Guatemala

freedom of information: overview

Guatemala made a huge leap forward in the struggle for openness and government accountability on September 24, 2008, when Congress passed the Law for Free Access to Public Information. Openness advocates, human rights defenders, and active lawmakers have been promoting the law since the first version was presented to Congress in 2002 and now have an effective tool to promote transparency and combat corruption in Guatemala. The law is set to go into effect in April 2009, when citizens will have the opportunity to exercise their right to know and test the limits of the legislation.

Guatemala’s right to public information is included in the 1986 constitution, but the importance of a transparency law did not enter into public attention or into the political debate until the end of the civil war, when human rights advocates began pushing for official records from the internal armed conflict. The Peace Accords were signed in 1996, officially ending the 36-year internal armed conflict that left an estimated 200,000 dead and another 40,000 disappeared. These numbers were produced by the UN-backed Historical Clarification Commission (CEH), which attributed over 90% of the abuses to government security forces. The findings of the Commission were based primarily on testimonies, forensic investigations, and also US government records released in response to the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). The Commission was given virtually no access to Guatemala’s government files on the war, due to the military’s obstruction of investigators looking for evidentiary records. The longstanding government silence about the war propelled openness advocates to press their case for the passage of a national freedom of information law.

For years the executive and legislative branches lacked the political will to make the law a reality. From 2000-2001, civil society groups such as the Association for Development, Organization and Cultural Studies (DOSES), and Accion Cuidadana (Citizen Action) organized seminars to bring NGO’s together on the issue of access to information. They joined with the Association of Investigations and Social Studies (ASIES), the Association for the Promotion of Security and Democracy (SEDEM), and other groups to create the first proposal of a transparency law and presented it to Congress. The law never came to fruition during this period, however, as the Portillo administration ended in scandal. Alfonso Portillo fled to Mexico in 2004 as several of his cabinet members were arrested for diversion of official funds. Portillo was extradited back to Guatemala in October 2008 to face corruption charges.

The issue of government human rights information resurfaced in national debate following the discovery in July 2005 of the massive National Police archives. These documents were discovered by accident during an inspection for explosives in Guatemala City. Investigators uncovered the secret files of the former National Police, an institution so tied with human rights abuses that it was dismantled as part of the Peace Accords. The discovery of the records also demonstrated without a doubt that the state kept clandestine records with personal information used to violate its citizen’s rights. It also showed the government’s long tendency towards secrecy and opened the doors to the public debate about other missing government records, such as the still-secret military archives.

Support for the information law continued to grow and reached its peak in 2008 due to pervasive corruption scandals in government. Reports of missing government funds weighed heavily on President Álvaro Colom’s first year in office, and the depth of the problem was a clear sign that a more transparent system was needed in Guatemala. Media outlets such as Prensa Libre and El Periodico became proponents of the law, reporting regularly on the corruption issues. The Vice President also became an advocate, traveling to Washington to meet with the OAS in June of 2008 to discuss the corruption scandal and the evident need for a transparency law in Guatemala. [News coverage of the meeting] In the same month the Vice President met with members of Congress, such as Nineth Montenegro, Rosa Maria de Frade, Christian Boussinot, and Roberto Alejos, who expressed the urgent need to push through with the law. [News coverage of the meeting] Consent grew in the legislature, and opposing political parties agreed on a final text. In August President Colom instituted the Commission for Transparency to be headed by Vice President Rafael Espada. The primary goal of the commission was to push for the passage of the information law. Finally, on September 24, 2008, Congress voted 107 to 158 to pass the law. The text of the law makes certain of public monitoring of government funds and contains stipulations for sanctioning officials who fail to follow through with the law’s regulations. [Guatemalan Congress press release, September 24, 2008]

Since its passage public officials have been preparing for the implementation of the law, working with government agencies to establish information offices in compliance with the law. Guatemala’s public officials have taken guidance from its neighbor to the north, sending a delegation to meet with Mexico’s Instituto Federal de Accesso a la Información (IFAI). On January 30th, 2009, Vice President Espada led a delegation to meet with Mexico’s commission to learn about the inner workings of the oversight commission and to begin planning for the creation of a similar functioning counterpart in Guatemala.

The law also comes up frequently in the context of the military’s war archives. In February 2008, President Colom announced that his administration would declassify all the military’s files with information on human rights abuses committed during the country’s 36-year armed conflict. The President created a commission to oversee the release of these files and formed the Archivos de Paz, the Peace Archives, to house the government’s files from the war. The Armed Forces continue to resist these efforts to open their records, however, and a year after the order they have not turned over the corresponding documents. Regardless of the continued obstacles to recovering historical memory in Guatemala, the Peace Archives continue to push for these records, and the archive’s director, Marco Tulio Álvarez, has made clear that the “Office of the Peace Archives regards information related to the internal armed conflict as an historical topic about which Guatemalan society has a right to know.” [GHRC publication]

The recovery project of the police archives has also made significant progress in its efforts to make the information publicly available. Most recently, on February 27, 2009, the Procurado de los Derechos Humanos (PDH), the human rights prosecutor in charge of the police archive project passed a regulation that guarantees public access to the government documents. [PDH Regulations] The regulation provides access to victims of the war, their family members, human rights organizations, academics, investigators, journalists, government bodies, and international groups. This also sets an important precedent for other government records pertaining to human rights violations, which will also be subject to Article 24 of the new transparency law. This article on Human Rights Information declares, “In no case, can information related to human rights violations or crimes against humanity be classified as confidential or reserved.”

The next challenge for Guatemala’s openness advocates and human rights defenders is to collaborate and to utilize the information law as an effective tool to fight impunity and corruption in Guatemala. David Gaitan of Accion Ciudadana describes this new mechanism as “an indispensable tool for strengthening democracy.” [News Clip, March 23, 2009]



freedom of information: chronology

January 14, 1986 – The military relinquishes power to a civilian government. Guatemala passes its constitution upholding the citizen’s rights to public information and the obligation of the state to disclose this information.

December 29, 1996 – The Peace Accords are signed between the government and Guatemala’s guerrilla groups, officially ending the 36-year internal armed conflict. The agreement emphasizes the responsibility of the government to make information available, and to investigate and clarify abuses of the past.

February 25, 1999 – The UN-Backed Historical Clarification Commission (CEH) releases its report. The report is based almost exclusively on witness accounts and testimonies from victims and retired military and police officials. The report also relies heavily on declassified U.S. government documents released through the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Even without access to Guatemalan government records, the report is still able to attribute 93% of the human rights abuses committed during the conflict to government security forces. Human rights groups clamor for access to official government records from the war.

2001 – Guatemala’s advocacy groups produce the first access-to-information law (Ley de Acceso a la Información – 2594), and attempt to bring the proposal before Congress. The initiative for the law grew out of discussions between social organizations and government representatives from 2000-01. The law was presented before the Congress, but was never approved. [March-June 2006, World Bank publication]

June 2002 – Civil Society organizations led by Acción Ciudadana come together to form “Citizen Observation,” a new approach centered on using the constitution to monitor educate, and use amparo law against government officials who deny public information. [Citizen Initiative Publication]

December 6, 2002 – Guatemalan government creates the National Transparency and Anti-Corruption Commission, composed of representatives from the government and civil society. [World Bank publication]

2004 – Alfonso Portillo Cabrera flees to Mexico amid corruption scandals over diversion of public funds. Several of his cabinet members are arrested to face charges for embezzlement.

July 2005 – Officials from the Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos (PDH), the Guatemalan government’s human rights office, discover the national police archives. The shocking discovery of the files reveal the extent of the government’s secret files from the war, and reignites the transparency debate among human rights groups. [Read more]

December 2005 – President Oscar Berger creates a new transparency commission, passing a government article on access to public information: Acuerdo Gubernativo de Normas Generales de Acceso a la Información Pública de observancia para el Organismo Ejecutivo y sus dependencias – Acuerdo 645-2005. [World Bank Publication]

November 2007 – Álvaro Colom Caballeros is elected President in a close race against retired military General Otto Pérez Molina.

February 25, 2008 – President Colom announces that the military’s archives from the internal armed conflict will be declassified and made available to the public. He orders the creation of the Archivos de Paz, the Peace Archives, to house the military files and all government records from the war. Secretary of Peace, Orlando Blanco, is placed in charge of the declassification process.

June 8, 2008 – Guatemalan Vice President Rafael Espada meets with members of Congress and announces the urgent need to approve the information proposal amid growing government corruption scandals. [Press coverage of meeting]

June 23, 2008 – The Vice President travels to Washington DC to discusses Guatemala’s growing corruption issues and the need for greater transparency and an information law. He receives comments from other Organization for American States (OAS) members. [Press coverage of meeting]

August 2008 – President Colom institutes the Commission for Transparency to be headed by Vice President Rafael Espada. The primary goal of the commission is getting the information law passed.

September 24, 2008 – Guatemalan passes the Law for Free Access to Public Information (La Ley de Libre Acceso a la Información Pública) approved by 107 out of 158 members of Congress. [Guatemalan Congress press release]

October 2008 – Alfonso Portillo Cabrera is extradited from Mexico to face charges in Guatemala for diversion of funds during his presidency.

January 30, 2009 – Guatemalan vice President leads Delegation of 27 legislators and officials to meet with Mexico’s information oversight commission (IFAI) to discuss implementation of Guatemala’s law and the possible creation of an IFAI counterpart in Guatemala. [Read more on freedominfo.org]

February 25, 2009 – The Minister of Defense Abrahan Valenzuela turns over two of the four military documents ordered released by the Constitutional Court and the President

February 25, 2009 – The opening of the Guatemalan Peace Archives, Archivos de Paz, created to house the declassified government records from Guatemala’s internal armed conflict.

February 27, 2009 – Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos (PDH), Guatemala’s human rights prosecutor, passes a regulation that guarantees public access to the police archive documents.

March 3, 2009 – President Colom orders the creation of a new government commission to locate and declassify all the military files from the war. [News coverage of commission]

April 2009 – Guatemala’s information law set to go into effect.



freedom of information: further reading

Publications

Silvio René Gramajo, “Acceso a la Información en Guatemala–Experience de Sociedad Civil,” March 23, 2005.

Edgar Alfredo Pape-Yalibat, Citizen Initiative for Freedom of Information in Guatemala.

Guatemalan Human Rights Commission (GHRC). El Quetzal, Issue 2. March 2009.

Información Pública en Guatemala, Estado de la Situación del Acceso a la Marzo-Junio 2006.

Government of Guatemala, Reforma del Estado y Modernización de la Gestión Pública, October 2007.

Iduvina Hernandez, Asociación para el Estudio y Promoción de la Seguridad en Democracia (SEDEM), Ponencia presentada al Congreso de la Asociación de Estudios de Latino Américana (LASA), September 6-8, 2001.

Media Coverage

“Esperan calificación favorable en materia de transparencia,” El Diario de Centro América.

“Vicepresidente pide aprobar Ley de Acceso a la Información, Diputados dicen que buscarán aprobarla de urgencia nacional,” July 9, 2008.

Guatemalan Congress, Sixth Legislature, 2008 – 2012, “Congress Approves Access to Public Information Law,” March 19, 2008.

“Aprueba Legislativo de Guatemala Ley de Acceso a Información Pública,” El Financiero, September 23, 2008.

“Guatemala cuenta con ley de acceso a la información tras 10 años de debate,” September 25, 2008.

CERIGUA, “Guatemala ya cuenta con Ley de Libre Acceso a la Información, aunque entrará en vigencia en seis mes,” September 25, 2008.

“Vicepresidente pide aprobar ley de acceso a la información,” July 9, 2008.

“Ex-president of Guatemala extradited for corruption,” Reuters, October 7, 2008.

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LEGAL DOCUMENTS

Constitution (English)
Constitution (Spanish)
Free Access to Information Law (Unofficial English Translation)
Free Access to Information Law (Spanish)
Acuerdo Gubernamental (Spanish)
ORGANIZATIONS
Accion Ciudadana (Citizen Action, Guatemala)
BACKGROUND DOCUMENTS
English)

 

 

Measuring Openness

Global Right to Information Rating
A country-by-country rating of laws by the Centre for Democracy and Law and Access Info.

Freedom House
The Freedom in the World report.

World Bank
Worldwide Governance Indicators

Transparency International, Corruption Perceptions Index
Measures perceptions of the degree of corruption.

Reporters Without Borders
The Press Freedom Index.