Guatemala | Freedom House

Freedom in the World

Guatemala

Guatemala

Partly Free
53/100
Overview: 

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: 

Key Developments in 2018:

  • In August, the attorney general and the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) made a third request to lift President Jimmy Morales’s immunity, after collecting further evidence suggesting that the president and his party, the National Convergence Front (FCN), had received illegal contributions during the 2015 campaign period. However, Congress subsequently voted to retain Morales’s immunity in October.
  • Responding to the increased pressure from the CICIG, President Morales declared in late August that he would not renew its mandate and in September barred Iván Velásquez, the commission’s head, from reentering the country. The Constitutional Court subsequently ruled that the government must allow Velásquez’s return. However, Morales still refused to permit his reentry at year’s end, in defiance of the court’s ruling.
  • In December, the solicitor general accused three Constitutional Court judges who had ruled in favor of the CICIG of malfeasance and violating the constitution, and petitioned the Supreme Court to allow a vote in Congress to lift the judges’ immunity, which would clear the way for their potential impeachment.
  • A report published by the newspaper Nuestro Diario in August uncovered widespread monitoring and illegal surveillance of diplomats, politicians, journalists, civil society activists, and other critics of the government.
Political Rights and Civil Liberties: 

POLITICAL RIGHTS: 22 / 40 (−1)

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 election was 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 2018, the attorney general and the CICIG indicated that they had gathered further evidence suggesting that the president and his party, the FCN, had received illegal contributions during the 2015 campaign period. They subsequently filed a third request to lift the president’s immunity, after two attempts in 2017 failed. However, Congress voted to retain Morales’s immunity in October.

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. In June 2018, the TSE announced that it would dissolve the ruling FCN due to party finance violations. Five other parties were also targeted for dissolution by the TSE for financial irregularities during the year. However, it was unclear at year’s end whether the TSE’s decisions would be enforced, and a court halted the dissolution process for the FCN in October. 

In October, Congress passed legislation to reform the penal code, which weakened the legal framework by reducing penalties related to party finance violations from four to twelve years in prison to one to five years, and allowing such sentences to be commuted.

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. In April 2018, the attorney general and CICIG revealed that President Morales and his party may have received over $2 million in illegal campaign contributions from Guatemalan businesses. 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. At the end of 2018, the Minister of Foreign Relations was the only woman in the president’s cabinet. 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: 4 / 12 (−1)

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 2017 that the president and the military’s high-ranking officers were receiving a monthly bonus from the Ministry of Defense. Former defense minister Williams Mansilla resigned over the controversy, and he was arrested in January 2018 on corruption charges in connection with Morales’s bonus. Mansilla awaited trial at year’s end.

Recent investigations of electoral and party finance corruption have shed light on the influence of nonelected and illicit groups over the government.

C2.      Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 1 / 4 (−1)

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.

After the CICIG and attorney general petitioned to lift Morales’s immunity, the president announced in August 2018 that he would not renew the commission’s mandate, which is due to expire in September 2019. On the day of his announcement, a convoy of military vehicles repeatedly drove around the CICIG’s offices, the US embassy, and other embassies that support the CICIG, a move viewed by observers as an act of intimidation. In September, Morales declared the CICIG’s head, Iván Velásquez, a threat to public security and banned his reentry into the country. Two weeks later, the Constitutional Court ordered the government to allow Velásquez’s return, but Morales defied the ruling and had not allowed him to reenter Guatemala at year’s end. Also in December, the government revoked the diplomatic credentials of 11 foreign nationals working for CICIG, forcing them to leave the country.

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because the government made consistent efforts during the year to undermine anticorruption work, including attempts to dismantle the UN-backed anticorruption body, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala.

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 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) continue to file grievances over its nonapplication and, together with the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman (PDH), work to encourage the government to adhere to its provisions.

The government’s contracting and budgeting processes are opaque and racked 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: 31 / 60 (−2)

D. FREEDOM OF EXPRESSION AND BELIEF: 11 / 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. In February 2018, a newspaper journalist and radio station publicist were found murdered near Santo Domingo. It was not clear whether the murders were connected to the journalist’s reporting. Media workers 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.

In January, Congressman Julio Juárez Ramírez was arrested and charged with plotting the murder of two journalists in 2015. One of the murdered reporters had been investigating corruption in a municipality where Ramírez was mayor. He awaited trial 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? 2 / 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.

A report published by the newspaper Nuestro Diario in August 2018 uncovered widespread monitoring and illegal surveillance of diplomats, politicians, journalists, civil society activists, and other critics of the government by authorities between 2012 and 2015. Journalists and human rights defenders also reported being surveilled throughout 2018. The stepped-up surveillance, along with increased intimidation and harassment of perceived opponents of the government, has encouraged greater self-censorship among ordinary citizens.

The score declined from 3 to 2 because reports of widespread surveillance of politicians, journalists, civil society activists, and other government critics, along with increased intimidation and harassment of perceived opponents of the government, has encouraged greater self-censorship among ordinary citizens.

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 during the year.

In September 2018, Guatemalans took to the streets in a march to condemn corruption and demand the continuation of the CICIG. The government deployed thousands of military and police personnel to prevent the marchers from approaching Congress.

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. According to the Ireland-based rights group Front Line Defenders, 26 human rights defenders were killed in Guatemala in 2018; many of those killed advocated for indigenous rights. In September 2018, the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), an NGO, reported intimidation and surveillance of several human rights leaders following the government’s August announcement that it would not renew the CICIG’s mandate.

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.

F. RULE OF LAW: 6 / 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 2018, including those that blocked legal maneuvers by the government aimed at dismantling the CICIG and undermining its investigations. Nonetheless, the president’s refusal to comply with the court’s ruling that ordered the CICIG head’s reentry to Guatemala raised serious concerns about attacks on the judiciary’s independence. Additionally, in December 2018, the solicitor general accused three Constitutional Court judges who had ruled in favor of the CICIG of malfeasance and violating the constitution, and petitioned the Supreme Court to allow a vote in Congress to lift the judges’ immunity, which would clear the way for their potential impeachment.

F2.       Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 1 / 4 (−1)

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 2017, CICIG Commissioner 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.

In 2018, the new minister of the interior implemented several measures that weakened the independence and professionalism of the police force, including the removal of senior officials and detectives without due process or justification, such as the head of the police and his top advisers, as well as 11 investigators who were working with the CICIG. Promotions in the police force were also granted to personnel who, according to some experts, did not meet the required qualifications.

Disciplinary action was taken against a number of independent judges during the year, in apparent retaliation for their rulings on sensitive cases related to corruption and human rights abuses. According to the Human Rights Unit of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, 62 reports of harassment and threats against judges and prosecutors were filed between January and July 2018.

Score Change: The score declined from 2 to 1 because the interior minister took measures to undermine the independence and professionalization of the police force, including the removal of police leadership and senior officers without justification, and due to pressure on prosecutors and judges in corruption and human rights cases.

F3.       Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 2 / 4

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. Despite these challenges, the homicide rate dropped for the ninth straight year in 2018. At the end of the year, police reported 3,881 homicides, compared to 4,409 homicides in 2017, and 4,550 in 2016.

Prison facilities are grossly overcrowded and rife with gang and drug-related violence and corruption. Prison riots are common, and are frequently deadly.

Some perpetrators of past human rights abuses were held accountable in 2018, including three former military officers who were sentenced to 58 years in prison in May for a rape and forced disappearance dating to 1981. Former military dictator Efraín Ríos Montt, who was convicted of genocide in 2013 before the Constitutional Court overturned his verdict and rolled back his trial, died in April with his case still pending. In September, a national court ruled that the Guatemalan army committed genocide during Montt’s rule in 1982 and 1983, but found José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, Montt’s director of military intelligence, not guilty of crimes against humanity.

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 PDH 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 National Institute of Forensic Sciences (INACIF) reported 671 femicides between January and the end of November 2018. The law permits abortion only when a pregnancy threatens the life of the woman. In 2017, 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.