In 2018, Guatemala experienced setbacks in the democratic transition. A climate of hate has been generated against groups who protest the narrowing opportunities for democratic participation and who report serious human rights violations. This has led to an atmosphere of confrontation and polarization.
Political events during the year have demonstrated that certain sectors continue to resist change and hope to maintain the status quo to preserve their power in view of the progress achieved in recent years, such as the strengthening of the Public Prosecutor’s hand in prosecuting war crimes, the professionalization of the National Civil Police, and the increasing independence of the Human Rights Ombudsman.
In 2018 the investigations carried out by the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG) and the Public Prosecutor’s Office (MP) continued, uncovering corruption involving public officials and institutions, political parties, and even members of the Guatemalan business oligarchy.
In April, CICIG and the MP presented the second part of their investigation into the illegal financing of the ruling FCN-Nation party during the 2015 election campaign. The MP asked the Supreme Electoral Tribunal (TSE) to ban the party under a procedure established under the Law on Elections and Political Parties. Although the party that brought Jimmy Morales to the presidency was banned by court order in June, that ban was lifted in October by the Contentious Administrative Court on the basis of two appeals. In addition, at the beginning of August, the Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) admitted a request to strip President Jimmy Morales of immunity to impeach him for illegal campaign financing, but the case against him was tabled by the Guatemalan Congress in October.
In reaction to these actions, Morales escalated the conflict by refusing to renew CICIG’s mandate in 2019, banning the lead CICIG commissioner from entering the country, and canceling the visas of another 11 members of its staff. Finally, in January 2019, Morales unilaterally terminated the agreement with the United Nations for CICIG to remain in Guatemala. Although the Constitutional Court (CC) unanimously ordered Morales to allow the commissioner to return to the country and upheld an appeal filed by the 11 commission staff members who had their visas revoked, the Government has continued to ignore these rulings, which critics say is a violation of the constitutional and democratic rule of law "because it disobeys the Court on the assumption that the president may reject (CICIG) or break it up, and establishes the use of force as the only law. (...) It is a coup d'etat in slow motion, because it is difficult to perceive the immediate impact of this constitutional breakdown.". Meanwhile, a group Guatemalan congressional deputy introduced a bill in November proposing a referendum to ask voters whether they agree with the dissolution of CICIG. However, there was not enough support in Congress for such a referendum at that time.
The president's actions on CICIG have been met with rejection both at home and abroad, and are considered to be a severe blow to efforts to fight corruption, abuse and impunity in Guatemala.
The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, described the president's decision against CICIG as deplorable and urged the Guatemalan Government to guarantee democratic freedoms. The Foreign Service of the European Union expressed concern about the weakening of the rule of law in the country. In addition, the G13, made up of the nine countries that provide the most aid to Guatemala, expressed its concern about these actions. Germany, Canada, Spain, the United States, France, Italy, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and the European Union, as well as Norway and the Netherlands, urged the Guatemalan Government to respect the constitutional order, democratic institutions, the rule of law and the separation of powers. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) also issued a statement saying that the government's attitude calls into question its willingness to fulfil its international commitments in the fight against impunity and corruption in the country. In addition to the international rejection of the Government’s actions, demonstrators protested in Guatemala in September 2018 and January 2019, expressing outrage at the government's measures and calling for the president's resignation.
At the same time, the Guatemalan Congress has been debating initiatives which, if approved, could weaken the rule of law even more and worsen the human rights situation. One of these, which would have a significant impact on the defense of human rights is an attempt the reverse the appointment as Human Rights Ombudsman of Jordán Rodas, who has acted with independence from the executive and legislative branches. This initiative would also reduce the Ombudman’s 2019 budget. In addition, there are a total of 14 proposed new laws. Of particular concern is the Law on Non-Governmental Organizations (initiative 5257), which would give the Interior Ministry the power to impose penalties on NGOs and void their status as such, making it difficult for them to operate in defense of human rights. Others are the National Reconciliation Law (initiative 145-96), which would grant amnesty for offences that include crimes against humanity and genocide; the Law for the Protection of Life and Family (initiative 5272), which would criminalize abortion under any circumstances and promote hate against LGTBI groups; the Law against Terrorist Acts (initiative 5239), which would limit the right of association; and the Law on the Consultation of Indigenous Peoples (initiative 5416), which would restrict the right of self-determination.
Finally, the current situation with the National Civil Police (PNC) should be mentioned. There has been a number of troublesome setbacks with respective to compliance with the Peace Accords. There have been changes in the high command in the PNC it has increased its joint operations with the Armed Forces.