government: constitutional democratic republic
state of civil and political rights: Partly free
constitution: 14 January 1986, amended in November 1993
legal system: civil law system; judicial review of legislative acts
legislative system: unicameral Congress of the Republic (Congreso de la Republica)
judicial system: Supreme Court of Justice, Constitutional Court
religion: Roman Catholic, Protestant, indigenous Mayan beliefs
death row: 0
year of last executions: 29-6-2000
death sentences: 0
international treaties on human rights and the death penalty:
International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights
1st Optional Protocol to the Covenant
Convention on the Rights of the Child
Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment
American Convention on Human Rights
Inter-American Convention to Prevent and Punish Torture
The Guatemalan penal code (1973) provides for the death penalty for parricide,
aggravated homicide and assassination of the President or Vice-President.
Kidnapping and extra-judicial executions became capital offences in 1996, but
Guatemala could not apply the maximum penalty since, in 1978, the country had
ratified the American Convention on Human Rights, essentially pledging not to
extend the death penalty to other crimes after the ratification. The
Constitutional Court declared the law void.
On September 15, 2005, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights ordered Guatemala
not to execute any person condemned to death for the crime of kidnapping under
the current legislation.
Under the 1986 Constitution the death penalty cannot be imposed on women,
people over 60, those guilty of political crimes or related common crimes, or
people extradited on condition that the death penalty will not be applied.
Pardons to convicted criminals are no longer handled by the presidency, but by
the Supreme Court.
The country, which has emerged from a 36-year civil war, has seen its crime rate
escalate, and dozens of suspected criminals have been lynched in rural areas.
On July 27, 2002 Guatemala's then President Alfonso Portillo introduced a
moratorium on executions for the duration of his mandate up to 2004. The move
was made in response to a request by Pope John Paul II and was announced just
prior to his visit to the country. Portillo also proposed abolitionist
legislation to the country's National Assembly, but nothing came of this.
On May 3, 2005, a draft law was presented to Congress for the abolition of the
death penalty. The Congressional Commission on Legislation and Constitutional
Issues was given 45 working days to deliver their judgement on the draft law.
Seven months later, and despite international pressure, there still had been no
In 2003, the Supreme Court, which can also propose legislation in Guatemala,
sent a proposal to Congress to abolish capital punishment, but the bill was
never included on the legislative agenda. Current President Oscar Berger has
said he personally objects to the death penalty.
On February 12, 2008, Guatemalan lawmakers gave the president the ability to
pardon or commute death sentences, lifting a five-year hold on executions. The
law, approved 140-3, gave President Alvaro Colom the authority to decide
whether the more than 30 prisoners sentenced to death in Guatemala are executed
or have their sentences commuted to 50 years in prison, the maximum allowed
under Guatemalan law. On March 14, President Colom vetoed the bill. "If
(the death penalty) were a disincentive, we would reinstate it," Colom
said. "But we have studied cases in various states in the United States,
and it doesn't dissuade" crime. The Catholic Church and European embassies
openly opposed the law, saying it would violate human rights.
On 23 January 2012, the Criminal division of the Supreme Court of Justice reviewed
the cases of all prisoners under sentence of death in the country and commuted
to 50 years of imprisonment the death sentences of 53 prisoners. One person was
left on death row. The President of the Criminal division explained that the
decision was taken as the convicted prisoners had not been given the
possibility of an adequate defence and therefore due process safeguards had
In March 2012, the UN Human Rights Committee noted with satisfaction the
implementation of a moratorium on the death penalty in Guatemala since 2000, as
well as the commutations ordered by the Supreme Court, described above.
However, it expressed concern at bills introduced in 2010 and 2011 aimed at
resuming executions, and at the growing support for those bills. The Committee
urged Guatemala to consider abolishing the death penalty officially, and to
accede to the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR.
In 2015 no new death sentences were imposed and death rows were still empty at the
end of 2015.
The “humane” lethal injection
After a 13-year lull in executions, peasants Pedro Castillo and Roberto Giron were shot
by firing squad on September 13, 1996. They had been convicted of kidnapping,
rape and murder of a 4-year-old girl. This execution was botched and prison
guards were forced to finish off the men with pistol shots to the head, a
gruesome scene replayed hundreds of times on local television.
The Guatemalan Congress then adopted lethal injection, which was applied for
the first time on February 10, 1998 on farmer Manuel Martínez, who received a
deadly drug cocktail for slaughtering seven members of a single family.
The last execution in Guatemala took place in 2000. Two people, businessman Luis
Amilcar Cetin and farmer Tomas Cerrate, were put to death on June 29, 2000 for
the kidnapping and murder of businesswoman Isabel de Botran, whose family owned
the country's largest alcoholic beverage producer.
Guatemala is one of the last two Latin America countries to retain the death
penalty. The two people were executed on live television. They were the second
and third persons to die by lethal injection in Guatemala, and remain to this
date the last. Both executions were botched and the prisoners suffered
prolonged suffering. The macabre spectacle was replayed on Guatemalan TV
throughout the day.
The United Nations
On 24 October 2012, during its Universal Periodic Review (UPR) by the UN Human Rights
Council, Guatemala stated that no one was facing the death penalty in the
country, since all death sentences for the offences of kidnapping, murder and
rape were commuted to life imprisonment through special applications for judicial
review submitted by the Public Criminal Defence Institute. The commutations
were in line with the judgments in specific death penalty cases that had been
the subject of international litigation in the Inter American Court of Human
Rights. During the UPR Guatemala’s representatives supported recommendations to
ratify the Second Optional Protocol to the ICCPR, and to consider the abolition
of the death penalty in the country’s domestic legislation.
On December 18, 2008 Guatemala abstained on the Resolution on a Moratorium on
the Use of the Death Penalty at the UN General Assembly.
On December 19, 2016, Guatemala voted again in favour of the Resolution on a
Moratorium on the Use of the Death Penalty at the UN General Assembly.