2014 State Department Human Rights Report Identifies Numerous Challenges for Guatemala

By Jason Mann, GHRC Summer 2015 Intern

rio_negro_04_smallOn June 25, 2015 Secretary of State John Kerry announced the release of the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for 2014. This includes the Guatemala 2014 Human Rights Report, which details some of the many human rights violations and concerns that GHRC works to prevent and document. The report is broken down into seven sections, ranging from concerns for the respect of physical rights to the protection of workers’ rights, and provides a brief look into some of the many injustices that Guatemalans faced last year:

Militarization and security

  • The military was used for internal security purposes and was involved in serious abuses including kidnapping, drug trafficking, extortion, and femicide.
  • Members of the National Civil Police (PNC) were involved in various incidents of abuse and corruption, and were severely undertrained and underfunded.
  • In June 2014, former PNC Chief Erwin Sperinsen was sentenced to life in prison in a Swiss court for the killing of one inmate and involvement in six other homicide cases in 2006.
  • Also in June police arrested three PNC officers for the raping of a minor while she was being held in a juvenile detention facility in Quiche.
  • The Office of Professional Responsibility (ORP) accused nine PNC officers of homicide as of September 2014.
  • The PNC’s Office of Professional Responsibility reported 1,104 complaints of abuse filed against police forces in the first nine months of 2014.

Truth and Justice

  • Former Dictator Efraín Ríos Montt was found guilty of genocide in May 2013, but the Constitutional Court overturned the conviction on procedural grounds, and as of the end of 2014 the case had not restarted.
  • Former army officers Esteelmer Reyes and Heriberto Valdez were arrested for murder, forced disappearance, and sexual abuse while they were in charge of the Sepur Zarco military base in the department of Izabal during 1982-1983.
  • Judicial branch workers had been the victims of 171 threats and acts of intimidation against them by the end of September of 2014.
  • Trials were almost always held in Spanish although many indigenous people charged with crimes do not speak the language.

Land Rights

  • A reparations agreement was reached for the construction of the Chixoy Hydro-Electric Dam (1975-1985), which displaced thousands and resulted in the death of 444 men, women, and children.
  • On May 23, police forces violently repressed the 24-hour peaceful community resistance to the El Tambor Mine in San José del Golfo and San Pedro Ayampuc. 15 protesters were hospitalized in the incident.
  • In September a state of siege was declared in the community of San Juan Sacatepéquez, where eight people were killed in conflicts regarding the construction of a cement factory and highway.
  • Indigenous communities reported not being consulted prior to decisions being made about the use of resources in their lands for the construction of megaprojects, extractive industries, and large scale agricultural projects. Indigenous representatives also reported that these projects served the interests of government and business leaders, and risked harming their communities.

Women’s Rights

  • Women and indigenous people were severely underrepresented in public office with only 21 women and 20 indigenous members in the 158-seat Congress.
  • 8,871 cases of sexual or physical assault were reported through October, but many women did not report crimes because of fear of reprisal and lack of confidence in the judicial system. Only 304 convictions for such crimes were made.
  • 559 cases of femicide were recorded by September, with an impunity rate of 98-99 percent.

Criminalization and Impunity

  • Prisons were filled way above capacity. Records indicated 49 percent of all inmates were in pretrial detention as of August 1.
  • Police forces did not regularly provide warrants when necessary or inform criminals of the charges brought against them.
  • There were various instances of judges taking bribes in exchange for reduced fines or sentences, and several corruption cases that were wrongly dismissed by courts.
  • There were credible reports of arbitrary arrest and detention, including extrajudicial arrests, illegal detentions, and denial of timely access to a magistrate and hearing, as required by law.
  • The level of impunity was high for security forces involved in abuses.

Missing from the report are notable instances in 2014 in which the Guatemalan government attempted to curtail access to justice and rule of law in the country; for example, the report makes no mention of the Constitutional Court’s unlawful decision in February 2014 to remove attorney general Claudia Paz y Paz from office seven months before her term was due to expire. Paz y Paz was targeted due to her significant role in pushing forward several high-level cases, including the Ríos Montt trial, and for helping to significantly reduce impunity rates in the country. The report fails to mention that the Guatemalan Congress passed a resolution in 2014 denying that genocide had ever occurred during the gruesome 36-year internal armed conflict. In addition, concerns about the nominating process for new judges, which has become increasingly politicized in Guatemala, were omitted in the report.

The Guatemala 2014 Human Rights Report exposes a multitude of human rights issues, highlighting widespread corruption and impunity, mistreatment of women and indigenous groups, and abuses committed by security forces. For this reason, GHRC and other civil society organizations advocate each year for conditioning US funds based on compliance with human rights conditions, in order to leverage positive change in Guatemala. This year we faced the added challenge of making sure a proposed $1 billion in aid to Central America would not exacerbate existing human rights issues, as past US-led aid packages have in places like Mexico and Colombia.

We were pleased to see that the Senate passed a bill in July that includes many of GHRC’s specific recommendations for preconditions on certain aid to Guatemala, including the protection of human rights defenders, judicial independence, and community consultations. The Senate bill provides money for the CICIG, support for the Chixoy Reparations Plan, and provides zero State Department money for the Guatemalan military. The House version of the budget, by contrast, includes no human rights conditions and instead focuses solely on funding security measures.

As the Senate and the House come to an agreement about the budget during the next few months, GHRC will continue to promote funding for Guatemala that includes, at a minimum, the human rights conditions proposed by the Senate. Overall, the Guatemala 2014 Human Rights Report reveals the extensive work that remains to be done in the country. GHRC will continue to bring attention to human rights abuses and advocate for policies that strengthen peace and justice in Guatemala.

You can read the full State Department report here.

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