Demonstrators take part in a protest demanding the resignation of President Alejandro Giammattei, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, November 21, 2020. © REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

(Washington, DC) – Guatemalan authorities should investigate and hold accountable security forces that responded with excessive force during the protests on November 21, 2020, Human Rights Watch said today. The response by law enforcement to individual acts of violence in any protest should not deny the majority of peaceful protesters their right to freedom of assembly nor violate other rights, such as protection against arbitrary detention or inhuman or degrading treatment.

On November 21, demonstrators took to the streets to protest the adoption of the 2021 budged by Guatemala’s Congress on November 17 after a summary and opaque process. The budget significantly cut social programs on malnutrition, education, poverty, housing, and health, as well as the budgets for the Judiciary and the Ombudsperson’s Office, which could seriously affect their work.

“Guatemalan authorities should conduct prompt, thorough, and impartial investigations into allegations of excessive force by security forces, in addition to violence by protesters, and ensure the right to peaceful assembly,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Americas director at Human Rights Watch. “Ensuring accountability is key to deterring future abuses by security forces and crimes in the context of protests.”

On November 20, President Alejandro Giammatei announced that he would not veto the budget approved by Congress.

In downtown Guatemala City, where protests were largely peaceful, local media outlets and the Ombudsperson’s Office reported excessive use of force by security forces, injuring at least 17 protesters. They were treated in Guatemala’s General Hospital on November 21. Two of them had eye injuries–one of whom will suffer permanent damage, the Ombudsperson’s Office said. Protests also extended to other cities and municipalities.

Some individuals acted violently in the context of the protests, vandalizing, looting, and destroying property, including setting the Congress building and furniture on fire.

At least 35 people were detained during protests in Guatemala City and other municipalities. On November 22, the Ombudsperson’s Office presented a habeas corpus petition on behalf of 23 detainees in Guatemala City, saying that they had been arbitrarily detained and attacked by security forces and needed medical attention. During a hearing held that day against nine protesters detained by the national police, the Prosecutor’s Office accused them of insulting police officers and breaking into the Congress building. The judge ruled there was no evidence implicating them in the crimes and released all nine. The remaining hearings are currently taking place.