Guatemala 2019
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Guatemala 2019

Levels of impunity and insecurity remained high. The authorities continued to obstruct the fight against impunity, putting justice and the rule of law at risk. The government succeeded in definitively shutting down the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Congress moved forward with the discussion of regressive bills, taking them closer to adoption. Attacks against human rights defenders intensified, in a context of shrinking spaces for civil society. By the end of year, Guatemala had yet to ratify the Escazú Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean and the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Enforced Disappearance.

Background

General elections were held in June and the newly elected president, Alejandro Giammattei, was due to take office in January 2020.

In September the government decreed a state of emergency for 30 days in 22 municipalities in the east of the country after the killing of three soldiers; the state of emergency was extended for a further 30 days during which raids were reported by community organizations and radio stations.

Impunity

The highest authorities systematically undermined significant justice and human rights achievements of the last decade.

The government continued to obstruct the work of the CICIG, in breach of the orders of the Constitutional Court, the country’s highest court, and refused to renew its mandate, leading to its definitive closure. The CICIG closed in September after 12 years of work. Together with the Public Prosecutor's Office, the CICIG investigated and identified more than 70 criminal structures in more than 120 high-profile corruption cases, several of them related to human rights violations. The inadequate response of the Public Prosecutor's Office to the government's breaches of the Constitutional Court rulings and the lack of a transition plan for the CICIG's closure weakened the rule of law and the fight against impunity.[1]

Discussions progressed in Congress on regressive legislation, such as Bill 5377, which would grant an amnesty to those accused of and even those convicted of crimes under international law and human rights violations perpetrated during the armed conflict (1960-1996).

Human rights defenders

The situation of human rights defenders continued to deteriorate. Those at particular risk were people focusing on the defence of the land, territory and environment, the fight against impunity in cases related to the internal armed conflict or corruption cases taken up by the CICIG. The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), a local human rights organization, registered 467attacks against human rights defenders, including at least 20 killings and attempted killings, in rural areas mostly. The vast majority of these attacks remained unpunished and implementation of internal protocol 5-2018 of the Public Prosecutor's Office for the investigation of these attacks remained inadequate.

Defenders also continued to face smear campaigns on social media, in the national media and by senior officials, including members of the government and Congress, aimed at discrediting their legitimate activities. UDEFEGUA also reported an increased misuse of the criminal justice system through unfounded criminal complaints whose sole purpose was to harass and restrict their legitimate activities. Some such complaints were filed by officials at the highest level.

Congress also moved forward with the discussion of Bill 5257, which could have led to the arbitrary closure and further criminalization of civil society organizations, however, despite numerous attempts, was unable to pass it into law.

The Human Rights Ombudsperson also faced several criminal complaints and motions by Congress for his removal as a consequence of his defence of human rights. His office also faced severe budget restrictions that limited its ability to carry out its functions.

By the end of 2019, Guatemala had yet to adopt the public policy for the protection of human rights defenders ordered by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2014.

Justice system

Serious challenges remained to the independence of prosecutors, judges and magistrates in Guatemala, particularly those working on high-profile cases such as those taken up by the CICIG and cases relating to the internal armed conflict. Judicial officials reported security incidents and faced constant smear campaigns and stigmatization, as well as dozens of criminal, disciplinary and other complaints aimed at punishing them for rulings in favour of human rights and the fight against impunity or at deterring them from taking on such cases. In October, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures to Judge Erika Aifán and three other Constitutional Court magistrates.

In September the Constitutional Court ordered that the selection process for magistrates be suspended and repeated because of serious irregularities, including a lack of performance evaluations of judges and magistrates, which the Judicial Career Council was responsible for carrying out.

Migrants and refugees

Violence, inequality and poverty remained the main push factors for forced migration from the country, leading thousands of Guatemalans to seek protection in Mexico and the United States.

Despite this and deficiencies in Guatemala’s refugee protection system, in July, the governments of Guatemala and the United States signed an Asylum Cooperative Agreement, also known as a "safe third country" agreement. Under this scheme, from November, the US started return asylum seekers from Honduras and El Salvador to Guatemala, generating serious concerns regarding risks to their rights to life and integrity, and protection from deportation.


[1] Guatemala: Last chance for justice – dangerous setbacks for human rights and the fight against impunity in Guatemala (AMR 34/0611/2019)