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Organized crime and corruption severely impact the free functioning of government in Guatemala, which remains one of the most dangerous countries in Latin America. Indigenous peoples, women, and children continue to feel the brunt of this violence, with little recourse to justice. Journalists, activists, and public officials who confront crime, corruption, and other sensitive issues risk attack.
- In early September, President Jimmy Morales fired two high-ranking officers from the presidential security service after they came under investigation for unlawful surveillance of journalists, human right advocates, politicians, and business owners.
- The attorney general pursued high-level corruption cases, but faced severe intimidation for her efforts, including death threats.
- In February, in the Sepur Zarco trial, two officers were convicted of holding indigenous women in sexual slavery during the civil war.
- In April, the mandate of UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was extended to 2019.
Guatemala’s attorney general and the UN-backed CICIG continued to investigate and prosecute high-level cases of corruption and criminal behavior in 2016, with some investigations targeting members of Morales’s administration and of his family. In September, Morales fired two high-ranking officers from the presidential security service after it emerged that they were being investigated for the unlawful surveillance of journalists, human right advocates, politicians, and business owners. Herbert Armando Melgar Padilla, a close advisor to the president, was also implicated. Around the time the spying allegations became public, Melgar Padilla had filled the seat of a congressman who suddenly stepped down, a development that allowed him to obtain parliamentary immunity.
The country’s homicide rate continued to drop in 2016, for the seventh straight year. However, Guatemala is still plagued by violence, much of which is related to criminal groups, and in 2016 officials reported 4,550 homicides. Human rights defenders, members of the media, as well as labor, land, and indigenous rights activists face threats when their work is perceived to interfere with such groups’ operations, or when it threatens to expose corruption.
Only a small number of perpetrators of human rights atrocities from the 1960–96 civil war have been prosecuted. In January 2016, 18 high-ranking officers were arrested in connection with massacres and disappearances in the 1980s. In February, there was a verdict in the Sepur Zarco trial against two officers. They were convicted for holding indigenous women in sexual slavery during the civil war.
The constitution stipulates a four-year presidential term and prohibits reelection. Members of the 158-seat, unicameral Congress are elected to four-year terms. In the September 2015 legislative election, the Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER) party won 45 seats and the National Unity for Hope (UNE) won 32. A new party, Todos, took 18 seats, as did the scandal-plagued Patriotic Party (PP); the PP had held 39 seats previously. 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 2015 runoff. Turnout was 70 percent in September and 56 percent in October. The Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) removed about 10 percent of voters from the register ahead of the elections because they were deceased or ineligible to participate.
The elections were generally judged as credible. As in the past, electoral observers reported irregularities, including intimidation, vote buying, and the burning of ballots and electoral boxes. Eleven municipal contests had to be repeated in October 2015. Throughout the electoral campaign, an estimated 20 election-related murders occurred, mostly involving mayoral candidates and their relatives.
Before the election, a CICIG report estimated that 50 percent of known campaign donations come from contractors doing business with the state, another 25 percent from organized crime groups. CICIG also said that nearly all parties spend more money than they report, and that they exceeded official spending limits.
In April 2016, the legislature approved reforms to the electoral law that among other things mandated stricter financial disclosure procedures that are overseen by the TSE. The legislature also adopted reforms that punish transfuguismo—the practice whereby deputies abandon the parties with which they are elected.
Elections take place within a highly inchoate multiparty system. A total of 14 candidates vied for the presidency in 2015, and 13 political parties won congressional seats.
The government uses the military to maintain internal security, despite restrictions imposed by the 1996 peace accord that ended a 36-year civil war. The National Convergence Front (FCN), the party that backs Morales, was founded by a group of former military officials, and Morales’s association with the party has raised questions about military influence in his administration. In June 2016, attempts to revive the annual military parade, after a nine-year hiatus, came under pressure from civil society actors who said holding the controversial event would be inappropriate due to a lack of progress in implementation of the peace accords. The president canceled the public parade, but organized a private one, as had taken place each year since the public one was banned.
Members of indigenous communities hold just 20 congressional seats, although they comprise 44 percent of the population. There are no indigenous members in the cabinet. In 2015, 113 out of 333 Guatemalan mayors were indigenous. In March 2016, the legislature rejected a proposed reform to electoral laws that would have mandated the equal inclusion of ethnic groups and women in party candidate lists.
While ongoing efforts to combat corruption have lent some credibility to the justice system in recent years, corruption remains a serious problem. Few convictions have followed dozens of arrests connected to the various scandals that in 2015 brought down the administration of Otto Pérez Molina, though new arrests of ex-officials continued in 2016. Additionally, both Morales’s son and his brother came under investigation in 2016 for possible involvement in the previous administration’s network of corruption. The news outlet La Hora, after conducting an investigation, reported that Pérez and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti remain involved in criminal activity even after being jailed in connection with their roles in a wide-ranging corruption scheme; they were formally charged with money laundering and the illegal financing of political parties in June 2016. In September, a lax, 30-month suspended sentence was handed down to Édgar Barquín, a former central bank head who was convicted of laundering some $30 million.
In January 2016, CICIG and the attorney general announced a plan to investigate corruption at the municipal level.
Despite 2015 reforms in that make the processes for issuing government contracts more transparent, abuses remain. Reports also reveal that construction firms under government contracts often face extortion demands.
In October 2016, the Human Rights Ombudsman reported that there are challenges in the implementation of the Law on Access to Information. The Ombudsman found that some municipalities lack the necessary infrastructure to accept and process information requests and that public information offices frequently fail to publish data about public expenditures as required.
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. Nine journalists were murdered in 2016, according to the Guatemalan press freedom group CERIGUA.
Mexican businessman Remigio Ángel González owns a monopoly of broadcast television networks and has significant holdings in radio. Newspaper ownership is also concentrated. 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 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.
In early September 2016, Morales fired two high-ranking officers from the presidential security service after they came under investigation for unlawful surveillance of journalists, human right advocates, politicians, and business owners. Melgar Padilla, a close advisor to the president, was also implicated. Herbert Armando Melgar Padilla, a close advisor to the president, was also implicated. Around the time the spying allegations became public, Melgar Padilla had filled the seat of a congressman who suddenly stepped down, a development that allowed him to obtain parliamentary immunity.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but this right is not always guaranteed in practice. Police frequently threaten force and have at times used violence against protesters. In September 2016, authorities issued an emergency decree that allowed them to break up demonstrations and meetings that “contributed to or incited” disturbances to public order, but quickly repealed it after an outcry from civil society groups and some public officials.
The Constitution guarantees freedom of association, and a variety of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) operate in Guatemala, though they face significant obstacles. The Guatemalan rights group the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) reported in December 2016 that human rights advocates had experienced 223 attacks during the first 11 months of the year, and that 14 rights activists had been murdered.
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. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, Guatemala is one of the most dangerous countries for unionists, and a number of labor figures were killed in 2016. Among them was the deputy coordinator for the Legal Advice Commission, one of the larger unions, who was shot to death in June.
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. In April 2016, the three branches of government inaugurated a national dialogue process to propose judicial reforms. In June, the legislature approved a measure, based on recommendations issued in 2015, that created a new mechanism for evaluating and sanctioning judges.
The increasing independence of the attorney general’s office and its work with CICIG to root out corruption reflect a strengthening of the justice system in Guatemala. However, the attorney general has faced serious intimidation, including death threats, in connection with her work investigating the systemic syphoning of state funds by public and private actors. In August 2016, she reported that unknown parties had spied on her home using a drone. In April 2016, the government extended CICIG’s mandate until 2019.
Police are accused of torture, extortion, kidnapping, extrajudicial killings, and drug-related crimes. Prison facilities are grossly overcrowded and rife with gang and drug-related violence and corruption. Prison riots are common, and are frequently deadly. In July 2016, an ex-army captain who ran a powerful criminal operation, and twelve others, were killed during a prison riot. People in pretrial detention comprise a large percentage of those in detention facilities. In 2016, the prisons operated without permanent directors.
The country’s homicide rate continued to drop in 2016, for the seventh straight year. However, violent crime is a serious problem. In 2016, officials reported 4,550 homicides, compared to 4,778 in 2015. 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 operate with impunity in the northern jungles. For most of 2016, Morales did not have a cohesive plan to address the country’s violence. In August 2016, he met with other presidents in the region to discuss an antigang strategy.
The extrajudicial lynching of suspected criminals by private citizens occurs frequently.
A small number of perpetrators of human rights atrocities from the 1960–96 civil war have been being prosecuted, and cases continued in 2016. In January, 18 high-ranking officers joined those arrested in connection with massacres and disappearances in the 1980s. In February, in the Sepur Zarco trial, two officers were convicted for holding indigenous women in sexual slavery during the civil war. A close advisor to the president is facing charges of massacres during the conflict. The trial of Ríos Montt—whose 2013 conviction for genocide was overturned by the Constitutional Court 10 days after it was issued—was scheduled to begin in January 2016, but has been repeatedly postponed. He has been declared medically unfit to stand trial and will not face criminal penalties if convicted.
Indigenous communities suffer from 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. They face discrimination, violence, and police abuse. The country’s human rights ombudsman has stated that people suffering from HIV/AIDS also face discrimination. In January 2016, the first, openly gay person was sworn into the legislature.
Nonstate actors, including gangs and organized criminal groups, threaten freedom of travel, residence, and employment, often through threats or acts of violence, with women being particularly vulnerable. Between January and September 2016, 112 people had been killed while using the public transport system. The Internal Displacement Monitoring Center estimates that in 2015, there were 251,000 internal displacements, largely due to violence. Property rights and economic freedom rarely extend beyond Guatemalans with wealth and political connections. Private businesses continue to experience high rates of contraband smuggling and extortion by criminal groups.
In recent years, the government approved the eviction of indigenous groups to make way for mining, hydroelectric, and other development projects. In a victory to such groups, in December 2016, a mining company was forced to stop a hydroelectric project due to local protests. In a 2016 lawsuit, a Mayan woman claimed that workers with a Canadian mining company had sexually assaulted her before setting her home on fire; she filed the case in Canada, instead of Guatemala, due to the low rate of successful prosecutions in domestic cases involving claims by indigenous people against foreign corporations.
The Constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender, though inequalities between men and women persist. Sexual harassment in the workplace is not penalized. Young women who migrate to the capital for work are vulnerable to harassment and inhumane labor conditions. Physical and sexual violence against women and children remains widespread, with perpetrators rarely prosecuted.
According to the National Institute of Forensic Science (INACIF), 739 women were victims of a violent death in 2016. Women are underrepresented in government posts. Currently, 9 of 338 elected mayors are women, and only 13 percent of elected legislators are women.
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 complicit in trafficking.