December 10 is internationally recognized as the day of human rights, and 2023 has certainly been a mixed year for human rights in the Americas. In Argentina, the anniversary of 40 years of democracy coincides with the inauguration of a president and vice president who have sought to deny and minimize the crimes against humanity committed by the civic-military dictatorship.
Democratic backsliding has remained a problem across the region. This year has shown that when governments attempt to co-opt power, the people react in the streets, and security forces crack down — often with lethal consequences.
There have been some important victories, too. Argentina has continued to prosecute and convict members of the security forces who tortured, disappeared, and murdered victims during the 1976-1983 dictatorship. In September, Mexico’s supreme court decriminalized abortion nationwide. Former Bolivian President Gonzalo Sánchez de Losada, who fled to the United States after the 2003 “Gas War” protests in which the security forces killed an estimated 67 people, was ordered to compensate the families of victims in October after a 20-year legal battle.
The map below shows human rights issues that the Herald believes merit ongoing attention. Mouse over a country to view details.
We recognize that every situation of human rights violations merits its own dedicated approach, and they cannot all be compared with the same yardstick.
This document will be updated periodically to reflect developing situations.
Data visualization by Adrián Fernández
Democratic backsliding and authoritarianism
In Argentina, 1,204 repressors have been convicted of crimes against humanity in 337 trials for the atrocities committed during the last civic-military dictatorship, from 1976-1983. A further 16 trials remain open. Human rights defenders have sounded the alarm over the election of far-right President Javier Milei and his Vice President Victoria Villarruel. Villarruel in particular is well-known for defending repressors and campaigning to relativize and deny the atrocities from this period. Since their election, supporters have threatened opponents with images of a green Ford Falcon — a symbol of the dictatorship’s disappearances.
In Nicaragua, President Daniel Ortega and Vice President Rosario Murillo — who is also his wife — have ruled over the country’s descent into a full-fledged dictatorship, after state repression of protests starting in 2018 left hundreds dead and a sham election in 2021. In March, UN investigators concluded that the government had committed crimes against humanity, including murder and torture. Critics from all spheres of civil society have been jailed, and some have been stripped of their citizenship. Foreign journalists are not allowed to enter the country.
In Guatemala, the current government and attorney general launched a campaign of persecution against President-elect Bernardo Arévalo and his Vice President-elect, Karina Herrera, of the progressive Movimiento Semilla party, after they came second in June’s elections and then won the run-off in August. These include formally suspending their party. The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights granted Arévalo and Herrera precautionary measures after they received death threats.
President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador announced on November 29 that he plans to take a leave of absence to run for a second consecutive term in the 2024 election. The Central American nation’s constitution forbids re-election, Bukele’s critics argue, but the path was cleared by a friendly electoral court. His push for a second term comes as the country remains under a state of exception that has led to the mass arrest and imprisonment of thousands of people, especially young men from poor neighborhoods, in a bid to crack down on gangs.
In Venezuela, the top court suspended the results of the opposition presidential primary amid highly politicized accusations of electoral violations and financial crime. In early December 2023, the attorney general ordered the arrest of twelve opposition politicians. The developments could endanger the cautious thawing of relations between the authoritarian government of Nicolás Maduro and the United States under the Joe Biden administration.
Cuba remains an authoritarian one-party state. Protests in July 2021 in the context of a worsening economic situation, shortages of food and other goods, and the COVID-19 pandemic were met with a harsh police response, resulting in reports of forced disappearances and at least one death. The island nation has been subject to wide-ranging U.S. economic embargo since 1962, which worsens socioeconomic conditions.
Peru remains under the presidency of Dina Boluarte, who took office after leftist Pedro Castillo was removed from office in December after he attempted to dissolve congress. The security forces cracked down on protests over his removal, killing 49 civilians and injuring hundreds. In January, the attorney-general launched an investigation into Boluarte and her cabinet on charges of “genocide, qualified homicide, and serious injuries”. In late November, Attorney General Patricia Benavides announced charges against Boluarte in Congress — however, she announced the charges just hours after prosecutors accused her of corruption.
“We were able to demonstrate that there was a racist bias in the way protests were repressed in Peru,” said Ana Piquer, Americas director at Amnesty International. “The places where there were the most protester deaths coincided exactly with the regions of Peru with the largest indigenous population.”
The rights of women, girls, and diversidades
Since December 2020, Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico have legalized or decriminalized elective abortion, marking a feminist change of epoch in a region where the right to interrupt a pregnancy has long been harshly punished.
However, some countries are going in the opposite direction: in 2022, the US Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the ruling establishing abortion as a constitutional right, ushering in a barrage of highly restrictive abortion legislation in many states. By mid-2023, 14 states had near-total abortion bans. Piquer described the decision as “the most alarming regression” in reproductive rights. “It was a reference point for the region,” she added.
Other countries in the region maintain draconian bans: according to the Center for Reproductive Rights, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jamaica, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, and Suriname forbid the procedure even in cases of rape or to save the pregnant person’s life.
Nonetheless, there have been rays of hope this year, according to Paula Avila-Guillen, executive director of the Women’s Equality Center. Honduras overturned a ban on the emergency contraceptive pill on March 8, Mexico decriminalized abortion nationwide in September, and the US state of Ohio voted in November to amend its constitution to protect abortion access.
Cases working their way through the Inter-American court system could challenge absolute abortion bans, Avila-Guillen noted. These include the case of Beatriz, a Salvadoran woman who was denied a life-saving abortion for a nonviable pregnancy.
Gender-based violence remains high across the region and has been rising, according to both Avila-Guillen and Piquer. Migrant women are particularly vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking, noted Marisol Quinceno, regional advocacy representative for Latin America at Doctors Without Borders.
Race and Indigenous rights
In the United States, people of color, especially Black people, face widespread discrimination in many walks of life. Police killings, especially of Black people, are so frequent that in 2021, medical journal The Lancet described them as a public health issue.
Across the Americas, Indigenous people suffer from racism and discrimination. Governments and private companies routinely fail to comply with their duty to inform and consult Indigenous people about projects that will affect their ancestral lands. Illegal fishing, mining, and other extractive practices often encroach onto Indigenous land and those involved sometimes kill or threaten community members (see “Environment and land rights” below).
Indigenous women are vulnerable to sexual violence and struggle to obtain protection or justice because of racist treatment by the authorities, language and other cultural barriers, and transportation difficulties.
Haitians fleeing the humanitarian crisis face racist discrimination and say they have not been allowed to settle in other countries because of their race, according to Piquer (see “Migration” for more on Haiti).
Borders and border policing remain a significant cause of human rights violations across the Americas.
“In 2022, we have the figure that three people per day died or disappeared along the migratory routes of the Americas,” said Quinceno. “For migratory crises, DWB identifies borders as one of the most difficult places, because they’re right where populations are the most vulnerable. There, there’s no regular status, there’s no temporary permanence, people who are fleeing are passing through a place in a state of total vulnerability and that has many consequences for [their] health.”
Growing numbers of migrants are attempting to cross the Darién Gap, the mountainous, jungly wilderness on the border between Colombia and Panama. The days-long crossing is dangerous, and migrants are often involved in fatal accidents or suffer severe injuries en route. The territory is controlled by armed groups who may kill or kidnap migrants.
At the U.S.-Mexico border, migrants waiting to enter the U.S. live in dangerous and precarious camps. The Title 42 policy, which Donald Trump implemented to block migrant entry allegedly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, ended in May. The Migrant Protections Protocol policy, known as Remain in Mexico, requires asylum seekers to wait in Mexico until their US immigration hearing. Human Rights Watch notes that it “sends asylum seekers to face risks of kidnapping, extortion, rape, and other abuses” and violates their right to claim asylum.
A U.S. government app designed to facilitate customs and border processing is widely described as confusing and working poorly, according to Piquer. Migrants who attempt to cross by walking through the desert often die of exposure. In 2022, over 152,000 unaccompanied children were registered at the border — a record high. Most were teenagers, but some were just toddlers.
Venezuelans continue to leave the country in the face of the ongoing sociopolitical and humanitarian crisis. Colombia, Ecuador and Peru receive the most Venezuelan migrants. Countries in the region are increasingly placing a growing number of restrictions on their entry.
Haitians fleeing the grave humanitarian crisis in the Caribbean nation have in some cases been deported to Haiti with their children who were born in, and hold citizenship in, countries such as Chile.“They were deported in incredibly brutal conditions,” Piquer said. “They were deported in chains.” Haitians are also subjected to violence when they attempt to enter the U.S. “We have documented situations that could constitute torture in the way the U.S. authorities have deported them back to Haiti,” Piquer said.
Environment and land rights
Colombia is routinely listed as the most dangerous country in the world for land defenders: 60 environmentalists were killed there in 2022, according to British watchdog Global Witness. Conflicts often revolve around mining and other extractive industries. Multinationals from countries including the U.S. have been charged with financing paramilitary groups for killings.
Land defenders and peasant farmers are also routinely targeted in Honduras, especially in the Bajo Aguán region.
In Brazil in June of 2022, Bruno Pereira, an expert in Indigenous cultures, and Dom Phillips, a British journalist, were murdered in the Javarí Valley Indigenous reserve. Police have charged a man who allegedly runs an international illegal fishing network with masterminding the killing.
We recognize that human rights are a complex and contentious topic, and the Herald does not seek to account for all situations here. This piece will be updated periodically to reflect developing situations.