Guatemala | Freedom House

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Freedom in the World 2008

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Guatemala held national elections amid record violence in 2007, with more than 50 candidates, activists, and their relatives killed during the campaign. The voting was nevertheless considered free and fair by international observers. Businessman Alvaro Colom won the presidency in a runoff against former general Otto Perez Molina, and former dictator Efrain Rios Montt, who was wanted in Spain on genocide charges, won a congressional seat and its attendant immunity from prosecution. Also in 2007, violent crime continued unabated, and environmental and human rights activists, as well as union leaders, suffered threats and attacks. The highly publicized murders of three Salvadoran congressmen in Guatemala in February, and the subsequent killings of the perpetrators in a Guatemalan prison, called international attention to the existence of death squads within national police forces. Separately, the government approved the creation of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, intended to expose corruption and organized crime in public institutions and civil society.

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 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 Unity for Hope (UNE) obtained 26 percent, and Rios Montt came in third with 19 percent. In the runoff election, Berger won the presidency with 54 percent of the vote.

Violent crime, which had been escalating for several years, fell slightly in 2007 to an estimated 14.5 murders per day, down from 17 murders a day in 2006. Approximately 5,292 homicides were committed in 2007, marking a notable decline from a total of 5,886 homicides in 2006, which represented a 10 percent increase from the 5,338 homicides in 2005, which had in turn been a 15 percent increase over the total in 2004. Nevertheless, Guatemala continues to be one of the most violent countries in Latin America, and murder rates are highest in areas associated with drug trafficking and gang activity, including the departments of Escuintla, Peten, Izabal, and Guatemala City. The murder rate in the capital reached about 108 per 100,000 people in 2007. Meanwhile, the continued practice of lynching, mutilation, torture, and political assassinations—carried out by plainclothes security forces, angered mobs, gangs, and other groups—has shocked the country. The upsurge in violent crime has been exacerbated by the proliferation of arms, continued economic ills, and weak criminal justice institutions. The national police force has a limited ability to combat crime, and has allegedly been infiltrated by organized criminal groups and death squads that perform extrajudicial killings. Private security officers outnumber the police in Guatemala.

The United States partnered with the Guatemalan government in 2007 to carry out the New Horizons military exercise, which focused on combating drug trafficking and illegal immigration on the Guatemala-Mexico border in San Marcos. In 2006, Guatemalan authorities eradicated poppy plants in that department, seized 120 kilograms of cocaine, and destroyed 80 clandestine drug-trafficking landing strips in the northern department of Peten. Progress in combating drug trafficking has been hampered by police corruption. Police officers were presumed to have been responsible for the theft of 475 kilograms of cocaine from a police warehouse early in 2006.

The country came under international scrutiny when three Salvadoran congressmen were killed by Guatemalan police officers while traveling through Guatemala in February 2007. The perpetrators quickly confessed and were sent to a maximum security prison, but they were killed in custody four days later. The police blamed the killings on prison riots, while inmates claimed to have seen men in military clothing enter the cells and execute the four incarcerated officers. The case created a diplomatic conflict between El Salvador and Guatemala, exposed the existence of death squads within the police force, and generally called national attention to the corruption and lawlessness that plagues the Guatemalan justice system. Security Minister Carlos Vielmann, national police chief Erwin Sperisen, and the head of the prison system, Victor Rosales, offered their resignations in March in connection with the scandal.

The 2007 presidential, congressional, and municipal elections were the bloodiest in Guatemala’s recent history, with more than 50 candidates, activists, and their relatives slain during the campaign period. Candidates and staffers from several parties were targeted. Electoral violence has been fueled by the drug trade, gang activity, and armed groups including rogue soldiers and paramilitary forces; some of the killings surrounding the elections were not overtly political, forming part of the broader pattern of violent crime in the country. Despite the violence, the September vote was regarded by international observers as largely free and fair. In the presidential contest, Colom of the UNE led the first round with 28 percent of the vote, followed by former general Otto Perez Molina of the Patriot Party with 24 percent. Colom then defeated Perez in the runoff, capturing 53 percent of the ballots amid a relatively high turnout of 45 percent. The congressional elections yielded a legislative seat for Rios Montt, the former dictator. In 2006, a court in Spain had issued arrest warrants for eight former military leaders, including Rios Montt, for crimes against humanity; the congressional seat gave him immunity from prosecution. In the municipal elections, former president Alvaro Arzu was reelected mayor of Guatemala City. The electoral success of the traditional political elite at all levels of government dampened hopes for major reform in the near term, and rural and indigenous Guatemalans remain largely disenfranchised.

Guatemala’s economic difficulties mounted in 2007, with the price of corn, a staple of the national diet, increasing by 78 percent in the first third of the year. The poverty rate had increased by 5 percent in 2006, despite the enactment of the Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA)—which linked five Central American countries and the Dominican Republic to the United States—in July of that year. Critics of the treaty said it would harm Guatemalan interests, and the country in 2006 experienced its first trade deficit with the United States in nine years. However, the pact’s supporters maintained that it would eventually boost U.S. investment in Guatemalan industry and lead to overall economic growth. Approximately 100,000 young people join the workforce each year, but formal sector jobs increased by only 0.43 percent in 2006. About 75 percent of Guatemala’s economically active population works in the informal sector.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Guatemala is an electoral democracy. Though the campaigns were marred by intimidation and violence, the 2007 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 and fluid multiparty system. Two traditional parties are the FRG and the National Advancement Party (PAN). Newer parties include the URNG, formerly a guerrilla movement, and the UNE, founded in 2001 and led by the 2007 presidential victor, Alvaro Colom. The GANA coalition, which had supported outgoing president Oscar Berger, included the Patriot Party, the National Solidarity Party (PSN), and the Reformist Movement (MR) party.

Indigenous activist and Nobel laureate Rigoberta Menchu Tum ran for president in 2007 as the candidate of an alliance between the Winaq indigenous movement and the Encounter for Guatemala party. While her candidacy earned attention abroad, where she is well known for her human rights work, it failed to garner votes within Guatemala’s heterogeneous indigenous communities. She finished in sixth place, with just 3 percent of the vote. The reasons behind Menchu’s failure to rally indigenous Guatemalans around her candidacy are complex and may be contributed to the disunity between the 19 Mayan linguistic groups in Guatemala, negative reactions to a female candidate among older, more traditional voters, and her reputation among many low-income voters as a rich outsider who has lost touch with the poor, resulting from her well-publicized investment in a chain of pharmacies.

Efforts to promote transparency and combat corruption have made little progress. Guatemala was ranked 111 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2007 Corruption Perceptions Index. Corruption within the police force is particularly pronounced and led to the dismissal of 2,500 officers in 2005. Police were allegedly responsible for the disappearance of 475 kilograms of cocaine in early 2006. Corruption concerns have also surrounded the reconstruction effort stemming from Tropical Storm Stan, which struck in late 2005.

While freedom of speech is protected by the constitution, those who stridently condemn the government or past human rights abuses can face 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 continued in 2007 and was exacerbated by the year’s elections. Staff members of the television station Cable Guatevision received death threats after covering the high-profile murders of three Salvadoran congressmen on Guatemalan territory. The journalists were reportedly photographed by security forces while covering the story. Several journalists were attacked in 2007, at least one fatally, and the incidents increased in the run-up to elections. Two installations of Radio Nuevo Mundo suffered armed attacks in September, while Cable Star Channel reporter Erwin David Hernandez was kidnapped that month and ordered not to say anything about a local mayor. 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.

While the constitution guarantees freedom of association, 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 deal with the problem, resulting in the 2004 creation of the Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Bodies and Clandestine Security Apparatus. Nevertheless, human rights, labor, and environmental activists were attacked in 2007, often fatally, and sometimes with members of their families. Many more community leaders and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) received threats during the year, and even international agencies and their employees faced intimidation and office burglaries. At least three organizations involved in exhuming mass graves or legal work related to past massacres received threats or suffered assaults and intimidation of employees. Freedom of assembly is guaranteed and generally respected in practice, but police often use force to break up demonstrations, which has resulted in the injury and death of several protesters.

Trade unions are subject to intimidation, physical attacks, and assassinations, particularly in rural areas during land disputes. Workers are frequently denied the right to organize and face mass firings and blacklisting, especially in export-processing zones, where the majority of workers are women. In January 2007, Pedro Zamora Alvarez, leader of the Quetzal Port Company Workers’ Union (STEPQ), was killed in front of his children. Marco Tulio Portela Ramirez, a leader of the Izabal Banana Workers’ Union, was killed in September 2007.

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, there were 125 cases of threats against judicial-sector workers reported in 2007, compared with 71 in 2006. While the constitution provides a litany of procedural rights, the ineffectiveness of the judiciary restricts these rights in practice. Approximately 44 percent of those incarcerated are awaiting trial; pretrial detention is legally limited to three months, but inmates often spend years in jail before trial. Prison conditions are harsh, and the facilities are rife with gang- and drug-related violence and corruption. The indigenous population continues to be shut out of the national justice system. Although indigenous languages are now being used in courtrooms across the country, Guatemalan authorities mostly dismiss traditional justice mechanisms.

Police regularly employ lethal force, in many instances without justification. Police officers abuse and torture detainees, corruption is pervasive, and some officers engage in extortion and kidnapping for ransom. Human rights groups have accused the police of carrying out extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members as a reaction to the growing level of crime. During the first eight months of 2007, only 52 of 922 police officers investigated because of complaints against the National Civilian Police (PNC) were removed from duty; 870 were exonerated. The government’s use of the military to maintain internal security remains controversial, since the 1996 peace accords placed limits on the practice.

In a positive step, the Guatemalan Congress voted in August 2007 to create the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which will examine the extent of corruption, violence, and organized crime within public institutions, political parties, and civil society. The commission had been jointly proposed by the United Nations and the Guatemalan government in December 2006, and is seen as a historic advance in strengthening institutions and fighting Guatemala’s culture of impunity.

Roughly 80 percent of the 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 Western 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 number of women murdered has risen consistently for four consecutive years, with over 2,500 women and girls slain since 2001. Between January and October 2007, the NGO Grupo Guatemalteco de Mujeres reported that 341 women were killed. According to Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman, 70 percent of all homicides are not investigated, and in 98 percent of cases in 2006, no arrests were made.. Transgender women and gay men also continue to be targets of violent attacks.

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, with 70.5 percent of those children working in agriculture. Guatemala is a source, transit point, and destination country for women and children trafficked for purposes of sexual exploitation and child labor. International adoptions became increasingly controversial in 2007, as unethical and profit-driven practices within the unregulated system were brought to light. President Berger announced that they would be suspended as of January 1, 2008, due to alleged abuses. The United States processed approximately 5,000 adoptions from Guatemala in 2007.

Sexual harassment in the workplace remains legal. Young women who migrate to the capital for work are especially vulnerable to harassment and inhumane labor conditions, and women overall earn 60 percent of what men in the same jobs earn. Nearly 75 percent of workers in the textile industry are women.