Press Release

IACHR Wraps Up On-Site Visit to Guatemala

August 4, 2017

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Guatemala City, Guatemala - The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) today wraps up its on-site visit to Guatemala, which it conducted from July 31 to August 4 for the purpose of observing the country’s human rights situation on the ground.

The Commission thanks President Jimmy Morales and his government for the invitation to conduct this visit, and appreciates all the logistical support and assistance provided for the visit to be carried out in a satisfactory manner, especially by the Presidential Coordinating Commission for Executive Policy on Human Rights (COPREDEH). The IACHR also recognizes the support it received during the visit from the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Guatemala. The Commission values the information provided by State authorities and their openness to engage in constructive dialogue with the IACHR. The Commission appreciates the efforts made by victims of human rights violations and their families and by groups and organizations to meet with the delegation and present their testimony, complaints, and communications.

The on-site visit was part of a follow-up to the country report on Guatemala that the Commission approved in 2015. That same year, public protests marked a historic moment in the country and created great hope for structural change, primarily in the fight against corruption and impunity. The protests also opened the door to policies for the effective protection of human rights for all groups, particularly for those sectors most excluded historically.

During the visit, the IACHR noted that two years after that unprecedented mobilization—and notwithstanding the important progress in the fight against corruption and impunity led by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Public Prosecutor’s Office, as well as the efforts of some judges—a series of challenges identified by the IACHR in its country report continue to exist today. In light of this situation, the Commission observes ­that the State owes a great debt to history, tied to structural problems from the past. Guatemala is at a crossroads in terms of adopting measures to solve these problems and protect the human rights of the Guatemalan people; otherwise, it risks losing ground in this area and repeating episodes of serious human rights violations of the past.

The IACHR has closely followed the human rights situation in Guatemala since the Commission’s earliest years of operation, particularly in response to the gross human rights violations perpetrated during the 1960-1996 internal armed conflict. These included the systematic perpetration of massacres, forced disappearances, rapes, and “scorched-earth” operations, especially against the Maya people. As the Commission for Historical Clarification established, the armed conflict resulted from the convergence of a series of factors such as structural impunity, the closure of political spaces, racism, the increasingly exclusionary and anti-democratic nature of institutions, and the reluctance to promote substantive reforms that could have reduced the structural conflicts.

The signing of the Agreement for a Firm and Lasting Peace, in December 1996, put an end to the internal armed conflict. However, some of the motives that led to the armed conflict persist today. The information the IACHR received consistently during the visit indicates that the economy continues to be based on the concentration of economic power in the hands of a few, and a weak State structure with few resources due to low tax collection and high levels of corruption. The Commission repeatedly received information regarding the persistence of parallel power structures that hinder the fight against impunity and corruption and stand in the way of strengthening the rule of law. Moreover, Guatemala still has structural problems such as racial discrimination, social inequality, deep poverty, exclusion, and lack of access to justice. One factor common to the various forms of violence in the country has been the tenure, use, and concentration of land and natural resources, combined with different forms of discrimination and racism. The main victims of this have been members of indigenous peoples, campesinos, people of African descent, community members, people living in poverty, and other vulnerable populations that primarily live in rural and marginalized areas.

Guatemala is one of the most unequal countries in the world in terms of health, education, and income distribution. The Commission was informed during its visit that 48 percent of children, and 8 of every 10 indigenous children, suffer from chronic malnutrition. The IACHR observed on the ground a serious situation of inequality and discrimination that particularly affects indigenous people, who constitute more than 60 percent of the population; women; displaced persons; lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans, and intersex persons (LGBTI), Afro-descendant persons, persons with disabilities; persons deprived of liberty; and children and adolescents.

The IACHR also verified the persistence of multiple factors that contribute to a situation of structural impunity. The Commission received information about intimidation and pressure against judges, prosecutors, and public defenders, which hampers access to justice, and about serious questions involving the processes in place to name and select justice system operators. Given these problems, the Commission considers that the constitutional reform of the justice system underway represents an invaluable opportunity to strengthen the independence of justice operators in the country.

The situation of children in Guatemala is truly alarming. The tragedy of the fire at the “Virgen de la Asunción” Residential Institution, which took the lives of 41 girls and adolescents locked in a classroom under State custody, demonstrated the terrible and unacceptable situation of State neglect suffered by Guatemalan children. The IACHR notes that there is a great lack of comprehensive support in medical, material, and psychological terms for the victims and their family members, stemming from the lack of coordination among the State institutions in charge of these matters. The Commission also notes with concern that there have been delays in the judicial proceedings against those responsible, and that these have been limited to minor crimes. The IACHR calls to mind the importance that the investigation into these events be done with due diligence and in keeping with the types of crimes and charges that address the gravity of what happened, and the importance that the possible sexual exploitation and trafficking of the girls be investigated. The information received indicates that the current system for special protection of children has failed and that it is necessary to redirect policies related to children and establish a national public policy focused on protecting the rights of all children and adolescents as subjects of rights. In this sense, the IACHR welcomes the creation of the Office of the Public Prosecutor’s Section on Crimes against Children and Adolescents, which seeks to strengthen the special focus on protecting children’s and adolescents’ rights. 

In terms of the human rights situation of indigenous peoples, the Commission received information during the visit regarding the State’s authorization of extractive industry activities and projects, development of natural resources, and infrastructure projects in indigenous peoples’ territories, without prior consultation to obtain consent. The IACHR reminds the State of Guatemala that it has an international obligation to undertake this consultation, in accordance with inter-American standards in this area. The lack of internal regulations cannot be an obstacle or a pretext for failing to apply these standards. In this regard, the IACHR urges the Congress of the Republic to draft a Law on Prior Consultation that meets inter-American standards on this subject, through a process of consultation with indigenous peoples and communities.

The Commission has also been informed about extractive activities that have caused the contamination of water and lands, forced displacement, negative impacts on the subsistence and identity of indigenous peoples, and the criminalization of those who defend their rights. The State should take steps for reparation and non-repetition in these cases, and the implementation of prior consultation should also enable indigenous peoples to participate in the benefits produced by such activities and projects. The Commission observed firsthand the serious situation of displacements, which affect thousands of people in the country and are also often related to the issue of land tenure.

The Commission received information about acts of harassment, attacks, and threats against human rights defenders, as well as an ongoing criminalization of their efforts to defend rights. Environmental rights defenders in Guatemala face the greatest risks in the hemisphere for defending the land and natural resources. The IACHR recognizes the progress made in the drafting of the Public Policy for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders, which has had the support of various State entities and civil society organizations. Along these lines, the Commission urges the State to urgently approve and implement this policy, with a proper legal basis. As the inter-American human rights system has indicated, this policy should include the implementation of a comprehensive protection program for human rights defenders, one that includes special measures of adequate and effective protection that are suitable to deal with the danger the person is facing and able to produce the results for which they were conceived. This program should incorporate a risk analysis model to adequately determine the risk and the protection needs of each defender or group, incorporating a gender perspective, for example, or one geared toward groups that are in an especially vulnerable situation. The State should also ensure that the authorities or third parties do not manipulate the punitive power of the State and its institutions of justice to harass human rights defenders and justice system operators.

The IACHR also received information on violence against journalists, as well as on the concentration of media ownership and the lack of legal recognition of community broadcasting, issues that make it difficult to have free access to information and to consolidate a culture that respects human rights. In order to address these challenges, the State should urgently create, in consultation with all sectors involved, the Program to Protect Journalists and Members of the Media, observing inter-American human rights standards. On this point, the IACHR welcomes the announcement made by President Jimmy Morales during the visit regarding the creation of a protection program.

In terms of community broadcasting, the State should adopt legislative measures and public policies to recognize community media outlets and give them access to broadcast frequencies and licenses, and to ensure diversity and pluralism in the process of the digital transition. To this end, the State should adopt measures to reduce the existing levels of concentration, with participation from the commercial, community, and public sector. The Commission welcomes the fact that the Secretariat of Communication of the Office of the President has ended the discriminatory practice of directing official advertising toward pro-government media outlets.

The Commission recognizes the extensive efforts to develop laws and institutions to provide protection and justice for women in general, and for indigenous women; these include the Prosecutor’s Office for Women, the 24-hour Criminal Court of First Instance for Crimes of Femicide, the Comprehensive Model to Address Violence against Women, and the Office for the Defense of Indigenous Women. However, the Commission calls attention to the particularly vulnerable situation that women in Guatemala continue to face, especially indigenous women. Women victims of serious human rights violations perpetrated during the internal armed conflict have told the IACHR about the difficulties and delays they encounter in seeking access to restorative justice and obtaining restitution.

As a consequence of racism and discrimination, women face serious obstacles in access to justice. They are also especially vulnerable in terms of poverty, exclusion, and malnutrition, and they have real difficulties in obtaining access to drinking water and to basic services such as education and health. The IACHR also learned about the obstacles and difficulties indigenous women face related to the lack of protection of their collective intellectual property. Their traditional clothing and designs are a fundamental part of the identity and culture of indigenous peoples and communities. In the area of citizen security, the Commission has received alarming reports on the increase of violence against women throughout the country (homicides, disappearances, and sexual violence, among other forms of violence), which especially affects young women and adolescents. The IACHR calls on the State to allocate sufficient resources to develop specialized institutions; generate consolidated and disaggregated statistics on all forms of violence against women, in order to implement comprehensive protection measures; and promote the presence of women in general, and indigenous women in particular, in public decision-making positions. Guatemala is also a country of origin, transit, and destination for women, men, children, and adolescents who are victims of human trafficking for sex or labor. Indigenous persons, women, and children and adolescents are more vulnerable to being victims of these crimes. Children tend to be exploited to beg in the streets or work as street vendors; for their part, criminal organizations tend to sexually exploit girls and boys and recruit them for illicit activities.

The Commission was very concerned to receive information about the situation of Afro-descendants in Guatemala. One of the main complaints has to do with the lack of recognition of Afro identity in the country, which keeps people of African descent from exercising their civil and political rights.

In terms of the rights of LGBTI persons, the Commission expresses its concern regarding the draft “Law for the Protection of Life and Family,” which seeks to ban teaching about sexual diversity and reaffirms the nature of marriage as a right exclusive to persons of the opposite sex. This legislative proposal represents a serious setback to inter-American standards and case law involving respect for diversity, sexual orientation, and gender identity, and the recognition of families that are not exclusively heterosexual, in addition to violating LGBTI persons’ right to freedom of expression. Violence against LGBTI people is reinforced by the dissemination of hate speech directed toward this community. The Commission recommends adopting the necessary measures to discourage intolerance and reminds the Guatemalan State of its obligation to abolish all laws that discriminate against people because of their diverse or non-normative sexual orientation or gender identity or expression or because their bodies do not conform to masculine or feminine standards.

As to the situation of persons deprived of liberty, the prison system is mainly characterized by overcrowding, excessive use of pretrial detention, deplorable detention conditions, use of prolonged isolation, and lack of effective control by the authorities inside the facilities. Women make up 10 percent of the prison population, which is of particular concern considering that this is double the average percentage in the Americas. To address these challenges and prevent a greater prison crisis, the State should continue to implement actions geared primarily toward using alternatives to imprisonment and encouraging the social reintegration of persons deprived of liberty by strengthening measures to implement benefits such as reduced penalties and eligibility for alternatives to incarceration. On another matter, with respect to the patients at the “Federico Mora” National Mental Health Hospital, the IACHR urges the State to adopt the necessary measures to ensure that they can live in community, through the creation and establishment of community services. In this regard, the Commission welcomes the new, inclusive health model implemented by the Ministry of Health at the beginning of this year, which takes an approach based on human rights and community integration.

The IACHR received extensive information on how multiple causes have led to the forced displacement of tens of thousands of people, contributing to the crisis of displaced persons and refugees from the Northern Triangle of Central America. Migrants in transit become victims of multiple types of abuse and even disappearances, and the Guatemalan State’s response falls seriously short, both in ensuring that these individuals and their family members have access to justice and in searching for missing and unidentified migrants. The IACHR underscores the progress represented by the entry into force of the new Migration Code and the creation of the National Migration Authority. The IACHR calls on the State to issue implementing regulations for this law and other laws related to people in the context of human mobility, in accordance with the norms and standards of the inter-American human rights system, through a process that includes the participation of civil society organizations and other relevant actors. Given the current situation in the country, massive deportations from other countries in the region again pose a serious human rights challenge for deportees or returnees, the State, and Guatemalan society in general. To avoid a repetition of such events, the State should adopt measures to prevent the causes that lead to forced migration, as well as adopt measures for protection, humanitarian assistance, and lasting solutions for those displaced internally, and should guarantee the right of migrants and those in need of international protection to leave the country. The State should also ensure access to justice for migrants and their families, as well as implement measures to search for and identify migrants who have gone missing. Finally, the State should implement measures that guarantee the effective exercise of human rights and the reintegration of those who are deported or returned.

The IACHR was also fully briefed about the serious humanitarian situation resulting from forced evictions of communities, the application of crimes of usurpation and aggravated usurpation, as well as the arrest and criminalization of members and representatives of peasant communities and indigenous peoples in departments of Guatemala such as El Petén, Alta Verapaz, Izabal, San Marcos, and Huehuetenango, among others. Civil society organizations informed the IACHR about the existence of 125 applications for evictions in El Petén and about the evictions in recent years of communities such as Centro Uno and Nueva Esperanza. The Commission was informed that there is usually no advance notice given for the evictions; these are carried out summarily and violently by members of the Civilian National Police, the Army, and the National Council of Protected Areas (CONAP). The evictions involve the burning and destruction of houses, food, and animals, and people are given no provision for return or relocation or any real possibility for due process or access to justice.

Regarding citizen security, the Commission observes with concern that the homicide rate in Guatemala continues to be one of the highest in Latin America and the Caribbean, even though it has dropped overall. The IACHR reiterates its call to the State to prepare preventive public policies to ensure that Guatemalans can live in a country free of violence. In this sense, the Commission welcomes the information received from the State indicating that it is committed to gradually withdrawing elements of the Army from some parts of the country.

With respect to matters of memory, truth, and justice, the IACHR is concerned to observe the lack of progress in the genocide case against José Mauricio Rodríguez Sánchez, former Chief of Military Intelligence, and Efraín Ríos Montt. The IACHR reminds the State of Guatemala of its obligation to promptly, impartially, and effectively investigate the gross human rights violations of the past. It is also the State’s responsibility to adopt the appropriate administrative or criminal law measures to address any actions or omissions of State officials that may contribute to the denial of justice or to impunity, or that may hamper proceedings to identify and punish those responsible.

The IACHR visited the premises of the Regional Training Command for Peacekeeping Operations (CREOMPAZ), where the “Military Zone 21” operated during the internal armed conflict. The IACHR visited the site where the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala (FAFG) has exhumed 558 skeletons, the largest mass grave discovered to date in Latin America. The IACHR also went to the National Police Historical Archive, and recognizes the importance of this facility in the reactivation and clarification of some criminal proceedings for gross human rights violations related to the internal armed conflict. The IACHR notes that this important archive, which is helping to recover historical memory, depends solely on international cooperation. The IACHR urges the State to earmark resources and support this measure for memory, truth, and justice.

The Commission calls for the strengthening of human rights institutions in Guatemala, especially the COPREDEH and the Office of the Human Rights Ombudsman, through budgetary reinforcements. The work of these institutions is vital to promote measures that encourage the protection of and respect for human rights in the country and to avoid setbacks in this area. In this regard, the IACHR welcomes the budget increase for the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which it was told about during its visit. In addition, the Commission urges the State to adopt effective measures that allow the Public Prosecutor’s Office to continue coordinating actions and working with the CICIG, and to provide the necessary resources for this purpose.

In the coming months, the IACHR will prepare a country report that will offer recommendations designed to support the State in identifying the main challenges that must be overcome in the present and in reinforcing the human rights agenda. This press release is accompanied by an annex with the Commission’s preliminary observations on the human rights situation it has observed during its visit to the country.

The IACHR expresses its willingness to work with the State of Guatemala to find concrete solutions to the challenges it faces moving forward. The Commission will establish a special mechanism to follow up on the visit, in order to contribute to the strengthening of human rights institutions and develop a capacity for inter-institutional coordination to address implementation of and compliance with international recommendations on human rights. In this regard, the Commission calls on the State to ratify the Inter-American Convention against All Forms of Discrimination and Intolerance; the Inter-American Convention against Racism, Racial Discrimination and Related Forms of Intolerance; the Inter-American Convention on Protecting the Human Rights of Older Persons; and the Protocol to the American Convention on Human Rights to Abolish the Death Penalty. The universal ratification of the inter-American instruments is essential to achieving full protection of the human rights of everyone in the hemisphere.

The Inter-American Commission held meetings with government authorities from the three branches of the State and with civil society organizations, indigenous authorities, autonomous and international agencies, academics, journalists, human rights defenders, and representatives of the business sector. It also collected testimony from victims of human rights violations and their family members. During its visit, the IACHR carried out unrestricted visits to several regions, including Alta Verapaz, El Petén, and Huehuetenango, and went to prisons and other centers under the custody of the State. It also visited CREOMPAZ and the National Police Historical Archive.

The delegation that conducted the visit was led by the President of the IACHR, Francisco Eguiguren; the First Vice-President, Margarette May Macaulay; the Second Vice-President, Esmeralda Arosemena de Troitiño; and Commissioners José de Jesús Orozco Henríquez, Paulo Vannuchi, James Cavallaro, and Luis Ernesto Vargas Silva. Other members of the delegation included the IACHR Executive Secretary, Paulo Abrão; the Special Rapporteur for Freedom of Expression, Edison Lanza; and specialists from the Executive Secretariat.

The Commission calls to mind that any type of reprisal or stigmatization a State may undertake because of the participation or actions of individuals or organizations before the bodies of the inter-American system, in exercise of their treaty rights, is unacceptable. Article 63 of the IACHR Rules of Procedure establishes that States “shall grant the necessary guarantees to all the persons who attend a hearing or who in the course of a hearing provide information, testimony or evidence of any type,” and that States “may not prosecute the witnesses or experts, or carry out reprisals against them or their family members because of their statements or expert opinions given before the Commission.”

A principal, autonomous body of the Organization of American States (OAS), the IACHR derives its mandate from the OAS Charter and the American Convention on Human Rights. The Inter-American Commission has a mandate to promote respect for and to defend human rights in the region and acts as a consultative body to the OAS in this area. The Commission is composed of seven independent members who are elected in an individual capacity by the OAS General Assembly and who do not represent their countries of origin or residence.

No. 114/17