Constitutional Limits on Government: Country Studies — Guatemala

 Guatemala Country Study

Rankings in Freedom in the World 2016: Status: Partly Free. Freedom Ranking: 4; Political Rights: 4; Civil Liberties: 4.



Guatemala was home to some of the most ancient civilizations in the Americas, but the Spanish conquest was particularly brutal in this territory. Most of the Mayan population was enslaved. From the time Guatemala established itself as an independent republic in 1839, it was dominated by a white and mestizo elite and ruled mostly by dictators who allowed foreign companies, mostly from the US, to dominate the economy and agriculture/ A popular revolution in 1944 introduced universal suffrage and land reform, but a US-assisted coup in 1954 overthrew the elected government and began 30 years of right-wing military rule. Counter-insurgency campaigns against a communist-inspired guerilla movement resulted in an estimated 200,000 deaths and dispossessed hundreds of thousands more. In these campaigns, the Guatemalan military carried out crimes against indigenous peoples that have been termed genocidal by international human rights institutions and domestic courts.

After a coup by progressive military officers in 1984, a constituent assembly was established to draft a new constitution, which initiated a period of more democratic governance over the last 30 years. An end to the civil war was negotiated in 1996 whereby leftist guerilla groups agreed to lay down their arms and restructure themselves as a political party. A lack of stable political institutions, entrenched privilege, poverty, a legacy of violence, and until recently a culture of corruption and impunity for past crimes under the military dictatorship are some of the significant issues that have faced Guatemala’s citizens, who have successfully defended the constitution against coup attempts, political subterfuge, and, in 2015, a broad conspiracy to defraud the state by the president.

Guatemala is a small country in Central America located immediately south of Mexico. It borders Belize to the east and Honduras and El Salvador to the south. Like Bolivia (see Country Study), the large, rural Amerindian population is not well integrated into the political and economic elite. In area, Guatemala ranks 103rd out of 192 countries in the world at around 109,000 square kilometers. Its population of 16.1 million people ranks 67th. Economically, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the country is in the world's upper half (at 75th) in overall nominal GDP with roughly $58.7 billion USD in total output. But Guatemala ranks among Latin America’s poorest countries. In 2015, the nominal per capita GDP was estimated at $3,886 per annum, placing it 112th in the IMF’s list of 194 countries and territories.

From the time it established itself as an independent republic in 1839, Guatemala was ruled mostly by dictators who often allowed foreign companies to dominate the economy and


Guatemala was a central part of the Mayan civilization and its territory contains some of the richest archaeological sites in the world. Originally inhabited between 18,000 and 10,000 BC, the region witnessed the rise of the Mayan and nearby Olmec civilizations beginning around 1500 BC. Most scholars agree that the Mayan civilization reached its apex between AD 300 and 900, although one of Guatemala's most significant archaeological sites, El Mirador, is evidence that it may have reached its peak several centuries earlier. The El Mirador complex is thought to have formed the largest city in the ancient Americas and its pyramid structures rival those of Egypt in overall size. The Mayan civilization began to crumble after the 10th century AD with the dispersal of large city-states into smaller settlements, but Mayan language and culture remained dominant among the Amerindian nations that inhabited the region in the succeeding centuries.

Spanish Conquest: The General Captaincy of Guatemala

The Spanish conquest of Guatemala, beginning in 1523, brought about the final destruction of Mayan civilization and the subjugation of the Amerindian population. The entire region between southeastern Mexico and Panama was placed under the so-called captaincy general of Guatemala for nearly three centuries. The current capital, Guatemala City, was founded in 1776 after earthquakes destroyed earlier capitals. Spanish conquest introduced a dominant class of white settlers, who were given control of the land and the authority to exploit natural resources through slave labor (similarly to Bolivia, and Venezuela). Roman Catholicism was imposed as the dominant religion, but Mayan culture survived in clandestine practice over centuries and today remains an important part of Guatemalan society.

Independence, Unity, and Strongman Rule

Independence from Spain was declared in 1821. At first, the United Provinces of Central America was established, including most of the captaincy general of Guatemala (present-day Costa Rica, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua). The federation, however, soon dissolved in civil war. Guatemala established itself as an independent republic in 1839 under the presidency of General Rafael Carrera, who was backed by previous colonial power brokers, landowners and the Catholic Church. He ruled 26 years until 1865. Some change came with the liberal revolution of 1871. One of the leaders of the revolution, Justo Rufino Barrios, assumed the presidency in 1873. He had a new constitution adopted, introduced secular education, and sought to modernize the economy by expanding coffee cultivation. Barrios, however, also attempted to reconstitute a Central American federation by force, a folly that led to his death in a battle in El Salvador in 1885. Thereafter, Guatemala was generally dominated by authoritarian rule, especially the long presidencies of Manuel Estrada Cabrera (1898–1920) and General Jorge Ubico (1931–44). These two rulers followed past leaders in institutionalizing authoritarian government and attracting extensive foreign agricultural investment, mostly from Germany and the US, to develop the Guatemalan economy.

The 1944 Revolution

A general strike in June 1944 forced General Ubico's resignation. A popular revolt supported by dissident army officers then ousted his chosen successor in October. The interim military leaders, Jacobo Arbenz Guzman and Francisco Javier Arana, ceded power in 1945 to a civilian president, Juan José Arévalo, who had won a largely uncontested election. Arévalo introduced universal suffrage, land reform, and labor reforms that benefited indigenous farmers, workers, and trade unions. Arévalo’s challenge to the old order, however, resulted in fierce conservative opposition and accusations that he was a communist. Even so, he served his full term to 1951.

The Arbenz Presidency and the 1954 Coup

Arbenz, one of the interim military leaders, succeeded Arévalo in Guatemala’s first contested free election in 1951. Influenced by socialist ideas, he oversaw the passage of an even more extensive agrarian reform law that authorized the seizure and redistribution of large estates that were not being cultivated. The move was welcomed by the country's many impoverished peasants, but it represented a serious threat to the US-based United Fruit Company, which had built up huge landholdings since the turn of the century. Arbenz's cooperation with the local Communist Party also fed US fears that Guatemala could eventually ally itself with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized a US Central Intelligence Agency-coordinated invasion by right-wing exiles that succeeded in forcing Arbenz to resign and leave the country. The leader of the US-backed force, Colonel Carlos Castillo Armas, installed himself as the new president.

The Coup's Bloody Aftermath

Castillo Armas was assassinated in 1957, but the coup he led marked the beginning of decades of strongman rule and military dictatorship. It also set the stage for a brutal civil war against left-wing guerrillas that broke out in 1960. Over a period of thirty-six years, the government’s counterinsurgency campaigns are estimated to have resulted in at least 200,000 deaths and up to 50,000 disappearances, according to a U.N.-backed Truth Commission that was established in 1996 (its creation was part of the peace agreement ending the civil war). The atrocities committed by government forces led US President Jimmy Carter to cut off military aid in 1977 as part of a new US foreign policy emphasizing human rights.

From Coup to Democracy

A 1982 coup by junior officers and army troops brought General Efrain Ríos Montt, a religious charismatic, to power. He used his dictatorial authority to launch an especially bloody counterinsurgency campaign, prompting General Oscar Humberto Mejia Victores, who was repulsed by the violence, to overthrow Ríos Montt in August 1983. As president, General Meija pledged to restore democratic rule. He held elections for a constituent assembly in 1984 to draft a new constitution, which the assembly completed and approved the following year. In December 1985, the candidate of the reformist Christian Democratic Party, Marco Vinicio Cerezo Arévalo (not related to the earlier leader of the 1944 Revolution, Juan José Arévalo), won the presidential election and took office in January with strong popular expectations and backing from the United States and other democratic countries. This period introduced a long struggle for constitutional rule.

Constitutional Limits

Following its independence in 1838, Guatemala had a history of weak constitutional controls and strong, unchecked presidential rule. The 1985 constitution, adopted by an elected constitutional assembly, attempted to address this problem by establishing a stronger parliament and limiting the president to one four-year term. It also required a runoff election if no presidential candidate obtained a majority in the first round. Like the president, the 158-member unicameral Congress has a four-year mandate. A human rights ombudsman is empowered to investigate violations of the constitution's guaranteed freedoms and a Constitutional Court serves as the final arbiter of disputes involving the constitution and it also may investigate government abuses. Although there have not been stable political parties or institutions since its adoption, the 1985 constitution has withstood several significant tests and the Guatemalan public has often asserted itself in defense of democratic rights and freedoms against attempted coups and the arrogation of power. This happened most recently in 2015 with mass demonstrations forcing out a corrupt president (see Current Issues below). Still, the rule of law remains weak and Guatemala remains dominated by a right-oriented military and business elite that is often joined together. High corruption, crime, and violence also remain prevalent — a legacy of military rule and guerilla warfare that continues to undermine public security.

The Constitution Is Tested

Vinicio Cerezo, as the first president to be elected under the new constitution, fell short of expectations. The economy declined, his efforts to end the conflict with leftist guerrillas failed, and human rights investigations of the military stalled. In 1991, Jorge Serrano Elías, a businessman running as the candidate of the right-wing Movement of Solidarity Action (MAS), received a strong majority in the second round of presidential elections. He, tooHeHe, quickly became unpopular due to his economic austerity measures. In flagrant violation of Guatemala's new democratic constitution, Serrano dissolved Congress and assumed dictatorial powers in 1993. Citizens protested the coup and the military sided with the Constitutional Court after it declared Serrano’s actions illegal. Serrano was forced to resign and leave the country. The human rights ombudsman, Ramiro de León Carpio, was elected by the restored Congress to complete the presidential term.

. . . [T]he constitution has withstood several significant tests and the Guatemalan public has often asserted itself in defense of democratic rights and freedoms against attempted coups and the arrogation of power.

De León set out to end political instability and corruption. He ordered new elections for Congress in 1994 to obtain a clear mandate. With United Nations assistance, De León also re-initiated peace talks with the guerilla group, the Guatemalan National Revolutionary Unity (URNG). De León’s successor, Alvaro Arzu Irigoyen of the center-right National Advancement Party (PAN), finalized the peace accord with the URNG in 1996 under which the URNG agreed to lay down its arms and reconstitute itself as a political party. In the 1999 elections, the URNG party failed to win voter support and lost political strength. The elections were won by Alfonso Portillo of the Guatemalan Republican Front.

A Second and Third Test

In 2003, General Ríos Montt, drawing on his party's strong position in Congress, instigated violent street demonstrations in Guatemala City to pressure the Constitutional Court to allow him to run for the presidency despite a specific provision in the constitution banning anyone who participated in a coup from being president. The court's decision in favor of Ríos Montt was widely criticized but voters made this new test of the constitution moot: Ríos Montt came in third and failed to advance to the runoff. The winner was Óscar Berger Perdomo of the Great National Alliance (GANA), a right-wing party, running against Álvaro Colom of the National Unity for Hope (UNE), a new left-wing Social Christian party. In the legislative elections, the right parties still dominated: GANA edged out Ríos Montt's Republican Front (FRG).

In 2007, Colom, running again for UNE, defeated Otto Pérez Molina, a former general leading a new initiative, the conservative Patriotic Party (PP), in a runoff vote for president. In the congressional elections, UNE captured a plurality, 51 of the 158 seats, the first time since 1954 that left-wing parties controlled the presidency and held a plurality in the Congress. It appeared that Guatemala’s politics had achieved some degree of stability with a peaceful alternation of power among political parties.

In the November 2011 elections, however, Sandra Torres was disqualified as the presidential candidate for the UNE when the Constitutional Court ruled that her April 2011 divorce from President Alvaro Colom was an attempt to evade the constitutional prohibition of family members from immediately succeeding an outgoing president. Despite the likely success of the UNE candidate according to polls, the court’s ruling left voters a choice only between two right-wing candidates for president, Otto Peréz Molina, running again for the Patriotic Party, and Manuel Baldízon of the Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER), yet another new initiative. Otto Peréz won on a platform promising a “hard-fist” against corruption and rising crime. As president, he greatly increased spending for both military and police forces, deployed the military for police functions, and increased cooperation with the US on drug interdiction.

Justicia or Impunity

The 1996 peace agreement established a UN Truth Commission to investigate crimes during the military dictatorship and a related commission established under a different UN mandate continued to work as an investigator of government corruption. The published reports of both commissions have kept prominent the issue of accountability and the impunity of high officials for crimes committed during the counterinsurgency campaigns and endemic state corruption.

In 2011, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who was appointed by UNE President Colom before leaving office, started to increase significantly the state’s prosecution of officials for corruption. In one case in 2013, the mayor and nine other officials of the city of Antigua, which is a major tourist magnet, were arrested and charged with making off with large sums from the city budget over many years. As well, ex-President Alfonso Portillo (2000–04), having successfully fought off domestic embezzlement charges for six years, was jailed in 2013 for extradition proceedings by Guatemala’s highest court. He was then sent to the US where a court had asserted jurisdiction in a case involving US banks. (Portillo agreed in March 2014 to plead guilty and accept a six-year sentence for taking $2.3 million in bribes from the Taiwan government and for conspiracy to launder $70 million in absconded funds.)

The main challenge for Attorney General Paz y Paz and Guatemala’s justice system, however, was the precedent-setting case she introduced against General Ríos Montt, the former president, and his former chief of staff, General Mauricio Rodriguez Sánchez. Both were arrested in early 2012 and charged with genocide and crimes against humanity for their ordering of the brutal counterinsurgency campaign in 1982-83. Specifically, they were charged for ordering the systematic killing of 1,771 people in the Mayan-Ixil region, one of the clearest examples of the scorched earth tactics the military used against suspected sympathizers of the guerrillas. Attorney General Paz y Paz had instituted the case after General Ríos Montt lost his legal immunity from prosecution as a member of Congress when he failed to gain a seat in the November 2011 elections. The case is highly significant. It is the first time that any former leader has been prosecuted in his or her own country on a charge of genocide. It was also the first time an official was brought before a Guatemalan court to be held accountable for the widespread killings and disappearances that took place during the military’s counter-insurgency campaign. The UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), set up in 2007, found that it was during the 1982–83 period that a large majority of the killings and “disappeared” occurred during the 36-year civil war.

The trial proved complex to prosecute, especially when President Otto Peréz, soon after his inauguration in 2012, withdrew the government’s support for Paz y Paz’s case and put public pressure on the judiciary to end it (Paz y Paz was appointed under the UNE government). Initially, a three-judge panel presided over a five-week trial in early 2013 and heard extensive evidence of the killings in the Mayan-Ixil region. But numerous appeals by the defense resulted in Constitutional Court rulings suspending the trial and removing Judge Yassmín Barrios as the trial judge. In the end, Judge Barrios was reinstated and resumed the trial that May. The court issued a unanimous 719-page ruling convicting Ríos Montt of crimes against humanity and genocide. The court sentenced him to 80 years’ imprisonment, 50 years for genocide and 30 for crimes against humanity. Sánchez was acquitted of both charges.

In her ruling Judge Yassmín Barrios determined that the evidence introduced in trial and the end result of the military campaign — the killing of 5.5 percent of an ethnic group — constituted the sufficiency of proof of the charge of genocide as well as crimes against humanity. She also determined that “command responsibility” meant that Ríos Montt had clear knowledge of and authority over the military campaign and constituted proof of his guilt. The Constitutional Court then vacated the ruling ten days after it was issued on questionable due process grounds. Human rights organizations criticized the ruling and charged that the Constitutional Court politicized the case due to public opposition of the trial by President Otto Peréz, a former general, and pressure organized by the business community.

A lower court ruled in 2015 that Ríos Montt must face retrial, despite his increasing dementia. The case was scheduled to be reheard in January 2016, but it is delayed pending appeal of the lower court’s ruling.

Current Issues

In January 2014, the Constitutional Court also ordered Paz y Paz’s term as Attorney General to be shortened by seven months before her term was set to expire.  The Court was seen as acting on the political wishes of President Otto Peréz, who had opposed not just the Ríos Montt trial but also Paz y Paz’s broader anti-corruption campaign. A former head of the Supreme Court, Thelma Aldana, was appointed in her stead in May 2014.

Aldana was believed to have the general backing of the right-wing and military establishment and was not expected to continue the anti-corruption and human rights cases of Paz y Paz, an ally of the former left-wing UNE-led government. Aldana, however, surprised observers when she began leading an investigation into allegations that high-level officials had organized a wide ranging scheme to lower customs duties in exchange for bribes. By May 2015, the investigation had been extended by involvement of the U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Its report led to charges against the vice president and soon it became clear that the scheme — involving hundreds of millions of dollars in both bribes and lost revenue — had been orchestrated by President Otto Peréz himself (see link to the International Crisis Group’s report in Resources).

A broad civic campaign was organized to demand Otto Peréz’s resignation and prosecution, leading to mass demonstrations in Guatemala City and other cities in August and early September. Soon after the Congress removed the president’s immunity from prosecution, Otto Peréz resigned on September 4. He was immediately jailed to face corruption charges. The resignation came two days before the first round of voting for Otto Peréz’s successor in scheduled 2015 elections. The winner in the first round, running on the platform “I am not a thief,” was Jimmy Morales, a comedian one of whose well known characters is a bumbling politician. He went on to win the second round with 67 percent of the vote against the UNE candidate, Sandra Torres, who was now allowed to run for the presidency.

The mandate, however, is unclear: more than half of Guatemala’s eligible voters did not cast ballots in the second round. In fact, Morales was not a candidate of the civic movement but of a new right-wing party made up of former military officers and backed by Guatemala’s conservative business federation. Some of the military officers, it has turned out, have close ties to Ríos Montt. Nevertheless, Morales’s election was the product of another clear demonstration of Guatemala’s “people power.” As a result, Morales has indicated support for Thelma Aldana’s corruption prosecutions and the continued effort to re-try Ríos Montt.

Attorney General Thelma Aldana has also pressed forward with additional human rights cases that have further challenged the entrenched position of the military establishment in Guatemalan politics. In January 2016, the Attorney General’s office ordered the arrest of 18 former high-ranking military officers, including a former army chief of staff and head of military intelligence. Most of the charges are the result of a three-year investigation into crimes committed at a military base in the central region of Alta Verapaz, where investigators found the remains of 558 people, including 90 children, killed in a period from 1981 to 1986. Four officers are charged with the disappearance of a youth in Guatemala City. Among the officers is a member of congress from President Morales’s party, whom Aldana is asking the Constitutional Court to strip of his legal immunity.

Guatemala continues to have an unstable political foundation. Business and military elites have constantly manipulated political parties so that it has been difficult to establish a stable multiparty system. Corruption at the highest levels and interference with state institutions like the Constitutional Court continue to bring new challenges to Guatemala’s constitutional system. In recent years, it has been the efforts  of independent Attorney Generals that have helped maintain the functioning of the constitution and established a measure of accountability of officials for human rights violations and corruption. It remains to be seen whether the foundation for a democratic system having strong constitutional limits and accountability will be strengthened or weakened.