Democracy and rights

Democracy is still fragile in Guatemala, almost a quarter of a century after the civil war. Elections are conducted in relatively orderly conditions, but corruption, violence and organized crime are widespread problems that permeate both politics and the judiciary. The country is one of the most dangerous in the Western hemisphere for journalists.

Elections are held regularly and power has shifted between different parties since democracy was restored. However, there is no transparency and rules regarding party financing, and threats and violence against voters in connection with elections occur. Indigenous people and women are heavily under-represented in politics.

Respect for the rule of law and human rights is low, and discrimination against minority groups is widespread (see Social conditions). Unions and organizations that work for social and civil rights or environmental protection are often subjected to dirt-fighting campaigns, harassment and systematic persecution (see also Labor Market). Tens of thousands of people flee the country from threats and attacks (see Population and Languages).

Abbreviated as GTM, Guatemala falls far short of Transparency International’s list of corruption in the world’s countries: ranked 146 out of 180 countries surveyed. It is the same level as Honduras and in the Western Hemisphere only Venezuela, Haiti and Nicaragua are even further down the list (the ranking list is here).

Like the countries, as well as the neighboring countries of the “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador and Honduras – Guatemala ranks worse than the rest of Latin America in terms of political and civil rights. The country is described as a “hybrid regime” by the Economist Intelligence Unit.

Impunity is widespread, although active work in recent years has produced results (see also below: Legal settlements after the war). In December 2006, the government decided in an agreement with the UN to set up the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Cicig). The Commission worked with, inter alia, the Prosecutor General and the Ministry of the Interior to investigate corruption and organized crime, and tried to bring the guilty to justice. The work of Cicig and the Prosecutor’s Office had major political consequences in recent years. In 2015, a president and his vice president were forced to retire prematurely (see Modern History) and they are in custody for corruption offenses. President Jimmy Morales, who won the election later that year, initially expressed support for Cicig, but when corruption charges were also directed against him, he turned to the Commission. President Morales stopped Cicig by refusing to renew the Commission’s mandate, which ended its work in September 2019 (see also Current Policy).

The culture of violence that emerged during the war (see Modern History) lives on and has become a difficult social problem. The violence is practiced by the police and the military, organized crime and youth gangs (see below). There are reports of death patrols within the police system. The murder rate is among the highest in the world, although slightly lower than in the other two countries in the Northern Triangle. Youth gang called marasoriginated in Los Angeles, but when the United States deported young criminals to their countries of origin in the 1990s, maras quickly formed in Guatemala and other Central American countries (primarily El Salvador and Honduras). Mexican drug cartels have also gained considerable influence in northern Guatemala and they have recruited members from Maras. A large proportion of homicides are related to drug trafficking in the region. But the crime also affects civilian Guatemalans and tourists, not least when drug gangs and youth gangs attack and rob buses.

Freedom of expression and media

The Constitution guarantees press freedom and since 2009 the right to access public information has been protected by law. But journalists who report corruption or organized crime live dangerously. Threats, harassment and physical violence are common, and journalist murders occur.

Behind the abuses are often police, politicians and organized crime – not infrequently in contact with each other. In a noteworthy case, a congressman was arrested in 2018, suspected of having ordered the murder of two journalists three years earlier (see Calendar).

Guatemala ranked 116th out of 180 countries on Reporters Without Borders Press Freedom Index (for full list see here). Only Mexico and Honduras are even worse off by the countries in the immediate region.

President Jimmy Morales, who took office in 2016, took an aggressive stance on the media and often attacked critical journalists, which contributed to increased tension and self-censorship. In the summer of 2018, Foreign Minister Sandra Jovel sued a journalist for mental violence and discrimination after writing critically about the government. The minister’s accusations against the journalist were based on a law against violence against women, including femicide (gender-based murder of women).

For the majority of the population, radio and television are the most important sources of information. Television is dominated by four advertising channels owned by Mexican media mogul Ángel Remigio González, who also owns several radio channels and is considered to have a large political influence in the country.

There are no state restrictions on access to the Internet.

Judicial system and legal security

The justice system is ineffective and corrupt. Representatives of the supreme courts often have close ties to the political elite and the business community. Politically motivated murders, kidnappings and death threats occur. Judicial officials who try to fight corruption are not often exposed to threats and murders, as are human rights activists and trade unionists. The courts are not politically independent, as are the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court.

In rural areas, the courts are too few and the justice system does not take sufficient account of the rights of indigenous peoples in terms of, for example, their language. Many in the countryside also feel that the police will not come when crime is reported and therefore it is common for villagers to form the Citizens’ Guard and deal with the criminals themselves. Those exposed to the mobs are often suspected of rape, kidnapping, theft or blackmail.

Guatemala has relatively few police officers, and the police have low status and poor education. Many police officers have been dismissed for being involved in corruption and serious crime. The number of military has increased more than the number of police, and the military has been deployed to reduce crime, which has to some extent produced results. There are many more guards in private security companies than there are police. The state has no control over the security companies and several of their employees have been accused of abuse.

The death penalty was abolished in practice in 2000, when the last execution was carried out. In October 2017, the Constitutional Court ruled that the death penalty in peacetime violates the Constitution and thus the possibility of imposing the death penalty remains only in the event of the war. However, right-wing politicians and a large proportion of the popular opinion believe that the death penalty is needed to combat the high rate of violent crime.

Legal settlements after the Civil War

Attempts to prosecute militants and members of government-backed militias who perpetrated abuse during the civil war have often failed. Several trials have been stopped, and punishments that have been sentenced have often been reduced to a higher instance. Despite this, over 30 convictions have fallen for war crimes. However, they may be torn down: in 2019, Congress will consider a proposal for amnesty for crimes committed during the war.

When the first judges arrived in the fall of 2009 for disappearances in the early 1980s, many saw it as an important breakthrough in the fight against impunity. First, a semi-military commander who cooperated with the military in sentencing campaigns was sentenced to 150 years in prison. A few months later, an army commander and three more members of paramilitary forces were sentenced to 53 years in prison each. In the spring of 2010, reports of death patrols in the police department came and Cicig appointed an investigation. In 2011 and 2012, life sentences came against ten former soldiers and militia members, for two different massacres in 1982 at villagers who were suspected of cooperating with the left guerrillas.

In May 2013, former dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was sentenced to 80 years in prison for genocide and crimes against humanity. According to the judgment, he had ordered massacres of 1,771 Mayan people during his time in power 1982-1983, something he denied. Ríos Montt’s 17 months in power are considered to have been the most violent period during the civil war. But because of procedural errors, the Constitutional Court demolished the verdict and parts of the trial had to be redone. The trial was resumed in January 2015 but immediately postponed. Ríos Montt’s attorneys claimed he was too frail to stand trial and the process was delayed until the dictator passed away in April 2018, 91 years old.

In the summer of 2014, for the first time, a former guerrilla leader was convicted of murder during the Civil War, to 90 years in prison.

Guatemala Crime Rate & Statistics

Guatemala Democracy and Rights
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