Guatemala | Freedom House

Freedom in the World


Freedom in the World 2016
Freedom Status: 
Partly Free
Aggregate Score: 
Freedom Rating: 
Political Rights: 
Civil Liberties: 

Quick Facts

Guatemala City
Press Freedom Status: 
Partly Free
Net Freedom Status: 

Ratings Change:

Guatemala’s Political Rights rating declined from 3 to 4 because of the increasing influence of organized crime and business interests in campaign funding, as well as the murder of municipal office candidates and their family members during the campaign.


Months of protests over a corruption scandal as well as an investigation jointly carried out by Guatemala’s Public Ministry and the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) led to the resignations and arrests of dozens of government and private sector officials, including President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti Elías. The multiple graft schemes cost Guatemala more than $200 million in lost revenue and resulted in the medical-malpractice deaths of at least 10 patients at state-run hospitals. Alejandro Maldonado was sworn in as vice president in May following Baldetti’s resignation that month, and became president when Pérez Molina stepped down in September. In addition to the rampant corruption, Guatemala was plagued by violence and threats against human rights defenders and members of the media, as well as against labor, land, and indigenous rights activists.

It was in this context that Guatemalans voted in September and October in national and local elections. The Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER) party and National Unity for Hope (UNE) won the most congressional seats, leaving Pérez Molina’s Patriotic Party (PP) tied for third place with a new party, Todos. Comedian Jimmy Morales of the National Convergence Front (FCN) took the presidency in the October runoff.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

Political Rights: 23 / 40 (−1) [Key]

A. Electoral Process: 8 / 12 (−1)

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. In September 2015 legislative elections, LIDER captured 45 seats and UNE won 32 seats. Todos and the scandal-plagued PP each won 18 seats, a drop for the PP of 38 seats from its total in the 2011 elections. Nine other parties took the remaining 45 seats. Morales won a plurality in the concomitant presidential vote and, with 67 percent, defeated former first lady Sandra Torres of the UNE in an October runoff. Turnout was 71 percent for the September vote and 56 percent for the October runoff.

The elections were generally judged free and fair. However, as in the past, electoral observers reported irregularities including intimidation, vote buying, and the burning of ballots and electoral boxes. A total of 11 municipal contests had to be repeated in October because of problems with the September votes. Since the beginning of the electoral campaign, an estimated 20 election-related murders occurred, mostly involving mayoral candidates and their relatives. The Public Ministry documented at least 532 arrests and 34 injuries to police officers in connection with the election process. LIDER’s presidential candidate, Manuel Baldizón, alleged fraud in the preliminary results of the official vote count that put him in third place in the first round of presidential voting. He then withdrew his candidacy and left the party.

In July 2015, the Guatemalan Supreme Court ruled that Zury Ríos Sosa, daughter of former military leader Efraín Ríos Montt, could register as a presidential candidate despite constitutional stipulations barring the relatives of coup leaders or dictators from running for the presidency. Her candidacy had earlier been turned down by the electoral commission. She won under 6 percent of the vote in the September election.

A July CICIG report estimated that 50 percent of known campaign donations come from contractors doing business with the state and another 25 percent from organized crime. The CICIG report also found that nearly all political parties spend more money than they report receiving, and that they exceed spending limits.


B. Political Pluralism and Participation: 10 / 16

Elections take place within a highly fragmented and fluid multiparty system. A total of 14 candidates vied for the presidency in September and 13 political parties won congressional seats. Newly formed Todos won 18 seats.

The government uses the military to maintain internal security, despite restrictions imposed by the 1996 peace accord ending the 36-year civil war. Following his election, Morales took steps to limit the influence of the military in his administration, vowing not to appoint retired officers to the top posts in his cabinet.

Although they comprise 44 percent of the population, members of indigenous communities hold just 20 congressional seats. There are no indigenous members in the cabinet. In 2015, 113 out of 333 Guatemalan mayors were indigenous.


C. Functioning of Government: 5 / 12

Despite impressive efforts to combat corruption in 2015, serious problems remain. Dozens of current and former high-ranking government officials, lawyers, bureaucrats, and retired military officials were arrested throughout the year as a result of corruption investigations into the country’s customs service, social-security agency, health-care system, judiciary, municipal government, and Congress. Baldetti was arrested in August and Pérez Molina was arrested in September for their roles in a massive corruption scandal involving millions of dollars paid in bribes to avoid customs duties. Several members of their administration either were fired or resigned under clouds of suspicion. For example, Pedro Muadi, a former congressional leader, was arrested in October after accusations that he embezzled up to $81,000 in government funds between 2013 and 2014. In October, the mayor of Chinautla was arrested for allegedly stealing municipal funds totaling more than $1 million. As of October, two dozen lawmakers would not be allowed to take office in January 2016 because of either their alleged crimes, or because they were barred by article 164 of the constitution for being government contractors.

Guatemala was ranked 123 out of 168 countries and territories surveyed in Transparency International’s 2015 Corruption Perceptions Index. According to a recent Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) study, in 2014 approximately 20 percent of respondents reported that they were victims of corruption.

In November, Congress approved reforms aimed at making more transparent the processes for government award and issuing of contracts.


Civil Liberties: 31 / 60

D. Freedom of Expression and Belief: 12 / 16

While the constitution protects freedom of speech, journalists often face threats and practice self-censorship when covering sensitive topics such as 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. The Observatory for Journalists of the Center for Informative Reports about Guatemala (CERIGUA) reported that 59 attacks against journalists occurred in the first half of 2015. The government has made commitments to improving journalist protection, but little concrete progress has been made.

Mexican businessman Remigio Ángel González owns a monopoly of broadcast television networks in Guatemala and has significant holdings in radio. Newspaper ownership is also concentrated in the hands of business elites, and most papers have centrist or conservative editorial views. While the government is making an effort to improve the country’s telecommunications infrastructure, internet access remains limited. The government is believed to conduct illegal online surveillance.

The constitution guarantees religious freedom. However, indigenous communities have faced discrimination for openly practicing the Mayan religion.

Although the government does not interfere with academic freedom, scholars have received death threats for questioning past human rights abuses or continuing injustices.


E. Associational and Organizational Rights: 6 / 12

The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, though police frequently threaten force and have at times used violence against protesters. Unprecedented, sustained, and largely nonviolent citizen protests against corruption occurred in front of the National Palace in Guatemala City and elsewhere in the country throughout much of the year.

In August 2014, more than 1,500 police officers occupied the Q’eqchí communities of Cobán, Chisec, and Raxruhá following a nonviolent resistance movement in protest against the proposed Santa Rita hydroelectric dam. Three Q’ecqhí villagers were killed, five were detained, and more than 60 were injured in the police raid. The dam project threatens the integrity of ancestral Q’ecqhí territory and was approved without community consultation, despite requirements in the Guatemalan Peace Agreement on Identity and Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

The constitution guarantees freedom of association, and a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Guatemala, though they face significant obstacles. NGO reports indicated that human rights workers were subjected to 337 attacks by mid-August 2015, including nine deaths. In July, shots were fired outside the offices of the human rights organization Centro de Acción Legal Ambiental y Social de Guatemala (CALAS), which was set to publicize damning evidence against a mining company the next day.

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 September, a member of the Japala city union was assassinated after he had successfully won reinstatement following a court order that found he and 182 other workers were illegally terminated.


F. Rule of Law: 5 / 16

The judiciary is hobbled 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. Police are accused of torture, extortion, kidnapping, extrajudicial killings, and drug-related crimes, though several notable prosecutions took place in 2015.

Prison facilities are overcrowded and rife with gang- and drug-related violence and corruption. According to Guatemala’s Directorate General of the Prison System, as of October, 19,810 people were imprisoned in a system designed to hold 6,412 people. Of those behind bars, 49 percent are awaiting trial. In 2014, the military was deployed to reinforce security at the country’s 22 prisons. Dozens of prisoners were murdered in 2015. In September, at least 4,000 prison officers participated in a general strike demanding a salary increase and an end to the preferential treatment of individual prisoners such as former vice president Baldetti.

Although homicides have decreased by approximately one-third since 2009, Guatemala remains one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America. Violence related to the transport of drugs between South America and the United States has spilled over the border from Mexico, with rival Mexican and Guatemalan gangs battling for territory. These groups have operated with impunity in the northern jungles, which serve as a storage and transit hub for cocaine. The Pérez Molina administration responded 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.

Citizens continue to take the law into their own hands. The lynching of suspected criminals frequently occurs. According to the police, at least 84 people were lynched between January 2012 and May 2015.

A small number of perpetrators of human rights atrocities from the 1960–96 civil war are being prosecuted. The trial of Ríos Montt—whose 2013 conviction for genocide was overturned by the Constitutional Court 10 days after it was issued—is scheduled to resume in January 2016, a delay that has prompted criticism from international human rights groups. The trial will take place behind closed doors without Ríos Montt’s presence and will not result in criminal sanctions; the former dictator suffers from dementia and has been deemed unfit for a public trial.

Indigenous communities suffer from especially high rates of poverty, illiteracy, and infant mortality. Indigenous women are particularly marginalized. Discrimination against the Mayan community is a major concern.

Members of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender) community are not covered under antidiscrimination laws, and continue to face discrimination, violence, and police abuse. President-elect Morales has made homophobic comments in the past. According to the Human Rights Ombudsman, people suffering from AIDS also face discrimination.


G. Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights: 8 / 16

Nonstate actors including gangs and organized criminal groups threaten freedom of travel, residence, and employment. Private businesses continue to experience high rates of contraband smuggling and extortion by these groups. Property rights and economic freedom rarely extend beyond those Guatemalans with wealth and political connections. In recent years, the government has approved the eviction of indigenous groups to make way for mining, hydroelectric, and other development projects.

The constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender, though inequalities between men and women 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. Women are underrepresented in government posts.

Guatemala has one of the highest rates of child labor in the Americas. Criminal gangs often force children and young men to join their organizations or perform work for them, and government officials are often complicit in trafficking.

Three activists who were members of Guatemala’s Council of Displaced Peoples (CONDEG) were kidnapped in September following a judicial decision against palm oil manufacturer Repsa, in which the court ruled that the company had polluted the La Pasión River with pesticides. The same month, an indigenous activist protesting against the production of palm oil was murdered. In 2014, the U.S. trade representative requested that an arbitration panel meet to determine whether Guatemala has broken its commitment to protect workers. If found guilty, the country could be fined up to $15 million annually or denied trade benefits.


Scoring Key: X / Y (Z)

X = Score Received

Y = Best Possible Score

Z = Change from Previous Year

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