Guatemala | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2002

2002 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)

Trend Arrow: 

Guatemala received a downward trend arrow down due to increased reliance on the military during key congressional voting, rampant corruption, and an upsurge in mob lynchings.


The patience of the international community and of ordinary Guatemalans appeared to be drawing thin in 2001, as President Alfonso Portillo's government was beset with criticism. Promises in areas ranging from military restructuring to reforms leading to increased political participation, particularly of the country's majority Indian population, remained unrealized. Frustration over Portillo's failure to forge a fiscal pact that effectively helped to finance the implementation of the peace accords was compounded by growing threats to citizen security, including an upsurge in gang violence, narcotics trafficking, and domestic drug consumption, the latter the focus of an aggressive official demand-reduction program. Rampant official corruption and the often violent harassment and intimidation by unknown assailants of rights activists, judicial workers, journalists, and witnesses to human rights trials further muddied Guatemala's path to democratic development, as did a noticeable increase in instances of vigilante justice.

In March, rumors that Portillo, who had veered towards a course of authoritarianism and lacked a positive political message, had resigned and had sought exile in a neighboring country added to fears of growing instability caused by rampant public disaffection. In July, the Paris-based Financial Action Task Force (FATF), the international money-laundering watchdog, announced that Guatemala was being placed on its blacklist of countries deemed uncooperative with global efforts to stamp out such financial transactions, because of its excessive banking secrecy and failure to participate in information exchanges with other countries.

The Republic of Guatemala was established in 1839, 18 years after independence from Spain. The nation has endured a history of dictatorship, coups, and guerrilla insurgency, with only intermittent democratic government. A 36-year civil war formally ended with the signing of a peace agreement in 1996. The country has had elected civilian rule since 1985. As amended in 1994, the 1985 constitution provides for a four-year presidential term and prohibits reelection. An 80-member unicameral congress is elected for four years.

A conservative businessman, Jorge Serrano, became president in 1991 after winning a runoff election. In 1993 Serrano tried to dissolve the legislature, but was sent into exile after the military, which had initially supported him, changed course as a result of mass protests and international pressure. The government's human rights ombudsman, Ramiro de Leo Carpio, was chosen by congress as his replacement.

Once in power, de Leo Carpio was unable to halt human rights violations by the military or to curb its power as final arbiter in national affairs. After United Nations--mediated talks were launched between the government and the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas, the latter called a unilateral truce for the 1995 election, throwing its support to the left-wing New Guatemala Democratic Front (FDNG). Former Guatemala City mayor Alvaro Arzu, of the National Advancement Party (PAN), and Alfonso Portillo Cabrera, of the hard-right Guatemalan Republic Front (FRG), battled it out as front-running presidential contenders. (FRG founder and military dictator Efrain Rios Montt--accused of genocide during his own 1982--1983 presidency--was constitutionally barred from running.) Arzu won with 36.6 percent of the vote; Portillo Cabrera had 22 percent. In the January 7, 1996, runoff Arzu defeated Portillo, 51.2 percent to 48.8 percent.

Soon after taking office, Arzu reshuffled the military, forcing the early retirement of generals linked to drug trafficking, car-theft rings, and human rights abuses. The purge had the backing of a small but influential group of reformist officers who dominated the military high command. In December 1996, a peace agreement was reached following a preliminary accord on the return of rebel forces to civilian life and a permanent ceasefire.

Arzu's government made important advances in carrying out the peace process. These included the demobilization of the URNG guerrillas and their political legalization, the retirement of more than 40 senior military officers on corruption and narcotics charges, and the reduction of the army's strength by one-third. A UN-sponsored truth commission mandated by the peace accords began receiving tens of thousands of complaints of rights violations committed during the 36-year internal conflict. By 1999, however, it was clear that the government had stalled on implementing those reforms meant to correct the social and economic inequalities that had led to the conflict. These included ending the military's political tutelage and legal impunity, recognizing the rights of the Maya Indians, and reforming taxation to pay for health, education, and housing programs for the poor. In February 1999 the truth commission said that state security forces had been responsible for 93 percent of human rights abuses committed in a civil war that incurred as many as 200,000 deaths. High-ranking officials, it reported, had overseen 626 massacres in Indian villages.

In 1999, Guatemala held its first presidential elections since the end of the country's 36-year civil war. In a May referendum, voters rejected a package of 50 amendments to the constitution, approved by congress a year earlier, that had been prepared in accordance with the UN-brokered peace plan, in an election that was characterized by a high degree of abstentions. The presidential election saw former Marxist guerrillas participate openly for the first time, as part of a left-wing coalition.

Before the first-round voting in November, Portillo, who had campaigned on a human rights and development platform, admitted to having killed two men in Mexico 17 years earlier, in self-defense, he said. The FRG standard-bearer also successfully dodged the accusation he was merely a surrogate candidate for Rios Montt, his father-in-law, and was able to moderate the party's ideological hard line. He went on to beat the PAN candidate, former Guatemala City Mayor Oscar Berger, 48 to 30 percent. Alvaro Colom, of the New Nation Alliance (ANN), which included the former guerrillas, drew a mere 12 percent. In the December 26 runoff, Portillo, who had campaigned on a populist platform of fighting crime, reducing unemployment, and aiding the poor, overwhelmed Berger, 68 to 32 percent.

In 2000, Portillo began his presidency with an unprecedented shake-up of the military high command, claiming for himself the lead role in restructuring and modernizing the armed forces. However, throughout the year the army continued a pattern of interference with civilian institutions, particularly the police. Faced with opinion polls that showed his popularity, as well as his reputation for leadership, plummeting as a result in large part of worries over crime, Portillo replaced his internal security minister with an FRG deputy and retired army major with a controversial rights record. In August Rios Montt, who had been elected to a congressional seat and then to the presidency of the congress, was accused by opposition lawmakers of altering an alcohol tax after its approval by congress and before its publication, at the urgings of powerful liquor interests. A UN report issued in that same month blamed the government for dozens of politically motivated slayings; death threats against judges, journalists, and lawmakers; and hundreds of wrongful arrests. In October, a long-awaited presidential report on the 1998 slaying of human rights activist Bishop Juan Gerardi offered no new information and was deemed useless by those pressing for a more thorough investigation of the case. Two days before his death, Bishop Gerardi had released a report blaming the military for 90 percent of the rights abuses committed during the civil war.

In 2001, vigilante killings in rural areas whose residents are mostly Indian continued to be partly blamed on the government, with the new, but badly recruited and trained, National Civil Police (PNC) singled out as responsible for some of the most serious cases of extrajudicial execution and torture. The surge in crime has affected not only the lives of Guatemalans, but also the country's tourism sector, an important foreign exchange earner. In May, Rios Montt was cleared of all charges in the political scandal known as "Guategate." In June, 11 Indian communities filed genocide charges against Rios Montt for this role in a series of army massacres carried out during his presidency in which 1,200 Native Americans died. One a positive note, in July three former military officers were convicted in the killing of Bishop Gerardi, in a country where no officer had ever been successfully prosecuted for human rights abuses. However, that same month, Portillo put security forces on alert and barred senior government officials from leaving the country as congress prepared to debate a major tax increase. In December, Amnesty International criticized Portillo's decision to name retired General Eduardo Arevalo Lacs, a former defense minister accused of rights violations during the civil war, as the country's law enforcement minister. The move was justified by Portillo's defenders as allowing the president to move against two lower-ranking ministry officials considered as having an even more shadowy record.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Citizens can change their governments through elections. In the run-up to the November 2000 elections, which were largely free and fair, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal conducted an energetic voter turnout campaign among the country's 4.4 million registered voters. The constitution guarantees religious freedom and the right to organize political parties, civic organizations, and labor unions. However, despite increasing freedoms, Guatemala has yet to end a tradition of military dominance; recommendations by the truth commission for the purging of senior military commanders involved in atrocities have been largely ignored. The rule of law is undermined by the systemic corruption that afflicts all public institutions, particularly the legislature and the courts.

Despite penal code reforms in 1994, the judicial system remains ineffectual for most legal or human rights complaints; it suffers from chronic problems of corruption, intimidation, insufficient personnel, lack of training opportunities, and a lack of transparency and accountability. The new police force lacks effective internal accountability that could curb corruption and abuses of human rights. Drug trafficking is a serious problem, and Guatemala remains a warehousing and transit point for South American drugs going to the United States.

Human rights organizations are targets of death threats and the victims of frequent acts of violence, suggesting that a parallel power structure still operates with impunity in Guatemala.

Native Americans are largely shut out from the national justice system. Although indigenous languages are now being used in courtrooms around the country, support for traditional justice systems relying on customary law (derecho consuetudinario) receive only lip service from Guatemalan authorities. Similarly, cursory recruitment efforts have resulted in only a handful of Native American recruits for the new civilian police and, once these graduate from the police academy, they are rarely deployed in their own communities, where their language skills and knowledge of local customs could make a difference.

Guatemala remains one of the most violent countries in Latin America. Many Guatemalan businesses reportedly spend up to 15 percent of their budgets on private security. Even the smallest companies in Guatemala City are protected by heavily armed guards, and many of these are Native Americans from rural areas who lack little security or firearms training. Weapons proliferation is also a problem, as there is easy access to arms left over from the civil war, and criminals frequently have greater firepower than police or private security guards. Outside the capital, there is a substantial risk of highway robbery, assault, kidnapping, or other violence related to ethnic divisions.

The closing of military barracks throughout the country--the armed forces were the one Guatemalan institution with a truly national presence--while the PNC was being created and deployed created a noticeable vacuum in which criminal interests were free to operate. One result was an upsurge of vigilantism and lynchings. Guatemala's well-armed criminals know that there is little chance that they will be apprehended, prosecuted, and punished for their crimes. Vigilante violence has become commonplace since the mid-1990s, with as many as 100 people accused of wrongdoing killed annually by angry mobs fueled, in part, by rage at the ineffectiveness of the justice system. In June 2000, Portillo called out 4,000 army troops to assist the PNC in patrolling urban areas. In June 2001, more than 70 of Guatemala's most dangerous criminals escaped from a maximum-security facility in Escuintla. In response, the government suspended for 30 days several constitutional guarantees, including protection from arrest without warrant and the right to enter and exit the country freely. By the end of 2001, only about half of those who had escaped had been recaptured.

In 1998 the first convictions on war crimes charges were handed down in November, when three progovernment paramilitary force members were sentenced to death for their roles in a 1982 massacre of Indian peasants. In August 1999, 12 soldiers, including one officer, were given five-year sentences, with the possibility of parole, for the killing of 11 returned indigenous refugees, including two children, in 1995.

The press and most of the broadcast media, including several independent newspapers and dozens of radio stations, are privately owned. Five of the six television stations are commercially operated. However, journalists remain at great risk. In recent years, more than a dozen Guatemalan journalists have been forced into exile. The 1993 murder of newspaper publisher Jorge Carpio Nicolle, a former presidential candidate, remains unsolved. In September 2001, the host of a Guatemalan radio talk show that aired citizens' complaints against provincial officials was murdered after facing a flurry of death threats.

Some 32 percent of the population are illiterate; this rate of illiteracy is the highest in the Americas after Haiti. Eighty percent live below poverty levels, and infant mortality among the Maya is among the highest on the continent.

The Runejel Junam Council of Ethnic Communities (CERJ) represents the interests of the country's Indians, a majority of the population, who have faced severe repression and violence by the army and allied paramilitary organizations, as well as being manipulated for propaganda purposes by the URNG guerrillas. In 1996, Indians showed signs of flexing some political muscle. Indian candidates won control of an estimated 40 urban areas, including Guatemala's second largest city, and ten percent of congressional seats. Under a new law, Maya descendants are allowed to seek office as independents, and not as representatives of the national political parties that have ignored their needs. In 2001, a number of clashes were reported in Indian communities between the traditional Catholic majority and evangelical Christians, whose number has swelled in recent years.

Workers are frequently denied the right to organize and are subjected to mass firings and blacklisting, particularly in export-processing zones, where a majority of workers are women. Existing unions are targets of systematic intimidation, physical attacks, and assassination, particularly in rural areas during land disputes. According to a UN report issued in December 2000, Guatemala has the highest rate of child labor in the Americas, with one-third of school-age children forced to work on farms or in factories. Use of Guatemala as a transit point for illegal aliens, particularly from Asia, frequently leads to abuses, including death. On a positive note, during the period 1999--2001, a national commission helped to reunite some 444 families in which children had been separated from their parents during the civil war.