Washington, DC—Today, research and advocacy groups, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and the Myrna Mack Foundation from Guatemala, released the first in a series of reports evaluating Central America’s efforts to strengthen the independence of justice systems, tackle corruption, promote human rights, and reform civilian police forces.
This first report takes an in-depth look at the Guatemalan justice system, evaluating its independence and capacity to implement Guatemalan law and ensure adequate access to justice. The report, titled Guatemala’s Justice System: Evaluating Capacity Building and Judicial Independence, reveals the following trends concerning the current state of the justice sector:
Processes by which top-level judicial positions—including the attorney general, Supreme Court magistrates, and Appellate Court judges—are selected are highly susceptible to political maneuvering and the influence of outside special interests. Although the laws in Guatemala governing these selection processes are relatively detailed in comparison to those of other countries in the region, they contain loopholes that complicate efforts to implement an independent, merit-based selection process for key judicial posts. An autonomous, independent judiciary in Guatemala is unattainable unless significant changes to these selection processes are made.
Over the four-year time period examined by the Central America Monitor, Guatemala’s justice institutions expanded their reach, opening new field offices and courts and hiring more judges, prosecutors, and technical staff. However, women continue to be underrepresented even as Guatemalan women are disproportionately affected by gender-based violence and other crimes.
Access to justice in some regions of the country, especially rural areas, is still scarce. By the end of the time period covered in the report, the Public Prosecutor’s Office only had offices in 20 percent of the country’s municipalities and the ratio of prosecutors to citizens remained low. On average, there were 6 judges for every 100,000 people, well below the national global average of 17. The ratio of the Public Defender’s Office was equally low with 4 public defenders per 100,000 people as of 2016 (the most recent figure available).
According to the data, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the judiciary, the Institute of Forensic Sciences and the Institute of Criminal Public Defense were allocated, on average, about 5 percent of the national budget. Of the four institutions, the Institute of Criminal Public Defense is severely under-resourced, which limits its ability to carry out its job effectively and uphold due process.
Statistics show that the majority of complaints against justice operators for infractions are never investigated. For example, less than 14 percent of complaints concerning judges and magistrates resulted in a disciplinary hearing. The inability to hold justice operators who commit abuses accountable has deeply troubling implications for judicial independence and the rule of law in Guatemala.
This month, Guatemala began the process of selecting new Supreme Court and Appellate magistrates, as political tensions around the general election continue to rise. Ideally, the selection processes for magistrates should be free from political negotiations and upheld to international standards. Given current shortcomings, the processes should be closely monitored.
This report is part of the Central America Monitor, an initiative developed by WOLA and key partners in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to assess progress in Central America in key areas through a set of indicators. Through the analysis, research, and data provided by the Central America Monitor, we aim to help identify areas of progress and shortcomings in the security and justice policies and strategies being implemented in Central America, in a way that is useful for policymakers, donors, academics, and the public. The Central America Monitor aims to provide analysis that can contribute to the evaluation of security and justice trends over time both within and between the countries of the Northern Triangle.
Based on qualitative and quantitative indicators related to justice institutions, research in this report serves as a baseline for further Central America Monitor reports on progress in the justice sector which will be published on an annual basis. This report will be followed by subsequent reports on the justice systems of Honduras and El Salvador. Updated data on the Guatemalan justice system will be made available this fall.
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