January and July 2021, the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), a human rights NGO, documented 551 attacks against human rights defenders, 42 percent of which were against women. Five activists were murdered throughout the year.
The government has failed to fulfill the obligations of a 2014 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights (IACHR) requiring the development of a comprehensive public policy to protect human rights defenders. Advocates have criticized the closure of several agencies that were central to implementation of human rights provisions of the 1996 peace accords.
In February 2020, legislators amended the law governing NGOs to introduce a more onerous registration process, expand the state’s authority to deregister groups, and restrict NGOs’ control of funds received from abroad. Though the Constitutional Court suspended the amendment the next month, in May 2021, the new Constitutional Court overturned the previous court’s decision. In August, the government issued new regulations requiring foreign NGOs to register with the Ministry of Interior, which was also given broad discretionary authority to disband civil society groups.
|Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations?
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?
The judiciary is hobbled by corruption, inefficiency, incapacity, and the intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses by outside actors and influential judicial figures.
In March 2021, Congress pushed through the election of a new Constitutional Court made up of magistrates with links to corrupt actors and with known conflicts of interest. The legislature also refused to allow Gloria Porras, a leading figure in nationwide efforts to tackle corruption, to assume her position as head of the Constitutional Court despite winning reelection that month. She is one of at least five justice officials forced into exile in the last few years.
Corruption also affected the process to select new Supreme Court and appellate court judges. In 2019, the Constitutional Court ordered Congress to restart and select magistrates to those courts, after the FECI uncovered a network of corrupt actors, including individuals within the judicial system, who sought to influence judicial nominations. However, Congress has still refused to abide by the ruling as of the end of 2021. Prosecutors and judges who demonstrate independence have been targeted with politically motivated lawsuits.
International organizations have documented an increase in attacks, reprisals, and defamation campaigns against independent prosecutors and judges, particularly those tackling corruption and human rights abuses. According to UDEFEGUA and the IACHR, as of October 2021 independent judges had been targeted in 189 attacks and 51 judges had concerning legal proceedings against them, including motions to lift their immunity.
Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 due to politicized interference in the election of Constitutional Court magistrates, and because Congress continued to delay the installation of Supreme Court judges who had been set to assume office in 2019.
|Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters?
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 Indigenous people. Conviction rates are low.
Judges and prosecutors have reported an increase in threats and harassment, smear campaigns, and malicious criminal and disciplinary complaints in apparent retaliation for their work on sensitive cases related to corruption and human rights abuses. Head of the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH) Jordán Rodas, regarded as an independent advocate for human rights, has faced criminal complaints, legislative motions for his removal for promoting sexual and reproductive rights (including abortion rights), and the rerouting of his funds for his office by Congress.
|Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies?
High levels of violence, kidnappings, and extortion at the hands of the police, drug traffickers, and street gangs continue, with related fears and violence 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. The country’s homicide rate increased for the first time in 11 years in 2021; 2,843 homicides were recorded by the police. Prison facilities are grossly overcrowded and rife with gang and drug-related violence and corruption. Prison riots are common and are frequently deadly.
The Giammattei administration has also declared states of siege, which restrict constitutional guarantees and allow for the deployment of security forces. Authorities have at times justified such measures on the presence of armed groups and the need to restore order.
Efforts to bring perpetrators of past human rights abuses to justice experienced significant setbacks in 2021. In June, a judge ruled that 6 of 12 former security officials arrested in connection to the Death Squad Dossier would face trial for grave human rights violations. However, later that month, members of the Valor Party introduced a bill that would exempt perpetrators of grave human rights violations committed during the war from prosecution. Moreover, the judge and prosecutors assigned to the case were targeted by threats and intimidation, and in October the chief prosecutor was transferred to another unit.
|Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population?
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 February 2021, the agreement with the US government that forced migrants passing through Guatemala to claim asylum there first was suspended.
|Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education?
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 have their free movement restricted due to government-imposed states of siege and prevention.
|Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors?
Protections for property rights and economic freedom rarely extend beyond Guatemalans with wealth and political connections. Land protections are especially limited for Indigenous people, particularly Indigenous women, despite a series of Constitutional Court rulings in 2020 that reinforced communal landholding rights in Indigenous communities. In October 2021, protests in El Estor denounced a mining project that continued to operate despite a Constitutional Court order that temporarily suspended operations. The 2019 court order cited the project’s failure to implement proper consultations with the local Indigenous population and for oversight in its environmental impact report.
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?
Physical and sexual violence against women and children remains high, with perpetrators rarely facing prosecution. According to the National Institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF), 652 women were murdered in 2021.
The law permits abortion only when a pregnancy threatens the life of the woman. Teen pregnancy remains high; in 2017, underage marriages were outlawed, though the law is not effectively enforced.
|Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation?
Indigenous peoples’ access to economic opportunities and socioeconomic mobility remains limited, with more than 70 percent of the population living in poverty. Income distribution across the entirety of the Guatemalan population is among the most unequal worldwide, with the wealthiest 10 percent of the population receiving nearly 50 percent of the total income nationally. 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. Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which struck in November 2020 and left tens of thousands displaced, caused widespread damage largely in majority-Indigenous areas and further deepened these challenges.
Child labor persists, especially among Indigenous children. Sexual exploitation particularly affects 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