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Events of 2023

Indigenous women accompany President-elect Bernardo Arévalo in a march to protest government interference in the elections he won in August, in Guatemala City, December 7, 2023.

© 2023 AP Photo/Moises Castillo

Guatemala’s democratic backsliding accelerated during 2023 with corruption weakening the country’s democracy and justice system. Authorities undermined institutional checks on the abuse of power to prevent accountability. Independent journalists, prosecutors, and judges who had investigated and exposed corruption, human rights violations, and abuse of power faced increased harassment and criminal prosecution.

On August 20, opposition and anti-corruption candidate Bernardo Arévalo won the elections, despite authorities’ attempt to make the playing field uneven. Attorney General Consuelo Porras led efforts to overturn the vote, including through politically motivated criminal investigations.

Lack of judicial independence and challenges in protecting the rights of migrants, women and girls, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people remain major concerns.

Elections and the Right to Vote

During 2023, Guatemala elected a new president, 160 lawmakers, and more than 300 mayors in a context of deteriorating human rights safeguards. Institutions charged with overseeing the elections had little independence or credibility.

Between February and May, three presidential candidates—left-wing Indigenous leader Telma Cabrera, and right-wing Roberto Arzú and Carlos Pineda, who was then showing in some surveys as the leading presidential candidate—were barred from running for office on dubious grounds. The Attorney General’s Office launched an arbitrary criminal investigation against presidential candidate Edmond Mulet because he criticized a judge’s decision to investigate nine journalists.

After the first round of presidential elections held on June 25, the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) announced that Sandra Torres, of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE), and Arévalo, of the progressive Movimiento Semilla, would compete in the August 20 runoff.

On June 30, losing political parties filed suit, claiming fraud. Electoral observers from the European Union and the Organization of American States (OAS) found no evidence of it. However, the Constitutional Court temporarily halted election result announcements and ordered a new process for challenging alleged vote irregularities. When no irregularities were found, the Supreme Court approved the results on July 10.

On July 12, a judge granted a request by the Attorney General’s Office to suspend Semilla’s registration on the basis of alleged registration-related crimes. The Constitutional Court overruled the decision the next day, allowing the election to proceed.

Arévalo won the August 20 runoff with almost 60 percent of the vote. Although the EU and OAS electoral observation missions found no evidence of serious irregularities, the UNE challenged the results, including through a criminal complaint making unsubstantiated allegations of fraud.

The Attorney General’s Office raided Semilla’s and the TSE’s headquarters, seized electoral material, and asked a court to investigate TSE magistrates.

On August 28, the TSE’s Office of Citizen Registry suspended Semilla’s legal registration as a result of the Attorney General’s Office’s investigation. The decision was confirmed on November 2, once the electoral process was officially closed on October 31.

In October, Guatemalans took to the streets to protest efforts to overturn the electoral results. Protests, led by Indigenous groups, demanded the resignation of Attorney General Consuelo Porras. The attorney general and the Constitutional Court urged the government to use force in response to road blockings. At time of writing, security forces had used force in very few incidents. In some cases, individuals attacked protesters, including by firing gunshots. One protester died in mid-October.

In November, the Attorney General’s Office requested 27 arrest warrants against activists, students, academics, human rights defenders, and a Semilla member. Prosecutors accused them of participating in, or promoting, a largely peaceful protest in 2022 in Guatemala’s largest university. The Attorney General’s Office also asked the Supreme Court to lift the immunity of Arévalo and Vice President-elect Karin Herrera so they could be investigated for allegedly promoting the student protest through social media.

In December, prosecutors asked the TSE to “annul” the electoral results, alleging irregularities.

Later that month, in a case brought by a group of local lawyers, the Constitutional Court ordered that Congress and other authorities ensure that all elected authorities take office on January 14 and 15, as required under the Guatemalan Constitution. However, the court said its decision was “without prejudice” to the powers of Attorney General’s Office to investigate and prosecute alleged crimes.


For years, investigations have revealed that businesspeople coordinated with corrupt officials to pack the courts and that money linked to corruption and organized crime is often used to finance electoral campaigns.

Attorney General Porras has weakened the agency responsible for investigating corruption—the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI)—halting the progress of cases. The FECI has pivoted to pursuing spurious criminal investigations against anti-corruption advocates, including judges, prosecutors, and journalists.

Guatemala ranks 13 of 15 Latin American countries in its ability to detect, punish, and prevent corruption, according to the Americas Society and Council of the Americas report. Since 2021, Guatemala has experienced the sharpest decline in the index in the region.

Judicial Independence and Checks on Executive Power

Measures by Congress, the Attorney General’s Office, and other authorities have obstructed accountability for corruption, weakening the rule of law and undermining human rights guarantees. Corrupt political, economic, and military elites have co-opted a large part of the country’s justice system, allowing them to profit with impunity.

Efforts to undermine institutional safeguards increased since the expulsion of the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG) by then-President Jimmy Morales in late 2019.

As of October, Congress had yet to comply with a 2020 Constitutional Court order to appoint judges and magistrates to fill vacant seats on the Supreme Court and appeals courts for the 2019-2024 term. The selection process has been marred by influence-peddling allegations.

On August 28, prosecutors raided the homes of former senior prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, who lives in exile, and arrested Claudia González, a former CICIG commissioner who currently works as the lawyer of many independent prosecutors and judges. Prosecutors cited alleged abuse of authority in the influence-peddling investigation that CICIG started in 2017 against current Supreme Court of Justice Magistrate Blanca Stalling.

As of September, more than 40 judges, prosecutors, and former CICIG officials had been forced into exile.

As of October, Virginia Laparra, an anti-corruption prosecutor, remained in prison, serving a four-year sentence for “abuse of authority” regarding administrative complaints she filed against Judge Lesther Castellanos. In May, the UN Working Group on Arbitrary Detention deemed her case arbitrary and called for her release.

In November, members of Congress whose terms ended in January 2024 swiftly appointed a new Supreme Court after a process marred by irregularities. The 13 magistrates appointed include people who have faced several criminal investigations, including for alleged influence-peddling.

Freedom of Expression

Authorities have created a hostile environment for journalists and media outlets, including through verbal attacks, restrictions, and abusive criminal proceedings.

The Journalists’ Observatory, a nongovernmental organization (NGO), documented 120 instances of attacks, harassment, and criminalization of media personnel in the first seven months of 2023, exceeding the total of 117 incidents in 2022. Over 500 such incidents have been reported since the beginning of Alejandro Giammattei’s presidential term in 2020. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) registered that at least six journalists fled the country in 2022. The Journalists’ Observatory found that the frequency of attacks escalated during election season.

On June 14, a court convicted José Rubén Zamora, a leading investigative journalist and the owner and editor of El Periodico, an independent outlet, of alleged money laundering. In October, a higher court annulled the decision, ruling that the case should be tried again. El Periodico had ceased operations in May, citing persecution. Zamora remained in prison at the time of writing.

On August 11, unidentified attackers shot and killed journalists Edin Alonso and Hugo Gutiérrez in the southwestern department of Retalhuleu. They managed a Facebook page for local news and had reportedly received threats.

Attacks on Human Rights Defenders

Abuses against human rights defenders and social leaders increased. In 2022, the non-profit Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos de Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) documented 3,574 instances of aggression—including criminalization, harassment, intimidation, threats, and violence against women—against individuals, organizations, and communities that defend human rights, which is the highest recorded number in 22 years.

Women’s and Girls’ Rights

By August, the Women’s Observatory of the Attorney General’s Office had counted more than 22,000 women victims of gender-based violence and another 98 victims of femicide in 2023. OHCHR stated that insufficient public resources were being allocated to prevent violence against women and protect victims.

The Observatory for Sexual and Reproductive Rights (OSAR), an NGO, reported more than 43,000 pregnancies among adolescents and girls, including 1,589 among girls ages 10 to 14, between January and August.

Abortion is legal only when a pregnant person’s life is at risk. In 2022, lawmakers tried to broaden the circumstances under which people could be prosecuted for accessing abortion, but Congress shelved the bill after then-President Giammattei threatened to veto it.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

Authorities have historically failed to protect LGBT people from bias-motivated violence and discrimination. Guatemala has no comprehensive civil legislation protecting people from discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation or gender identity and no legal gender recognition procedure for transgender people.

In June 2023, a court in Guatemala sentenced a man to 16 years’ imprisonment for the killing of Andrea González, a transgender woman and leader of OTRANS, a trans rights organization. The court did not consider the crime a femicide, and Guatemala does not have hate crime legislation that covers sexual orientation or gender identity.

A bill that stigmatizes transgender people remains pending in Congress at time of writing.

Guatemalan civil society reported that, from January through June 2023, at least 17 LGBT people had been killed, which has been the deadliest half-year since 2020.

Disability Rights

Guatemala has taken no action to ensure the right to legal capacity of people with disabilities in domestic legislation. This subjects them to violations of the rights to personal integrity, economic opportunity, sexual and reproductive choice, and access to justice.

A disability certification process initiated in 2023 aims to better recognize, identify, and support individuals with disabilities and their families.

Failure to Protect Children

The Women’s Observatory estimates that in 2023, more than 8,800 children, including adolescents, were victims of mistreatment and abuse as of August.

Authorities reported over 21,000 cases of severe malnutrition, a 40 percent increase from 2022, and 42 deaths in children under 5, as of September.

Migrants and Asylum Seekers

In cooperation with the administration of United States President Joe Biden, then-President Giammattei increased efforts to prevent non-Guatemalan migrants and asylum seekers from reaching the US by deploying additional police and military forces in the southern border and the country’s interior.

Guatemala and the US announced, in June, the implementation of a six-month pilot program establishing “safe mobility offices” to “facilitate access to lawful pathways” for Guatemalans to the US and other countries and for “family reunification” and “access to temporary work visas.”

Key International Actors

In January, OHCHR said Guatemala faced “systemic and structural challenges,” including regarding “inequality and discrimination, the justice system, the fight against impunity, the democratic space, and the right to promote and protect human rights.” Both OHCHR and the UN special rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers noted that many investigations against prosecutors and judges violate judicial independence and due process and appear to be in retaliation for their work fighting corruption.

In April, the IACHR included Guatemala, along with Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, in a chapter of its annual report for countries suffering serious attacks on democratic institutions or grave, massive, or systematic human rights violations.

The OAS, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the UN secretary-general, the EU, the US government, European governments, Latin American governments, including Brazil and Chile, and several European embassies in Guatemala expressed concerns about attempts to undermine election results.

The OAS and EU electoral observation missions played a critical role in ensuring Guatemala’s right to vote. They spotlighted the “high judicialization” of the election, the weakening of the rule of law, and attacks on freedom of expression, among other issues.

The OAS Permanent Council and the organization’s Secretary General Luis Almagro also played an important role. Almagro visited the country in August, September, and December, the government’s invitation, and urged all parties to respect the electoral results. His office also conducted efforts to mediate between protesters, the Attorney General’s Office, and the government as well as to help promote a smooth transfer of power.

In July, the US Department of State released its Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors Report, which imposed sanctions on several current and former Guatemalan officials, including Castellanos, who filed the case against prosecutor Laparra, and Judge Fredy Orellana, who suspended the Semilla political party.  In December, the US government sanctioned Luis Miguel Martinez Morales, a close ally to President Giammattei and a former government official, under the Global Magnitsky program. Later that month, it imposed visa restrictions on nearly 300 Guatemalans, including private sector representatives and over 100 members of Congress, for “undermining democracy and the rule of law.”

Also in December, the EU High Representative High Representative Josep Borrell said that the EU had “agreed in principle and [was] ready to adopt a framework allowing for targeted restrictive measures” against people responsible for trying to overturn the elections. The European Parliament passed resolutions, in September and December, condemning arbitrary persecution of judges, prosecutors and judges, as well as the attempts to undermine the electoral results.

Responding to stigmatizing messages, intimidation, and murder threats against President-elect Arévalo and Vice President-elect Herrera, the IACHR issued precautionary measures to protect them.