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Guatemala: US State Department Reports Backsliding on Human Rights in 2021

Reporting on the human rights situation in Guatemala, the US State Department illustrated worsening conditions and highlighted the role that corruption and impunity have played in the last year. The 2021 Human Rights Report–released on April 12–summarizes and provides examples of what the State Department deems “significant human rights issues” in Guatemala, including the following: unlawful and arbitrary killings; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions; arbitrary arrest and detention; serious problems with the independence of the judiciary; restrictions on freedom of expression, including threats and violence against journalists; interference with freedom of association and organization; and significant corruption. 

The State Department emphasizes a concerted effort from corrupt actors aimed at “undermining anti-corruption institutions and the judiciary” which in turn makes “meaningful investigation and prosecution of crimes, including corruption involving public officials difficult.” The report mentions the arbitrary removal of Juan Francisco Sandoval in July of 2021 and subsequent charges filed against him for abuse of authority, as well as attempts to remove the immunity of independent judges like Erika Aifán. Both Sandoval and Aifán have since fled Guatemala in fear of their lives. 

In addition to attacks on judicial sector workers, the report mentions attacks on defenders and journalists, including defamation, surveillance, threats, criminalization, and murders. Citing UDEFEGUA, the report mentioned that ten defenders were killed between January and November 2021 and that unfounded judicial cases filed against human rights defenders have doubled since 2020. But according to the State Department, while “the government, fringe groups, and private entities used threats of legal action as a form of intimidation,” the Guatemalan government, “took little action to protect these individuals.” 

Moreover, the State Department  highlighted threats to freedom of assembly, which worsened over the last year. In particular, the NGO Law–passed last May–poses a serious threat to human rights organizations and indigenous movements. Mentioning the case of El Estor, the report illustrates the use of state security forces to silence dissent, infringing upon freedom of expression. It also mentions that the consultation that took place on the Fénix Project was conducted during a state of siege in which freedom of movement was restricted. In terms of compliance with ILO 169, the report states,“The government did not always consult with all affected parties and indigenous leaders, and activists regularly reported being harassed and threatened for their work.”

The State Department report echoes concerns from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCR), which recently gave Guatemala a ‘C’ rating for its progress on human rights. Back in March, the UNHCR expressed concern over the lack of measures and political will to implement policies to protect human rights, specifically noting how the forced evictions of indigenous peoples were not in line with international standards. 

Former Prosecutor Suffers Psychological Torture in Pretrial Detention 

The former head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) in Quetzaltenango, Virginia Laparra, has suffered almost two months in pretrial detention. "I see the sunlight once a day, I was torn away from my land, my beautiful, beloved and incomparable Quetzaltenango. They took me away from my home, my family, my friends, they left me without work and took away my freedom,” Laparra explained in an open letter to the people of Guatemala that was given to Human Rights Ombudsman Jordan Rodas during a visit. Rodas traveled to Mariscal Zavala prison on April 2 to verify her conditions and found that her emotional and physical wellbeing were at risk. 

Laparra–who suffers from claustrophobia–is currently being held in solitary confinement. Authorities allege this is for her protection, according to clinical psychologist Vania Morales, however, “By keeping her locked up, they are re-traumatizing her and that is psychological torture.” Her cell–which is essentially a small metal box with a door–was described by an official from Disabilities Rights International as “somewhere between Willowbrook and a Concentration Camp.” According to former Attorney General Thelma Aldana,"Her life is the responsibility of Consuelo Porras who is persecuting her.” 

According to Laparra, the case mounted against her constitutes “selective and malevolent discrimination and criminalization.” Attorney General Consuelo Porras–who was added to the US State Department’s list of corrupt actors in Central America in September–issued a warrant for Laparra’s arrest on February 24 for the alleged crimes of giving false testimony, abuse of authority, and encroachment of functions. As one of the anti-corruption attorneys detained following a string of arrests in February, Laparra is the last to remain in prison. On April 18, her intermediate hearing was suspended once again, further extending her time in pretrial detention. 

Journalist Flees Guatemala  

Juan Luis Font announced on twitter that he has left Guatemala, stating, “In this moment of tension, caused by spurious accusations, I have decided to take some distance.” Font has worked as a journalist in Guatemala for over 25 years; he founded news outlet El Periodico and currently works as a host on the political analysis show Con Criterio. 

Font fled Guatemala after charges were filed against him for illegal association. The Committee to Protect Journalists decried the persecution of Font and said Guatemalan authorities should immediately dismiss criminal proceedings against him and allow him to work freely without fear of reprisal.

Attorney General Consuelo Porras ruled to open investigations into Font in December of last year related to allegations brought forward by former Minister of Communications Alejandro Sinibaldi. Sinibaldi–who is now in prison awaiting trial–claims that Font accepted over $200,000 in bribes from him between 2012 and 2014. On March 22, Sinibaldi brought forward another complaint against Font, this time claiming he colluded with former High Risk Court Judge Erika Aifán. Font, however, has denied the accusations. According to former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, “It is part of the revenge process of the ‘Pact of Corruption’ to attack and criminalize independent journalists who are committed to the fight against corruption and impunity.”

Organizations Demand Transparency in Upcoming Attorney General Elections 

From April 5 through 7, protestors gathered outside the Palace of Justice in Guatemala City and in the Q’eqchi and Poqomchi region to demand a Public Ministry (MP) free of corrupt actors. Popular opposition to current Attorney General Consuelo Porras and her bid for reelection inspired a new wave of protests across the country. Several national and international organizations called on the Attorney General Nomination Committee to abstain from voting for candidates “linked to President Giammattei and the now widely known criminal structures” in Guatemala. The Social and Popular Assembly of Guatemala (ASP) denounced candidates they identified as associated with the “Pact of Corruption,” including María Consuelo Porras, current Attorney General, who is named on the US State Department’s Engel List; Jorge Luis Donado, current head of the Attorney General’s Office; José Enrique Urrutia Estrada, lawyer for the Foundation against Terrorism; Henry Alejandro Elías, magistrate for the Chamber of the Court of Appeals on Femicide and Crimes Against Women; Óscar Dávila, Director of the Presidential Commission against Corruption; and Gloria Dalila Suchité, acting High Risk Court judge.  

The process of electing a new Attorney General began on January 31, when the 15-member Nomination Committee–composed of law schools deans and other legal field professionals, and led by President of the Supreme Court Silvia Patricia Valdez–began reviewing a list of 26 applicants to select the final list of six candidates, from which President Giammattei will choose the next Attorney General. The commission plans to submit their final 6 candidates by Wednesday, April 20.

The International Observatory on Human Rights in Guatemala denounced that under Consuelo Porras, “the MP has been used to persecute agents of justice, journalists, and human rights defenders committed to the fight against corruption and the defense of human rights.” According to human rights groups, the outcome of this election is crucial for the future of rule of law in Guatemala.  

Chicoyogüito Defenders Sent to Trial in Cobán

On March 30th, Judge Úrsula Teyul ruled to send 21 human rights defenders from Chicoyogüito to trial for “aggravated usurpation,” a charge they supposedly incurred during a peaceful protest in June 2021. Chicoyogüito land defenders initiated the peaceful demonstration to demand that the state return their ancestral land. The National Civil Police responded to the protests with force, injuring Chicoyogüito members and arresting 21 defenders.

The decades-long struggle to recover their ancestral land began in 1968, when the Guatemalan Army forcibly evicted Chicoyogüito community members to establish an army base. In addition to human rights violations associated with the forced displacement of the community, the base was used during the internal armed conflict for torture, forced disappearences, and political assassinations. As one of Latin America’s largest clandestine cemeteries, the base contains human remains that are evidence in two transitional justice cases.

Organizations raised concerns over the transparency of the hearings. During one of the hearings, UDEFEGUA and the press were removed from the courtroom. The next hearing is scheduled for April 21. 

GHRC Accompanies Prosecution in the Death Squad Dossier Case 

The GHRC Guatemala Team accompanied the prosecution team in the intermediate stage of the Death Squad Dossier (Diario Militar) case. After previous delays, intermediate hearings for the Death Squad Dossier case began on April 5. The prosecution presented evidence against defendants, which included images from the dossier and witness testimony. The hearings were suspended and continued on April 18. Once intermediate hearings conclude, presiding Judge Miguel Ángel Gálvez will determine if the defendants will stand trial for their purported crimes.

Leaked in 1999, the Death Squad Dossier is a military archive that details the crimes committed against 183 presumed enemies of the state–including children–from 1983 to 1985, during Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. The 11 former soldiers implicated in the crimes face charges of numerous forced disappearances; kidnappings; illegal detentions; murders and attempted murders; acts of sexual violence; and crimes against humanity. 

Although the crimes took place nearly 40 years ago, the trial of those involved is an essential step in bringing justice to the victims and their families. GHRC continues to support the prosecution team, which has faced threats for its work, as well as the families of the victims in their search for justice.