WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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17 May 2023 | Commentary

WOLA, RFK Human Rights, and Human Rights Watch Concerned About Pre-Electoral Conditions in Guatemala

Summary of Recent Visit to Guatemala City

On June 25, 2023, Guatemala will hold general elections for president, legislators, and mayors in a context of deteriorating human, civil, and electoral rights. As part of our efforts to assess the pre-electoral conditions in the months leading up to election day, the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights (RFKHR) and Human Rights Watch (HRW) visited Guatemala City from April 17 through April 21, 2023. The delegation met with civil society, public officials, independent press, diplomatic corps, and the United Nations to gather information and discuss the main issues and challenges with regards to the upcoming elections. The following document explains our main findings.

1. Presidential Candidates Excluded and Supreme Electoral Tribunal Lacks Credibility 

Guatemala’s Mission of Electoral Observation (Misión de Observación Electoral – Guatemala, MOE-Gt), a consortium of civil society organizations, have condemned the insistence of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (Tribunal Supremo Electoral, TSE) in applying differentiated, discretional and inconsistent criteria in the registration and blocking of candidates. Several cases exemplify this. While some candidates who are under investigation for corruption and drug trafficking have been able to run, other candidates that challenge the status quo have been blocked.

In February, two presidential candidates on different ends of the political spectrum were arbitrarily barred from running for office. Although different appeals were presented before the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court, the TSE and courts rejected the candidacy for indigenous left-wing leader Telma Cabrera (who won 10% of the vote in the 2019 election) and her running mate, Jordán Rodas, the country’s former human rights ombudsman. The decision was based on an unspecified criminal complaint by the current ombudsperson who was appointed in a process that lacked transparency. The TSE also excluded Roberto Arzú from the race for violating a rule that typically carries a fine as punishment.

On May 19, a court suspended the presidential candidacy of Carlos Pineda, citing alleged irregularities in the way his political party appointed him as candidate in November. Pineda was the leading candidate according to some recent surveys.

Meanwhile, presidential candidate Zury Ríos, daughter of former dictator Efrain Ríos Montt, has been allowed to participate in the election despite the constitutional ban established in Article 186 prohibiting close relatives of former heads of state who came to power through a coup from running for president. Many people in Guatemala believe that her candidacy undermines the rule of law.

During our meeting with the magistrates of the TSE we expressed our concerns and discussed whether Guatemalan authorities had taken steps to implement the recommendations presented by the OAS after the 2019 elections. These highlighted the need to increase auditing of illicit financing in campaigns and to narrow overly broad laws used to bar candidates, as well as challenges to electoral technology.

According to the TSE:

  1. Guatemalan authorities have failed to reform overly broad laws used to bar candidates. Some magistrates described the criteria in the laws as “subjective.”
  2. Of a population of 2.7 million eligible voters between the ages of 18-25, almost 1.8 million did not register before the TSE and therefore will not be able to vote. Many attribute this to a lack of effort on the part of the TSE to mobilize young voters but the TSE magistrates said that these citizens simply did not want to vote.
  3. 3.8 million Guatemalans are living abroad and only 88,000 of them have registered to vote.
  4. They have plans to open 1,213 rural voting centers.
  5. “Help tables” at the voting centers will be responsible for addressing any problems that arise, including with the transmission of results.

It is imperative that electoral observers monitor whether or not the rural voting centers come to fruition and the quality of troubleshooting that the voting center help tables are able to provide.

2. Highest Number of Aggressions Against Civil Society in 22 Years 

In meetings with civil society groups, representatives of the private sector, independent media, and the international community it became clear that there is a generalized fear of retaliation among those who dare to speak out against the status quo. This has undermined public support for local civil society groups and increased their vulnerability when denouncing corruption and human rights violations.

The Unit of Protection of Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (Unidad de Protección a Defensoras y Defensores de Derechos Humanos – Guatemala, UDEFEGUA) stated that “elites in power” had “intensified their strategy to take control over all public institutions” and that justice sector authorities had increased their efforts to “criminalize human rights defenders, justice operators, journalists and everyone who opposes the current regime.” In 2022, the group documented 3,574 aggressions against individuals, organizations, and communities that defend human rights, including criminalization, harassment, intimidation, threats, and violence against women. This is the highest number of aggressions registered by UDEFEGUA in 22 years.

Likewise, civil society groups said that burdensome administrative requirements for nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) make it difficult for them to operate and some fear that the government may shut them down employing a 2021 law. In addition, some said that the Special Inspectorate Unit (Intendencia de Verificación Especial, IVE) has used anti-laundering laws to request excessive amounts of information from civil society organizations and their funders, who must devote significant personnel and resources just to meet the IVE requirements. This tactic is not new, but part of a trend in authoritarian regimes.

3. Crackdown on Freedom of Speech and Press: Attacks and Exile

The political persecution of critical voices, coupled with a rapid decline in the rule of law in Guatemala is of grave concern. The judiciary is being weaponized in favor of political interests and checks and balances have deteriorated. The justice system has become one of the primary executive arms for the persecution and criminalization of independent justice officials, journalists and media outlets in reprisal for their work on corruption, human rights, and topics that touch upon the interest of those in power. This has led to arbitrary criminal charges and acts of aggression against government critics and also serves as a deterrent to those who oppose the status quo.

In 2022, the Guatemalan Journalists’ Association (APG) registered 117 restrictions and violations of press freedom, highlighting 12 cases of judicial harassment and 36 cases of obstruction of press work. During Giammattei’s presidency alone, the APG has registered 404 attacks on the press. In the Reporters Without Borders 2023 Press Freedom Index, Guatemala ranks 127th out of 180 countries.

From 2016 to October 2022, at least 86 journalists, justice officials, activists, students, and citizens have faced criminal action, have been removed from their positions, or have had to leave Guatemala due to threats*. On July 29, 2022, journalist José Rubén Zamora, founder and president of the newspaper El Periódico, was arrested at his home and remains arbitrarily detained. El Periódico has been forced to shut down.

Moreover, the state’s attempts to limit freedom of expression are not solely aimed at journalists, but also at justice officials who, from their diverse areas of jurisdiction, advocate for and contribute to investigations into corruption in both the public and private sectors. These arbitrary actions have been carried out by members of the justice system through irregular judicial and administrative proceedings, as well as by other actors.

In Guatemala, the persecution of critical voices and the decline of the rule of law has led to a culture of fear and self-censorship among journalists, activists, and civil society organizations. The fear of retaliation from the government through arbitrary detention, harassment, and physical violence, has led many to limit their reporting and advocacy. This self-censorship is particularly prevalent when it comes to issues such as corruption and human rights violations, which are often met with hostility from those in power.

4. Criminalization and Lack of Due Process for Virginia Laparra, José Rubén Zamora and Others

RFK Human Rights, WOLA and HRW received worrying allegations of due process violations against former prosecutor Virginia Laparra and journalist José Rubén Zamora. During our visit, we had the opportunity to meet Virginia Laparra, a courageous prosecutor who has been declared a prisoner of conscience by Amnesty International. She has been held in arbitrary detention for nearly a year and a half. Laparra is a respected former prosecutor with a distinguished career in Guatemala’s justice system whose focus in recent years was the investigation of high level corruption within the government and private sector. She was sentenced to four years in prison for “abuse of power” because she presented a disciplinary report against a judge who she accused of leaking judicial documents.

Currently, she faces a second case presented by the Public Prosecutor’s Office for the alleged disclosure of confidential information she obtained in the exercise of her functions, and the court has decided to handle the case under seal. Apart from being granted limited visits from her family, including her two daughters, she has been denied access to the proper medical attention of her choice, exacerbating the already extremely precarious detention conditions she has been subjected to, which have further compromised her health.

José Rubén Zamora, the journalist and president of one of the most significant independent newspapers in Guatemala, El Periódico, has been subject to a seemingly politically motivated criminal case and has been in detention since August 2022. Zamora spearheaded the journalistic investigation of at least 200 corruption cases, which led to an investigation against him. Zamora currently faces charges of money laundering and obstruction of justice. His case has been plagued with irregularities that have violated due process, including neither him nor his lawyers being notified of the obstruction of justice charge. Additionally, he has been denied proper medical attention of his choice. Apart from the criminal process against Zamora, there have been investigations and legal actions taken against other members of the newspaper’s staff. On May 12, the outlet announced that it would be forced to close, citing increased harassment and persecution.

During our visit, Guatemalan authorities arrested lawyer Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa, who previously represented José Rubén Zamora as his attorney and who was barred from running for mayor under an opposition coalition for Guatemala City.

Additionally, on May 11, 2023, the Special Prosecutor’s Unit Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial Contra la Impunidad, FECI) presented legal action against presidential candidate Edmond Mulet for the alleged crime of obstruction of justice. In March, the same unit attempted to remove Mulet’s immunity for questioning a judge’s motives in persecuting journalists. Mulet previously worked at the United Nations and was an ambassador to the U.S. and the European Union.

5. Part of the Business Sector Makes Efforts to Promote “Legal Certainty” and Rule of Law

The delegation met with members of the private sector in Guatemala. Many of these actors played an important role in 2015, following mass protests against corruption. Some now recognize the need to promote the rule of law as well as anti-corruption initiatives that would allow a climate of “legal certainty” to protect their business and the country’s international reputation, particularly because it would strengthen the economy and attract investment.

Some of these private sector actors who speak up on democratic decline in Guatemala have faced seemingly politically motivated criminal investigations and push back from other actors in the private sector.

6. Need for a Thorough Electoral Observation

Given the risks to the integrity of the electoral process and the lack of credibility of Guatemala’s institutions, international observation is essential in promoting the right to free and transparent elections and in protecting civil and political rights of Guatemalans.

The Organization of American States (OAS) and the European Union (EU) have confirmed they will send observers to Guatemala before the June elections. They should thoroughly examine electoral conditions, including the exclusion of candidates and the use of spurious criminal charges against them, and press the Guatemalan authorities to respect democratic values. Both the OAS and the EU should ensure that their observation goes well beyond the events of election day and should analyze whether Guatemalan authorities have taken steps to comply with prior recommendations by electoral observation missions.

Foreign governments should also support Guatemalan NGOs who are conducting electoral observation and the OAS and UE electoral observation missions should make sure their findings are taken into account.

7. Post-Election Scenario

The international community should closely monitor the electoral process in Guatemala, and after the elections, must work with incoming officials to ensure their commitment to restoring democratic values, protecting human rights, and countering corruption. They should take coordinated, cohesive action and use the tools at their disposal to prevent a full consolidation of authoritarian practices led by illicit networks responsible for the deterioration of democracy and rule of law in Guatemala.

The future of the country’s democracy will largely depend on the commitment of elected officials in Congress, at the municipal level, and within the executive branch to respect the voices of civil society organizations, human rights defenders, and independent journalists. Lessons can be learned from similar circumstances, albeit on varying scales, in countries like Venezuela and Nicaragua. The elimination of the separation of powers, the closing of civic space, and the crackdown on political dissent are hallmarks of the democratic crisis and the enduring culture of impunity for abuses of power and grave human rights violations in Guatemala.

*On May 31, 2023 this text was updated as an earlier version incorrectly stated that 96 Guatemalan journalists were forced into exile due to threats.