Dear Colleague Letter on Guatemala Calls for Additional US Action

The situation in Guatemala has deteriorated, marked by strategic steps made by President Giammettei and Attorney General Consuelo Porras to protect corruption and impunity and silence their opponents. Recent attacks against independent judges and prosecutors and more broadly the rule of law in Guatemala have created a crisis for human rights. Thirteen environmental defenders were killed in 2020, according to Global Witness; and, according to  mid-year data from UDEFEGUA, 2021 is on track to be this century’s worst year on record for attacks against human rights defenders in Guatemala. 

A Dear Colleague Letter (text below) circulating in the House addresses the “rapid decline of human rights, democratic institutions, and rule of law in Guatemala” and asks Secretary of State Blinken to take decisive action against proponents of corruption and impunity in Guatemala. 

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Take action now to support human rights and the rule of law in Guatemala! 

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Dear Secretary Blinken,

We write to express our grave concern about the rapid decline of human rights, democratic institutions, and rule of law in Guatemala. Below, you will see a list of recent events highlighting the urgent need to counter democratic backsliding and support the brave actors upholding the rule of law. We ask that you consider immediate strong actions, as well as engaging with diplomatic allies and partners in the region. Please allow us to detail our concerns below:

Human Rights Violations:

On June 8, the Guatemalan Congress introduced an amnesty law that would prevent justice for crimes against humanity carried out during the internal armed conflict. 

Further, on June 21, a law went into effect that will allow the Guatemalan executive branch to shut down nongovernmental organizations that “alter the public order.” In a July 1 joint statement, experts of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights said the changes introduced by this law “risk choking the vital work of civil society” and expressed alarm at provisions that give the government wide scope to control NGOs. Further, these provisions could be used to criminalize human rights defenders and civil society.

Democratic Institutions and Rule of Law:

The Human Rights Ombudsman’s Office, which plays a critical role in protecting and promoting human rights, has been denied funds by the Guatemalan government and as a result is in danger of closing. In addition, the Ombudsman has suffered repeated harassment and threats of removal, even though he was granted precautionary measures from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights. 

Judges and witnesses have reported being followed by armed men and by individuals in vehicles without license plates who photographed and videotaped them. Four High Risk Court judges with precautionary measures are also being intimidated. Judges are being subjected to countless baseless legal complaints intended to stymie their work. Many of these complaints are brought by the same groups and people, some of whom have been publicly named as corrupt by the U.S. government.

Mid-year figures provided by the Unit for the Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala suggest the number of attacks on human rights defenders in 2021 will be the highest since the signing of the Peace Accords. The case of indigenous defender Bernardo Caal Xol is emblematic of the persecution against indigenous and environmental defenders, which UN experts have characterized as an apparent attempt to silence and intimidate activists. Despite the Constitutional Court ruling that the indigenous communities’ rights had in fact been violated, Caal is serving a seven year prison sentence as a result of baseless criminal charges. 

On July 23, Guatemala’s Attorney General Maria Consuelo Porras arbitrarily fired Juan Francisco Sandoval as the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI). His firing came as FECI investigators appeared to be inching closer to exposing corruption in the current administration of President Alejandro Giammattei. Sandoval’s replacement as head of FECI was also quickly removed and replaced with another prosecutor who is currently facing an internal affairs investigation for his alleged mishandling of a corruption investigation and recently targeted a tax reformer and a former CICIG investigator. Prior to his removal, Sandoval and FECI had faced numerous legal challenges aimed at obstructing his work and seeking to declare its mandate unconstitutional. After he was fired, the Attorney General, with the support of President Giammattei, as well as the new head of FECI, have opened investigations into Sandoval and on September 3 obtained a warrant for Sandoval’s arrest. 

On September 2, the Constitutional Court also recently ruled that certain individuals with corruption charges can have their charges commuted and leave prison. The law could also commute prison sentences for crimes related to corruption, such as bribery and illicit enrichment. The Court made clear that corruption is not a priority, and the commutations open the door for additional acts of impunity. It is a further insult to target these crimes, while continuing to deny justice for those targeted for political reasons. This ruling will be another set back in the fight against corruption.

We commend the Department of State’s decision to pause assistance to the Attorney General’s office and to publicly denounce their actions.  We have similarly lost confidence in Attorney General Porras’ ability to perform her job impartially. However, we also believe that further steps are necessary to protect democracy and the rule of law in Guatemala.  Towards that end, we urge you to take the following actions:

  • Cease all coordination with Attorney General Porras’ office until we are confident in its commitment to the rule of law, rather than its demonstrated loyalty to corrupt interests.
  • Immediately ensure protection for Sandoval’s family and for others who are also at physical and legal risk for their work at FECI, and other prominent legal positions. 
  • Strongly oppose laws that endanger the work of civil society and the right to justice. 
  • Ensure the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala is robustly engaging with individuals and groups at risk, including indigenous and environmental defenders and those who are working for justice and are increasingly under threat, including lawyers, judges, and witnesses in corruption and transitional justice cases. 
  • Leverage all our diplomatic tools, including additional visa restrictions, targeted economic sanctions, ensuring accountability through international lending, and withholding assistance and economic support for those who are undermining democracy in Guatemala.

Corruption, impunity, and repression threaten Guatemalan society to an extent not seen in decades. The United States must make clear that our partnership with Guatemala depends on protecting human rights and democracy and upholding the rule of law for the people of Guatemala. We appreciate your leadership in this challenging environment and look forward to continued engagement to advance democracy and rule of law in the region. 

Sincerely,

Raúl M. Grijalva                                 Norma J. Torres
Member of Congress                          Member of Congress

4 thoughts on “Dear Colleague Letter on Guatemala Calls for Additional US Action

  1. The US should support all efforts to end impunity and corruption in Guatemala’s armed forces. It is frankly embarrassing that Vice President Harris’ visit to Guatemala in June resulted in no substantial progress on these issues. It is time to stop supporting the Guatemalan army. Matt Anderson,MD

  2. I have 30 years living and visiting experience in Guatemala as an Episcopal priest. I have witnessed a deterioration of justice and anti-corruption efforts in country. I commend efforts by our country to hold the leadership of Guatemala accountable and reduce financial support to the government there until real progress is made. There are many good NGO’s that should receive U.S. support instead.

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