Guatemala Government Actions Threaten Democracy: Human Rights Watch

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By LatAm Reports Editor

Recent developments in Guatemala have raised serious concerns about the integrity of its democratic institutions. The Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) and Human Rights Watch have reported troubling actions by key Guatemalan government bodies, including the Attorney General’s Office, Congress, and the Supreme Court. These actions are seen as direct threats to the rule of law and the rights of citizens in the country.

On November 16, 2023, the Attorney General’s Office sought 27 arrest warrants targeting a diverse group including activists, students, academics, and human rights defenders. This group also included a member of the Semilla Movement, the political party of President-Elect Bernardo Arévalo. The authorities requested the Supreme Court to revoke the immunity of both Arévalo and Vice-President Elect Karin Herrera to enable their investigation for purportedly inciting a student protest.

Meanwhile, the Guatemalan Congress, which is nearing the end of its term, controversially appointed a new Supreme Court. The appointment process was reportedly plagued with irregularities, raising concerns about the impartiality and legitimacy of the judiciary.

Juan Pappier of Human Rights Watch highlighted the crucial role of pressure from indigenous groups, protesters, and international diplomats in safeguarding the election results. He emphasized the necessity of continued international vigilance in light of the Guatemalan government’s recent maneuvers.

These recent incidents are part of a broader pattern of legal and political tactics employed to undermine the voting process and target members of the Semilla Movement. Arévalo, who ran on an anti-corruption platform, won the presidential elections against Sandra Torres of the Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza (UNE) in August.

Arrests have already been made, including a former Semilla Movement congressional candidate and several academics. The charges against the 27 individuals range from “unlawful association” to “sedition,” mainly for participating in protests against the 2022 election of a dean at San Carlos University, which were believed to be fraught with irregularities.

The situation further escalated with the appointment of new Supreme Court magistrates on November 15. The selection process for these magistrates has been scrutinized for alleged influence peddling and corruption. Among the appointed magistrates, several have faced investigations for their involvement in corrupt practices.

The current Supreme Court has also initiated proceedings to strip immunity from a high-level member of the Supreme Electoral Tribunal, who is under investigation for non-compliance with a controversial judicial order related to the Semilla Movement.

In response, the Permanent Council of the Organization of American States (OAS) passed a resolution on November 15, urging Guatemala’s judiciary, legislative, and executive branches to cease any intimidation against electoral authorities and the Semilla Movement.

International concern has been voiced by Human Rights Watch and WOLA, urging foreign governments, including the United States, the European Union, and Latin American countries, to condemn these actions. They also call for Guatemalan business leaders to advocate for democracy and the rule of law.

In a significant move, the United States State Department imposed visa restrictions on 11 individuals from Guatemala, in reaction to the Attorney General’s Office’s actions against President-elect Arévalo, Vice President-elect Herrera, and other opposition members. This measure signals the international community’s increasing concern over Guatemala’s democratic processes.