Femicide in Guatemala: The Double Burden of COVID-19

By Megan DeTura, Skevi Kambitis, and Valery Valdez Pinto*

Stop Femicide in Guatemala Banner/ Karen Eliot/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Women in Guatemala are facing a double threat of contagion and violence: the global COVID-19 pandemic and a surge in gender violence. Stay-at-home orders and quarantines have forced victims and perpetrators of domestic violence into close quarters, exacerbating the risk of attacks. While epidemiologists work to highlight the importance of public health data documenting waves of COVID infections, an already high level of femicides has yet to receive such attention. The Guatemalan government has not provided data documenting an increase in domestic violence reports, but women’s groups and NGOs report an increase in anecdotal accounts of attacks.

  • As early as last June, international organizations warned that, although stay-at-home orders offer an effective means of preventing disease transmission, they entail inherent risks for women, children, and the elderly. UN agencies and human rights organizations believe a surge in domestic violence is occurring and is not being reported due to the pressure on women to stay silent. With women’s shelters, community centers, and other “safe spaces” shut down due to COVID, indigenous and other women in Guatemala have few or no options to flee. NGOs are facing various programmatic obstacles as they attempt to restructure their work in Guatemala while observing public health precautions.
  • Femicide in Guatemala is a consequence of deep-rooted, historic factors. Legacies of a patriarchal and conservative culture have long diminished women’s rights, as men used gender-violence for submission and control. This practice was exacerbated during the country’s 36-year civil war, when violence against women was a weapon of intimidation and terror. Peace Accords signed in 1996 were supposed to end it and bring perpetrators to justice, but serious flaws in implementation have prevented women and indigenous groups from fully benefiting. Continuing violence in and outside the home and discrimination based on sex, ethnicity, and class have prolonged persistent socio-economic inequality for women, especially those of indigenous descent.

Legislation has failed to stem the violence against women. In addition to a 1996 Law Against Intrafamilial Violence, the Guatemalan Congress in 2008 passed the Law Against Femicide and Other Forms of Violence Against Women, explicitly recognizing femicide as a criminal offense. And with the passage of the Immediate Search for Missing Women Act in 2016, the state enhanced its domestic infrastructure to combat femicide, creating a DNA database and registries of missing women and perpetrators – efforts spearheaded by a National Search Coordinator.

  • The impact on the ground, however, has been marred by limited access to justice and high levels of impunity. The country’s 29 specialized courts for crimes of femicide are located in just 11 of 22 departments, with many staffed entirely by men. Women residing in rural areas face transportation burdens that limit access and present jurisdictional challenges. When a case is filed by the Public Prosecutor’s office, the possibility of conviction remains uncertain, as less than one third of femicide cases filed from 2014 through 2017 have resulted in convictions. Even perpetrators found guilty are now afforded greater leniency because a 2018 decision by the Constitutional Court gutted the once mandatory 25- to 50-year prison sentence.

While Guatemala is among the worst, it is not alone in its failure to take effective action against femicide and other violence against vulnerable groups. Femicide was recently highlighted in a study by the Pan American Health Organization, which also documented serious gaps in preventing violence against children and adolescents in the Americas. PAHO has also reiterated its call on public health systems in Central America to acknowledge their role in protecting women from violence during the pandemic.

  • Guatemala specifically has the means by which the administration of President Alejandro Giammattei could take action. Much of the epidemiologic infrastructure developed for COVID, for example, can be expanded to create a parallel system for the surveillance of femicide at the local, state, and national levels. NGOs already in close proximity to potential victims and their families could be strengthened to increase the prevention and punishment of violence against women and answer the Femicide Watch Call issued by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights last year. Much like the response to COVID as a public health challenge, only an orchestrated, multi-level response will curtail future outbreaks of violence against women from reaching epidemic proportions.

January 19, 2021

* Megan DeTura is a graduate student in Comparative Regional Studies and a research assistant at both the National Security Archive and American University’s Accountability Research Center (ARC). Skevi Kambitis is a graduate student in International Peace and Conflict Resolution and a research assistant at the United States Institute of Peace (USIP). Valery Valdez Pinto is a graduate student in Ethics, Peace, and Human Rights and a graduate assistant at CLALS.

Mexico and Central America: Taking Aim at Corruption in Pharmaceutical Procurement

By Thomas Andrew O’Keefe*

Secretary of Health Headquarters, Mexico City, Mexico / Diego Delso / Wikipedia, Not Modified / Creative Commons License

Under pressure to reduce the cost of medications and medical supplies, the governments of Mexico, Guatemala, and Honduras have resorted to an international facilitator to combat inefficiencies and a lack of transparency in medical procurement while attempting to build their own capacity to manage purchases and reduce related corruption in the future.

  • The Mexican government has been trying to obtain lower prices from manufacturers and distributors of patented or single-sourced medications and medical devices since at least 2008, when it created a Coordinating Commission to Negotiate the Prices of Medications and Other Health Inputs. A pooled procurement mechanism overseen by the country’s Social Security Institute (IMSS) was established in 2013 to purchase pharmaceutical products and medical supplies on behalf of various federal and state agencies. When President Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO) took office at the end of 2018, he labelled the Coordinating Commission as ineffectual and IMSS’ pooled procurement process as hopelessly corrupt – and terminated both. He consolidated purchasing authority for Mexico’s public health sector in the Secretariat of Finance and Public Credit, which also proved incapable of handling the task. To address widespread shortages throughout the country that were putting lives at risk, the Secretariat was signing contracts at exorbitant prices.
  • Last July, the AMLO administration executed an agreement with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS), a not-for-profit agency based in Copenhagen better known for implementing humanitarian and development projects. For 2021, the Mexican government is expected to spend some $4 billion to procure medications through UNOPS on behalf of federal entities and 26 of Mexico’s 32 states. UNOPS will reportedly net a 1.25 percent commission for what will be its largest single procurement project to date. In 2022, UNOPS will set up an electronic reverse auction system to conduct the bidding process with international suppliers.

Guatemala and Honduras reached out to UNOPS, with good results, years ago.

  • In 2014, UNOPS began assisting the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS) and Ministry of Health to establish a more effective and transparent procurement system for purchasing medications and medical supplies. After a year, UNOPS was able to procure medications at costs at 40 percent or more lower than what had previously been paid. Government funding remains a problem, but allegations of corruption in medical purchases have dropped sharply.
  • Following major corruption scandals at Guatemala’s Social Security Institute (IGSS), the Guatemalan government signed a contract with UNOPS in 2016 that involved both procurement and technical assistance to the IGSS to enhance transparency and strengthen its procurement processes. As a result, the Guatemalan government estimates the IGSS achieved an estimated 57 percent reduction in the prices of procured medicines and a 34 percent savings in surgical medical supplies and cochlear implants. The IGSS claims it was able to utilize these savings to, among other things, build new hospitals and extend health insurance coverage to more Guatemalans.
  • These experiences build on Guatemala and Honduras’ participation since 2010 in a mechanism overseen by the Council of Ministers of Health of Central America and the Dominican Republic (COMISCA) to jointly negotiate the prices of medications and medical devices for subsequent purchase by the public health sector in their countries.

Ensuring efficiency and reducing corruption in medical purchases will ultimately depend on the governments’ ability to reform their own systems, not on developing a permanent dependency on UNOPS or other international entities. UNOPS is scheduled to hand the entire procurement system over to the Mexican government in 2024. The recently created Mexican Institute of Health for Well-Being (NSABI) will initially oversee distribution within Mexico, but the AMLO administration has indicated that this function will eventually be taken over by a more specialized agency that will also have warehousing capabilities (including cold storage facilities).

  • AMLO signed an executive decree at the end of October that recognizes the health safety certificates issued by regulatory authorities in other countries as being equivalent to those issued by the Federal Commission for Protection against Health Risks (COFEPRIS) in Mexico. The decree also simplifies the process for COFEPRIS to issue certifications for the sale and consumption of all imported medications in Mexico. These moves are intended to undermine the ability of unscrupulous pharmaceutical firms to “capture” the regulatory approval process and thereby hinder competition.
  • The positive experiences in Guatemala and Honduras with UNOPS may encourage reformers in other Latin American countries, as just happened in Mexico, to look to the self- financing UN agency for assistance in clamping down on corruption, ensuring better management of the public health care sector, and implementing modern procurement systems to address the longstanding challenge of getting essential medical supplies to citizens who need them. The COVID 19 pandemic has made health a global priority and exposed serious deficiencies that no longer can be ignored. Without robust and equitable public health care systems, there is no sustainable economy.

December 21, 2020

* Thomas Andrew O’Keefe is president of Mercosur Consulting Group, Ltd. and lecturer with the International Relations Program at Stanford University.

Guatemala: Can the OAS Help Solve a Political Crisis?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Protest in Guatemala, 2015./ hrvargas/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, who has faced a number of challenges since his inauguration in January 2020, called in the Organization of American States (OAS) for help in the wake of last month’s protests over the 2021 budget, but the OAS’s impact was more negative than positive. As if the COVID pandemic, two tropical storms, and a series of corruption scandals weren’t enough, protests triggered by Congressional approval of the budget, which was plagued with allocations for corruption schemes and other anomalies, evoked the 2015 citizen mass demonstrations that brought down the government of President Otto Pérez Molina. Demands for the Giammattei’s resignation spread widely and became the main citizen demand: after only 10 months in office, the government was reeling.

  • Guatemala City’s Central Square was filled again with peaceful protesters, but a radical difference distinguished these from the 2015 protests. Away from the Central Square, small groups of individuals whom reliable sources have identified as infiltrators carried out violent acts, including setting the Legislative Palace on fire. These incidents were brutally repressed by the police, which brought back tragic memories of the civil war period. Two young boys lost an eye due to the police beating.
  • The crisis escalated even within the Government. The differences between Giammattei and his Vice President, Guillermo Castillo, deepened to the point that in a press conference the latter proposed that both resign, veto the budget, dismiss the Minister of the Interior and the police chief, and dissolve their highly controversial “Center of Government,” an entity headed by a close friend of the President that duplicated functions already assigned to ministries and state secretaries.

One of the government’s main responses was to invoke the OAS Inter-American Democratic Charter, based on an alleged coup threat. The OAS announced a mission to gather information and interview diverse Guatemalan sectors and actors. Right after the announcement, however, the lack of evidence of a coup d’état triggered distrust about the mission’s purpose.

  • Making things worse, the appointment of Fulvio Valerio Pompeo as mission head was not well received because, while serving as Strategic Affairs Secretary of Argentine President Mauricio Macri, he was directly involved in the failed sale of military aircraft to Guatemala last year. Almost immediately, the Guatemalan press highlighted this fact, feeding the perception that Pompeo might be seriously biased in favor of the government and against civil society, which had denounced the attempted plane deal. Moreover, OAS General Secretary Luis Almagro’s representative in Guatemala, Diego Paz Bustamante, and Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo are long-time friends. Brolo worked for Paz Bustamante in the OAS’s office in Guatemala in 2005-2011, further raising concerns of OAS bias in favor of the government. Due to this distrust, many civil society organizations, and even Vice President Castillo, declined an invitation to meet with the OAS mission.

An agreement earlier this month between the President and Vice President has moderated the crisis and reduced tensions. At a joint press conference, Giammattei announced dissolution of the Center of Government and assigned to Castillo control over the budget readjustment and reconstruction programs for storm damages. They also announced a review of the fitness of the Minister of the Interior and top police authorities to remain in their positions.

  • The Guatemalan crisis is far from over, and serious questions about the rationale for calling in the OAS – invocation of the Democracy Charter – and its response remain.  The OAS actions appeared based more on personal relations between its representatives and Guatemalan officials, particularly the appointment of someone with a clear conflict of interest stemming from the failed plane deal . Perhaps one lesson for OAS member countries from this latest round of Guatemalan convulsions is to think twice and carefully before asking for help from that regional organism, and to first use all local means to deal with an internal crisis.

December 16, 2020

* Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (Icefi).

Guatemala: Fiscal Challenges Await New President

By ICEFI and CLALS*

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei is sworn in, January 14, 2020

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei is sworn in, January 14, 2020/ US Embassy Guatemala/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://bit.ly/2GeHS0U

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, inaugurated on January 14, faces a deeper public finance crisis than previously estimated, putting even greater pressure on him to undertake fiscal reforms and start the slow and difficult process of fiscal stabilization and recovery.

  • The Giammattei administration has inherited a fiscal mess from former President Jimmy Morales, during whose four-year administration public spending on principal social needs didn’t surpass 8 percent of GDP (7.9 percent in 2019). Despite slow, slight growth in the education budget in 2015-2019 and a growing population, the number of students enrolled at the elementary and high school level actually contracted. Spending on health – in a country with half of its children suffering from chronic malnutrition, one of the lowest health service levels, and one of the highest infant and maternal mortality rates in the world – remained around 1 percent of GDP. The military budget under Morales, however, expanded considerably, allowing the Armed Forces to purchase weapons and a ship and to at least try repeatedly to buy military aircraft.

The fiscal situation is worsened by the persistent inability of the national tax authority (SAT) to achieve its collection goals for almost a decade, as well as by the array of amnesties and fiscal privileges approved by the National Congress in 2015-19. As a result, the Morales administration ran up fiscal deficits from 1.1 percent of GDP in 2016 to 2.5 percent in 2019 – accelerating the increase in the stock of public debt from 24.7 percent of GDP in 2017 to 27.0 percent in 2019 – Guatemala’s highest in recent history.

  • Making things worse, the debt was principally handled through issuance of Treasury Bonds sold on the national and international markets at terms – higher rates and shorter maturity periods – less favorable to the Guatemalan government. Last September Congress passed a law, supposedly to formalize cattle growers and ranchers (a sector well known for not paying taxes), that many observers say is so badly written that it opens the door to more tax fraud and even money laundering by powerful drug cartels. ICEFI and even some members of Congress note this has the potential to cause even greater revenue losses in 2020.

Budgetary pressures seem very likely to continue rising this year, further complicating the new president’s challenges. The Constitutional Court in late November ruled that the Executive Branch must correct the way it calculates the transfers that the Constitution requires the Central Government make to the municipalities, the Judiciary, the San Carlos University (Guatemala’s only public university), and the federated and non-federated sports institutions. If this ruling is confirmed, it will generate a huge increase in those organizations’ budgets, seriously exceeding the government’s current fiscal capacity by more than US$1 billion (1.2 percent of GDP).

  • ICEFI’s analysis shows that the only way for the new government to overcome the public finance crisis is to undertake far-reaching fiscal reform – revitalization of tax administration, a credible fight against corruption and tax evasion, and correcting budget priorities. For a government more inclined to pro-business and liberal economic thinking, such reforms may represent a considerable political challenge.
  • President Giammattei also inherited a difficult political situation from his predecessor, whose conflict with the UN-supported International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and whose alliance with persons widely believed to be involved in corruption further undermined popular confidence in the government. The new president will be judged harshly if he fails to demonstrate early on a commitment to fight corruption, increase transparency, and make government more accountable. Accusations that he himself has been involved in corruption are already arising. He faces these tough economic and political challenges – with diminished resources, fiscal chaos, and with the previous administration’s allies considerably strengthened – at a time that Guatemala can ill afford to continue to stumble from crisis to crisis.

January 23, 2020

* The Instituto Centroamericano de Estudios Fiscales conducts in-depth research and analysis on the region’s economies. Data and charts supporting this article can be found by clicking here. This is the fourth in a series of summaries of its analyses on Central American countries. The others are here, here and here.

Guatemala: Mortal Doubt and Transnational Gangs

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite (Guatemala, 2005) / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Central America’s maras, or transnational gangs, are symptoms of societies suffering from legacies of Cold War-fueled atrocities and authoritarian rule, misguided law enforcement policies, and long-term entanglement with U.S. culture and foreign policy. Feuds between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio18, the region’s most powerful gangs, have helped make the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) the deadliest non-combat zone in the world. My fieldwork in prisons, police precincts, and urban slums in Guatemala City and other cities since 2010 for Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City has mapped their dystopian evolution. The gangs are not the problem, and the problem does not begin or end with them. But they are important symbolic figures for societies struggling with out-of-control insecurity that have obscured the complex structural factors driving the countries’ extreme peacetime violence.

When they first took root in Central America in the 1990s, the maras were little more than disorganized groups of kids imitating Latino gangs in Los Angeles, vying for turf in cities struggling to recover from decades of authoritarian rule and extreme inequality. Over the years, they became brutal organizations engaged in extortion, contract killings, and the drug trade.

  • The gangs’ evolution was driven by histories of mass incarceration in both the United States and Central America, making them a symptom of these societies’ predilection to punish. In Guatemala, through the early 2000s, the gangs fought to survive behind bars against cadres of ex-military officers, the most powerful of which was led by Byron Lima, a U.S.-trained special forces Army captain convicted of a 1998 assassination of a Catholic bishop who had catalogued military human rights abuses in the Guatemalan armed conflict. The violence and deprivations of prison life, alongside the unprecedented coordination between gang leaders that being locked up together made possible, drove the gangs to become far more brutal and organized in their street operations.
  • Mara extortion rackets, among the most feared and despised criminal enterprises, are also emblematic of the symbiotic relationships between the state, law-abiding society, and the underworld in Guatemala. While maras are responsible for much of the extortion, they have in fact become a mask and a model for others profiting from it. Bus companies, private security corporations, corrupt police, and even Guatemala’s biggest banks play key roles in the extortion commodity chain.

Perhaps the most painful truth about the maras is that their rank and file are very young – primarily 10-18 years old – and the average age of recruitment is dropping. Youths are killing each other. A young man named Andy had killed and tortured for MS-13 since he was eight, when the gang adopted him after liquidating his family, who were members of a rival gang. In interviews, Andy struggled to make sense of the violence of which he was both victim and perpetrator by seamlessly folding fantasy and reality – swinging between made-in-Hollywood montages, mara myths circulated in newspapers, and actual acts of murder and torture. MS-13 found and executed Andy, who was in a witness protection program, less than six weeks after his last interview. Very real suffering is powerfully intertwined with bloody fantasy, and the dichotomies dividing innocent from guilty, good from evil, are often false. These are key lessons for understanding the maras and for effectively confronting the crisis of criminal violence in Central America that they have come to represent in such spectacular fashion.

May 23, 2019

* Anthony W. Fontes teaches international studies at American University. Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City was published by University of California Press. The book was winner of the William M. LeoGrande Award for the best scholarly book or article on Latin American or Latino Studies published by a member of the American University community in 2017–2018.

Guatemala: Is CICIG Dead?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Iván Velásquez and Jimmy Morales

CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez (left) and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales (right). / República / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and his political allies – the group of government officials, congressmen, judges, mayors, and entrepreneurs whom opponents call the Pacto de Corruptos that support his efforts to shut down corruption investigations by the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) – may be winning the current battle, but the war is not yet over.  Undoubtedly, the government has achieved some hits, trumpeted by Morales in speeches and in the victory celebrations of the newly elected Congress Directive Board that supports him.  CICIG’s opponents have:

  • Prevented CICIG Commissioner, Iván Velásquez, from entering the country, even after the Constitutional Court and Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, explicitly stated that he is free to enter whenever he wants.
  • Lobbied in Washington to gain U.S. support for Morales, exploiting access and friendships with U.S. Vice President Pence and other officials close to President Trump such as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. They have used the “Bidkov affair” – involving a prosecution instigated by CICIG and the Attorney General’s investigation into the purchase of false Guatemalan identity documents by a Russian family opposed to President Putin – to feed opposition to CICIG.  (Rubio accused CICIG of doing the Russian president’s dirty work.)  Morales and his backers have also used the decision to move the Guatemalan embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and other unrelated actions to punch important buttons within the Trump administration.
  • Achieved some progress in swaying Guatemalan public opinion through an anti-CICIG social media campaign aimed at stimulating nationalistic feelings and fueling the view that CICIG Commissioner Velásquez, a foreigner, went too far. They have even raised old Cold War flags, saying that Velásquez is a Communist and that the fight against corruption is a question of “red ideology.”
  • Consolidated their control over the Guatemalan Congress, securing enough votes to reject initiatives that would remove Morales’s immunity and allow investigations against him to proceed.
  • Further strengthened opposition to CICIG among factions of the private sector.

A more careful analysis, however, reveals cracks in Morales’s victory chariot.  He and some of his ministers are not only in grave danger of being charged with disobeying the Constitutional Court ruling; the Attorney General and CICIG have continued their work, albeit with a much lower media profile, and are producing results.  U.S. support for Morales’s efforts to destroy CICIG may diminish after Democrats take over the U.S. House of Representatives and begin scrutinizing his “impressive” claims about deporting ISIS terrorists from Guatemala and seizing drug shipments.  The U.S. Congress may now uncover an ugly truth: drug trafficking and migrant flows are increasing.

  • More importantly, Morales and his Pacto do not yet appear ready for elections scheduled for June-August 2019. (The new government will take office in January 2020.)  They are floating proposals for a constitutional amendment to allow for a presidential reelection, which would ensure them continued immunity, and to dissolve the Constitutional Court, or to make it a crime to criticize members of Congress.  Measures like these take a lot of time and energy.

The ferocity of Morales’s attacks against CICIG may not be fueled by confidence of victory but rather by a deep and desperate fear of justice after January 2020 – a basic survival instinct of people who know they have crossed a line.  The final outcome of all this will be, as it should, in the hand of voters.  The real issue for Guatemala might not be the fight between Jimmy Morales and CICIG, but rather between the Pacto and the huge number of voters beyond their grasp who are sick and tired of the corruption and impunity.  U.S. policy toward Guatemala has shifted from supporting CICIG and its efforts to investigate corruption and build Guatemalan institutions committed to the rule of law, to turning a blind eye in thanks for an apparently compliant ally and for completely unrelated reasons, such as the location of the embassy in Israel.  While Washington applauds the government’s (still unfulfilled) promises to stanch the northbound flow of migrants, it allows one of the biggest causes of migration – corruption and impunity at all levels of society – to continue unabated.

November 21, 2018

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

U.S.-Guatemala: Are Donald Trump and Jimmy Morales Brothers in Arms?

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Jimmy Morales and Donald Trump

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in February 2018. / Executive Office of the President of the United States / Wikimedia

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’ announcement last month that he would not reauthorize the joint Guatemala-United Nations anti-corruption commission to remain in the country apparently was made with confidence that President Trump would approve, or at least turn a blind eye.  Morales’ gambit followed months of public threats against the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has been investigating and prosecuting high-profile organized crime and corruption cases for over a decade.

  • His attempt to revoke CICIG’s authority and refusal to allow CICIG’s highly respected lead prosecutor, Iván Velásquez, to re-enter Guatemala after a trip to the United States are widely understood as intended to halt investigations into Morales’ own alleged illegal campaign financing during the 2015 presidential election. Even after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court – the nation’s highest judicial authority – ordered Morales to allow Velásquez entry, the president refused to budge.
  • Some U.S. politicians have joined in the international condemnation of Morales’ efforts – 23 members of the U.S. Senate and House wrote a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo asserting that he “must counter” the maneuver. But the Trump administration has remained largely silent; Pompeo in early September reiterated U.S. “support for Guatemalan sovereignty” – code for a hands-off policy – and, using words similar to those Morales has used in advocating dilution of CICIG’s mandate, announced his backing for a “reformed CICIG.”

Several explanations for Washington’s soft approach to Morales’ action have emerged.  Some pundits muse that the administration is repaying him for relocating the Guatemalan embassy in Israel to Jerusalem when the United States did.  Others opine that Trump fears pushing Guatemala into China’s arms amid reports that it will follow El Salvador’s recent decision to break relations with Taiwan.  Yet another, less strategic and more personal explanation might illuminate the equivocation – that Trump simply empathizes with Morales because they have a lot in common.

  • Both first emerged in the public eye as TV personalities. While Trump was building his brand on “reality TV,” Morales hosted a popular daytime talk show, where he became known for lowbrow comedic antics that included blackface.  In their campaigns, they fed on simmering discontent about the corruption of the political establishment, and trumpeted their lack of political experience as a prime reason to vote for them.  They both defeated the former first ladies of left-leaning presidents considered by large swaths of their electorates as corrupt.
  • More importantly, both presidents face far-reaching criminal investigations that have cast long shadows over their first years in office. Despite Trump’s vociferous denials to the contrary, the Special Counsel investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election has been a constant thorn in his side.  CICIG, whose investigations into former President Pérez Molina were pivotal to his arrest and impeachment, has represented an existential threat to the Morales administration since the day he took office in 2015.  CICIG’s work put his son and brother behind bars for fraud.  (Trump’s son and son-in-law are reportedly under investigation too.)  CICIG has doggedly pursued investigations against Morales and his supporters in Congress for illegal campaign financing, among numerous other charges.

The two presidents’ efforts to resist and deride the investigations into their activities expose perhaps the most striking (and disturbing) of their shared affinities.  To protect themselves, they appear willing to tarnish and undermine public institutions integral to democracy and law and order.  Trump attacks the free press and the FBI as “deep state” conspirators.  Morales has aligned with members of the Guatemalan Congress to give immunity from prosecution to politicians in office accused of a laundry list of crimes, contravening a fight against powerful criminal organizations embedded in government.  By violating decrees by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, Morales has placed his administration on a collision course with the nation’s constitutional order.

  •  The potential long-term damage to democratic institutions suggests that the “democratic wave” that swept across the Americas in the second half of the 20th century has crested. Under the Trump administration, the United States now risks becoming a beacon for anti-democratic politicians like Morales across the hemisphere, giving political cover and guidance to those who would hasten democracy’s demise for the sake of power.  The rule of law in liberal democracies is predicated on transparency and accountability – and is threatened by executive intimidation of institutional checks and balances.

October 2, 2018

*Anthony W. Fontes is an Assistant Professor in the School of International Service at American University.

Guatemala: Simmering Under the Surface

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Three people stand on a dias with Guatemalan flags in the background

New U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Luis Arreaga is officially welcomed to the country by President Jimmy Morales. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has survived the backlash against his efforts in August to shut down corruption investigations by the Attorney General and the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), but tensions remain intense.  Two days after Attorney General Thelma Aldana filed papers to suspend the President’s immunity from prosecution on campaign finance corruption charges in late August, Morales declared CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez “persona non grata” and ordered his expulsion from the country.  (The expulsion order was blocked by the Constitutional Court.)

  • On September 13th, more than two thirds of the Congress – driven by most of Morales’s party as well as opposition members accused of corruption – voted in favor of altering the Penal Code in ways that weakened accountability for all politicians (including Morales and themselves). Two days later, after massive protests akin La Plaza, the civic movement that achieved the removal of former President Pérez Molina and most of his administration in 2015, Congress backtracked.
  • The Morales Administration tried to curtail the CICIG’s activities again in October, when the Foreign Ministry renewed the Commissioner’s visa for one year with a stern warning to “refrain from interfering in the internal affairs” of the country. The Constitutional Court again intervened, ordering the Ministry to revoke the warning.

Despite the attacks, Commissioner Velásquez and Attorney General Aldana continue their efforts.  Last week Velásquez said publicly that illicit campaign finance is “the ‘original sin’ of the system of corruption that has captured the Guatemalan state … and the distortion of the democratic model.”  He and Aldana keep scoring points: former President Pérez Molina, his vice president, Roxanna Baldetti, and two dozen others were sent to trial last week on corruption charges originally brought to light by CICIG – the now-famous Customs corruption scheme called La Línea. 

  • They’ve also presented a new corruption case, nicknamed Pandora’s Box, which links Guatemala City Mayor and former President Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen with an illicit campaign financing network, speculation, misuse of public funds, and dirty business with former “King” of the Guatemalan prison system, Byron Lima Oliva. This news re-opened old wounds over issues such as the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera in 1998, when Arzú was President and Lima a member of the Presidential General Staff.  Arzú has been one of Morales’s most fierce defenders, so his travails hurt the President – even if it is uncertain that the Guatemalan justice system will withstand Arzú’s counteroffensive against CICIG, the Attorney General and La Plaza.

The arrival of a new U.S. Ambassador may be contributing to a momentary drop in open political warfare between reformers and corrupt politicians.  Compared to former Ambassador Robinson, incoming Ambassador Luis Arreaga has kept a low profile on the issue.  During his confirmation hearing last July, he restated “a commitment by both governments to fight corruption and build upon the successful efforts by President Morales, CICIG, and the Attorney General to end impunity.”  Since presenting his credentials in Guatemala last month, he has held familiarization meetings with a broad array of Guatemalan leaders in the executive, legislative and judicial branches, emphasizing the themes of friendship and partnership.  Meeting with Velásquez and Aldana together, he confirmed the “U.S. commitment to their efforts to fight corruption and impunity,” according to the Embassy’s website.  Arreaga’s honeymoon – during which he has the luxury of being friends to both reformers and their corrupt targets – will endure only until CICIG uncovers more blockbuster evidence of corruption or Morales, sensing his political support sinking with his credibility, tries to capture the hearts of other vulnerable politicians to further hem in the meddlesome reformers.

November 9, 2017

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

Guatemala: Anti-Corruption Still Losing Momentum

By Ricardo Barrientos*

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala looks upward

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala. / OECD / Andrew Wheeler / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), Attorney General, and civil society remain bulwarks in efforts to combat corruption and impunity in Guatemala – and occasionally score big hits – the Administration of President Jimmy Morales is slowly grinding them down and generating opposition to much-needed reforms.  In a speech at the signing of the National Development Agenda last month, the President attacked provisions in the law requiring transparency in public procurement and budgeting as counterproductive, while also lashing out at the judges, congressmen, general comptroller, and civil society leaders who support such measures.  He claimed on that occasion and others that anti-corruption measures have hindered his ability to govern.

  • The Morales Administration has not just complained; it has tried to remove anti-corruption controls. On July 14, CICIG and the Ministerio Público (MP) made the first of dozens arrests of persons involved in a corruption network run by former Communications, Infrastructure and Housing Minister (CIV) and potential presidential candidate in the 2015 elections, Alejandro Sinibaldi.  Three days later, the government responded to the case, known as “Corruption and Construction,” with a Presidential Decree declaring a “State of Emergency” on conditions of the nation’s roadways.  The order would allow the government for 30 days to sign new contracts and modify existing ones with companies involved in the scandal, including Brazilian contractor Odebrecht, free of all anti-corruption controls.  Congress not only rejected the Decree, but also impeached current CIV Minister, Aldo García, and forced him to take the blame for decrepit road conditions.

Despite such high-profile cases, Guatemalan anti-corruption advocates are concerned the MP and CICIG could still lose the war against corruption.  In addition, CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez has publicly lamented that structural reform – the Commission’s other mandate – has been too slow.  Last month, he said that “with current [circumstances] it is very difficult to defeat corruption and impunity.”  Some local observers believe that Velásquez’s focus on constitutional reforms to enhance the Attorney General’s powers is overly ambitions, and that other important initiatives are more attainable, but they acknowledge the generally hostile political environment he faces.  Advocates also believe that the Morales Administration is waiting out the term of fiscal general (attorney general) and head of the MP Thelma Aldana, who steps down next year.  The President even excluded her from his delegation attending a summit in June with U.S. Vice President Pence and Central American counterparts.

The strident complaints of some Guatemalans about U.S. support to CICIG and other anti-corruption initiatives has fueled perceptions that external support for clean government is more important than local demands for good governance – and coincided with a decline in the civic engagement that helped bring down the corrupt government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  Much attention in Guatemala City has focused on outgoing U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson and is now naturally shifting to the man confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 3 to replace him:  Luis Arreaga – most recently a deputy assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement – is a Guatemala-born naturalized U.S. citizen who, nominated to the post by President Trump in June, is expected to distance himself from the Obama Administration’s strong commitment to anti-corruption programs.  Even though Attorney General Aldana was bumped from President Morales’s delegation at the June summit, Pence publicly praised Morales’s “personal dedication” to fighting corruption.

August 21, 2017

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

Guatemala: Are Governments Missing the Story on Homicides?

By Steven Dudley*

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The special forces of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police (PNC). / Danilojramirez / Wikimedia Commons

A study of hundreds of homicides in Guatemala revealed major problems with authorities’ contention that “gang-related” and “drug trafficking-related” murders are at the center of the violence in that country, findings that complicate violence reduction programs in that country and elsewhere.  InSight Crime analyzed the murders in two areas: Zona 18 in Guatemala City, where 300,000 inhabitants live in what authorities designate a “gang area,” and the municipality of Chiquimula, a community of some 100,000, or what authorities call a “trafficking corridor.”  We also studied how police, forensic doctors, and government prosecutors gather and use information they gather during homicide investigations to clear cases or not.  It is less CSI and more creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucracy.

Key findings from the report include:

  • The confidence with which Guatemalan authorities attribute homicides to traffickers is not warranted by the available facts. In the trafficking corridor, we could reasonably attribute only 28 percent of the homicides to what we termed “organized crime-related” activities – significantly less than authorities normally publicly attribute to organized crime.  Drug trafficking, we believe, is an incorrect way of describing the dynamics behind this violence.  Another 38 percent of the cases lacked information to make a determination.
  • In the gang area, where Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) operate, we could reasonably attribute 41 percent of the homicides to gang-related activities – an estimate in line with what authorities say in Guatemala. Another 35 percent of the cases did not have enough information to make a determination.
  • Regardless of area, the widespread availability of firearms is a clear factor in the murder rate. An estimated 75 percent of all homicides occur at the end of a gun in Guatemala.  At 15.8 guns per 100 inhabitants, the country has the highest number of guns per capita in the region, according to World Bank data.  (El Salvador has 7.0 per 100, and Honduras, 6.2.).
  • Another theory to explain the level of homicides – that the more “indigenous” western highlands are less prone to violence than the more “ladino” eastern states – is in its infancy and beyond the scope of our study.

In both areas, the information from authorities was fragmented, disorganized, and sometimes missing altogether.  Reports are filled out by hand or typed into computers, but they are quickly buried in massive piles of data and are most likely erased or lost by the next person in that job.  Multiple, clashing bureaucracies operating on the different platforms and with different formats also have differing criteria for classifying data.  The low priority given to collecting and analyzing information, and poor training, seriously undermine authorities’ ability to understand the homicide phenomenon as well as resolve the homicide cases themselves.  Indeed, our observation is that the resources used to gather what are considered more politically salient statistics – such as the overall number of criminal acts in any one area – hurts efforts to resolve cases or give authorities the ability to analyze criminal dynamics.

The confusion between the sources of violence has a palpable impact on how money is allocated over the years.  The U.S. Congressional Research Service has estimated that 66 percent of the $1.2 billion that Washington disbursed under its Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) was “hard-side” assistance – aimed at attacking drug traffickers whose role in the murder rate we have assessed to be lower than previously thought.  Only 31 percent of U.S. aid was “soft assistance” – violence prevention, social and economic programs – that would address the more serious problem of gang violence.  The allocation of Guatemala’s own funding is harder to discern, but the Mano Dura tactics adopted by the Northern Triangle countries over the years have more resembled the militarized strategy against the drug traffickers, implementing various states of siege in affected locales (Guatemala), enacting “emergency measures” inside jails and in particularly troublesome states (El Salvador), and using the military police in numerous places (Honduras).  Aggressive police sweeps have, moreover, overcrowded prisons bursting with inmates in horrifying conditions.  While some of these programs may have helped slow the increase in homicides, our report clearly indicates that a deeper understanding of the problem – based on more rigorous collection and analysis of information on homicide cases – is necessary to evaluate and improve international and local strategies.  Especially if Washington cuts Northern Triangle funding, as it is widely reported to be intending, a smarter approach will require becoming smarter about the problem.

 May 4, 2017

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSight Crime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS.  The full report “Homicides in Guatemala,” funded by USAID and prepared with administrative support from Democracy International, is available here.