Freedom in the World
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Freedom in the World Scores
While Guatemala holds regular elections that are generally free, organized crime and corruption severely impact the functioning of government. Violence and criminal extortion schemes are serious problems, and victims have little recourse to justice. Journalists, activists, and public officials who confront crime, corruption, and other sensitive issues risk attack.
Key Developments in 2017:
- President Jimmy Morales attempted to remove the head of the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) after it revealed evidence pointing to his involvement in illegal party financing. His attempts were unsuccessful, and prompted several high-profile government resignations. Legislative votes to remove the president’s immunity failed in September, preventing the CICIG from investigating him.
- Also in September, the Constitutional Court suspended reforms to the penal code approved by the legislature that would have permitted the commutation of some sentences related to party financing violations.
- Opposition lawmakers and the country’s human rights ombudsman filed a legal complain over a police crackdown on anticorruption protesters, eventually prompting the Constitutional Court to rule that police must respect the right to free assembly.
- The country’s homicide rate declined for the eighth year in a row.
POLITICAL RIGHTS: 23 / 40
A. ELECTORAL PROCESS: 8 / 12
A1. Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
The constitution stipulates a four-year presidential term, and prohibits reelection. In a runoff election in 2015, President Morales won a plurality of the vote, with 67 percent. The elections were judged as generally credible, although electoral observers reported some irregularities, including intimidation and vote buying. An estimated 20 election-related murders occurred during the campaign period, mostly involving mayoral candidates and their relatives.
In August 2017, CICIG and the attorney general revealed evidence suggesting that the president and his party, the National Convergence Front (FCN) had received hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of illicit financing during the 2015 campaign period.
A2. Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 3 / 4
Members of the 158-seat, unicameral Congress are elected to four-year terms. Like the presidential election, the 2015 polls were deemed credible, but observers noted irregularities, and 11 municipal contests had to be repeated. A CICIG report released that year stated that 25 percent of campaign contributions to political parties had come from business interests, and another 25 percent originated with organized crime groups.
A3. Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 2 / 4
Authorities and lawmakers in recent years have taken some steps to address a serious lack of transparency in party financing, and to prevent illegal party financing—both of which were serious problems in the 2015 polls. In 2016, the legislature approved electoral reforms that included stronger oversight of parties’ financial disclosures, and in 2017, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) implemented mechanisms to monitor financing procedures and penalize illegal electoral financing. The TSE then sanctioned a number of parties for various violations, including the FCN, which was suspended in September for not paying a fine for failing to submit required financial reports. Additionally, the TSE created a specialized unit, supported by CICIG, which is tasked with monitoring electoral spending beginning in 2018.
The end of the year saw intense discussion about electoral reforms, with TSE and civil society organizations opposing reforms proposed by the legislature that would, among other things, give lawmakers more power in selecting the TSE’s leadership.
B. POLITICAL PLURALISM AND PARTICIPATION: 10 / 16
B1. Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 3 / 4
Political groups and organizations generally operate without encountering legal restrictions. However, new groups sometimes face bureaucratic delays from the TSE when attempting to register.
Elections take place within an inchoate multiparty system in which new parties are frequently created. New parties that lack resources and infrastructure face disadvantages in gaining broad support. A lack of party finance regulations allows some candidates and parties access to vast resources.
B2. Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 3 / 4
Elections at the national and local levels are competitive, and new parties routinely gain significant quotas of power. Guatemalan politics are unstable and power rotates between parties frequently, which can discourage a traditional opposition from coalescing. Political candidates risk attack during campaign periods.
B3. Are the people’s political choices free from domination by the military, foreign powers, religious hierarchies, economic oligarchies, or any other powerful group that is not democratically accountable? 2 / 4
Verbal harassment and physical violence against voters is common during elections, and can deter political participation. Weak campaign finance regulations permit lopsided financing of candidates, as well as financing of candidates by special interests and organized criminal groups, distorting the political choices of citizens. Direct vote buying is also common.
B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, religious, gender, LGBT, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 2 / 4
Minorities struggle to fully exercise their political rights. Members of indigenous communities hold just 20 seats in the 158-seat legislature, although they comprise over 40 percent of the population, and there are few initiatives aimed at promoting their participation. Women are underrepresented in politics, though small women’s rights groups, mainly those working to draw attention to violence against women, have some visibility in the political sphere. The president began 2017 with 2 out of 14 cabinet ministers who were women, one of whom also identifies as indigenous, though both ministers had resigned by year’s end amid political turmoil. A representative in the current legislature is the first to self-identify as a member of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community.
C. FUNCTIONING OF GOVERNMENT: 5 / 12
C1. Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 2 / 4
The elected government and legislature determine government policies, but they are frequently subject to influence by outside interests. The president’s party, the FCN, was established by former military officials, and Morales’s association with them has raised questions about military influence in his administration. The media outlet Nómada revealed in September 2017 that the president and the military’s high-ranking officers were receiving a monthly bonus from the Ministry of Defense.
Credible allegations of electoral and party-finance corruption have prompted serious concerns about influence by nonelected and illicit groups over the government.
C2. Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 2 / 4
Corruption, which is often related to organized crime, remains a serious problem. The CICIG and the attorney general have pressed forward with investigations of high-level officials in current and past administrations, but authorities and lawmakers have repeatedly attempted to undermine their work.
In August 2017, the CICIG alleged that Morales had been involved with illegal campaign financing during his 2015 presidential campaign, and the body’s head, Iván Velásquez, a Colombian national, requested that the legislature lift Morales’ immunity. Days, later the president demanded the expulsion of Velásquez, and the government tried to revoke Velásquez’s visa in October. However, the Constitutional Court issues a pair of rulings in favor of Velásquez, and he was allowed to remain in the country; several members of the government, including cabinet members, resigned over the attempt to remove him.
Legislative votes to remove the president’s immunity failed in September, preventing the CICIG from investigating him for campaign finance corruption. Also in September, the Constitutional Court suspended reforms to the penal code approved by the legislature that would have permitted the commutation of some sentences related to party financing violations.
C3. Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 1 / 4
Public information offices frequently fail to publish data about public expenditures as required. The Law on Access to Information is poorly enforced, and dedicated NGOs nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continue to file grievances over its nonapplication and, together with the country’s Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH), work to encourage the government to adhere to its provisions.
The government’s contracting and budgeting processes are opaque and wracked with corruption. The CICIG has continued to investigate violations and to call for reforms to address these problems, though there is little political will to implement its recommendations.
CIVIL LIBERTIES: 33 / 60 (+2)
D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 12 / 16 (+1)
D1. Are there free and independent media? 2 / 4
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, illicit actors, the police, and individuals aligned with companies operating on indigenous lands. Physical attacks against journalists occur each year, and two journalists were murdered in 2017, according to the Guatemalan press freedom group CERIGUA. Journalists have reiterated demands that the government implement a journalists’ protection program that was agreed to in 2012, but despite Morales’ verbal commitment, no progress has been made.
One of the men charged with killing two journalists in 2015 was sentenced in October 2017 to 30 years in jail in connection with one of the murders. The CICIG has accused a legislator of planning the murders, and while his immunity was removed in 2017, he had not been arrested at year’s end.
Despite threats facing journalists, independent media outfits including el Periódico, Nómada, and Plaza Pública continue to provide critical information.
D2. Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 4 / 4
The constitution guarantees religious freedom, and individuals are free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in practice.
D3. Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 3 / 4
Although the government does not interfere with academic freedom, scholars have received death threats for questioning past human rights abuses or continuing injustices.
D4. Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 3 / 4 (+1)
Many Guatemalans take precautions when speaking about social and political issues outside of their homes due to a high level of insecurity in the country.
In 2016, members of the presidential security service came under investigation for unlawful surveillance of journalists, human right advocates, politicians, and business owners, prompting several high-profile dismissals by Morales. The investigation continued in 2017, and meanwhile, no evidence emerged that any such systematic surveillance of private citizens took place during the year.
Score Change: The score improved from 2 to 3 because there was no evidence that systematic surveillance of private individuals took place during the year.
E. ASSOCIATIONAL AND ORGANIZATIONAL RIGHTS: 6 / 12
E1. Is there freedom of assembly? 2 / 4
The constitution guarantees freedom of assembly, but this right is not always protected. Police frequently threaten force, and at times use violence against protesters. Protests related to environmental or indigenous rights issues were met with harsh resistance from the police and other armed groups in 2017, with several deaths of protestors reported.
In August, Guatemalans took to the streets to demand transparency from their government after the CICIG presented evidence implicating Morales in illegal political financing during his presidential campaign. In September, police cracked down violently on a large anticorruption protest. Opposition lawmakers and the PDH filed a legal complain over the events, eventually prompting the Constitutional Court to rule that police must respect the right to freedom of assembly and allow peaceful protests to occur.
E2. Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 2 / 4
The constitution guarantees freedom of association, and a variety of NGOs operate. However, groups associated with human rights, indigenous rights, and environmental rights face violence and intimidation. The Guatemalan Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders (UDEFEGUA) registered 483 attacks against human right defenders in 2017, 119 of which were directed at land rights activists.
E3. Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 2 / 4
Guatemala is home to a vigorous labor movement, but workers are frequently denied the right to organize and face mass firings and blacklisting. Trade-union members are also subject to intimidation, violence, and murder, particularly in rural areas, and two union leaders were killed in 2017, according the Solidarity Center, an NGO.
F. RULE OF LAW: 7 / 16 (+1)
F1. Is there an independent judiciary? 2 / 4
The judiciary is hobbled by corruption, inefficiency, capacity shortages, and the intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses, both by outside actors and influential figures within the judiciary. However, the Constitutional Court demonstrated independence in several notable rulings in 2017, including those that blocked legal maneuvers by the government to undermine CICIG investigations.
The genocide case against former military dictator Ríos Montt, which had been repeatedly postponed, resumed in October 2017.
F2. Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 2 / 4
Due process rights are guaranteed in the constitution, but those rights are inconsistently upheld, due in part to corruption in the judiciary and an ineffective police force in which many police officers routinely violate the law, and the rights of citizens. Access to justice remains a problem, especially for the indigenous community. In April 2017, CICIG head Iván Velásquez claimed that 97 percent of crimes committed in Guatemala go unpunished, and placed the blame for such impunity on criminal networks that had infiltrated state institutions.
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 investigations.
F3. Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4 (+1)
High levels of violence, kidnappings, and extortions at the hands of the police, drug traffickers, and street gangs continue, with related fears and risks routinely affecting the lives of ordinary people. The link between the state, politicians, the military, and illicit actors complicates a cohesive response to the country’s security challenges. However, the country’s homicide rate dropped for the eighth straight year in 2017. At the end of the year, police reported 4,409 homicides, compared to 4,550 homicides in 2016, and 4,778 in 2015. Additionally, in January 2017, the demilitarization of the police force began, with the removal of all military forces from civilian security expected in 2018.
Prison facilities are grossly overcrowded and rife with gang and drug-related violence and corruption. Prison riots are common, and are frequently deadly.
Score Change: The score improved from 1 to 2 to a declining homicide rate.
F4. Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 1 / 4
Equal rights are guaranteed in the constitution, but minorities continue to face unequal treatment. 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.
LGBT people 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.
The constitution prohibits discrimination based on gender, but women continue to face gender-based inequality, and sexual harassment in the workplace is not penalized.
G. PERSONAL AUTONOMY AND INDIVIDUAL RIGHTS: 8 / 16
G1. Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 3 / 4
While there are no explicit restrictions on free movement, violence and the threat of violence by gangs and organized criminal groups inhibits this right in practice, and has prompted the displacement of thousands of people.
G2. Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 2 / 4
Protections for property rights and economic freedom rarely extend beyond Guatemalans with wealth and political connections. Access to land is especially limited for the indigenous community and for women in particular. Business activity is hampered by criminal activity including extortion and fraud. An inefficient state bureaucracy, rife with unclear and complicated regulations, also contributes to difficulties in establishing and operating a business.
G3. Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4
Physical and sexual violence against women and children remains high, with perpetrators rarely prosecuted. The PDH reported that over 5,500 incidents of sexual abuse or mistreatment of minors occurred in 2017, while the National Institute of Forensic Sciences reported 772 femicides during the year. A restrictive abortion law limits women’s ability to make decisions about the size of their families. In August, a decree banned marriages for children under the age of 18, though some observers expressed skepticism that it would be enforced.
G4. Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 1 / 4
The indigenous community’s access to economic opportunities and socioeconomic mobility remain limited, with more than 70 percent of the indigenous population living in poverty. Guatemala has one of the highest rates of child labor in the Americas, with over 800,000 children working in the country. Criminal gangs often force children and young men to join their organizations or perform work for them.