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Events of 2021

Former prosecutor against Impunity, Juan Francisco Sandoval, speaks in Guatemala City, on July 23, 2021, after he was dismissed by the Attorney General. Human rights Ombudsperson Jordan Rodas, on his right, has faced congressional efforts to remove him.

© Johan Ordonez/AFP via Getty Images

Judicial independence has been threatened by corruption, delays in appointments of judges, refusal by Congress to swear in the head judge of the Constitutional Court, removal of the chief of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI), and spurious complaints against judges and prosecutors investigating high profile cases.

Harassment and violence against human rights defenders and journalists remain major concerns. Authorities have restricted access to information, including about vaccine purchases and other measures to address the Covid-19 pandemic.

Guatemala faces challenges in protecting the rights of migrants; human rights defenders; women and girls; and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people.

Judicial Independence and Corruption

In recent years, investigations by the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG)—terminated in 2018—and the Attorney General’s Office have exposed corruption schemes in all three branches of government. However, measures adopted recently by Congress, the Attorney General’s Office and other authorities are impeding accountability and threatening judicial independence.

Congress has flouted a Constitutional Court order to proceed with selecting judges and justices, for the period 2019 through 2024, for 13 seats on the Supreme Court and 135 seats on the Courts of Appeals. The seats remain vacant. The selection process has been marred by corruption allegations based on an investigation by the Special Prosecutor Against Impunity (FECI) that revealed evidence of possible influence peddling in the selection of judicial nominees.

In April, Congress refused to swear in the re-elected Constitutional Court Judge Gloria Porras who had led anti-corruption cases, because of allegations of irregularities in her selection process. The Council of the University of San Carlos, which selected Porras, ratified its decision after reviewing the challenges and, in July, asked Congress to swear her in. At time of writing, Congress had not complied. Fearful of reprisals and spurious investigations, Porras fled Guatemala.

On June 21, judges investigating high-profile cases asked the Attorney General’s Office to review and dismiss old and spurious complaints filed to harass them. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) had issued precautionary measures ordering Guatemala to protect the judges, but the government failed to comply with them. Judge Erika Aifán, who convicted high-profile people in corruption cases, for example, faces more than 70 complaints that the government has failed to investigate. Instead, the Constitutional Court ruled that the Supreme Court can move forward with an attempt to strip her immunity.

On July 23, Attorney General Consuelo Porras, who is not related to Judge Gloria Porras, removed Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) Chief Juan Francisco Sandoval, alleging he humiliated her and citing lack of trust. Sandoval, whose office is probing several corruption cases originally handled by the CICIG, said Porras blocked or tried to block several that implicated high-ranking officials.

Weeks before Sandoval’s removal, President Alejandro Giammattei described his work as politicized and biased. A group of lawyers, seeking to dismantle the FECI, filed two complaints asking the Constitutional Court to declare it unconstitutional.

In September, the Constitutional Court struck down a provision of the criminal code that prohibited allowing people sentenced to five or more years of incarceration for corruption from serving their sentences outside jail. They can now serve corruption sentences under house arrest, for example.

Accountability for Past Human Rights Violations

The limited progress that Guatemala was making in recent years in adjudicating major crimes seems to have come to a standstill. Challenges persist in searching for and identifying the disappeared during the armed conflict, mainly Indigenous Mayans.

In September, authorities and the Guatemalan Forensic Anthropology Foundation, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), began efforts to recover the bodies of at least 116 Indigenous children believed to have been buried at a former military garrison in the 1980s. Efforts were suspended at time of writing.

In June, legislators presented a bill for Peace and Reconciliation, seeking to end proceedings for crimes committed during the armed conflict. It is similar to a 2019 bill shelved in April, after a Constitutional Court judgment that held that pardons for crimes against humanity and serious human rights violations are unconstitutional and contrary to human rights standards.

Freedom of Expression

Guatemala is ranked 116 of 180 countries on the World Press Freedom Index because of constant violence against the press and impunity for perpetrators. Since taking office in 2020, President Giammattei’s government has unleashed verbal attacks and imposed restrictions on the press. Authorities have restricted access to information during the pandemic.

The Journalists’ Association of Guatemala reported 149 physical or verbal attacks or restrictions on journalists and media workers in 2020. As of August 2021, the organization had counted 79 attacks. Investigations into threats, attacks, and killings of journalists have made little progress.

On July 30, Pedro Alfonso Guadrón Hernández, founder of the Facebook news page “Concepción Las Minas mi Tierra,” was shot dead in Chiquimula department. Guadrón covered local news, including anti-government protests, corruption, and drug trafficking. He had reportedly received death threats.

Human Rights Defenders

Attacks on human rights defenders and social leaders increased in 2020, the NGO Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (Udefegua) reported, counting 1,004 attacks and 15 killings from January to December 15, 2020.

In June, a law limiting the work of NGOs took effect, after the Constitutional Court struck down challenges to it. The law includes overly broad language that allows the executive to cancel the legal status of NGOs when they conduct activities contrary to “public order.”

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

The Observatory for Sexual and Reproductive Rights reported 57,578 pregnancies of adolescents and girls as of June, including 2,737 in girls between 10 and 14 years old. Guatemalan law considers that all girls under 14 who have sexual relations are victims of sexual violence.

Abortion is legal only when a pregnant person’s life is in danger.

When President Giammattei, in July, announced a policy to develop inter-institutional work on programs focused on “life and family protection,” he also emphasized that Guatemala protects life starting from conception.

Guatemala’s civil code limits the sexual and reproductive rights of women and girls with disabilities, including by forcing sterilization and other contraceptive treatments without their consent.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Guatemala has no comprehensive civil legislation protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and gender identity, nor a legal gender recognition procedure for transgender people.

A 2021 Human Rights Watch report on violence and discrimination against LGBT people in Guatemala revealed that perpetrators included public security agents, gangs, and members of the public, including LGBT people’s family members. The report found that the government is failing to protect LGBT people adequately.

Guatemalan civil society organizations reported that, as of September, at least 21 LGBT people had been killed in 2021. One gay man and two transgender women—including Andrea González, legal representative of the advocacy group OTRANS Queens of the Night—died in separate attacks during one week in June. Months earlier, González had asked the Attorney General’s Office for protection from death threats she was receiving.

Disability Rights

Children with disabilities with high support requirements are forced to live in institutions in Guatemala. There are few if any policies that would enable them to live in a family household.

Asylum Seekers and Refugees

In February, the United States ended the Asylum Cooperation Agreement (ACA), implemented in July 2019 by former President Donald Trump, which allowed the US to deport Honduran and Salvadoran asylum seekers to Guatemala on the false premise that Guatemala was capable of examining their asylum claims fully and fairly.

As part of US efforts to address the root causes of migration, Guatemala and the US reached several agreements, including to increase the number of Guatemala’s border security officers. In July, President Giammattei and US Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas opened the first reception center for returned migrants.

Since at least April, Guatemala has been receiving groups of migrants trying to reach the US that are being expelled from Mexico. Between August 22 and October 18, the Guatemalan Institute for Migration registered in El Ceibo, at the border with Mexico, 15,387 returnees, including 4,117 children. Most people sent to Guatemala are from Honduras and El Salvador. Between January and October 19, 4,072 unaccompanied Guatemalan minors were returned from Mexico to Tecún Úman, according to the institute.


As of early October, Guatemala counted more than 581,498 cases of Covid-19 and more than 14,118 deaths. The collapse of Guatemala’s public hospital system and limited access to mass vaccinations are likely contributing factors.

The vaccination program has lacked transparency. As of September, only 1.7 million of Guatemala’s 17 million people—10 percent—had been fully vaccinated. The Sputnik vaccines the government purchased, in a contract never made public, were not delivered by a March deadline. In July, a renegotiated contract reduced the number of doses to be delivered by half.

From March 2020 through February 2021, 4.2 million students missed at least three-quarters of classroom instruction due to Covid closures, according to UNICEF. Schools partially opened in January 2021.

Key International Actors

In February, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights reported that Guatemala continues to face systemic and structural human rights challenges, in particular poverty, inequality, discrimination, impunity, and insecurity, exacerbated by Covid-19.

In June, United States Vice President Kamala Harris visited Guatemala. Following a bilateral meeting with President Giammattei, Harris announced the creation of an anticorruption task force that will include US prosecutors and law enforcement experts and a regional task force to prevent migrant smuggling and human trafficking. In September, the United States sanctioned Consuelo Porras and her secretary by including them in the Undemocratic and Corrupt Actors List.

In July, United Nations and Organization of American States experts expressed concern regarding the new NGOs law, claiming it violates international human rights standards and could criminalize human rights defenders. Also in July, UN rights experts expressed concern over violations of due process and health rights in the spurious prosecution of Indigenous activist Bernardo Caal Xól, who opposed the Oxec hydroelectric project.

In August, the IACHR expressed concern over actions jeopardizing judicial independence, including the government’s firing of FECI’s chief prosecutor, Congress’s refusal to swear in the Constitutional Court’s re-elected president, and investigations against judges and prosecutors in high profile cases, some of whom are beneficiaries of the IACHR’s precautionary measures.

The IACHR held public hearings on two cases against Guatemala, one alleging persecution by state agents and the arbitrary installation of a police substation on the complainant’s land, the other alleging that shots fired by Guatemalan authorities to detain a boat killed and wounded people, and that authorities failed to investigate.