No. 17/03




The Commission is concerned over the continuing erosion of the rule of law in Guatemala, which has escalated in the context of the electoral process that will conclude with general elections in November 2003.


The Commission wishes to emphasize that 11 activists have been murdered since the beginning of the electoral process.  It has also received reports of increasing acts of intimidation, murders, threats, physical assaults, and unauthorized entry of homes, perpetrated against social and political leaders, human rights defenders, justice sector personnel, and journalists, in connection with the Guatemalan electoral process.  Considering the gravity of the situation, the Commission granted precautionary measures to protect the personal well-being of political activists in the department of Chiquimula.


The Commission was also informed that peasant leaders, Mayan spiritual guides, human rights defenders, and state officials charged with protecting and defending human rights were targeted in over 30 incidents between April and July 2003.  In particular, these incidents included abductions, murders, threats, illegal raids, surveillance of places of work and homes, and stalking and persecution in public places.  The Commission has granted precautionary measures to safeguard the lives and well-being of members of various organizations devoted to defending human rights in Guatemala.


During the most recent OAS General Assembly session, held in Chile in June 2003, the states adopted resolution AG/RES. 1920 (XXXIII-O/03), on human rights defenders in the Americas, in which they condemned actions that directly or indirectly prevented or hampered the work of human rights defenders and, further, urged member states to continue stepping up their efforts to adopt the necessary measures to safeguard the lives, personal safety, and freedom of expression of defenders.


The Commission has received worrisome information on the safety of journalists.  More than 20 incidents of threats, surveillance, stalking, and illegal raids, perpetrated against social communicators and media directors, in both the capital and the interior, have been reported to the IACHR since April.  Unfettered press coverage and public discussion are essential, especially during an electoral process, in which society needs to be properly informed.


Lastly, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is concerned that former General Efraín Ríos Montt could be among the candidates for president.  The Commission considers the candidacy of Ríos Montt for president a grave threat to consolidation of the rule of law, stable democracy, and effective protection of human rights in Guatemala, which began with the signing of the Agreement on a Firm and Lasting Peace, in December 1996.  Severe and massive violations of human rights were perpetrated under the de facto regime of Ríos Montt (1982-1983).  Militarized structures instituted during that period, such as the Civil Self-Defense Patrols, tightened the grip on the population and were responsible for grave human rights violations.  Continuation of the scorched earth strategy led to the destruction of hundreds of villages, elimination of part of the Mayan population, and a massive displacement of civilians who lived in the area of the fighting.  In the context of this armed conflict, in which over 200,000 people died or disappeared, the spiral of violence reached its peak between 1981 and 1983, when 81% of the executions and forced disappearances took place.


Moreover, the decision that would authorize former general Ríos Montt to take part in the electoral process has been questioned by various parties and organizations of Guatemalan society.  In particular, a decision by the human rights prosecutor concluded that the manner in which two substitute magistrates were chosen, by a secret drawing of lots, to serve on the Constitutional Court that would rule on the writ of amparo concerning the registration of the former general as a presidential candidate “involves actions that violate the principles of due process.”


In 1993, the Commission issued its opinion on the presentation of former general Ríos Montt as a candidate for President of the Republic.  In Report Nº 30/93, the Commission stated that the ineligibility of persons who had led movements or governments that had disrupted the constitutional order enshrined in Article 186 of the Guatemalan Constitution was considered “as juridical principles of international relations and common defense of the democratic consolidation in the region … to make its operation more effective, and to defend the integrity of its citizens' rights.”


During a visit to Guatemala in March of this year, the IACHR expressed its serious concern over the significant deterioration in areas essential for preserving and strengthening the rule of law, such as a weak Judiciary, the existence of clandestine groups acting illegally and with impunity, and attacks on human rights defenders, justice sector personnel, journalists, unionists, and other representatives of social sectors. 


The Commission observes that, at present, the human rights situation continues to decline, and urges the Guatemalan state to take all necessary measures to ensure that the rule of law is fully upheld, in accordance with the American Convention on Human Rights and the Inter-American Democratic Charter, in particular free participation in the electoral process, transparency in all administrative and judicial decisions that could affect that process, and guaranteeing the safety of all its participants.


Washington, D.C., July 24, 2003