Increased criminalization was used as a strategy to intimidate those working in the administration of justice. A law that threatens the right to defend human rights entered into force. Guatemala recorded the lowest percentage of people fully vaccinated against Covid-19 in Latin America amid corruption allegations.
US vice-president Kamala Harris visited Guatemala in June and agreed with President Giammattei to address the root causes of migration, including inequality, corruption and the flawed rule of law. In July, the dismissal of the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity sparked nationwide protests against corruption, economic inequality and the government’s response to Covid-19.
Those working in the administration of justice with key roles in the fight against impunity in cases of serious human rights violations and corruption were removed from or prevented from taking up their posts and faced threats, criminal prosecution and smear campaigns.1
In April, magistrate Gloria Porras, a prominent supporter of human rights and anti-corruption efforts in recent years, who had been re-elected to Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, left the country after Congress blocked her swearing-in ceremony and refused to let her take up the appointment.
In June, four judges from high-risk criminal courts who had been granted precautionary measures by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, reported to the Public Prosecutor’s Office that they were the targets of harassment and threats. One month later, the Attorney General dismissed Juan Francisco Sandoval, head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, who fled the country amid concerns over his safety. In October, she also transferred the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office on Human Rights, who had helped bring the former military president Efraín Ríos Montt to justice.
Human rights defenders and excessive use of force
The Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) recorded 839 attacks against human rights defenders between January and November. Guatemala once again had the fourth highest rate of killings worldwide of land and environmental defenders per capita; 13 were killed in 2020, according to the NGO Global Witness.
Despite this, by the end of the year Guatemala had yet to ratify the Regional Agreement on Access to Information, Public Participation and Justice in Environmental Matters in Latin America and the Caribbean (Escazú Agreement), which includes provisions for the protection of environmental human rights defenders.
In May, the new members of the Constitutional Court rejected legal challenges filed by civil society organizations against the controversial NGO Law and it entered into force on 21 June. At least three appeals were subsequently filed before the Constitutional Court in relation to elements of the law that could allow for serious violations of the rights to freedom of expression and association, including vaguely worded clauses that could lead to NGOs being shut down or targeted in other ways. The appeals were pending at the end of the year.
Court hearings continued in the case of prisoner of conscience Bernardo Caal Xol, imprisoned since January 2018 for defending the rights of Q’eqchi’ Maya communities affected by the construction of the OXEC hydroelectric dam project.2 In August, the Supreme Court rejected a cassation appeal for his release presented by his lawyers. In October, police agents violently repressed Q’eqchi’ Maya people who had been peacefully protesting for three weeks against a mining company operating in their territory in El Estor, as well as other demonstrators and journalists. Following the incident, the President decreed a state of emergency in the municipality.
Refugees’ and migrants’ rights
Guatemalans continued to flee violence, poverty, inequality and climate change.
Hundreds of Guatemalans were deported and pushed back by Mexican authorities, together with other people from Central America and Haiti, to remote areas at the border where they were left without proper assistance.
Security forces beat and used tear gas against a caravan of migrants and asylum seekers attempting to enter the country in January, on the pretext of enforcing Covid-19 protocols.3
Right to health
Guatemala had the lowest percentage of people fully vaccinated against Covid-19 in Latin America, at just 25.7%, amid corruption allegations in connection with the purchase of vaccines and the handling of the pandemic.
Although a detailed national vaccination plan was published, it did not include a protocol for Indigenous peoples.
Violence against women and girls
In March, after two decades of struggle for justice by the family of María Isabel Veliz Franco, a 15-year-old girl killed in 2001 whose body showed signs of sexual violence, a national court sentenced a man to 30 years’ imprisonment for her murder. Guatemala had been condemned by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights in 2014 for failing to diligently investigate her death and prevent violations of her rights.
Sexual and reproductive rights
In December, Congress started discussing a legislative initiative (5940) which, if passed, would violate the rights of transgender children and adolescents.
Right to truth, justice and reparation
In May, the security forces arrested 11 retired military and police officers suspected of involvement in abductions, enforced disappearances, extrajudicial executions and other crimes under international law and human rights violations against at least 183 people considered political opponents between 1983 and 1985 in the case known as “Diario Militar”. At least eight were detained awaiting trial at the end of the year.
- “Guatemala: International organizations demand end to criminalization of justice officials and human rights defenders”, 8 June
- “Guatemala: Amnesty International delivers 27,957 signatures demanding release of Bernardo Caal”, 7 July
- “Guatemala: La pandemia no puede ser un pretexto para negar protección internacional”, 30 March