Thousands continued to flee the country to escape high levels of inequality and violence. Human rights defenders, in particular those working on land, territorial and environmental issues, were at great risk and faced smear campaigns. Impunity and corruption persisted, undermining public trust in local authorities and hindering access to justice. Recent progress to consolidate the criminal justice system and the rule of law was challenged. High-profile cases of past crimes under international law remained stalled.
Legal, constitutional or institutional developments
In August, Augusto Jordan Rodas took up office as Ombudsperson for Human Rights. In November, the last criminal provisions referring to the death penalty were declared unconstitutional.
Despite progress in the prosecution of some crimes against humanity committed during the internal armed conflict (1960-1996), efforts towards truth, justice and reparations remained halted, and the vast majority of cases continued to suffer setbacks and undue delays. Five former members of the military, including the former head of the High Command of the Guatemalan Army, were sent to trial charged with crimes against humanity and rape against Emma Guadalupe Molina Theissen, and the enforced disappearance of her younger brother, Marco Antonio Molina Theissen.
Criminal proceedings remained stalled against former members of the military on charges related to multiple cases of enforced disappearances and unlawful killings carried out in a military base, now known as Creompaz, in the northern Alta Verapaz region. Appeals filed against decisions affecting the victims’ rights were pending and several officers remained at large. In both cases, victims and human rights defenders were intimidated and harassed inside or outside the court and online. After several failed attempts since 2015, the trials of former military head of state José Efraín Ríos Montt and former intelligence chief Rodríguez Sánchez resumed in October.
Judges and prosecutors continued to face intimidation and pressure. Efforts to fight impunity were at great risk of setbacks due to increased resistance from certain political actors. A constitutional reform introduced in Congress in November 2016, aimed at consolidating efforts towards justice and accountability and strengthening the independence of the judiciary, had not been approved at the end of the year. Mass protests took place in August and September and the country faced a political crisis when several members of the government resigned in September, in reaction to President Morales’ attempt to expel the head of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (an independent body established by the UN and the Guatemalan government in 2006 to strengthen the rule of law post-conflict).
Human rights defenders
Human rights defenders faced continuous threats, stigmatization, intimidation and attacks.
The Guatemalan NGO Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala said that defenders working on rights related to land, territory and the environment faced the highest number of attacks. In January, Sebastián Alonso Juan was killed during a peaceful protest against the construction of hydroelectric projects in the Ixquisis region of San Mateo Ixtatán.
In addition, human rights defenders were constantly subjected to smear campaigns to stigmatize and discredit them and their work in an attempt to force them to stop their legitimate activities. From the end of June, members of the Centre for Environmental, Social and Legal Action were targeted with smear campaigns after they challenged the licence of Minera San Rafael mining company in San Rafael Las Flores. The justice system was regularly misused to target and harass human rights defenders in an attempt to break up movements and organizations, and silence human rights defenders.
A General Instruction by the Public Prosecutor’s Office containing guidelines to effectively investigate attacks against human rights defenders was under review pending its approval for several months. Despite some progress, the process to create, in consultation with civil society, a comprehensive public policy for the protection of human rights defenders had not concluded by the end of the year.
In September the Supreme Court recognized the lack of prior consultation with the Xinca Indigenous People of Santa Rosa and Jalapa, who had been negatively affected by the activities of the mine of San Rafael Las Flores. The Court ordered the Ministry of Energy and Mines to carry out a consultation, but it also allowed the company to continue mining operations. As a result, an appeal was filed before the Constitutional Court, which remained pending.
In September the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights ordered Guatemala to protect the rights of around 400 people, including children and elderly people, who were stranded at the northern border with Mexico from early June in poor sanitary conditions. They had abandoned their community situated in Laguna Larga hours before a massive eviction was carried out. By the end of the year the authorities had not facilitated their return.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rights
Thousands of Guatemalans migrated to the USA through Mexico in an effort to escape the high levels of inequality and violence affecting marginalized groups. UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, said that between January and October 18,764 Guatemalans sought asylum in other countries. Unaccompanied children from Guatemala comprised the biggest group of arrivals apprehended at the US border. Although large numbers of people continued to be forcibly returned to Guatemala, there was no comprehensive mechanism or protocol in place to address the needs of returnees who were sent back to the same conditions and danger that they had fled.
In March, 41 girls died in a fire in the Virgen de la Asunción government-run shelter in San José Pinula municipality while locked inside a classroom. The deaths revealed the lack of sufficient and adequate measures to protect children’s rights in Guatemala. A number of public officials were charged, but delays in the investigation were reported.
High levels of child pregnancy remained a particular concern. The Observatory on Sexual and Reproductive Health registered 69,445 births by girls and young women aged from 10 to 19 between January and September.