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Events of 2019

Artists and activists pose for photos next to a mural at the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity, CICIG, headquarters in Guatemala City, Saturday, Aug. 31, 2019. 

© 2019 AP Photo/Moises Castillo

Guatemala’s progress in prosecuting corruption and abuse in recent years is at risk after the government decided not to extend the mandate of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). CICIG ceased operation in September 2019. At time of writing, the attorney general had not taken steps to safeguard the prosecution of more than 60 ongoing corruption cases, including those against more than a dozen current and former Congress members, former ministers, former President Otto Pérez Molina, and former Vice-President Roxana Baldetti.

In July, the Guatemalan and US governments signed an agreement that would establish Guatemala as a “safe third country.” At time of writing, it was unclear how the agreement would be implemented.

Public Security, Corruption, and Criminal Justice

Violence and extortion by powerful criminal organizations remain serious problems in Guatemala. Gang-related violence is an important factor prompting people, including unaccompanied children and young adults, to leave the country.

In recent years, investigations by CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office have exposed more than 60 corruption schemes, implicating officials in all three branches of government, and prompting the resignation and arrest of the country’s then-president and vice-president in 2015.

However, Guatemala suffers from high levels of impunity, partly because criminal proceedings against powerful actors often suffer unreasonably long delays due to excessive use of motions by criminal defendants. Those delays are compounded by courts often failing to respect legally mandated timeframes and sometimes taking months to reschedule suspended hearings. Intimidation against judges and prosecutors and corruption within the justice system continue to be problems. As a result, trials have not yet started for most major corruption cases brought since 2015.

Accountability for Past Human Rights Violations

The limited progress that Guatemala made in recent years in judging crimes of the past seems to have come to a standstill.

In November 2018, a former special forces member was convicted for his role in the 1982 Dos Erres massacre, in which Guatemalan army special forces killed around 200 civilians as part of its counterinsurgency policy during the armed conflict. In 2011 and 2012, five others had been convicted for their roles in the massacre. However, 10 others remain at large and three high-level former officials, including former leader Efraín Ríos Montt, died before facing trial.

In June, in a case regarding sexual violence against 36 Maya Achí women in the 1980s,  a pretrial judge dismissed proceedings against six former paramilitaries and ordered the immediate release of the defendants after she excluded key evidence from the case, including testimonies from victims and witnesses. At time of writing, plaintiffs’ appeals against the decision remained pending, as did the request from the prosecutor to strip the judge of immunity and charge her with malfeasance and denial of justice.

The same judge had reached a similar decision in the CREOMPAZ case, involving enforced disappearances and sexual violence at a military base during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. The judge excluded 123 of the 152 victims from the case and excluded key military documents from the evidence. The prosecutors’ appeals remained pending at time of writing.

In March 2019, Guatemalan Congress passed the second (of three required) approvals of a bill that would provide amnesty for genocide and other past atrocities, in clear violation of international human rights law. That same month, the Inter-American Court on Human Rights ordered Guatemala, in a binding ruling, to shelve the proposed legislation and in July 2019, Guatemala’s Constitutional Court issued a similar ruling. However, at time of writing, that had not happened.

Violence Against Journalists

Journalists are targets of harassment and violence. In February 2018, the bodies of journalist Laurent Castillo and radio worker Luis de León were found bound and with gunshot wounds to the head. In June 2017, TV journalist Carlos Rodríguez survived a gunshot to the head. In June 2016, radio journalist Álvaro Aceituno was killed, and in March 2015, journalists Danilo López and Federico Salazar were assassinated. In January 2017, investigations by CICIG and the Attorney General’s Office implicated Congressman Julio Juárez from former government party FCN-Nación in the latter crime. In June, a pretrial judge ordered Juárez to stand trial. At time of writing, a trial date had not been set.

Children’s Rights

In March 2017, 41 adolescent girls were killed in a fire in the Hogar Seguro government-run shelter. Fifty-six girls had been locked up for the night in a space that could safely hold only 11, without access to water or a restroom, following a protest against the poor living conditions and treatment received in the shelter—including reports of sexual violence stretching back years. After at least six hours in those conditions, one of the girls set a mattress on fire so police officers on guard would let them out—but the police waited nine minutes before opening the door. Three public officials were due to stand trial in February 2019 for involuntary manslaughter and breach of duty, among other charges, but because of delays, the trial had not yet started at time of writing.

Sexual and Reproductive Health

In August 2018 Guatemalan Congress approved a preliminary version of the “Life and Family Protection” bill. This bill would expand the criminalization of abortion, currently legal only when the life of a pregnant woman or girl is in danger, and could subject women who have miscarriages to prosecution. It would also raise the maximum sentence for abortion from 3 to 10 years and would make it a crime to engage in “the promotion of abortion,” which could mean that the provision of sexual and reproductive information, counseling, or referrals might result in sentences of up to 10 years.

The bill also contains provisions that discriminate against lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. It defines marriage as a union between people who were a man and a woman according to their sex assigned at birth, thus excluding many transgender people in addition to prohibiting same-sex unions. The bill defines “sexual diversity” as “incompatible with the biological and genetic aspects of human beings.” It also establishes that “freedom of conscience and expression” protect people from being “obliged to accept non-heterosexual conduct or practices as normal.”

This provision could be interpreted to mean that people can be denied services on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, in violation of international human rights law. Guatemala does not have legislation specifically protecting the rights of LGBT people.

Incoming President Giammatei stated during the election campaign that he supported the bill. At time of writing, the bill still needed further legislative approvals before the president could sign it into law.

Key International Actors

Since its start in 2007, the UN-backed CICIG played a key role in assisting Guatemala’s justice system in prosecuting violent crime. CICIG worked with the Attorney General’s Office, the police, and other government agencies to investigate, prosecute, and dismantle criminal organizations operating in the country. It identified more than 60 criminal structures, presented more than 110 cases—in which over 680 people were involved—and presented 34 proposals for legal reforms to Guatemala’s Congress. According to an April opinion poll, more than 70 percent of the population supported CICIG.

However, after CICIG and the attorney general presented a renewed request in August 2018 to strip President Jimmy Morales of his presidential immunity in order to investigate his role in illicit campaign financing, Morales announced, flanked by military and police officers, that he would not renew CICIG’s mandate. As a result, CICIG ceased operation in September 2019.

At time of writing, Guatemala’s Attorney General had not agreed to a plan to guarantee the permanence of the prosecutor’s office in charge of the prosecution of CICIG’s cases.

In July, after the Trump administration had threatened to apply tariffs on Guatemalan products and fees on remittances from migrants, Guatemalan and U.S. officials signed an agreement that would establish Guatemala as a “safe third country,” requiring citizens of other countries who passed through Guatemala before filing a claim for asylum in the U.S., to apply for asylum in Guatemala instead. At time of writing, it was unclear how the agreement would be implemented.

The US Congress approved US$615 million in assistance for 2018 for the Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, a five-year initiative announced in 2014 aimed at reducing incentives for people to migrate from Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras by curbing violence, strengthening governance, and increasing economic opportunity in those countries. However, in March, President Donald Trump announced that aid to Northern Triangle countries would be cut. This would significantly reduce, or end, programs on local economic development, violence prevention, and anti-corruption efforts.

In 2019, Guatemala endorsed the Safe Schools Declaration, an international commitment to protect education during armed conflict.