Year
Author(s)Prison Insider

The penitentiary system

Overall, the prison facilities have a capacity of 6,742 places1. They consist of 22 correctional facilities, five for sentenced prisoners,and two high security prisons. The others are mixed.

Two facilities are exclusively for women and seven others are for men and women in remand detention.

The correctional facilities are delapidated and the infrastructure is in very poor condition. The most recent facilities were built in 2003, 2007 and 2010.

Prison authorities have not spent the budget of 300,700,000 quetzales ($40,671 US) allotted in 2013 and 2014 for constructing, equipping and enlarging the detention centres. The 20,000 quetzales ($2,705 US) allotted for improving the already existing infrastructure have not been used either2.

The Granja Penal de Pavón, which held 2,275 inmates in July 2016, is a penitentiary complex similar to a“university campus“ 3. It has a main street, called “Sixth Avenue”, with stores, restaurants, workshops, an auditorium, a church and sport fields4.

Police stations and army bases are used as detention centres.

In January 2015,1,678 people were detained in thirteen Civil National Police stations (Policía Nacional Civil, PNC). Among them,184 were convicted offenders. With the police stations having 845 places, the over-population rate is 200%5.

In 2010, the government converted several detention facilities in military barracks in order to place former government officials who were being investigated by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIC)6.

In June 2016, 195 former government officials were being held in the Mariscal Zaval military barrack for corruption offences. Because of the over-population, twenty of the inmates had to sleep in tents set up in Zone 17 and it was difficult to access potable water and other basic services.

To deal with the problem of over-population, the authorities have taken over the “Matamoros” military barrack to receive 32 prisoners. The site is known to have housed high-level government officials such as the Guatemalan ex-President Alfonso Portillo and former Vice-president Roxana Baldetti.


  1. According to the numbers of World Prison Brief on 2 December 2015

  2. Human Rights Ombudsman, Report of the PDH from the 54th Session of the Committee against Torture, February 2015, p. 31

  3. This is the Granja Penal the Pavón ” in Prensa Libre, 18 July 2016 (in Spanish)

  4. Insight Crime, “The Kaibil empire: the prisons of Guatemala under the yoke of Byron Lima”, 26 January 2017 (in Spanish)

  5. Police: 13 public prisons in eight departments hold 1,678 prisoners” in La Prensa, 4 January 2015 (in Spanish)

  6. Military barracks: correctional facilities or priviledge centres? ” in La Hora, 13 October 2014 (in Spanish)

The Guatemalan prison system is officially administered by the General Direction of the Penitentiary System (DGSP) and is under the Ministry of the Interior. In practice, two parallel prison systems co-exist, that of theDGSP and the one conducted by the Civil National Police (Policía Nacional Civil,PNC) in thirteen police stations which detain people for a long period of time. The DGSP holds a higher percentage of inmates than the PNC.

Multidisciplinary teams are responsible for accompanying inmates going through the various stages of progressive release (psychologists, social workers, medical specialists). The law states that every correctional facility (for those in remand or convicted) must have a multidisciplinary team. In practice, most of the teams must rotate around several centres.

In August 2016, there were 3,469 prison guards employed by the DGSP1.

There are 4,900 prisoners for 80 guards in the Preventive Centre for Men in Zone 18, or a ratio of 61:1. However, when inmates must go out to attend appointments, or got to the hospital, etc., the number of guards within the facility is reduced.

According to Gerardo Villamar, expert in the Human Rights Section of the Prosecutor’s Office (Procuraduría de Derechos Humanos), “in practice, a prisoner tends to act like he/she is co-habitating with all the others, because there is no State presence in the prisons”2.

In its 2016 report, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) pointed out that State officials are responsible for the acts of corruption and violence. For example, some of them accept bribes from the inmates who want to bring in weapons and drugs.

On 3 September 2014, as part of a Public Ministry operation, the Ministry of the Interior and the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (ICIG)conducted 15 raids and arrested seven people involved in a corruption network in Guatemalan prisons, including Edgar Camargo, who was the Prison Service Director at the time3.

The former army captain, Byron Lima, incarcerated since 2000 for killing Archbishop Juan Gerardi, was the head of this criminal network. Lima was the leading authority at the Pavoncito prison. He offered privileges to inmates in return for large sums of money, such as visit permits, transfers to other prisons, cell phones, drugs, etc.

In February 2015, the government presented a project as part of the 2014-2024 National Penitentiary Reform Policy (NPPR).The text indicates that the State recognizes it has lost control of the prisons, and acknowledges that they have become “schools of crime and symbols of corruption, danger, over-population, impunity, delinquence, uprisings escapes and human rights violations. This situation, it warns, could lead to a veritable humanitarian crisis and even threaten public safety.”4

The goal of the 2014-2024 NPPR is to respect the re-education and social reintegration purposes of the privation of liberty. Nevertheless, the2014-2024 NPPR will not have any budget allocated before the fourth year of its implementation, which limits considerably the accomplishment of the intended objectives. It is also expected that an outcomes evaluation will be conducted in the third year in order to decide if it will be appropriate, or not, to allot a budget for it.

The NPPR also points out that the work of prison personnel is “one of the most dangerous in Guatemala, given that since 2008, several attacks by fire arms resulted in the deaths of 47 guards”5.


  1. A jungle behind the bars of Guatemala” in El Mundo, 21 August 2016 (in Spanish)

  2. Insight Crime, “Rising attempt indicates lac of control in prisons of Guatemala”, 10 October 2016

  3. Guatemala prisons director Edgar Camargo arrested” on BBC News, Sept 3rd 2014

  4. Human Rights Ombudsman, 2015 Detailed Annual Report, p. 202

  5. Ibid., p. 98