Guatemala is a tourist destination well-known for being the center of the ancient Mayan civilization. What many people may not realize about this small, Central American country, however, is that from 1960 to 1996, Guatemala struggled with a 36-year civil war that has left the country in a problematic state in regards to human rights. Although there have been several improvements to human rights in Guatemala, there is still work to be done. Below are 10 important facts about human rights in Guatemala.
10 Facts About Human Rights in Guatemala
- The Guatemalan Civil War was the aftermath of the CIA’s involvement in overthrowing democratically-elected President Jacobo Árbenz in 1945. Private interests of the United States were at a disadvantage from policies and reforms put in place by Árbenz that would have largely benefitted the indigenous population in poverty. After the coup d’état, the new leader, right-wing Army General Efraín Ríos Montt, came into power.
- Tensions between the right and left had escalated until 1960 when a civil war erupted between the military and leftist guerrilla groups. Eventually, however, the military began targeting anyone deemed as sympathizers to the rebels’ cause, including Catholic priests and entire native villages. By the time the war ended with a treaty in 1996, over 200,000 people were killed, more than half a million were left displaced and several others had been raped and tortured.
- Out of the 200,000 killed during the war, a majority of casualties were indigenous people. According to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHA), extreme poverty rates are three times higher among the indigenous population. During the civil war, the extremely poor were targeted by military groups, and some indigenous groups had fallen victim to genocidal acts. In 1982 and 1983, 1,771 Mayan Ixil civilians were murdered in over 105 massacres throughout the country. Although the civil war is over, poverty, exclusion and violence still persist at higher rates against Guatemala’s indigenous population.
- Heinous human rights violations may have subsided since the end of the civil war, but the problem of accountability and sentencing for human rights abuses still persists. Over twenty years after the end of the war, several former military officers have finally been indicted for their crimes, but they are still awaiting trial dates and formal sentencing for human rights violations such as rape, massacre and genocide like that of the Ixil civilians, including Rios Montt.
- In light of the issue of slow trials, the IACHA also recognizes the importance of a currently pending judicial reform. This reform addresses the organization of the work of The Supreme Court of Justice, as well as the processes for judicial appointments. This reform is highly favorable throughout Guatemala but has yet to be officially approved.
- The Guatemalan government has been working with human rights investigators to uncover incriminating evidence that has been scattered or hidden in over 80 million pages of documents. The nonprofit Benetech has been helping to organize and digitalize all documents that contain evidence against those accused of human rights violations. Benetech suspects that, during the war, police had participated in disappearances and assassinations, leading to even more document cover-ups.
- The U.N.-backed International Community Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, has also played a key role in prosecuting violent crimes and human rights abuses in the country. CICIG has worked with Attorney Generals, police and other government sectors “to investigate, prosecute and dismantle criminal organizations operating in the country.” The organization has made efforts to decrease violent crimes and extortion from gang-related violence and has acted as a key investigator in many high-profile assassinations in the country.
- Journalists have been some of the biggest targets of violence with several TV and newspaper journalists having been assassinated in recent years and many more have been victims of assassination attempts and death threats. The IACHR notes that the interior of the country is the most dangerous place for journalists and social communicators due to their overt commitment to combating corruption and abuses of power.
- Women’s and girls’ rights in Guatemala are also a human rights issue that has more notably come to light after the March 2017 fire that occurred in a government-run shelter killing 41 young girls. A room, only meant to hold 11, contained 56 girls locked in for the night without access to water or restrooms because they had been protesting sexual violence and poor living conditions within the facility. While court proceedings have begun against the officers who failed to release the girls during the fire, this tragedy brought to light the poor conditions for adolescents and women in Guatemala.
- In 2017, the US Congress approved $655 million in assistance as part of The Plan of the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle, which intends to reduce incentives for those who want to emigrate from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. This aid seeks to reduce violence, increase economic opportunities and strengthen governance, actively fighting corruption and impunity in the community.
These facts about human rights in Guatemala show that things have improved since the genocidal times of civil war, but many issues persist. The rights of indigenous people, journalists and minorities need more attention from the government. While Guatemala seeks justice for its past crimes with the aid of organizations like CICIG and Benetech, current human rights issues lack effective attention. With an improvement in economic opportunity and governance along with a decrease in impunity and corruption, Guatemala could significantly improve its human rights situation and experience a greater decrease in poverty and violent crimes.
– Matthew Cline