Political Rights: 4
Civil Liberties: 4
Status: Partly Free
Population: 12,700,000
GNI/Capita: $1,910
Life Expectancy: 66
Religious Groups: Roman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous beliefs
Ethnic Groups: Mestizo (55 percent), Amerindian (43 percent), other (2 percent)
Capital: Guatemala City


In 2005, Guatemala continued to deal with pervasive gang violence, including a number of gang-related attacks in prisons in August and September. The country's role as a transit site for illegal drugs headed to the United States was a major issue throughout the year; in November, the head of Guatemala's antidrug agency, Adan Castillo, was charged with drug trafficking by the U.S. government. The year also saw a series of developments in the continuing efforts to bring former officials to justice for crimes committed during the country's long civil war.

The Republic of Guatemala, which was established in 1839, has endured a history of dictatorship, coups, and guerrilla insurgency. Civilian rule followed the 1985 elections, and a 36-year civil war, which claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people, ended with the signing of a peace agreement in 1996. The peace accords led to the successful demobilization of the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG) guerrillas and their political legalization. A truth commission mandated by the peace accords began receiving complaints of rights violations committed during the conflict. However, in a May 1999 referendum, voters rejected a package of amendments to the constitution, approved by Congress a year earlier and prepared in accordance with the peace plan. The general consensus was that the government had failed to implement substantive reforms redressing social and economic inequalities, including ending impunity in favor of the military, fully recognizing the rights of the Maya Indians, and reforming taxation to pay for health, education, and housing programs for the poor.

In July 2003, the constitutional court ruled that retired General Efrain Rios Montt – whose 18 months as ruler of Guatemala in 1982 and 1983 saw the army employ brutal, "scorched earth" tactics against the URNG – could stand for the presidency. Before the decision, violent demonstrations were staged in Guatemala City, as the National Guatemalan Republican Front (FRG) brought armed supporters to intimidate the court's justices and critics. He was later chosen as the FRG's candidate.

In November 2003 parliamentary elections, while the FRG lost its congressional majority, it still captured 44 seats, with the Grand National Alliance (GANA) holding 49 seats and National Union for Hope (UNE), 34 seats. At the local level, the FRG was the most successful party, having won over 100 municipalities; GANA won 69; and UNE, 33. Presidential elections held concurrently with the legislative polls were marked by less than the expected violence, although voting was suspended in seven municipalities. Oscar Berger of GANA, a former mayor of Guatemala City, received 34 percent of the vote. The UNE's Alvaro Colom obtained 26 percent of the ballot, and Rios Montt came in a distant third with 19 percent. Since no candidate polled more than 50 percent, a runoff election was held on December 28 between Berger – who won with 54 percent of the vote – and Colom.

Efforts to bring to justice government officials and military personnel responsible for human rights abuses during the civil war proceeded in 2005, with mixed results. In February, Guatemala's highest court stopped the trial of 16 soldiers charged with killing more than 200 people in the village of Dos Erres in 1982. The court ruled that such massacre cases were covered by the 1996 amnesty agreed to at the end of the war; human rights groups denounced the ruling as disastrous. The following month, an appeals court shortened by 10 years the sentences of two former army officers convicted of the 1998 murder of Bishop Juan Gerardi. In July, firemen stumbled upon a vast archive of documents dealing with the government's counterinsurgency campaign, documents that security forces had consistently denied existed. The archive, which was handed over to the human rights ombudsman's office, included files recording government-orchestrated assassinations and disappearances. Also in 2005, indigenous rights activists and Nobel Peace Prize winner Rigoberta Menchu took her fight to charge Guatemalan leaders with genocide to Spain's Constitutional Court. In October, the court ruled that cases of genocide committed abroad could be judged in Spain, even if no Spanish citizens were involved; the decision reversed a Spanish Supreme Court ruling that had denied Menchu's petition. Her suit accused Guatemalan government and military officials of illegally imprisoning, torturing, and murdering thousands of Mayans during the civil war. (In April, five FRG activists were convicted of racial discrmination against Menchu; the five were among a group of FRG supporters who taunted Menchu during the 2003 trial to determine Rios Montt's eligibility for the presidency.)

In August, Mexican authorities arrested seven former members of the former Guatemalan counterinsurgency military unit known as the Kaibiles; four were still part of the military and were listed as deserters. Mexican officials accused them of training and working for Mexican drug gangs. The former Kaibiles had links to a special military intelligence unit, the Estado Mayor Presidencial (EMP), once set up in Guatemala's Presidential Palace. Established under the regime of Lucas Garcia, the EMP was due to be dismantled as part of the 1996 peace accords. However, that did not happen until 2003 after pressure from both the United States and the United Nations.

U.S. officials noted that, through connections with generals who ran the EMP, drug gangs had penetrated to the core of the Guatemalan state. In November, Adan Castillo – the head of Guatemala's antidrug agency, the Anti-Narcotic Analysis and Information Service (SAIA) – was arrested, along with two other SAIA officials, by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency on a trip to the United States. The agency accused them of facilitating drug imports into the United States. Officials in the United States estimate that 75 percent of the cocaine in the country is imported through Guatemala.

Guatemala is beset with crime and violence spawned by youth gangs known as maras. The favorite targets of the gangs are public buses: 180 buses were hijacked and robbed by the gangs in 2005. The most powerful mara, a large gang from El Salvador known as Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13), waged a gang war against its rival M-18 in Guatemala throughout the year to take control of local drug distribution. The gang violence spilled over into the country's prisons with coordinated attacks by Salvatrucha gang members in four different prisons in August 2005. The attackers killed 35 members of the M-18 gang and wounded 80. Another attack the next month at San Jose Pinula Prison left 14 M-18 gang members dead. Authorities estimate that the gangs have at least 8,000 members in Guatemala.

During 2005, President Berger saw a number of his party allies defect from GANA after he reneged on a campaign promise not to negotiate with the FRG on political matters. However, Berger openly sought the help of FRG leader Rios Montt in a bid to pass a sweeping package of fiscal reforms through Congress. The reforms, which revamp the country's tax structure and add new taxes to fully fund various provisions of the peace accords, were passed in 2005. However, the price was a splintering of GANA, leaving it with 38 seats in Guatemala's legislature. The right-wing FRG held 31 seats; the National Unity for Hope (UNE), a center-left party, held 25 seats; the National Advancement Party (PAN) held 17 seats; and the Patriotic Party (PP), formerly a part of GANA, held 9 seats. A number of small parties and independents held the remaining 15 seats, including the New National Alliance (ANN), the Unionist Party (PU), the Guatemalan Christian Democracy (DCG), and the URNG.

In October, Tropical Strom Stan caused massive landslides and flash flooding that destroyed villages, displaced some 90,000 people, and led to the confirmed deaths of 652 mostly indigenous Guatemalans. The death toll, however, was projected to reach into the 2,000s.

Political Rights and Civil Liberties

Citizens of Guatemala can change their government democratically. The 1985 constitution, amended in 1994, provides for a four-year presidential term and prohibits reelection. The unicameral Congress of the Republic, consisting of 158 members, is elected for four years. Though the campaigns were marred by instances of intimidation, violence, and fraud, the 2003 presidential and legislative elections were regarded by international observers as generally free and fair.

Corruption is widespread, and efforts to promote transparency have made little progress. Guatemala was ranked 117 out of 159 countries surveyed in Transparency International's 2005 Corruption Perceptions Index. In April, a Guatemalan court stripped former president Alfonso Portillo of his immunity from prosecution. Portillo is accused of taking $15.7 million from the country's defense budget for his personal use and the use of his associates and political allies. Portillo fled to Mexico before the court's order was official, and he is fighting extradition. (Portillo had fled Mexico and evaded prosecution there in the 1980s for killing two of his former students. He admitted to the killings during his Guatemalan presidential campaign in 1999, after the Mexican statute of limitations had expired on the case.) Portillo's vice president, Francisco Reyes Lopez, was arrested for his part in the diversion of military funds, but he was released on bail and remains in Guatemala.

While freedom of speech is protected by the constitution, those who loudly condemn the government or past human rights abuses can become targets for persecution. The press and most broadcast media outlets are privately owned, and media ownership is extremely concentrated. A Mexican broadcaster owns a monopoly of broadcast television networks and has significant holdings in radio. Newspaper ownership is concentrated in the hands of moderate business elites. Most newspapers have centrist or conservative editorial views. Six dailies are published in the capital, but only two of those newspapers circulate in other parts of the country.

Violence against journalists as a means of intimidation continued to diminish in 2005. However, members of paramilitary peasant groups (known as PACs) attacked two reporters covering a protest in the capital that demanded compensation for PAC service during the civil war. Guatemala's highest court suspended various criminal libel laws, which had contributed to self-censorship in the country. A regional court also convicted a former PAC member and the former mayor of Huehuetenango of kidnapping four journalists in 2003. Former military intelligence officers linked to the EMP were sentenced to 16 years in prison for leading an assault in 2003 on the home of the publisher of elPeriodico, the country's most independent daily. The government does not restrict internet access.

The constitution guarantees religious freedom. However, members of the indigenous communities have faced discrimination for the open practice of their Mayan religion. The government does not interfere with academic freedom. However, academics have been targets of death threats for raising questions about past human rights abuses or continuing injustices.

The constitution guarantees freedom of association. Nevertheless, human rights groups are the targets of frequent death threats and the victims of violence. The Guatemalan human rights prosecutor's office pushed for a UN-appointed commission to curb threats and attacks against human rights activists. The resulting entity, the Commission for the Investigation of Illegal Bodies and Clandestine Security Apparatus, was created in 2004. Freedom of assembly is guaranteed and is generally respected in practice. In 2005, however, police used force to break up several violent demonstrations.

Trade unions are targets of intimidation, physical attacks, and assassination, particularly in rural areas during land disputes. Workers are frequently denied the right to organize and are subjected to mass firings and blacklisting, particularly in export-processing zones, where the majority of workers are women. Sexual harassment in the workplace remains legal.

The judiciary is plagued by corruption, inefficiency, capacity shortages, and violent intimidation of judges, prosecutors, and witnesses. According to the U.S. State Department's human rights report, eight judicial sector workers were killed in 2005. While the constitution provides for a litany of procedural rights, the ineffectiveness of the judiciary restricts these rights in practice. The indigenous population continues to be shut out from the national justice system. Although indigenous languages are now being used in courtrooms around the country, Guatemalan authorities mostly dismiss traditional justice systems.

Police regularly employ lethal force, in many instances without justification. Police officers abuse and torture suspects, corruption is pervasive, and some police officers engage in extortion and kidnapping for ransom. Human rights groups have accused the police of extrajudicial killings of suspected gang members as a reaction to the growing level of crime. Cursory recruitment efforts have resulted in only a handful of indigenous recruits for the National Civilian Police (PNC). Prison conditions are harsh, and prisons are rife with gang-related violence and drug-related corruption. Problems in the country's prisons had political repercussions in 2005. After a daring escape by 19 prisoners at El Infiernito prison in October, President Oscar Berger ordered the military to establish a presence at each of the country's prisons and provide a security barrier. When Defense Minister Carlos Aldana moved too slowly to implement the president's wishes, Berger fired him. Using the military to maintain order remains controversial because the peace accords created limits on how the military could be used to provide internal security. However, former president Alfonso Portillo had called out the military to maintain order and fight crime on numerous occasions.

The Berger administration has cut the size of the military by 43 percent, and the military's budget was slashed to $15.5 million. However, for the first time in 15 years, partially because of the military reductions, the United States is providing more than $3 million in military aid. Human rights groups denounced the resumption of military aid, noting that the Guatemalan military remained corrupt and unrepentant for human rights violations of the past and citing the military's ties to drug traffickers.

Crime is a major problem in Guatemala. More than 5,500 people were murdered in Guatemala in 2005, the highest number since the end of the civil war; Guatemala has one of the worst murder rates in the Western Hemisphere. In 2005, instances of vigilante justice increased.

More than 80 percent of the population lives below poverty levels, and infant mortality rates among the Maya are among the highest in the hemisphere. Discrimination against the Mayan community continues to be a major concern. The government approved the eviction of indigenous groups from areas of development, including the site of the Chixoy Dam project.

Violence against women and children is widespread. Street children and women, especially those believed to be engaged in prostitution, are the most common victims of murder. Women and children are drawn into prostitution both locally and in neighboring countries. In the first 10 months of 2005, Guatemalan authorities reported the murder of 531 women, a higher number than that for the same period in 2004. In June, Amnesty International released a report documenting a sharp rise in the number of women murdered and sexually assaulted since 2001, condemning the environment of impunity in which these crimes take place and calling on the government to take immediate action.

Guatemala has the highest rate of child labor in the Americas, with one-third of school-aged children forced to work on farms or in factories. As much as 20 percent of the workforce consists of children. Guatemala is a source, transit, and destination country for its own nationals and other Central American women and children trafficked for purposes of both sexual exploitation and child labor.

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