Guatemala | Freedom House

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In September 2008, spy equipment was discovered in the presidential and vice presidential offices, as well as in the president’s residence. The scandal, which suggested the complicity of top security officials in President Alvaro Colom’s administration, was symptomatic of security failures on a national level. Also in 2008, violent crime continued unabated, and environmental and human rights activists, as well as union leaders and journalists, suffered threats and attacks.

The Republic of Guatemala, which was established in 1839, has endured a history of dictatorship, foreign intervention, 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 a 1996 peace agreement. The accord led to the demobilization of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas and their legalization as a political group. A truth commission mandated by the peace agreement began receiving complaints of rights violations committed during the conflict. However, voters in 1999 rejected a package of constitutional amendments 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 2003, the Constitutional Court ruled that retired general Efrain Rios Montt—who employed brutal tactics against the URNG during his 18 months as ruler of Guatemala in 1982 and 1983—could run for the presidency. Before the decision, the Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) party mustered 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, Berger won with 54 percent of the vote.

The 2007 general elections were the bloodiest in Guatemala’s recent history, with more than 50 candidates, activists, and their relatives slain during the campaign period. Electoral violence was fueled by the drug trade, gang activity, and armed groups including rogue soldiers and paramilitary forces; some of the killings were not overtly political, forming part of the country’s broader pattern of violent crime. The September vote was nevertheless regarded by international observers as largely free and fair. The UNE party captured 51 seats in Congress, followed by 37 seats for outgoing President Berger’s GANA party, and 29 seats for Perez Molina’s Patriot Party. The FRG showed the most significant loss of power in 2007, losing 65 percent of its congressional base to win only 14 seats. Rios Montt won a seat in the congressional elections, giving him immunity from prosecution; a Spanish court in 2006 had issued arrest warrants for eight former military leaders, including Rios Montt, for crimes against humanity. Colom of the UNE defeated former general Otto Perez Molina of the Patriot Party in a presidential runoff vote, capturing 53 percent of the ballots amid a turnout of 45 percent.

During Colom’s first year in office, he oversaw the dismissal or resignation of much of his cabinet and other senior officials due to scandal, corruption, or ineffectiveness. A scandal involving the transfer of $10.9 million in congressional funds to a stockbroker forced Congress president Eduardo Meyer, a close ally of Colom, to step down. Opposition leader Otto Perez Molina was among a number of others implicated in the affair. The attorney general’s office also ordered an investigation into an alleged payment of $40,000 received by Meyer’s predecessor, Ruben Dario Morales, in 2007.

The most serious threat to Colom’s ability to govern came in September 2008, when cameras, voice recorders, and other spy equipment were found in the presidential and vice presidential offices, as well as in Colom’s residence. The discovery led to the resignations of Carlos Quintanilla, the head of the presidential security unit; Gustavo Solano, secretary for presidential strategic affairs; and Ricardo Valdez, the vice president’s chief of personal security. Arrest warrants were later issued for Quintanilla and Solano on charges of espionage; Quintanilla surrendered to authorities on December 22. 

The presidential security breach was indicative of greater security failures on a national level. Colom had promised to fight rampant violence and organized crime in Guatemala, but many critics questioned his plans to double the size of the army to 30,000 members over 25 years. While the 1996 peace accord called for a reduction in the size of the military, Colom’s administration argued that previous administrations had gone too far. Colom also called in the army in September to take control of the presidential palace while the executive branch’s discredited security entities were restructured.

Meanwhile, the security establishment continued to suffer from the fallout of the February 2007 murder of three Salvadoran congressmen by Guatemalan police officers. The perpetrators, who had quickly confessed, 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 execute the four officers, exacerbating concerns about death squads within the security forces and links between government officials and organized crime. Guatemala’s interior minister, the national police chief, and the head of the prison system resigned in March of that year. In April 2008, the government said it would not renew the contract of security advisor Victor Rivera, who had led the investigation into the murders. He had allegedly become too powerful and was reportedly investigating cases without the knowledge of the Interior Ministry. A week after his dismissal, Rivera was assassinated. A former congressman and mayor of Jutiapa, Manuel de Jesus Castillo, was arrested in connection with the original murders in August 2008.

Although criminal violence continued unabated in 2008, Guatemala made important steps toward ending impunity for crimes committed during the country’s 36-year civil war. In February, Colom opened military archives to the public, and in March, the country’s first-ever trial for enforced disappearances began against former paramilitary Felipe Cusanero, who was accused of participating in the disappearance of six civilians between 1982 and 1984. Separately, the Spanish National Court in May began hearing a second round of testimony from Mayan survivors of alleged acts of genocide dating to Guatemala’s civil war. Six former Guatemalan officials, including former presidents Rios Montt and Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, faced charges of genocide in the Spanish court, and although the Guatemalan Constitutional Court had blocked Spain’s request to extradite the leaders in 2007, the court decided to continue its investigations.

Guatemala continues to struggle with growing poverty, which was exacerbated in 2008 by rising food prices. According to the UN World Food Program, the problem pushed an additional half a million Guatemalans into poverty during the year. Roughly 80 percent of the population lives below the poverty level and does not benefit from social security. The country 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. Guatemala is a party to the Dominican Republic–Central American Free Trade Agreement (DR-CAFTA) with the United States, and it also joined Venezuela’s Petrocaribe program in July 2008 in order to receive preferential rates on oil imports.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Guatemala is an electoral democracy. Though the campaign period was marred by intimidation and violence, the 2007 presidential and legislative elections were regarded by international observers as generally free and fair. The constitution stipulates 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 notable traditional parties are the FRG and the National Advancement Party (PAN). Other parties include the URNG, formerly a guerrilla movement, and the UNE, led by current president Alvaro Colom. The GANA coalition, which had supported former president Oscar Berger, included the Patriot Party, the National Solidarity Party (PSN), and the Reformist Movement (MR) party. In 2008, divisions within GANA caused it to split into two factions. GANA now holds 24 seats in Congress, while the UNE holds 50 and the Patriot Party has 26.

Efforts to promote transparency and combat corruption have made someprogress. Since 2004, Guatemalan government entities have been required to use an electronic procurement system called Guatecompras to submit most government purchases of over 900,000 Quetzales to public bidding in an effort to guarantee transparency. The number of government agencies using Guatecompras has increased since the program’s implementation, but parallel procurement practices continue to exist in some areas. In October 2008, former president Alfonso Portillo was extradited to Guatemala from Mexico to face charges that he had embezzled $15.7 million in public funds while in office. Corruption within the police force is particularly pronounced; in 2008, President Colom fired 340 police officials, including five commissioners and other inspectors, for corruption. In September 2008, Congress passed the Law for Free Access to Public Information, which grants citizens access to public information, including information about budgets and salaries, and promotes government transparency. In line with the passage of this law, the government has taken steps towards creating an institutional framework for transparency, including a fact-finding mission to Mexico’s Federal Institute of Access to Public Information, the creation of a Viceministery of Fiscal Transparency and Evaluation, and a Public Information Unit responsible for handling requests for public records. Guatemala’s transparency law was slated to go into effect in April 2009, and it remains to be seen if government institutions will have the capacity to assure its proper implementation. Guatemala was ranked 96 out of 180 countries surveyed in Transparency International’s 2008 Corruption Perceptions Index.

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 outlets are privately owned. 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. According to a 2008 poll conducted by the civil society group Cerigua, reporters expressed fear to cover stories related to drug trafficking, corruption and organized crime. At least two journalists were murdered in 2008, and a third, Hugo Arce, was found shot dead in January, though suicide was not ruled out. The editor and a journalist of the daily El Periodico were abducted and assaulted in two separate incidents in August. In October, a judge sentenced two men and a woman for the kidnapping of El Periodico editor Jose Ruben Zamora, although the defendants maintain their innocence, and Zamora’s colleagues suspect that the true kidnappers remain at large. Several other reporters received death threats throughout the year. 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. In July 2008, three members of the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation (FAFG) and their families received death threats, including the foundation’s Deputy Director Jose Suasnavar. The FAFG has been active in investigating mass killings committed during Guatemala’s armed conflict.

Freedom of assembly is guaranteed and generally respected in practice. However, police often use force to break up demonstrations, resulting in the injury and death of some protesters. The government suspended freedom of assembly three times in 2008 during states of emergency: in May, to end a roadblock surrounding Guatemala City; in June, to end protests over the construction of a cement factory in San Juan Sacatepequez; and in October; to end a clash between street vendors and police in Coatepeque.

While the constitution guarantees freedom of association, human rights groups are the targets of frequent death threats and acts of violence. Labor, human rights, and environmental activists continued to receive threats or were attacked in 2008, and even international agencies faced intimidation and office burglaries. The brother of prominent human rights activist Helen Mack was seriously wounded by gunmen in July 2008.

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. Violence against union leaders increased in 2008, and four were murdered during the year. Countless other union members have been threatened or attacked, and union activists’ family members were targeted for rape and murder. In April 2008, the U.S.-based AFL-CIO labor federation, along with six Guatemalan unions, filed a complaint with the U.S. Labor Department for violations of the labor provisions of DR-CAFTA, citing Guatemala’s failure to protect unionists.

The judiciary is plagued by corruption, inefficiency, capacity shortages, and violent intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses. The Judicial Disciplinary Unit of the Supreme Court investigated 914 complaints against judges and other judicial workers in 2008, resulting in 398 hearings through the month of September. According to the U.S. State Department’s human rights report, there were 129 cases of threats against judicial-sector workers reported in 2008, compared with 125 in 2007 and 71 in 2006. Between January and September 2008, eight public officials who were either working on or had information about high-impact judicial cases were murdered.

The ineffectiveness of the judiciary restricts constitutionally guaranteed procedural rights in practice. Pretrial detention is legally limited to three months, but inmates often spend years in jail before trial. In 2007, the government introduced 24-hour courts in Guatemala City in an attempt to increase the effectiveness and efficiency of the judicial system. These courts were replicated in selected additional departments in 2008. 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 Guatemalan law mandates for the provision of indigenous language translators in courtrooms across the country, a lack of funding has prevented this law from being properly implemented. In 2008, the Public Ministry employed 18 indigenous language interpreters, in addition to 15 bilingual public defenders; these numbers are inadequate, given Guatemala’s large indigenous population, with 23 indigenous languages spoken throughout the country. 

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), jointly proposed by the United Nations and Guatemala’s government, was created by Congress in August 2007 and tasked with examining the extent of corruption, violence, and organized crime within public institutions, political parties, and civil society. The CICIG received 64 complaints through September 2008 and was investigating 15 cases at year’s end. The Commission reported some difficulties working with the Office of the Public Prosecutor that impeded its progress in 2008. The mandate of the CICIG was initially set to expire in September 2009, but on April 22, 2009, the United Nations and the government of Guatemala reached an agreement to extend its mandate until September 2011.

Police regularly employ lethal force, in many instances without justification. Police have also been accused of torturing detainees, extortion and kidnapping for ransom, and extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members. In 2008, the National Civilian Police investigated 32 accusations of killings by police personnel, involving 185 agents. In July, two police officers were charged with the June extrajudicial killings of the son and former husband of Edilma Navarijo, mayor of Ocos, San Marcos. In November, police chief Dionisio Balam and two additional officers were sentenced to 30 years each for their involvement in the September extrajudicial killings of five alleged gang members in Guatemala City. Several police officers were also charged in 2008 in connection with narcotics trafficking. The government’s use of the military to maintain internal security remains controversial, since the 1996 peace accords placed limits on the practice.

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. In 2008, Guatemala experienced its most violent year in recent history, with 6,292 homicide victims, 11 percent of whom were women. Violence related to drug trafficking and drug cartels has spilled over the northern border into Guatemala from Mexico, and fighting between drug gangs has become more common in Guatemala as traffickers battle over territory. At least three major clashes left dozens of civilians dead in 2008, including a drug gang shootout in March in the department of Zacapa which left 11 people dead; a dispute over a cocaine shipment in Zacapa in November which resulted in 16 victims being incinerated in a bus; and a violent clash between Mexican and Guatemalan drug gangs along the border in the department of Huehuetenango where at least 17 people were reported dead. 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 rise in violence has been exacerbated by the proliferation of arms, continued economic ills, and weak criminal justice institutions. It is estimated that only 7 percent of murder cases result in a conviction.

Infant mortality rates among the Maya are some of the highest in the Western Hemisphere, and indigenous communities experience higher levels of poverty than the country as a whole. Indigenous women are particularly marginalized, and more than half of indigenous women over the age of 15 are illiterate. 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.

Sexual harassment in the workplace is not penalized. 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. 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. Guatemalan women and children are drawn into prostitution both locally and in neighboring countries. In April 2008, Congress passed a law against femicide, the murder of a woman for gender-related reasons, which now carries a penalty of between 25 and 50 years in prison; the law similarly recognized and increased penalties for a range of other crimes against women. 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. Guatemala is a source, transit point, and destination country for women and children trafficked for purposes of sexual and labor exploitation. In 2008, Guatemala remained on the Tier 2 Watch List in the U.S. State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, due to the government’s failure to comply with minimum international standards to eliminate trafficking.