Freedom in the World
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Freedom Rating (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Civil Liberties (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Political Rights (1 = best, 7 = worst)
Guatemala’s political rights rating improved from 4 to 3 as a result of greater minority organizing and participation in government.
In 2006, Guatemala suffered a sharp increase in violent crime presumed to be linked to drug-trafficking and gang-related activity. The country also experienced a series of protests over the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement, land rights, and the provision of health care. A year after the devastation wrought by Tropical Storm Stan, the country struggled to rebuild. On a positive note, the Berger administration has increased the participation of minority groups from Mayan society as well as groups from human rights and other civic sectors, widening political participation among political elites.
The Republic of Guatemala, which was established in 1839, has endured a history of dictatorship, coups, and guerrilla insurgencies. Civilian rule followed the 1985 elections, and a 36-year civil war, which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, ended with the signing of a peace agreement in 1996. The peace accords led to the successful demobilization of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas and their legalization as a political group. A truth commission mandated by the peace accords began receiving complaints of rights violations committed during the conflict. However, in a May 1999 referendum, voters rejected a package of amendments to the constitution that had been approved by Congress a year earlier and prepared in accordance with the peace plan. The general consensus was that the government had failed to implement substantive reforms addressing social and economic inequalities, including ending military impunity, fully recognizing the rights of the Maya Indians, and reforming taxation to pay for health, education, and housing programs for the poor.
In July 2003, the constitutional court ruled that retired General Efrain Rios Montt—who used the army to employ brutal “scorched earth” tactics against the URNG during his 18 months as ruler of Guatemala in 1982 and 1983—could run for the presidency. Before the decision, violent demonstrations were staged in Guatemala City, as the National Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) brought armed supporters to intimidate the court’s justices and critics. Rios Montt was later chosen as the FRG’s candidate. In the first round of the presidential election, Oscar Berger of the Grand National Alliance (GANA), a former mayor of Guatemala City, received 34 percent of the vote. Alvaro Colom of the National Union for Hope (UNE) obtained 26 percent, and Rios Montt came in a distant third with 19 percent. In the runoff election, Berger won the presidency with 54 percent of the vote.
Although the next presidential election is not scheduled until 2007, the latter half of 2006 featured an increase in political activity as the campaign period approached. Opinion polls found that nearly 75 percent of the Guatemalan public were dissatisfied with the Berger administration, primarily due to an increase in violent crime, the implementation of the Dominican Republic–Central America Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA), an insufficient effort to rebuild following the October 2005 impact of Tropical Storm Stan, and unrest over land rights, oil prices, environmental issues, and human rights. In light of the challenges facing Berger, it was not surprising that his political opponent from 2003, Colom, led in the polls at the close of 2006. Guatemala’s Constitutional Court declared in 2006 that its previous ruling allowing Rios Montt to run for president in 2003 was unconstitutional, and that he would not be permitted to run in the future. Meanwhile, the Spanish National Court continued with its plans to prosecute eight former military leaders, including Rios Montt, for crimes against humanity. The court issued international warrants for their arrest and ordered that the suspects’ international assets be frozen.
Guatemala on July 1, 2006, became the fourth Central American country to implement DR-CAFTA, which linked the region to the United States. The country’s entrance into the trade agreement has been the subject of debate, as critics and proponents alike remain unsure of its eventual effects. Critics are concerned that it will have a negative impact on producers, vendors, and consumers, as it will favor large export-oriented producers and threaten small-scale companies that are unable to compete with imported U.S. products. Analysts noted reports of an increase in imports and a decrease in exports in 2006 compared to 2005, particularly in poultry and textiles, along with unclear effects on investment rates in the country. Supporters of the treaty, however, maintained that in the long run it would increase U.S. investment in Guatemalan industry and lead to overall economic growth. In response to the ratification of DR-CAFTA, union members, farmers, and students launched widespread protests in the capital, insisting that the treaty would hurt the poor.
Violent crime reached unprecedented levels in 2006. Current estimates of the murder rate in Guatemala range from 16 to 23 murders a day, up from 14.6 in 2005, giving the country the second-highest rate in Latin America after El Salvador. There were 5,886 homicides in 2006, a 10 percent increase from the 5,338 homicides in 2005, which was a 15 percent increase from 2004, and only 5 percent of cases were investigated. The continued practice of lynching, mutilation, and torture along with an increase in political assassinations carried out by plainclothes security forces, angered mobs, and gangs, among others has shocked the country. The upsurge in violent crime has been attributed to a number of factors, including an increase in drug-trafficking and related turf battles between rival gangs, the proliferation of arms in circulation, continued economic ills and weak institutions in criminal justice. In response, the Berger administration in April 2006 dispatched the army to areas of concern and announced that 3,000 soldiers would continue to support the efforts of national police to fight organized crime through 2007. Many of the 3,000 soldiers would replace 2,500 police officers dismissed in 2005 for involvement in criminal activities. Additionally, in April 2006 Congress passed an anticrime law that was remanded for revisions at the last minute, since it reduced the sentences of some of the most serious crimes. President Berger later vetoed the law that same month.
In an effort to respond to the problem of drug-trafficking, government officials in August 2006 eradicated poppy plants in San Marcos, seized 120 kilograms of cocaine, and destroyed 80 clandestine drug-trafficking landing strips discovered in the northern department of Peten. The landing strips, also discovered in Quetzaltenango, were presumed to have been built by Mexican cartels and to have handled a cargo of 2,000 to 5,000 kilograms of cocaine each over the course of the year. Also that year, the Guatemalan government created a second special army unit, supported by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, to destroy clandestine airstrips in the south and southwest of the country. Progress in combating drug-trafficking in Guatemala has been hampered by corruption among law enforcement officials. Policemen are presumed to have been responsible for the theft of 475 kilograms of cocaine from a police warehouse early in the year.
Protests and strikes were widespread in Guatemala in 2006. Teachers’ unions, hospital workers, and farmers protested at various times throughout the year. The protests that received the most sustained attention from government officials and police were those related to land disputes. Some 62.5 percent of Guatemala’s land remains in the hands of 1.5 percent of the population, spurring calls for reform. In 2005, 1,052 separate land disputes were reported. The majority of the 2006 land protests occurred in western and northern departments where many farmers have been evicted to make way for increased gold and nickel mining. In response, farmers seized land and demanded titles promised by mining companies. Police and military personnel were dispatched to protest sites, and some protesters were injured or killed in the resulting clashes. Separately, hospital employees from 12 public hospitals in the capital launched a strike in June that lasted through November to demand additional supplies, an increase in the health care budget for 2007, and added job security for health care workers.
Complaints about the slow pace of reconstruction after Tropical Storm Stan continued throughout 2006. A year after the storm struck, only 590 out of the 2,855 proposed reconstruction projects had been completed. There were also suspicions that the reconstruction effort was rife with corruption, since millions of reconstruction dollars were allocated to departments that were not affected by the storm.
In foreign policy matters, Guatemala in 2006 became involved in a heated contest for an open seat on the UN Security Council. It was the only Latin American country nominated to replace Argentina on the council until Venezuela entered the race months before the election. By the end of October, the matter was still undecided, and voting in the UN General Assembly was temporarily suspended until an agreement on how to break the stalemate could be reached. Guatemala led most of the rounds of voting, but it failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed to win the seat. The runoff between Guatemala and Venezuela highlighted the ideological divide that characterized the region in 2006. The United States remained firmly behind Guatemala’s nomination, while leftist Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, a strident critic of the U.S. government, refused to concede defeat, at least until after the Venezuelan presidential elections later in the year. Guatemala also refused to withdraw its bid until an appropriate alternative could be named. After several rounds the two countries agreed to identify Panama as a new candidate, thus ending the race.
The long-standing border dispute between Guatemala and Belize underwent a marked improvement in 2006. The countries participated in a series of meetings as part of a 2005 agreement that required the neighboring countries to identify issues and laws to be negotiated, establish their respective positions, and seek to resolve their differences when possible. Currently the countries are discussing commerce, tourism, development, infrastructure, security, justice, immigration, and maritime matters.
Guatemala is an electoral democracy. Though the campaigns were marred by instances of intimidation, violence, and fraud, the 2003 presidential and legislative elections were regarded by international observers as generally free and fair. The 1985 constitution, amended in 1994, provides for a four-year presidential term and prohibits reelection. The unicameral Congress of the Republic, consisting of 158 members, is elected for four years. Elections take place within a highly fragmented multiparty system comprised of traditional parties, emerging parties, and coalitions. Few parties represent a large political force as their clout changes with each new election, and coalitions are more likely to garner more support. Two traditional parties are the Frente Republicano Guatemalteco (FRG) and the Partido de Avanzada Nacional (PAN). A newer, emerging party is the Unidad Revolucionaria Nacional Guatemalteca (URNG), formerly a guerrilla movement. Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), a political party founded in 2001 and led by Alvaro Colom has gained support and popularity and has emerged as an important political force. Other parties include those in the coalition that gave Oscar Berger the presidency, such as Partido Patriota (PP), Partido Solidaridad Nacional (PSN), and Partido Movimiento Reformador (MR).
One important accomplishment of the current administration has been the increased political participation of a wide array of leaders from indigenous and human rights organizations and other civil society sectors, including Rigoberta Menchu, human rights activist Frank LaRue, Marta Altolaguirre, and Eduardo Stein.
However, this positive development has been accompanied by widespread corruption and growing lawlessness. Moreover, efforts to promote transparency have made little progress. Guatemala was ranked 111 out of 163 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2006 Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption within the police force is particularly pronounced and led to the dismissal of 2,500 police officers in 2005. Officers were allegedly responsible for the disappearance of 475 kilograms of cocaine in early 2006. Corruption concerns have also surrounded the Tropical Storm Stan reconstruction effort.
While freedom of speech is protected by the constitution, those who loudly condemn the government or past human rights abuses can become targets of persecution. The press and most broadcast media outlets are privately owned, and media ownership is extremely concentrated. A Mexican businessman, Angel Gonzelez, owns a monopoly of broadcast television networks and has significant holdings in radio. Newspaper ownership is concentrated in the hands of moderate business elites, and most papers have centrist or conservative editorial views. Six dailies are published in the capital, but only two of those circulate in other parts of the country. Violence against journalists as a means of intimidation diminished in 2006; however, three television reporters from two stations were attacked in Chiquimula in July. The government does not restrict internet access.
The constitution guarantees religious freedom. However, members of indigenous communities have faced discrimination for the open practice of their Mayan religion. The government does not interfere with academic freedom, but scholars have received death threats for raising questions about past human rights abuses or continuing injustices.
The constitution guarantees freedom of association. However, human rights groups are the targets of frequent death threats and acts of violence. The Guatemalan human rights prosecutor’s office pushed for a UN-appointed commission to curb threats and attacks against human rights activists, resulting in the 2004 creation of the Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Bodies and Clandestine Security Apparatus. Freedom of assembly is guaranteed and is generally respected in practice. In 2006, however, police used force to break up several demonstrations, resulting in the injury and death of some protesters.
Trade unions are targets of intimidation, physical attacks, and assassination, particularly in rural areas during land disputes. Workers are frequently denied the right to organize and are subject to mass firings and blacklisting, particularly in export-processing zones, where the majority of workers are women. Sexual harassment in the workplace remains legal.
The judiciary is plagued by corruption, inefficiency, capacity shortages, and violent intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses. According to the U.S. State Department’s human rights report, eight judicial sector workers were killed in 2005. While the constitution provides for a litany of procedural rights, the ineffectiveness of the judiciary restricts these rights in practice. The indigenous population continues to be shut out of the national justice system. Although indigenous languages are now being used in courtrooms around the country, Guatemalan authorities mostly dismiss traditional justice systems.
Police regularly employ lethal force, in many instances without justification. Police officers abuse and torture suspects, corruption is pervasive, and some police officers engage in extortion and kidnapping for ransom. Human rights groups have accused the police of extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members as a reaction to the growing level of crime. Using the military to maintain internal security remains controversial, since the peace accords placed limits on the practice. However, President Oscar Berger announced in 2006 that he will continue to allow some 3,000 soldiers to work alongside the police force. Cursory recruitment efforts have left the indigenous community seriously underrepresented in the ranks of the National Civilian Police (PNC). Prison conditions are harsh, and the facilities are rife with gang-related violence and drug-related corruption.
During his first year in government, the Berger administration has cut the size of the military by 43 percent, and the military budget was slashed to $15.5 million. However, in 2005, for the first time in 15 years, partially because of the military reductions, the United States provided more than $3 million in military aid. Human rights groups denounced the resumption of military aid, noting that the Guatemalan military remained corrupt and unrepentant for human rights violations of the past. They also cited the military’s ties to drug traffickers.
The state has a structurally weak justice system, regularly confronted by organized crime rings, youth gangs, and remnants of the security forces. Together, these forces have taken the state hostage, paralyzed effective criminal justice, and left social order practically in a state of anarchy with alarmingly high crime rates. More than 5,300 people were murdered in 2005, and current statistics indicate that the murder rate increased in 2006 to 5,885 homicides. Guatemala has one of the worst murder rates in the Western Hemisphere. Also in 2006, instances of vigilante justice increased, as lynching became a more common occurrence.
Roughly 80 percent of the Guatemalan population lives below poverty level and does not benefit from social security. Guatemala also continues to rank high on inequality indicators, with some 63 percent of gross domestic product concentrated in the hands of 20 percent of the population. Unemployment and underemployment levels remain high. Infant mortality rates among the Maya are among the highest in the hemisphere, and discrimination against the Mayan community continues to be a major concern. The government in recent years has approved the eviction of indigenous groups from areas of development, particularly where there are mining and hydroelectric projects.
Violence against women and children is widespread. Street children and women, especially those believed to be engaged in prostitution, are the most common victims of murder. Women and children are drawn into prostitution both locally and in neighboring countries. The numbers of women murdered in Guatemala have risen consistently for four consecutive years, with over 2,200 women and girls slain since 2001. There were 665 cases registered in 2005, and between January and May 2006 there were 299 reported killings of women. According to Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, 70 percent of all homicides are not investigated, and in 97 percent of cases, no arrests were made. Human rights organizations have condemned the environment of impunity in which these crimes take place and have called for Guatemalan authorities to take immediate action. Early in 2006, the government started a commission to investigate crimes against women and implement mechanisms to prevent and punish them.
Guatemala has the highest rate of child labor in the Americas, with one-third of school-aged children forced to work on farms or in factories. As much as 20 percent of the workforce consists of children. Guatemala is a source, transit point, and destination country for its own nationals and other Central American women and children trafficked for purposes of both sexual exploitation and child labor. Transgender women and gay men also continued to be targets of violent attacks.