Thousands of people were detained for breaching the curfew ordered in March by the government to contain the spread of COVID-19. Health workers faced difficult working conditions during the pandemic, often lacking personal protective equipment and in some cases work contracts or wages. Attacks on human rights defenders increased and Congress passed a law that threatens the right to defend human rights.
Freedom of movement
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, on 4 March the government declared a “state of calamity”, followed on 16 March by border closures and a mandatory curfew. According to the authorities, more than 40,000 people were detained for curfew violations during the first six months this was in force. The media reported that people with no choice but to keep working in the informal economy were detained. A possible extrajudicial execution at the hands of the police in the capital, Guatemala City, was also reported during curfew on 17 June.
Right to health – health workers
Health workers worked under precarious conditions during the pandemic, and repeatedly reported the lack of personal protective equipment in hospitals. In early May, a group of doctors from the temporary hospital set up in Guatemala City’s Parque de la Industria to care for patients with COVID-19 reported that they had been working without a contract or pay since the beginning of the pandemic.
Right to food and water
The lockdown measures exacerbated the precarious economic situation of many households in Guatemala, which already had one of the highest rates of chronic child malnutrition in the region. White flags were placed in windows of people’s homes as a sign that they had no food and people stood in long lines to receive food from solidarity initiatives such as the Community Pot in Guatemala City. The Ombudsperson and the media reported that several neighbourhoods and communities did not have access to water, preventing people from adopting adequate hygiene practices during the COVID-19 pandemic. The devastating impact of hurricanes Iota and Eta, which affected more than two million people in November, led to fears of a worsening of the food and sanitary crises.
As of November, more than 41,000 Guatemalans who had fled violence, poverty and inequality were returned to Guatemala from Mexico and the USA. The first temporary shelters set up to receive returnees and test them for COVID-19 did not always meet the minimum requirements for housing people.
Human rights defenders
According to the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA), a local human rights organization, attacks against human rights defenders increased in 2020 compared to previous years, with a total of 1,004 attacks recorded as of 15 December. Those who defend land, territory and the environment were particularly at risk.
This group, women defending sexual and reproductive rights and those fighting impunity and corruption were also the targets of unfounded criminal complaints and proceedings, as part of the misuse of the criminal justice system to harass and punish them for their activities. The Ombudsperson faced several criminal complaints and requests for his removal in reprisal for his activities.
In September, an appeals court increased the prison sentence against prisoner of conscience Bernardo Caal Xol, who had been deprived of his liberty since January 2018 for defending the rights of Indigenous Peoples affected by the construction of the OXEC hydroelectric dam project.
In general, the vast majority of attacks on human rights defenders remained unpunished. By the end of the year, 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.
Despite multiple concerns expressed by UN human rights bodies and international and local organizations, in February Congress amended the law on NGOs. Decree 4-2020 added conditions for the functioning of NGOs and could lead to their arbitrary closure. However, implementation was halted due to an appeal pending before the Constitutional Court.
Excessive use of force
On 21 November, the National Civil Police used excessive force to repress protests in Guatemala City. They made unnecessary and indiscriminate use of tear gas and water canon against protesters and passers-by and violently arrested dozens of people, including journalists.
The future of the fight against impunity in cases of corruption and human rights violations remained at risk. On several occasions, prosecutors, judges and magistrates who had worked on emblematic cases of the fight against impunity were targeted with criminal complaints and intense media smear campaigns also aimed at discrediting them.
This fight against impunity was also at the heart of struggles to select new magistrates for the Supreme Court of Justice and the Courts of Appeals. The process, which had been pending since 2019, was again delayed because of a new corruption scandal and delays in the vote by Congress.
Violence against women and girls
Despite high levels of gender-based violence against women and girls, organizations denounced the lack of funding to temporary shelters known as Comprehensive Support Centres for Women Survivors of Violence (CAIMUS) and mobilized against the government’s intention to close the Presidential Secretariat for Women (SEPREM) and replace it with a lower-ranking commission.
The investigation into the death of 41 girls during a fire at the state-run shelter Virgin of the Assumption Safe House in March 2017 remained pending. None of those accused or suspected of responsibility had been convicted by the end of the year.