Americas 2019
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Americas 2019

Inequality, corruption, violence, environmental degradation, impunity and the weakening of institutions continued to be a common reality across the Americas, resulting in daily human rights violations for millions of people. Several countries in the region were shaken by massive demonstrations during 2019 as people took to the streets to demand accountability and respect for their human rights. The response of most governments to these protests, with a few exceptions, was repression and excessive use of force in an attempt to silence demands for greater social justice. Instead of establishing mechanisms to promote dialogue and address people´s concerns, the authorities resorted to violence in the policing of demonstrations and, in some instances, increased militarization of public order operations. At least 210 people died as a result of violence in the context of protests during the year.

The Americas remained the most dangerous region in the world for human rights defenders and journalists. In 2019, 208 people were killed because of their work defending human rights and many more faced harassment, criminalization and forced displacement. In some countries journalists continued to face harassment, arbitrary detention and extrajudicial execution. For example, in Mexico, at least 10 journalists were killed during the year because of their work.

Human rights defenders and Indigenous leaders fighting to defend rights to access to land, territory and the environment were among those most at risk of violence and harassment. In the context of development projects and the extensive impact of extractive industries, most governments failed to respect and guarantee Indigenous Peoples’ rights to free, prior and informed consent about the use of their ancestral lands.

Impunity for human rights violations remained the norm throughout the region. In 2019 one of the most innovative mechanisms created to address the lack of justice, the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), was shut down by the Guatemalan government.

The increasing presence and power of diverse women’s rights movements in the region was also a highlight of 2019. Despite that, gender-based violence remained widespread in the Americas. Women human rights defenders, women engaged in sex work, women migrants and refugees, Afro-descendent and Indigenous women and lesbian, bisexual, transgender and intersex women, among others, faced increased risks of gender-based violence and torture as a result of multiple forms of discrimination. In November 2019, the UN Economic Commission for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC) Gender Equality Observatory, issued its most up-to-date information on femicides (gender-based killings of women) based on official figures from 16 Latin American and nine Caribbean countries. According this data, at least 3,500 women were killed in 2018 because of their gender. The real figure was likely much higher as 10 countries only provided data on women who had been killed by their current or former intimate partners.

Millions of people in the Americas sought safety outside their countries of origin in 2019. By the end of the year, the ongoing human rights crisis in Venezuela had resulted in almost 4.8 million refugees, more than any other country in the world apart from Syria; most were living in neighbouring countries. Although some countries in Latin America established ad hoc mechanisms to regularize people’s immigration status, they also imposed unnecessary and illegal barriers to entry that put asylum-seekers at risk.

Hondurans, Guatemalans and Salvadorans continued to make their way to the USA, fleeing the generalized violence prevalent in their home countries. The significant increase in recent years in the number of Cubans, Nicaraguans and Venezuelans in the immigration court backlog in the USA continued in 2019. The Trump Administration, contrary to US international obligations, continued to attack and undermine the institution of asylum by implementing measures and policies to prevent asylum-seekers from crossing the border with Mexico. In a move reminiscent of US actions in recent years, the Mexican government deployed troops at the US-Mexican border. The Mexican government also agreed to receive and host asylum-seekers who had been forcibly returned from the USA and awaiting their hearings, after it signed agreements with the US government to avoid potential tariffs. In Central America, at least 70,000 people who had fled the ongoing human rights crisis in Nicaragua were living in Costa Rica where access to the asylum process and basic services remained a challenge.


2019 was marked by mass protests across the region. In many countries – such as Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti, Honduras, Nicaragua and Venezuela – the main protagonists of these mobilizations were young people, people from low income homes and women. With a few exceptions, the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful. However, the year was also marked by states’ inability to channel people’s discontent and demands for their rights. Instead, they resorted to repression; excessive use of force, including intentionally lethal force; and other human rights violations.

Main drivers of mass demonstrations

During the year, predominantly young and diverse mass demonstrations across the region demanded action on women’s rights, the climate crisis and equal rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) people. Mass anti-government protests were also widespread, with demands that ranged from an end to corruption, to more equal access to education, an adequate standard of living and health, to the right to vote.

In many countries, including Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Haiti and Honduras, protests were triggered by political and economic measures that would undermine the enjoyment of economic and social rights and increase inequality. In Bolivia the main driver of protests were claims of electoral fraud surrounding the presidential election. In Venezuela, in the context of the current humanitarian emergency, protesters continued to demand respect for their political rights, access to justice and access to economic and social rights. In Nicaragua, demonstrators demanded an end to the continuing repression, justice for victims of human rights violations and freedom for people detained for their legitimate political dissent.

Political polarization intensified in the region, reflecting a widespread feeling of disillusionment with governments and political elites from across the political spectrum. People protested because they felt representatives were increasingly divorced from their needs and demands, because of corruption and because they felt shut out of decision-making processes, which often resulted in policies that disproportionally disadvantaged people living in poverty or in low income homes, women and girls, Indigenous Peoples and young people.

Discontent was fuelled by the fact that Latin America and the Caribbean continued to be the most unequal, as well as the most violent, region in the world, according to UN estimates. Poverty increased again in 2019 (estimated at 31% according to ECLAC), inequality continued to decrease but not at a significant rate and economic growth was almost non-existent (0.1% according to ECLAC). In this context, access to economic and social rights such as education, health or housing was very unequal. The amount of social spending by governments increased slightly in most countries, but alarmingly not in accordance with what would be needed to achieve the targets set out in the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

States’ reactions to protest: repression rather than dialogue

The widespread nature of the protests, their diversity, geographic range and the extensive participation in demonstrations by the population in different countries took many governments in the Americas by surprise and challenged their capacity to establish political dialogue with their citizens. Most governments responded with unnecessary, excessive and, on some occasions, intentionally lethal use of force and by imposing “states of emergency” or “states of exception” which threatened people’s right to peaceful assembly and freedom of expression. These violent responses intensified people´s frustration and increased the number of people taking to the streets.

In Venezuela, faced with a deepening humanitarian emergency, thousands took to the streets from 21 to 25 January to demand a change of government. At least 47 people died in the context of the protests, all of them as a result of gunshot wounds. Reports indicated that at least 39 were killed by members of state forces or third parties acting with their acquiescence. At least 11 were allegedly extrajudicially executed. More than 900 people were detained, including children and teenagers. The pattern of repression seen in 2019 was consistent with repressive practices inflicted on the civilian population since 2014 constituting reasons to argue that the systematic and widespread attacks against the civilian population may amount to crimes against humanity.

In Haiti, in February alone, 41 people died and 100 were injured in the context of protests. According to the UN, between mid-September and the end of October, a further 42 people were killed, at least 19 of them allegedly by the security forces. Police used excessive force in multiple instances during the anti-government protests in October. In Honduras, at least six people died, and dozens were injured in the context of repression of protests between April and June, most were shot the security forces, including the army. In Ecuador, the government authorized the use of the armed forces to respond to widespread protests after declaring a state of emergency in October. At least eight people were killed and 1,340 injured in the context of protests.

In Bolivia, the government also declared a state of emergency when protests erupted both in support of and against the then president, Evo Morales, following presidential elections in October. There were reports of excessive and unnecessary use of force by the National Police in response to the protests. In November, publication of an audit by the Organization of American States citing serious irregularities in the elections increased protests and was followed by calls for President Morales to resign, even from some of his supporters. The armed forces “suggested” Morales should resign for the “pacification of the country”. Later the same day, President Morales resigned. Two days after the resignation, Jeanine Añez assumed office as interim President and issued Decree 4078, which provided for the participation of the armed forces in public order operations, guaranteeing impunity for human rights violations. Under this Decree, the National Police and the armed forces carried out joint operations to police demonstrations and there were reports of excessive and unnecessary use of force against protesters, as well as reports of armed protesters. At least 35 people had been killed in the context of demonstrations by the end of the year. Decree 4078 was repealed on 27 November, but allegations of human rights violations continued.

In Chile, protests started in mid-October and the Sate forces, mainly the armed forces and carabineros (national police), carried out widespread attacks against demonstrators resulting in the death of four protesters and the torture and serious injury of others. More than 350 of those injured sustained serious eye injuries. In Colombia, where protests erupted in November, an 18-year-old died from head injuries caused by a less lethal ammunition.


Impunity continued to be the norm rather than the exception for both current and past crimes under international law and human rights violations.

In Guatemala, after several attempts, the government finally succeeded in definitively shutting down the CICIG, which had achieved unprecedented results in investigating cases of large scale corruption and human rights violations. At the same time, Congress discussed an amnesty for those accused of criminal responsibility for human rights violations and crimes under international law perpetrated during the internal armed conflict. In El Salvador, the Legislative Assembly discussed a draft Special Law for Transitional and Restorative Justice for National Reconciliation, which was considered a threat to the right of access to justice, truth and reparation for victims of human rights violations. In Nicaragua, an Amnesty Law was adopted which was widely criticized as posing a potential obstacle to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly and endangering victims’ right to an effective remedy. In Colombia, a series of measures promoted by President Iván Duque created worrying delays and serious setbacks to the implementation of the 2016 Peace Agreement.

In September, the UN Human Rights Council passed a resolution establishing an Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela to investigate extrajudicial executions, enforced disappearances, arbitrary detention and torture since 2014. The Mission was due to publish its findings in 2020. In Mexico, the Ministry of the Interior created a Commission of Investigation for Truth and Justice to clarify the case of the 43 Ayotzinapa students who were forcibly disappeared in 2014. The Minister of the Interior also announced the re-establishment of the Interdisciplinary Group of Independent Experts (GIEI) to look into the case. Despite these positive moves and other changes implemented by the current government, Mexico continued to have some of the highest levels of impunity in the region for the ongoing high incidence of disappearances and other crimes under international law and grave human rights violations.


According to the 2019 report of the organization Front Line Defenders, the Americas was the world’s most dangerous region for the defence of human rights. Colombia, Honduras, Mexico and Brazil, together with the Philippines, were the countries with the highest number of killings of human rights defenders.

Throughout 2019, Amnesty International continued to receive disturbing reports of stigmatization, threats, displacement, criminalization and killings targeting individuals and communities that promote human rights. Land, territory and environmental rights defenders were particularly at risk and accounted for a high number of those killed.

Most states did not have adequate protection plans that addressed the structural causes of violence against these communities. Most states in the region, particularly those with specific mechanisms for the protection of human rights defenders, continued to view protection in a reactive manner and from a material security perspective, rather than trying to overcome the structural causes of violence against vulnerable individuals and communities.

In the USA, the Trump Administration harassed and promoted criminal investigations against defenders of migrant and refugee rights. In December, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted precautionary measures in favour of 17 women human rights defenders in Nicaragua who, in the context of the current crisis, were subjected to harassment, intimidation, death threats and attacks. In El Salvador, local NGOs highlighted the lack of an official record of violations against human rights defenders and the Legislative Assembly’s failure to approve a law for the recognition and comprehensive protection of human rights defenders and to guarantee the right to defend human rights.

Some positive steps were taken during the year in various countries to protect human rights defenders. For example, Mexico reformulated its national protection mechanism, while Peru adopted a national protection protocol. In Paraguay, the Joint Action Plan, a mechanism previously used to forcibly evict defenders and communities protecting their rights from their land or territory, was repealed.

Some steps, albeit insufficient, were taken to bring to justice those suspected of criminal responsibility in cases related to attacks against human rights defenders across the region. In Honduras, seven people were convicted for the killing of environmental defender Bertha Cáceres. However, her family believes that full justice will only be achieved when those behind the killing are brought to justice. Two people suspected of killing Indigenous environmental defender Julián Carillo were arrested. However, members of his community, Coloradas de la Virgen, were still at risk due to the high levels of violence and the lack of essential services. In Paraguay, the most recent unfair criminal proceedings against Andrés Brizuela, defender of land-related rights, ended following an agreed court settlement.

Other groups were also targeted for their human rights work, including defenders of the rights of LGBTI people, migrants and women; journalists; and those searching for disappeared persons, among others. In Mexico, following the murder of well-known LGBTI rights defender Oscar Cazorla, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights highlighted the pattern of impunity with regard to investigations of such cases. In Brazil, women’s rights defender Debora Diniz received death threats over her defence of the right to abortion in the country. In Mexico, two migrant rights defenders were detained following a stigmatization campaign in which high-level authorities levelled sustained accusations against them for which there was no credible evidence.


In 2019, women and girls gained prominence in the Americas, both in political participation and in social mobilization for their rights. Significant progress has been made in Latin America and the Caribbean towards gender equality in politics, education and employment, although it is estimated that it will take several decades to reach full parity at the current rate of change.

Gender-based violence against women and girls continued to be widespread throughout the region. Although all women across the region were at risk, some faced a heightened level of risk, for example sex workers, women human rights defenders and Indigenous and Afro-descendent women. Women speaking out for their rights in particular were the targets of violence on social media.

In the Dominican Republic, police routinely raped, beat and humiliated women engaged in sex work in acts that may amount to torture or other ill-treatment. In Colombia, women defenders faced increased risks, including sexual violence, threats and killings. More than 500 Indigenous women and girls were missing or killed in 71 cities across the USA, according to reports, although the true number was believed to be much higher.

Although gender equality was increasingly supported, especially among young people, government efforts to eliminate the entrenched discriminatory attitudes that underpin and perpetuate violence against women remained inadequate. Survivors of gender-based violence also faced barriers to justice related to deeply entrenched and class-based bias within the justice system, resulting in court judgments that continued to fail women. Furthermore, impunity for perpetrators, including in cases of sexual violence and femicides, was still the norm and there were very few measures in place to prevent violence against women and provide services and access to justice to for survivors.

Efforts to challenge and change this context were another prominent feature of 2019. Feminist mobilization in the region was widespread. For example, A rapist in your path, a song by the Chilean group “Las Tesis” highlighting state failures and a patriarchal culture as the root causes of violence against women, was rapidly adopted by feminists across the region and globally, becoming a feminist anthem during the year.

In August, several cases of sexual violence againstwomenand girlssparked outrage and demonstrations in Mexico City and other cities in the country.TheMexico City government initiallydismissedthe protests as acts of provocation andstatedthat it would initiate criminal investigations against demonstratorsforcausing damage to buildings. Subsequently, reportedly in reaction to public outrage, the governmentchanged its positionandstatedthat it would respect the righttofreedom of assembly and investigate cases of violence againstwomenand girls.


Public health evidence shows that highly restrictive abortion laws do not reduce the number of abortions, but rather force people who are pregnant to resort to unsafe abortions. Nevertheless, according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, more than 97% of women of reproductive age in Latin America and the Caribbean live in countries with restrictive abortion laws. Even where abortion is legal, women and girls continued to encounter widespread barriers to accessing abortion services.

Many health systems in the region were unable to provide essential post-abortion care (PAC), according to a recent study by the Guttmacher Institute. This was the reality despite governments’ commitment to provide PAC through the provision of quality health services.

According to the United Nations Population Fund, Latin America and the Caribbean had the second highest rate of adolescent pregnancy in the world. At least 3.4 million adolescent girls, above all those from lower income households and those living in rural areas, did not have access to modern contraceptive methods. The annual per capita cost of access to such contraception would be around US$0.38 (Guttmacher Institute). Maternal deaths remained among the leading causes of death of adolescents and young women aged 15-24 in Latin America and the Caribbean.

The risk of maternal mortality is twice as high for girls under the age of 15, compared to women as a whole, because their bodies and minds are not fully prepared for parenthood. Latin America and the Caribbean was the only region in the world where there was an increase in the number of girls aged between 10 and 15 who were forced to carry to term pregnancies, often the result of sexual abuse, and give birth. For example, a recent study by UN Women stated that there was a 62.6% increase in pregnancy among girls aged 10-14 in Paraguay. In Argentina every three hours, a girl under 15 gives birth.


Indigenous Peoples’ rights continued to be violated in countries including Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Guatemala, Honduras, Mexico, Nicaragua, Paraguay, Peru, the USA and Venezuela.


Indigenous leaders in countries such as Colombia, Guatemala, Brazil, Mexico and Honduras continued to be threatened, attacked and killed for their work defending rights related to access to land, territory and the environment. In Paraguay, for example, Indigenous Peoples continued to be criminalized by the authorities who used legal proceedings to harass them. There were also reports of violent attacks, intimidation and the displacement of communities. In Ecuador, concerns remained regarding the lack of appropriate protection mechanisms to safeguard the lives and physical safety of Indigenous human rights defenders and to ensure effective investigations into threats and attacks against them.

Indigenous women were at particular risk of violence. In the USA and Canada, for example, Indigenous women continued to experience disproportionately high levels of rape and other sexual violence.


The rights of Indigenous Peoples to land and to free, prior and informed consent regarding developments that affect them continued to be flouted by governments in the region. In Peru, new laws weakened the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights related to land and territory and undermined their right to free, prior and informed consent.

In Paraguay, concrete and positive steps were taken towards implementing the rulings of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in the cases of the Sawhoyamaxa and the Yakye Axa. However, there were allegations of misuse of the criminal justice system against Indigenous Ava Guaraní communities in Itakyry district in the context of a dispute over land titles. In Ecuador, the Sarayaku were still awaiting full implementation of a 2008 ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights that they must be consulted over projects that affect their territory. In Colombia, tens of thousands of people, principally from Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities, were forcibly displaced by clashes between different armed groups.

In Canada, the government did not commit to suspend construction of the Site C dam in British Columbia, despite an outstanding land rights lawsuit and opposition from two directly affected First Nations. In Argentina, 13 years after it was approved, the Territorial Emergency Law (N°26.160) to advance the legal recognition of Indigenous Peoples’ land rights had still not been fully implemented.

Environmental contamination and degradation affected Indigenous Peoples’ rights to a healthy environment across the continent. In Peru, some steps were taken, such as the release by the Ministry of Health of policy guidelines on the treatment of people affected by toxic metals. However, the government had yet to implement effective measures to protect the right to health of hundreds of Indigenous people whose only water sources were contaminated with toxic metals. In Venezuela, Indigenous communities continued to highlight the impact of mineral extraction on their communities and environment and in Canada, the government failed to establish a specialized health care facility to address decades of mercury contamination on Grassy Narrows First Nation land.

Corporate actors continued to violate and endanger Indigenous Peoples’ rights. In Brazil, Indigenous and Afro-descendent communities came under increasing pressure from illegal invasions and seizures of their ancestral lands by loggers, cattle ranchers and other commercial interests. Government protections were scaled back and, in some cases, non-existent.

However, in a landmark settlement, the Canadian mining company Pan American Silver reached a resolution with Guatemalan Indigenous community members in 2019 over a lawsuit related to a 2013 shooting at the Escobal silver mine. The settlement was accompanied by an apology and acceptance of responsibility by the company, the first time a Canadian mining company had publicly acknowledged that its operations abroad resulted in human rights abuses.

Similar lawsuits were ongoing in Canada against Hudson Minerals over allegations around attacks and killings of Indigenous community members near the Fenix nickel mine in Guatemala.

As the global demand for electric vehicles rises, there are concerns that the expansion of lithium mining in South America’s “lithium triangle” (Argentina, Bolivia and Chile), which is believed to possess over 70% of the world’s lithium reserves, is proceeding without adequate safeguards to protect Indigenous Peoples’ rights to water, a healthy environment and free, prior and informed consent.


Across the region socio-environmental conflicts continued to be a major cause of social discontent. Mass mobilizations to demand action to stop the climate crisis were widespread in the region, especially among young people.

Progress was made towards the implementation of the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement), a ground-breaking regional treaty on environmental rights. By the end of 2019, 22 countries had signed the Agreement and five had ratified it; 11 ratifications are needed for Agreement to enter into force.

A series of devastating fires affected Bolivia’s Chiquitano forest and the Amazon in Brazil, causing an environmental and human rights crisis. In Bolivia the fires broke out after the President enacted Supreme Decree No. 3973 of 10 July which “authorizes the clearing of land for agricultural activities on private and communal land…[and] authorizes controlled burns in accordance with current regulations” in the provinces of Santa Cruz and Beni. The Bolivian government did not initiate an investigation into the possible link between the Decree and the fires and the Decree remained in force and was being applied at the end of the year.

In Brazil, according to official figures, some 435,000 hectares were burned in eight months, affecting the livelihoods and health of rural and urban communities, especially Indigenous Peoples and Quilombola (Afro-descendent) communities living in the region. There was a 30% increase in forest fires in 2019, with 89,178 fire outbreaks detected by satellite. By the end of the year, there was no consistent public policy for the prevention of deforestation and fires or for the protection of and remedies for affected communities. There were also no independent investigations and comprehensive measures to hold to account those involved in the burning of the Amazon rainforest in 2019.


Governments in the Americas continued to unlawfully impose barriers to the movement of migrants, asylum-seekers and refugees. The region faced at least three major refugee situations: Nicaraguans fleeing to Costa Rica, Venezuelans moving mainly to South American countries and people from the so-called Northern Triangle countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) crossing through Mexico in order to reach the USA.

At least 70,000 Nicaraguans who had fled the human rights crisis in their country since 2018 were living in neighbouring Costa Rica. Although Costa Rica did not stop Nicaraguans entering the country, it did not provide them with full access to asylum procedures, limiting their enjoyment of other rights and access to essential services.

Venezuela’s unprecedented humanitarian emergency has forced almost 4.8 million women, men and children to flee the country. Some governments in the region established mechanisms to regularize the immigration status of Venezuelans, while others – such as Peru – imposed new entry requirements which effectively closed the door to Venezuelans seeking international protection. Most states lacked national efficient and well-functioning asylum systems and some responded to the emergency by imposing barriers to asylum processes.

People from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras continued to flee their countries, driven by widespread violence, threats, extortion, gang recruitment, as well as sexual and gender-based violence. Discrimination, harassment and violence in these countries also led many LGBTI people to seek protection in other countries. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at the end of the year there were some 387,000 refugees and asylum-seekers from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala worldwide. In addition, thousands of people were internally displaced or were deported back to their countries, mainly from Mexico and the USA. Many were sent back in breach of international law to situations where they were at risk of serious human rights violations.

In the USA, the Trump Administration promoted measures designed to limit the number of asylum-seekers crossing to the USA from Mexico. Measures included, but were not limited to, unlawful pushbacks at the border; the implementation of “Remain in Mexico,” a policy which forcibly returned tens of thousands of asylum-seekers to Mexico to stay in that country to wait for the adjudication of their US asylum claims; and the signing of “Asylum Cooperative Agreements” with El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras (also known as “safe third country agreements”) to force people to seek asylum in those countries instead of the USA.

The US government continued to detain asylum-seekers arbitrarily and indefinitely, contrary to international law and standards. Some asylum-seekers had been detained for several years in detention facilities without access to proper health services. The Trump Administration also continued its illegal practice of detaining children. Responding to US pressure, the Mexican government deployed 6,000 troops, part of the newly created National Guard, to the US-Mexican border, contrary to its international obligations. Mexico also continued placing children in immigrant detention centres that were reported to be overcrowded and lack basic health services. At least three people died in the custody of the Mexican immigration authorities, including a child.

The policies of several governments and the rhetoric of officials at the highest level regarding the unprecedented refugee crisis in the region reflect the concerted attempts during the year to roll back human rights protections in a range of areas and to foster division. However, they also provide some of the most striking examples of solidarity and collective refusals to allow hard-won human rights gains to be undermined. At the forefront of such acts of resistance were young women and men, demanding a future of social dignity and environmental security; women and girls calling out the forces that underpin and entrench discrimination and gender-based violence; LGBTI people challenging negative stereotypes and harassment; families and communities standing steadfast in the face of powerful opposition to demand justice; and Indigenous Peoples and environmental defenders braving enormous risks to highlight and stop the climate emergency. The diversity and resilience of civil society movements demanding respect for human rights created some of the most emblematic images of the year on streets of cities, towns and villages across the Americas, an inspiration for the struggles to come.