President Alejandro Giammattei and his allies deepened the democratic backsliding in Guatemala in an apparent effort to avoid accountability for widespread high-level corruption.
Authorities appointed two key figures in 2022: the attorney general and the human rights ombudsperson in selection processes that were neither fair nor transparent. In May, Giammattei reappointed attorney general Consuelo Porras. Porras has blocked investigations into corruption and brought arbitrary proceedings against independent journalists, prosecutors, and judges.
Harassment and violence against journalists and human rights defenders and challenges in protecting the rights of women and girls, lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people, and migrants remain major concerns.
Investigations by the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which operated from 2007 to 2019, and by the Attorney General’s Office exposed more than 120 corruption schemes in all three branches of government.
In 2019, then-President Jimmy Morales terminated the CICIG’s mandate and forced its head to leave the country. Since then, Attorney General Consuelo Porras has weakened the Office of the Special Prosecutor against Impunity (FECI), responsible for investigating corruption, and progress on the cases has come to a standstill.
The Americas Society and Council of the Americas ranked Guatemala 13th out of 15 Latin American countries in their ability to detect, punish, and prevent corruption, experiencing the sharpest decline in the index from 2021.
Years of investigations have shown that businesspeople have acted in coordination with corrupt officials. Money obtained through corruption and criminal activity is often used to finance electoral campaigns.
Judicial Independence and Checks on Executive Power
Measures adopted recently by Congress, the Attorney General’s Office, and other authorities have impeded accountability for corruption and abuses, undermined the rule of law, and weakened human rights guarantees.
As of September, Congress had yet to comply with a 2020 Constitutional Court ruling ordering it to appoint judges and magistrates to fill vacant seats on the Supreme Court and appeals courts for the period 2019-2024. The selection process has been marred by delays and influence peddling allegations.
On May 16, President Giammattei appointed Consuelo Porras as attorney general for a second term, after a selection process marred by several attempts by government authorities and others to undermine the fairness and independence of the process.
During her initial four years in office, Porras undermined investigations into corruption and human rights abuses. She transferred, fired, or, in some cases, promoted spurious criminal proceedings against independent judges, prosecutors, and journalists.
In January 2022, the Attorney General’s Office opened seemingly arbitrary investigations into Judge Erika Aifán, who had presided over high-level corruption cases reportedly involving President Giammattei. Aifán fled Guatemala in March.
In February, Virginia Laparra, an anti-corruption prosecutor, was imprisoned on spurious grounds. She remained behind bars as of September.
In late June and early July, Porras abruptly removed eight prosecutors, including Hilda Pineda, who in 2013 prosecuted former President Efraín Ríos Montt for “genocide” and “crimes against humanity” in connection with his alleged role in massacres committed during the country’s 1960-1996 civil war.
In July, Congress appointed a new ombudsperson, José Alejandro Cordova, a Giammattei administration ally, through a process that lacked transparency.
In November, Congress appointed the new comptroller general, Frank Bode. The comptroller plays a key role in preventing corruption and the office’s work is crucial to ensure free and fair elections presidential elections in June 2023.
Freedom of Expression
The Giammattei administration and Attorney General Consuelo Porras have created a hostile environment for independent journalists and media outlets, including with verbal attacks, restrictions on the press, and abusive criminal proceedings.
The Journalists’ Association of Guatemala reported 66 incidents of attacks, persecution, and criminalization of media workers during the first six months of 2022.
In some cases, government officials have used a 2008 anti-gender-based violence law to harass journalists who write about them, claiming that their reporting is a form of “psychological violence” against officials or their female relatives.
On March 8, journalist Orlando Villanueva from Noticias del Puerto was shot dead by unidentified individuals in Puerto Barrios, the capital of Izabal department. Other journalists in that department have faced attacks and official harassment, particularly for covering issues related to a mining project in the Indigenous community of El Estor. In September, a judge acquitted journalist Carlos Choc from Prensa Comunitaria, who had been accused without evidence of “incitement to commit crime” for his coverage of an October 2021 protest related to the mining project.
In April, journalist Juan Luis Font fled Guatemala. Font has been subject to apparently spurious criminal investigations related to his reporting on corruption allegations against former infrastructure minister Alejandro Sinibaldi, who is under investigation for taking bribes.
In July, prosecutors arrested Jose Rubén Zamora, the owner of the well-respected media outlet El Periódico, which has uncovered several incidents of corruption in the country. He is accused of “money laundering,” “blackmail,” and “influence peddling”.
Accountability for Past Human Rights Violations
The limited progress that Guatemala was making in adjudicating crimes committed during the armed conflict (1960-1996) seems to have come to a standstill in recent years, particularly because of attacks and spurious prosecutions against prosecutors and judges working on such cases.
Challenges persist in searching for and identifying the disappeared during the armed conflict, mainly Indigenous Mayans.
In January, a court in Guatemala sentenced five former members of a paramilitary unit to 30 years in prison for crimes against humanity after finding them responsible for raping and enslaving 36 Mayan women between 1981 and 1985.
In July, legislators introduced a bill that would grant amnesty to security forces for “actions or omissions” they committed during the armed conflict. It was the third time such a bill has been introduced in recent years. It had yet to be discussed as of writing.
Human Rights Defenders
Abuses against human rights defenders and social leaders increased in the last five years, according to the non-profit Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (Udefegua), which recorded 11 killings and 1,002 incidents of defamation, harassment or spurious judicial complaints directed mainly at justice operators, journalists, peasants, and land defenders in 2021.
In June 2021, a law limiting the work of nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) took effect. It includes overly broad provisions that could be used by the executive branch to cancel the legal status of organizations that undertake activities “against public order.”
Women’s and Girls’ Rights
The Observatory for Sexual and Reproductive Rights reported over 60,000 pregnancies among adolescents and girls as of July, including 1,323 in girls between 10 and 14 years old.
Abortion is legal only when a pregnant person’s life is at risk. On March 8, lawmakers passed a bill increasing penalties and broadening the circumstances under which people could be prosecuted for accessing abortion—broadly defined as the “natural or provoked death” of an embryo or fetus. Congress shelved the bill, after President Giammattei threatened to veto it.
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. Authorities have failed to adequately protect LGBT people from violence and discrimination.
In January, a commission in Congress passed a bill that would stigmatize transgender people and curtail children’s and adolescents’ rights to education, information, and health. The bill remained pending in Congress as of September.
In March, Congress passed—but then shelved at the president’s request—a bill that would have banned same-sex marriage and unions and appeared aimed at legally protecting discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation.
Guatemalan civil society organizations reported that, as of October, at least 25 LGBT people had been killed in 2022.
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. Reports of abuses against children with disabilities living in institutions are not properly investigated or resolved.
According to data shared by the Ombudsperson’s Office in June, almost half of the children under 5 years old in Guatemala suffer chronic malnutrition—a situation that worsened during the Covid-19 pandemic. According to government data, there were 15,862 cases of severe malnutrition of children under 5, and 42 had died as of September.
Human Rights Watch found that Mineduc Digital, an online learning product used by the Education Ministry during the Covid-19 pandemic, transmitted children’s personal data to advertising technology companies, enabling them to track and target children across the internet. As of September, the ministry had failed to stop children’s privacy violations.
Migrants and Asylum Seekers
In cooperation with the administration of US President Joe Biden, President Giammattei has increased efforts to prevent non-Guatemalan migrants and asylum seekers from reaching the United States. From January through October 2022, police detained and expelled more than 13,000 people to Honduras, mostly Venezuelans without a visa.
President Giammattei has deployed police and soldiers to Guatemala’s southern border to prevent migrants from entering the country. In October, they clashed violently with a migrant caravan attempting to cross the border from Honduras.
In September 2021, after an increase in the number of Ecuadorians arriving at the US border, and a decision by Mexico to end visa-free travel for Ecuadorians, Guatemala did the same.
Key International Actors
In March, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights said that Guatemala faced “systemic and structural challenges,” including regarding the “the fight against impunity, democratic spaces and citizen participation.”
Between February and May, the European Union issued four statements expressing concern over deteriorating rule of law, threats to judicial independence, and the reappointment of Attorney General Consuelo Porras.
In April, the European Parliament adopted a resolution expressing concern for the rule of law in Guatemala, condemning the criminalization, detention, and harassment against judicial operators, human rights defenders, and journalists, and urging to respect the separation of powers between branches of government.
In June, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights included Guatemala, along with Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, in the chapter of its annual report reserved for states with grave, massive, or systematic violations of human rights and serious attacks to democratic institutions.
In the same month, Guatemala signed the Los Angeles Declaration on Migration and Protection, committing to strengthening and expanding paths toward safe, legal migration and asylum.
In July 2022, the US Department of State released its Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors Report for 2021. It includes several current and former Guatemalan public officials, as well as five Guatemalan businesspeople.
President Giammattei did not attend the Ninth Summit of the Americas in Los Angeles following criticism by the Biden administration of Guatemala’s decision to reappoint Attorney General Consuelo Porras. Shortly before the summit, the US placed sanctions on Porras, citing involvement in significant corruption.
Guatemala and five other countries led the renewal of the mandate for the UN Independent International Fact-Finding Mission on Venezuela in October.