Guatemala | Freedom House

Freedom in the World



Freedom in the World 2014

2014 Scores


Partly Free

Freedom Rating
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Civil Liberties
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


Political Rights
(1 = best, 7 = worst)


The Guatemalan criminal justice system continued to demonstrate progress in 2013, with investigations, prosecutions, and guilty verdicts in a number of high-profile cases related to government corruption, murder, extortion, and organized crime. According to the attorney general’s office, the number of convictions nearly doubled between 2009 and 2012. In May, former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was convicted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity and sentenced to 80 years in prison. Only 10 days later, however, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court (CC) overturned the ruling, citing procedural irregularities and returning the case to the lower court.

Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and her office continued to receive crucial international support in 2013, while the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—a team of police and prosecutors tasked with investigating corruption, violence, and organized crime within Guatemalan public institutions, political parties, and civil society—showed modest improvements in reforming the country’s justice system during the year. Colombian Ivan Velasquez Gomez replaced Francisco Dall’Anese as head of CICIG in September.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 


Political Rights: 24 / 40 [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 9 / 12

The Republic of Guatemala, which was established in 1839, has endured a history of dictatorship, foreign intervention, military 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 Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unit guerrilla movement became a political party, and two truth commissions began receiving complaints of human rights violations committed during the conflict.

The constitution stipulates a four-year presidential term and prohibits reelection. Members of the 158-seat, unicameral Congress of the Republic are elected to four-year terms.

Elections take place within a highly fragmented and fluid multiparty system. In 2011, Guatemalans voted to elect a president, all 158 members of the parliament, mayors for each of the 333 municipalities, and 20 members of the Central American Parliament. The Patriotic Party (PP) and National Unity for Hope (UNE) captured two-thirds of the seats in parliamentary elections; nine other parties took the remaining 54 seats. After no candidate won a majority of votes in the first round of the presidential election, the PP’s Otto Peréz Molina defeated Manuel Baldizón of the Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER) in a November runoff with 54 percent of the vote. The elections were generally considered free and fair despite accompanying violence, and electoral observers reported irregularities including intimidation, vote buying, and the burning of ballots and electoral boxes. The electoral authority, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, was criticized for its slow transmission of election results.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 10 / 16

At least 36 candidates, party activists, and their relatives were killed in campaign-related violence surrounding the 2011 elections. Both the LIDER and the PP violated campaign spending laws, and five municipal elections had to be repeated due to irregularities.

The government uses the military to maintain internal security, despite restrictions on this practice imposed by the 1996 peace accord. Only 12 percent of the seats in the Congress of the Republic are held by members of the indigenous community, who make up 44 percent of the population. The indigenous population had a more significant representation at the local government level.


C. Functioning of Government: 5 / 12

Despite efforts to combat corruption, serious problems remain. Peréz ordered the closing of the National Fund for Peace (Fonapaz), was a governmental organization created by the 1996 peace accords in order to support municipal development projects, in January 2013 because the institution had become so corrupt that it was beyond saving. However, the Social Development Fund, which replaced it, is reportedly similarly plagued by corruption. On October 15, Pérez announced that the military would intervene in the Tax Administration Superintendence, the agency that collects taxes and customs duties for the central government, due to problems in five customs houses that collected less tax than expected.

Vice President Roxana Baldetti Elias has been linked to several high-profile scandals and has purchased luxury items, including several multimillion dollar homes, with unexplained wealth.

In May 2013, former president Alfonso Portillo was extradited to the United States, where he was indicted in 2010 for allegedly embezzling state funds while in office (2000–04) and laundering the money through Guatemalan, European, and U.S. banks. His case was ongoing at year’s end.

In October 2013, five people with close ties to Antigua mayor Vivar Marroquin were sentenced to between two and three years in prison for extortion and fraud. Marroquin himself and several associates await trial on charges of fraud, money laundering, and abuse of authority.

Guatemala’s Human Rights Ombudsman reported that it had received 140 denouncements against state institutions for denying or making difficult access to information during the first half of 2013. The office received 275 complaints in 2012. Guatemala was ranked 123 out of 177 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2013 Corruption Perceptions Index.

Civil Liberties: 32 / 60 (-1)

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 12 / 16

While freedom of speech is protected by the constitution, journalists often face threats and practice self-censorship when covering drug trafficking, corruption, organized crime, and human rights violations. Threats come from public officials, drug traffickers, individuals aligned with companies operating in indigenous communities, and local security forces. As of mid-October 2013, there had been more than 80 attacks or threats against journalist, including murders in Guatemala City, Zacapa, and Jutiapa. The website of El Periodico newspaper has been targeted by several cyber-attacks, and its editor and reporters were threatened following investigations into government corruption. In November, Pérez filed a complaint against José Rubén Zamora Marroquín, the editor of El Periodico, accusing him of coercion, blackmail, extortion, violating the constitution, and insulting the president. A judge ordered him not to leave the country and set a hearing for February 2014. In December, a judge issued a restraining order against Zamora that prohibits him from criticizing or physically approaching Baldetti and her family. In November, César Pérez Méndez, the director of the daily newspaper El Quetzalteco, reported receiving several deaths threats believed to be related to his paper’s coverage of local corruption in Quetzaltenango. Also in November, members of the National Civil Police pepper sprayed 28 journalists in two separate incidents while they were trying to cover a high-profile crime story.

On May 6, Pérez signed a law that created the Program to Protect Journalists, and several mining company employees and government officials were sentenced to jail time in 2013 for threatening journalists. Nevertheless, threats and attacks against journalists increased in 2013, many of which were linked to the Ríos Montt trial. The Central American Institute for Social Democracy Studies and the private office of the UN special rapporteur on freedom of Opinion and expression, Frank La Rue, were burglarized on July 31, during which documents and computers were stolen.

The press and most broadcast outlets are privately owned. Mexican businessman Remigio Ángel González owns a monopoly of broadcast television networks and has significant holdings in radio. Newspaper ownership is concentrated in the hands of business elites, and most papers have centrist or conservative editorial views.

The constitution guarantees religious freedom. However, indigenous communities have faced discrimination for openly practicing the Mayan religion. The government does not interfere with academic freedom, but scholars have received death threats for questioning past human rights abuses or continuing injustices. On January 17, the offices of the Association for the Advancement of Social Sciences were burglarized shortly before the organization was scheduled to publish a report related to its work on the history of the police.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 6 / 12 (-1)

The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, though police frequently threaten force and have at times used force against protesters. The constitution guarantees freedom of association, and a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Guatemala, although they do confront significant obstacles. According to the Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit in Guatemala, attacks against human rights defenders rose from 305 in 2012 to 568 during the first eight months of 2013 alone. According to the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit, a domestic NGO, 18 human rights defenders were killed through November 2013; a total of 13 had been killed in all of 2012. The safety of members of international NGOs worsened during the Rios Montt trial and continued through the end of the year. In October, Interior Minister Mauricio López Bonilla threatened to deport foreigners “meddling in Guatemala’s internal affairs.”

Guatemala is home to a vigorous labor movement, but workers are frequently denied the right to organize and face mass firings and blacklisting, especially in export-processing zones. Trade union members are also subject to intimidation, violence, and murder, particularly in rural areas during land disputes. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, Guatemala is the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. In June, the Committee on Freedom of Association drew international attention to the murder of trade union members and other labor issues in Guatemala. In 2010, the United States filed a formal complaint against Guatemala under the Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement, alleging government failure to protect workers’ rights. In August 2011, the United States further requested a dispute settlement panel to address its complaint. Representatives from Guatemala and the United States signed an 18-point Enforcement Plan in April, but the United States reiterated that “significant work” was needed on the part of Guatemala as late as October.


F. Rule of Law: 6 / 16

The judiciary is troubled by corruption, inefficiency, capacity shortages, and the intimidation of judges and prosecutors. Witnesses and judicial-sector workers continue to be threatened and, in some cases, murdered. In December 2012, a federal prosecutor and six others were murdered in Huehuetenango. A November 2012 CICIG report accused 18 judges of “creating spaces of impunity” for organized crime and corrupt officials, including shielding suspected criminals from prosecution and making questionable rulings in their favor. According to the CICIG’s 2013 report, impunity levels have decreased from 93 percent to 70 percent since the commission’s inception.

Police continue to be accused of torture, extortion, kidnapping, extrajudicial killings, and drug-related crimes, although there were several notable prosecutions in 2013. In September, Baltazar Gomez, former director of the National Civil Police, was convicted and sentenced to 16 years in prison for stealing at least 350 kilograms of cocaine in 2009. As of November 2013, authorities had registered more than 1,500 complaints against police; over 300 current and former police officers were arrested for various crimes, including murder and kidnapping. Prison conditions are harsh, and facilities are overcrowded and rife with gang- and drug-related violence and corruption. Prisoners, including Byron Lima Oliva, who is serving time for his involvement in the murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi, have been known to come and go from prison without authorization.

Even after four years of declining homicide rates, Guatemala remains one of the most violent countries in Latin America. Over 5,200 people were murdered in 2013. Violence related to the shipment of drugs from South America to the United States has spilled over the border from Mexico, with rival Mexican and Guatemalan drug gangs battling for territory. These groups have operated with impunity in the northern jungles, which serve as a storage and transit hub for cocaine en route to the United States. The local drug problem has also worsened, as traffickers have paid Guatemalan associates in cocaine rather than cash. The Pérez administration reacted to this situation by expanding the military’s role in fighting crime, including creating special task forces to investigate kidnappings, robberies, extortion, and homicides, and building five military bases along well-known drug trafficking routes. Human rights activists are concerned that the bases will be built in areas that have experienced serious conflicts over land, natural resources, and indigenous rights, and in areas that bore the brunt of military repression during the armed conflict.

In May 2013, a 30-day state of siege was declared in four municipalities around the El Escobal mining project: San Rafael Las Flores and Casillas in Santa Rosa, and Jalapa and Mataquescuintla in Jalapa. In July, eight police officers were murdered in their police station in Salcaja, Quetzaltenango, allegedly the result of one of the officers’ theft of drugs.  Authorities appear to have arrested most, if not all, of those involved in the killing. In September, 29 people were shot and 11 killed in San Jose Nacahuil, outside Guatemala City. Authorities believe the attack was caused by a store owner’s refusal to pay protection money, and they arrested eight members of the 18th Street gang in October in connection with the violence.

Citizens continue to take the law into their own hands. According to the Mutual Support Group, there were 39 percent more lynchings during the first 10 months of 2013 compared to the same period in 2012.

Prosecutions of perpetrators of past human rights atrocities continued in 2013. The trial of Ríos Montt—whose May conviction was overturned by the Constitutional Court 10 days later—is scheduled to resume in 2015, a delay that has prompted international criticism from human rights groups. Former guerrilla Fermin Felipe Solano Barillas was arrested in May 2013 for his involvement in the 1988 murders of 22 civilians, and was scheduled to go on trial in February 2014. On September 20, former chief of police Hector Bol de la Cruz was sentenced to 40 years in prison for his participation in the 1984 disappearance of union leader Fernando García. Two former police officers had been sentenced in October 2011 to 40 years in prison for García’s kidnapping and disappearance.

Indigenous communities suffer from especially high rates of poverty, illiteracy, and infant mortality. Indigenous women are particularly marginalized. Discrimination against the Mayan community continues to be a major concern. The government in recent years has approved the eviction of indigenous groups to make way for mining, hydroelectric, and other development projects. Several large indigenous communities have reportedly been forcibly evicted in the Polochic Valley with killings, beatings, and the burning of houses and crops. In August 2013, Pérez announced the creation of a cabinet position dedicated to indigenous people.

Clashes between government forces and indigenous people led to the deaths of seven demonstrators at Cuatro Caminos in May 2012. A colonel and eight soldiers were awaiting trial for the killings as of the end of 2013.

Members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community continue to be targets of violent attacks.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 8 / 16

Private businesses continue to experience high rates of extortion by gangs and organized crime. They also suffer from high rates of contraband smuggling.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender, though gender inequalities persist in practice. 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. Physical and sexual violence against women and children, including domestic violence, remain widespread, with perpetrators rarely prosecuted. While Guatemala now has its first female attorney general and vice president, women remain underrepresented in politics and hold just 13 percent of the seats in the Congress of the Republic.

Guatemala has one of the highest rates of child labor in the Americas. According to the U.S. State Department, the government does not fully comply with the minimum standards for eliminating trafficking but is making efforts to do so, including launching a program to provide specialized services for trafficking victims. Guatemala created an investigative body to combat trafficking in July 2012. The kidnapping of children for illegal adoption remains a concern, as does the trafficking of women and children for labor and sexual slavery. In October 2013, authorities claimed to have dismantled five criminal networks dedicated to international trafficking for either labor exploitation, sexual exploitation, or the trafficking of organs.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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