Deciding Asylum: Challenges Remain As Claims Soar

By Dennis Stinchcomb and Eric Hershberg

asylum-blog-graph

Graphic credit: Nadwa Mossaad / Figure 3, “Refugees and Asylees 2015” / Annual Flow Report, November 2016 / Office of Immigration Statistics, Department of Homeland Security

The exodus of children and women from the three countries of Central America’s Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala – is accelerating, but information gaps and institutional flaws are obstructing asylees’ access to legal protections and hindering equitable decision-making on their claims in the United States.  The United Nations has recorded a nearly five-fold increase in Northern Triangle citizens seeking asylum in the United States since 2008, a trend driven largely but not exclusively by a spike in child applicants.

  • Legal scholars agree that high-quality, verifiable data on forms of persecution experienced by migrants in their home countries better equip attorneys to establish legitimate asylum claims and inform the life-transforming decisions by U.S. immigration judges and asylum officers.  Accumulating evidence also indicates that deeper systemic challenges to transparent, unbiased processing and adjudication of asylum claims remain, with grave consequences for the wellbeing of Central American migrants with just claims for protection under international and U.S. law.

In a December hearing before the Inter-American Commission for Human Rights (IACHR), advocates presented immigration court data from U.S. jurisdictions dubbed “asylum-free zones” – large swaths of the map where low asylum approval rates prevail.  In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, U.S. government data show that 98 percent of asylum claims were denied in Fiscal Year 2015; in Charlotte, North Carolina, 87 percent were rejected – far above the national average of 48 percent.  The month before, the highly respected U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a scathing report, citing variations in application outcomes across immigration courts and judges.  (See full report for details.)  Attorneys and advocates refer to this phenomenon as “refugee roulette,” an arbitrary adjudication process further complicated by the fact that many asylees’ fate is determined by Customs and Border Protection (CBP) officers who function as gatekeepers to the asylum system.  Border Patrol is an increasingly militarized cadre of frontline security officers whose members took the remarkable and unprecedented decision to publicly endorse the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump.

Accurate information on the conditions asylees face in their native countries is fundamental to getting fair treatment in the United States.  The barriers to due process and disparities in asylum outcomes have long been sources of concern, and the systemic flaws – and politicization of CBP processes – raise troubling questions about screener objectivity and the degree to which prevailing U.S. screening procedures conform to international norms.  That asylum claims made by many Central Americans are first considered by officers of institutions whose primary responsibility is to deport undocumented persons, rather than to protect refugees, signals a glaring misallocation of responsibilities.  The U.S. failure to accurately and efficiently adjudicate claims at all levels of the discretionary chain – from frontline officers to immigration judges – also undermines efforts to promote fair treatment of intending migrants elsewhere in the hemisphere.  Mexico’s overburdened refugee agency COMAR, for example, continues to struggle to provide requisite protections, even while reporting a 9 percent increase in applications each month since the beginning of 2015.  Meanwhile, the UN reports steady increases in applications in Belize, Nicaragua, Costa Rica, and Panama.  Citizens of the Northern Triangle states who have legitimate grounds for seeking protection as refugees stand the most to lose, but the consequences of institutional failure in the U.S. and neighboring countries’ asylum systems reverberate beyond individuals and families.  With virtually no government programs to reintegrate deported migrants, growing numbers of displaced refugees returned to Northern Triangle countries ill-equipped to receive and protect them will further complicate efforts to address root causes of migration throughout the region.

January 19, 2017

A workshop on Country Conditions in Central America & Asylum Decision-Making, hosted by CLALS and the Washington College of Law, with support from the National Science Foundation, examined how social science research on conditions in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras can assist in bridging the gap between complex forms of persecution in the region and the strict requirements of refugee law.

This material is based upon work supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant No. 1642539. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

2017: Happy New Year in Latin America?

By Eric Hershberg and Fulton Armstrong

posse_de_michel_temer_3

Brazilian President Michel Temer surrounded by members of his party in mid-2016. His government will continue to face questions of legitimacy in 2017. / Valter Campanato / Agência Brasil / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

The year 2016 laid down a series of challenges for Latin America in the new year – not the least of which will be adapting to a radically different administration in Washington.  Last year saw some important achievements, including an elusive peace agreement in Colombia ending the region’s oldest insurgency.  Several countries shifted politically, eroding the “pink tide” that affected much of the region over the past decade or so, but the durability and legitimacy of the ensuing administrations will hinge on their capacity to achieve policy successes that improve the well-being of the citizenry.  The legitimacy of Brazil’s change of government remains highly contested.  Except in Venezuela, where President Maduro clung to power by an ever-fraying thread, the left-leaning ALBA countries remained largely stable, but the hollowing out of democratic institutions in those settings is a cause for legitimate concern.  Across Latin America and the Caribbean, internal challenges, uncertainties in the world economy, and potentially large shifts in U.S. policy make straight-line predictions for 2017 risky.

  • Latin America’s two largest countries are in a tailspin. The full impact of Brazil’s political and economic crises has yet to be fully felt in and outside the country.  President Dilma’s impeachment and continuing revelations of corruption among the new ruling party and its allies have left the continent’s biggest country badly damaged, with profound implications that extend well beyond its borders.  Mexican President Peña Nieto saw his authority steadily diminish throughout the course of the past year, unable to deal with (and by some accounts complicit in) the most fundamental issues of violence, such as the disappearance of 43 students in 2014.  The reform agenda he promised has fizzled, and looking ahead he faces a long period as a lame duck – elections are not scheduled until mid-2018.
  • The “Northern Triangle” of Central America lurches from crisis to crisis. As violence and crime tears his country apart, Honduran President Hernández has devoted his energies to legalizing his efforts to gain a second term as president.  Guatemala’s successful experiment channeling international expertise into strengthening its judicial system’s ability to investigate and prosecute corrupt officials is threatened by a weakening of political resolve to make it work, as elites push back while civil society has lost the momentum that enabled it to bring down the government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  El Salvador, which has witnessed modest strides forward in dealing with its profound corruption problems, remains wracked with violence, plagued by economic stagnation, and bereft of decisive leadership.
  • Venezuela stands alone in the depth of its regime-threatening crisis, from which the path back to stability and prosperity is neither apparent nor likely. The election of right-leaning governments in Argentina (in late 2015) and Peru (in mid-2016) – with Presidents Macri and Kuczynski – has given rise to expectations of reforms and prosperity, but it’s unclear whether their policies will deliver the sort of change people sought.  Bolivian President Morales, Ecuadoran President Correa, and Nicaraguan President Ortega have satisfied some important popular needs, but they have arrayed the levers of power to thwart opposition challenges and weakened democratic institutional mechanisms.
  • As Cuban President Raúl Castro begins his final year in office next month, the credibility of his government and his successors – who still remain largely in the shadows – will depend in part on whether the party’s hesitant, partial economic reforms manage to overcome persistent stagnation and dissuade the country’s most promising professionals from leaving the island. Haiti’s President-elect Jovenel Moise will take office on February 7 after winning a convincing 55 percent of the vote, but there’s no indication he will be any different from his ineffective predecessors.

However voluble the region’s internal challenges – and how uncertain external demand for Latin American commodities and the interest rates applied to Latin American debt – the policies of incoming U.S. President Donald Trump introduce the greatest unknown variables into any scenarios for 2017.  In the last couple years, President Obama began fulfilling his promise at the 2009 Summit of the Americas in Trinidad and Tobago to “be there as a friend and partner” and seek “engagement … that is based on mutual respect and equality.”  His opening to Cuba was an eloquent expression of the U.S. disposition to update its policies toward the whole region, even while it was not always reflected in its approach to political dynamics in specific Latin American countries.

 Trump’s rhetoric, in contrast, has already undermined efforts to rebuild the image of the United States and convince Latin Americans of the sincerity of Washington’s desire for partnership.  His rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – more categorical than losing candidate Hillary Clinton’s cautious words of skepticism about the accord – has already closed one possible path toward deepened ties with some of the region’s leading, market-oriented economies.  His threat to deport millions of undocumented migrants back to Mexico and Central America, where there is undoubtedly no capacity to handle a large number of returnees, has struck fear in the hearts of vulnerable communities and governments.  The region has survived previous periods of U.S. neglect and aggression in the past, and its strengthened ties with Asia and Europe will help cushion any impacts of shifts in U.S. engagement.  But the now-threatened vision of cooperation has arguably helped drive change of benefit to all.  Insofar as Washington changes gears and Latin Americans throw up their hands in dismay, the region will be thrust into the dilemma of trying to adjust yet again or to set off on its own course as ALBA and others have long espoused.

 January 4, 2017

Guatemala: Cheers for Trump?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

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Iván Velásquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Velásquez and his team face a difficult task of bolstering Guatemalan anti-corruption efforts. / US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala have suffered serious setbacks in recent months, and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president appears likely to hurt them further.  A number of media reports have already documented that efforts by right-wing Army veterans accused of crimes against humanity during the civil war, politicians, and campaign financiers are seriously threatening anti-corruption efforts started in 2015, which swept former President Pérez Molina from office.  President Jimmy Morales, who campaigned that he was “neither corrupt, nor a thief,” has failed to fulfill voters’ mandate to fight corruption, and instead has allowed Army friends to dominate his administration.  Called la juntita, Morales’s closest advisors are former military officers who operate in the shadows, are widely suspected of crimes against humanity during the war, and are alleged to be using their influence for personal enrichment.

  • The Supreme Court and Congress are also under pressure. Numerous media reports point to members of the Supreme Court, including its President, being tainted.  One magistrate, whose son has already been convicted of illicit use of public funds, is widely suspected as well.  In the legislature, the election of a new Directive Board increased the power of members long suspected of links with the mafias.  (Some local observers speculate that the internal voting was conducted on the U.S. Election Day because U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson, an advocate of anti-corruption initiatives, and his staff would be too busy to care about what was going on in the Guatemalan Congress.)

With the Central Square in Guatemala City empty and only memories remaining of the citizen mass demonstrations of 2015, the last line of defense against the “re-capture” of the Guatemalan State are Iván Velásquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana.  They have already started investigations and are prosecuting corrupt members of Congress, including members of the new Directive Board.  U.S. government support has been crucial.  Ambassador Robinson may have crossed the thin line between active diplomacy and intervention at times, but many observers note that – quite unusual in Latin America for a U.S. ambassador – he enjoys strong support and sympathy from Guatemalans, and he is disliked by the Army veterans and others who are part of what in Guatemala is known as the “old politics.”

Corrupt Guatemalans appear to believe that their first hope – to neutralize the U.S. Embassy – moved one step closer to reality with the election of Donald Trump last week.  Politicians and commentators opposed to U.S. support for CICIG celebrated.  One proclaimed that “Democrats shriek; Republicans vote,” while another interpreted the message of Trump’s victory for Ambassador Robinson: “You’re fired!”  The mafias would not expect a Trump Administration to support them, but rather – interpreting the President-elect’s campaign statements – simply adopt a policy of indifference toward Guatemala and its internal affairs.  The corruption networks of the “old politics” in Guatemala hope that Trump will stay focused on nothing in Latin America except stopping migration.  Analysts who say that everyone in Latin America is regretting Trump’s victory are wrong.  Trump’s election may help the corrupt win a battle or two, but the war against corruption in Guatemala is far from over.

November 18, 2016

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

Latin America: Wait-and-See Reaction to Trump – For Now

By Catie Prechtel and Carlos Díaz Barriga*

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An effigy of Donald Trump in Mexico City. / Sequence News Media / Daniel Becerril / Wikimedia / Creative Commons

Most Latin American leaders publicly reacted with caution to Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump’s victory in last week’s U.S. elections, but reactions will sharpen quickly if Trump tries to make his campaign rhetoric about the region and Latino immigrants into policy.  Mexico and Central America showed clear anxiety over the implications for their economies and regional migration pressures.  Some South American presidents expressed mild enthusiasm and voiced hope for a positive relationship with the new administration, although Trump’s avowed opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade accord – under discussion at the APEC summit in Lima this week – has fueled concerns about the future of free trade.  Fear that the new U.S. President, who takes office on January 20, will deport millions of undocumented migrants from Mexico and Central America and force U.S. firms to shut factories in those countries has seized the media there.

  • Mexican newspapers headlines screamed “Be afraid!” and warned of a “Global shakedown.” Reports recited the many promises Trump had made against Mexico, including his proposal to build a border wall (and make Mexico pay for it); revising NAFTA and raising taxes on Mexican imports, putting conditions on remittances, and charging more for visas. The peso suffered three consecutive days of losses before recovering slightly following interviews by Trump and his team suggesting a softer stand on the wall and free trade.  President Peña Nieto phoned Trump with congratulations and agreed to meet soon to discuss bilateral issues, including presumably the wall.
  • Guatemala’s Prensa Libre reported businessmen are worried Trump’s rejection of free trade could have a direct impact on the economy and described the possible mass deportations as a “social bomb” for the country. In Nicaragua, newspapers speculated that Trump’s victory will give a boost to U.S. legislation, the Nicaragua Investment Conditionality Act (NICA), which calls for economic sanctions if President Daniel Ortega doesn’t take “effective steps” to hold free and fair elections.  In El Salvador, the main concern is the deep economic stresses of mass deportations of Salvadorans in the United States.  Honduras shares those concerns but apparently was more wrapped up in President Juan Orlando Hernández’s announcement confirming his intention to make a controversial bid for reelection.
  • Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro, often given to bombastic rhetoric, has focused on working with Washington in the closing months of the Obama Administration. In a phone conversation with Secretary of State John Kerry, he stressed the need to establish an agenda with the next administration that favors bilateral relationships, but he specifically called on Obama to “leave office with a message of peace for Venezuela” and rescind a determination that Venezuela is a “threat to the United States.” Obama himself last April said the designation was exaggerated.
  • Media in Colombia speculated that Trump will be less committed to aid and support for finalizing and implementing a peace accord with the FARC. Argentina, Brazil, and Chile offered calm reactions to the news.  For Buenos Aires and Santiago, the biggest concern was potentially strained commercial relationships and free trade agreements with the United States, according to press reports.  Brazil offered little reaction to the news, but Trump’s win brought four consecutive days of losses for the real – weakening 7.6 percent since the election.

The political leaders’ cautious reactions conceal a broad and deep rejection for President-elect Trump’s values and intentions as he stated them during the campaign.  Former Mexican President Vicente Fox once again tweeted his disapproval for Trump, while José Mujica, former President of Uruguay, expressed dismay on Twitter, summing up the situation in one word: “Help!”  Press reports and anecdotal information indicate, moreover, that large segments of Latin American society have shown a widespread distaste for Trump’s win.  Their general wait-and-see attitude will end when and if Trump proves himself the unpredictable and reactionary he seemed on the campaign trail.  Latin American leaders have a lot of work ahead as they navigate a new relationship with the United States.

November 15, 2016

* Catie Prechtel and Carlos Díaz Barriga are CLALS Graduate Assistants.

Latin America Sees Little That’s “Great” about U.S. Caudillo

By Aaron T. Bell*

Trump Latin America

Photo Credit: Maialisa/Pixabay/Public Domain (modified) and NASA/Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

Donald Trump’s presumptive nomination as the Republican Party’s candidate for president is raising fears among Latin Americans that the United States could close the door on them, while also provoking self-reflection about the region’s own potential to produce a Donald of its own.  Mexico has borne the brunt of Mr. Trump’s hostility for “beating us economically” and “sending people that have a lot of problems.”  He has proposed imposing steep tariffs on Mexico, restricting its access to visas, and forcing it to pay for a border wall.  Gustavo Madero, former president of the Partido Acción Nacional, denounced him as a “venom-spitting psychopath,” while members of Mexico’s Partido de la Revolución Democrática organized a social media campaign – #MXcontraTrump – to rebut Mr. Trump’s attacks.  Mexican President Peña Nieto has pledged to stay out of U.S. electoral politics and work with whomever is elected, but he rejected any notion that Mexico would pay for a wall and compared Mr. Trump’s rhetoric to Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini’s.  In addition to initiating a public relations campaign to promote the positive effects of U.S.-Mexican relations, Peña Nieto replaced his ambassador to the United States, who was criticized for soft-pedaling Mr. Trump’s comments, with Carlos Sada, an experienced diplomat with a reputation for toughness.

Other nations have joined in the criticism while looking inward as well:

  • Latin American critics have compared Trump’s populism to that of Venezuelan Presidents Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro, and former Argentine President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. In Colombia, a member of the Partido Verde described former President Álvaro Uribe’s call for civil resistance to peace negotiations with the FARC as a “Donald Trump-like proposal.”  In Lucia, Prime Minister Kenny Anthony accused opposition leader Allen Chastenet of “fast becoming the Donald Trump of St. Lucian politics” for resorting to the “politics of hate and divisiveness.”
  • While worrying what might happen if immigrants to the United States are forced to return home, the editorial page of Guatemala’s La Hora has raised the issue of the long-term wisdom of relying on remittances. Meanwhile Argentina’s Nueva Sociedad used attention to Trump’s immigrant comments to analyze restrictive immigration policies within Latin America.
  • Some political observers see Mr. Trump’s rise as a warning of the danger of divisive politics. In Colombia’s El Tiempo, Carlos Caballero Argáez wrote that polarization and anti-government discourse in Washington paved the way for a “strong man” like Trump, and cautioned that something similar could happen in Colombia.  In El Salvador, Carlos G. Romero in La Prensa Gráfica attributed Trump’s success to his ability to connect with the working class, and warned that his country’s own parties risk facing a Trump lest they make similar connections.

Much of Latin America’s take on Trump mirrors that of opponents in the United States: they recognize that his support reflects the frustration of those who feel cut out from the benefits of globalization and ignored by political elites of all stripes; they reject his anti-immigrant and misogynistic comments; and they fear that someone with seemingly little depth on global politics may soon be the face of a global superpower.  While the region hasn’t exactly surged in its appreciation for President Obama’s leadership over the past seven years, Trump’s popularity reminds them that many Americans have less appealing values and principles, which could result in policies harmful to the region.  Latin Americans know of what they speak.  One need not look too far into the past to see the catastrophic effects of simplistic, nationalistic, strong-man policies on the people of Latin America.

 June 21, 2016

* Aaron Bell is an adjunct professor in History and American Studies at American University.

Correction 2016.06.22: Gustavo Madero is the former president of Mexico’s PAN, currently headed by Ricardo Anaya.

Hope Fading for Guatemalan Spring

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Jimmy Morales

Photo Credit: Publinews Guatemala / YouTube / Creative Commons

The high hopes created by Guatemala’s peaceful, democratic change of government last year are hitting the shoals of reality.  Guatemalans managed a major political crisis in 2015 in an exemplary way: massive citizen demonstrations against authorities accused of corruption lasted four months without a single incident of violence.  Acceptably free and fair elections took place just three days after disgraced President Pérez Molina resigned, and a transition government was formed as mandated by the Constitution to govern until Jimmy Morales, the new Guatemalan President, was sworn in on January 14.  Although lacking experience, a cabinet, and a plan, Morales inspired confidence with a very good slogan (that he was “neither corrupt, nor a thief”) and good communication skills honed as a former TV comedian.  Voters had rejected and punished the “old politics” and felt hope that honesty would prevail.

Since Morales took office, however, serious mistakes have caused confidence to dim.

  • His reluctance or inability to answer questions from journalists and to refrain from underestimating audiences by telling silly jokes and childhood stories are raising concerns among observers of an emerging authoritarian personality.
  • Secrecy surrounding his cabinet selection process has led to missteps. His Minister of Communications, Infrastructure, and Housing was forced to resign after just 11 days in office – in the face of evidence of tax fraud and a serious conflict of interest.
  • His first approach to Congress was only to reverse the position on 2016 public debt cuts that his representatives advocated last November. Asking Congress to reduce debt proved popular back then, but now transfers to the Public Prosecutor Office or to the public university can be made only if the original debt amount is restored by Congress.  That condition is not only unpopular; it risks hampering the effort to prosecute corruption.
  • Instead of asking Congress for an urgently needed budget increase to solve ongoing shortages of medicines and equipment in public hospitals and clinics – almost a humanitarian tragedy, he accepted pharmaceutical company donations of expired medications – in a deal redolent of past corruption.
  • Morales’s political party, Frente de Convergencia Nacional (FCN), has grown substantially in Congress by receiving “turncoat” congressmen, directly contradicting an important campaign promise. “Turncoating,” jumping from party to party in Congress (always for a “price”), is one of the practices condemned in 2015 as part of the “old politics” and was strongly rejected by voters who trusted Morales.  The Public Prosecutor Office has received complaints denouncing bribes, government jobs, and contracts offered to “turncoats” now affiliating with the FCN.

Events in Guatemala over the past year present a huge contrast with what the country was a couple of decades ago – triumph for a society deeply marked by civil war, poverty, and brutal inequality, with the fresh hope of a new democratic spring.  Jimmy Morales appears to be squandering a historic opportunity to harness this democratic momentum.  Voters who set aside concerns about his links to right-wing Army veterans accused of crimes against humanity during the civil war could soon feel deceived because the “old politics” is still in place.  Guatemala’s democratic spring may fade before it blooms, sowing the seeds of crisis and instability in the future.

February 22, 2016

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

Tax Reform or Governance Revolution?

By Andrew Wainer*

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: Reuniones Anuales GBM / Flickr / Creative Commons

Taxation to fund development is becoming central to U.S. foreign assistance policy, but it would be a mistake for USAID and other foreign assistance agencies to view tax reform solely through the technical lens of financing for development.  In September, USAID Assistant Administrator Alex Thier penned an article subtitled, “Why Taxes Are Better than Aid.”  This follows the announcement in July of the Addis Tax Initiative at the UN Financing for Development Conference, where the United States and other donors pledged to double the amount of technical assistance for taxation in developing nations.  By most accounts, the potential fiscal benefit of increasing taxation –“domestic resource mobilization” (DRM) in development parlance – is huge.  The World Bank and International Monetary Fund estimate that in 2012 DRM in emerging and developing nations generated a combined $7.7 trillion.  This dwarfs average annual foreign assistance outlays, which in recent years have averaged about $135 billion.  One of many examples cited by USAID is El Salvador, where a $660 million increase in annual tax revenues has been channeled to health, education, and social services, as well as other development programs.

The issues of fair and transparent taxation are often a secondary component in discussions of DRM but – as events in Guatemala and elsewhere demonstrate – can also generate revolutionary transformations in governance.   Even as U.S. agencies emphasize the technical side of DRM assistance, organizations that monitor taxation are sparking historic citizen revolutions through revelations of governmental tax corruption.

  • The UN-sponsored International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) was created in 2006 to strengthen the rule of law through “investigation of crimes committed by members of illegal security forces and clandestine security structures.” But it was CICIG’s revelations of a customs tax corruption network that brought 100,000 Guatemalans into the street in a single day.  The protests led to the forced resignation and jailing of President Pérez Molina as well as a surge in citizen engagement unseen in the country’s modern history.

The intimate link between taxation and governance should be a central factor in how the U.S. government and others think about DRM.  As the OECD states, “The payment of tax and the structure of the tax system can deeply influence the relationship between government and its citizens.”  DRM should place a high premium on the governance impact of tax reform, where appropriate.  Tax reform not only increases government revenues, but as the case of Guatemala demonstrates, it can also strike at the heart of ossified structures of governance and can spark revolutionary changes in the relationship between citizens and states.   

November 12, 2015

* Andrew Wainer is the Director of Policy Research in the Public Policy and Advocacy Department of Save the Children USA.

Is a “CICIH” the answer to Honduras’ Crisis?

By Fulton Armstrong and Eric Hershberg

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Photo Credit: US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

The success of the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) in driving anti-corruption efforts there – culminating in the resignation of President Pérez Molina – has stoked debate in neighboring Honduras on the wisdom of creating a “CICIH” with the same mission to root out the rot that permeates state institutions and perpetuates the misery of the citizenry.  President Juan Orlando Hernandez has stated categorically that no such entity is needed in Honduras given advances in the country’s own institutions and his own putative commitment to good governance.  Some civil society organizations are at least implicitly concurring by taking part in accountability initiatives involving collaboration with the government.  Other voices from civil society are objecting vociferously, however.  Most notable among them are the indignados, a largely youth-based movement that insists that the President himself and virtually the entire institutional system in Honduras is so rotten that only an international body can be trusted to root out endemic corruption.  The argument rages on, with the indignados staging regular demonstrations and the government – occupied simultaneously with promoting its credibility at home and abroad and maneuvering to secure authorization for presidential re-election – holding fast to its opposition to any such international role.  The debate will continue for the foreseeable future.  We sketch below our understanding of the competing arguments.

Arguments in favor of a CICIH:

By nearly all accounts, corruption has rendered the public and private sectors chronically ineffective – from the President (who admitted that millions from Social Security made it into his campaign coffers and who engaged in nepotism), through the government ministries and even the judicial bureaucracies (where political pressure, intimidation, and bribery are rampant), and companies large and small (for whom payoffs are merely an added budget item).  The country has topped the charts in non-war homicides, including targeted killings, and other violence for several years, further discouraging investigations and prosecutions.  The flood of narcotics and cash through Honduras has thrown fuel onto the flames.  Only an independent, UN-endorsed entity like a CICIH – with its unique ability to train, protect, and motivate judicial personnel, issue indictments, and put powerful people in jail, and shame local government into taking action – can help the country climb out of this deep hole, this argument goes.

Arguments against:

Steven Dudley of InSight Crime notes that the call for a CICIH comes at a time that the Attorney General’s office is showing some signs of life.  Its anti-corruption efforts have led to the indictment and arrest of the former head of the Social Security Institute on charges of embezzlement and illegally financing political parties (although some charges were dropped).  Combating crime, cheaper homemade solutions are showing results in Honduras in terms of training and cases resolved.  Organizations like the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) are doing groundbreaking work to keep homicide levels down in some of the worst neighborhoods at a fraction of the cost of a CICIH.  Expense is another important factor.  In Guatemala the CICIG costs between $12 million and $15 million annually, which even that country, far wealthier than Honduras, cannot afford.  CICIG has provided valuable assistance and training to Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office, but its foreign investigators, who move around in armored vehicles with armed bodyguards, leech massive resources that might otherwise go to fortify local prosecutors’ offices.  Moreover, according to this argument, the investigators don’t need foreign prosecutors to tell them what they’re doing wrong.

Skeptics further contend that international donors and pro-reform Hondurans arguably will not get the quick fix and public relations victory they want from a CICIH.  It took over a decade for CICIG to set up in Guatemala and nearly eight years to get the right mix of cases.  Its greatest strategic goal – fortifying Guatemala’s justice system – remains a work in progress.  The Guatemalan Attorney General’s Office has not yet executed a complicated, forensic investigation leading to a high-level prosecution.  Honduras’s greater reliance on foreign assistance, according to this argument, suggests a CICIH would actually enable its dependency, rather than break it.

The weakness and rot within Honduran institutions and the venality of national leadership strongly suggest that neither approach – a foreign-backed entity like CICIH or a home-grown solution – could quickly reverse the tsunami of corruption and violence that the isthmus’s poorest country has been experiencing since the 2009 coup.  Ideally, the best of Honduras’s own efforts could be buttressed by a Honduran version of the CICIG model, but the knack of the country’s leaders for overwhelming even the best of intentions, as they did the “Truth Commission” charged with determining accountability for the coup and rights abuses carried out in its aftermath, argues for extreme caution in forming expectations.  The debate therefore may boil down to the moral argument of whether the international community, witnessing Honduras’s descent into utter lawlessness and destitution, can stand idly by or should at least offer its help in what form it can, such as a CICIH.  Even if a CICIH is not a panacea, it at least would send a powerful message to Honduran elites that the world is watching.

September 15, 2015

Guatemala’s Crisis is Not Over

By Eric Hershberg*

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

Guatemala City, August 2015. Photo Courtesy of Eric Hershberg.

With President Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation early this morning, Guatemala lurches into a new phase in its long-running political crisis, with little prospect that this weekend’s elections will resolve much.  The investigations into the Pérez Molina administration’s corruption, the national assembly’s unanimous vote to suspend his immunity, and the peaceful surge in popular protests demanding that he step down all suggest progress in the country’s efforts to build a functioning democracy.  The UN-sponsored Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) fulfilled its mandate, and its example and training were arguably important factors in the ability of judicial officials in Pérez Molina’s own government to support the processes that led to his downfall.  (Click here for an AULABLOG assessment of CICIG in May.)  The Congressional vote to strip him of immunity was unanimous, including even his most loyal supporters, who until then had rejected popular clamoring for the president’s ouster.  By the end of last week societal disgust with the political elite had reached the point that even the most recalcitrant of incumbents realized that their own survival required ditching the president.  The comptroller’s office called on him to resign “to avoid greater social unrest that could have unpredictable consequences” – a sentiment echoed by powerful business groups and the Catholic Bishops Council.

The Guatemalan Constitution and laws lay out the next steps.  The Congress has accepted the resignation, clearing the way for Vice President Alejandro Maldonado – who replaced Vice President Roxana Baldetti after she was jailed in connection with the same corruption scandal – to take office.  The first round of Presidential elections, with 15 candidates in the running, will proceed as scheduled this Sunday, despite calls from some civil society organizations to delay the balloting on grounds that the campaign regulations reflect the influence and interests of criminal elements.  In all likelihood, a runoff round will be necessary six weeks later (October 25).  The convulsions of recent months and deep distrust in government suggest that tensions will be high between now and then, but there’s no indication yet that civil unrest could threaten the electoral process, and military intervention appears to be a thing of the past.  There is every reason to expect that a new President will be inaugurated on January 14.

The elections are unlikely, however, to lead Guatemala into an era of less corruption and greater accountability, or to install leadership willing or able to spearhead economic and social policies to enable the majority of the population to live with dignity.  The slogans on the banners of the tens of thousands of protestors in Guatemala City’s central square lacked any message beyond a rejection of the status quo.  “Throw them all out” and “I have no president”are potent rallying cries but do not address the core challenges of a country where the elite pay no taxes, half of all children are malnourished and tens of thousands of young people desperately seek better lives anywhere other than Guatemala.  

The reputations of the leading candidates and their failure to articulate coherent governing platforms give little room for optimism.  Leading in the polls is a wealthy businessman, Manuel Baldizón, whose running mate is already being investigated for corruption and whose own closet is widely understood to contain plenty of skeletons.  Protestors have already singled out Baldizón as unacceptable, taunting him with chants of “it’s your turn next.”  In second place is a comedian named Jimmy Morales, who enjoys the support of the economic elites and media but has advanced no policy platform whatsoever.  Former first lady Sandra Torres appears to be running third.  She divorced President Álvaro Colom in 2011 to circumvent a court ruling that, as First Lady, she couldn’t run for office.  (The Constitutional Court put a final stop to her campaign a month before elections that year.) 

Electoral victory by any of these candidates would leave Guatemala with weak leadership at a time that most government institutions desperately need revitalization.  Corruption is too deep-rooted for CICIG and its few allies in government to face down alone, and these candidates won’t use the presidency to carry out the needed purge.  The organized criminal groups that traffic drugs and persons through the country and permeate governing institutions stand to grow only stronger, and the misery that plagues a population deprived of education, health care and jobs will continue unabated.  U.S. Vice President Joe Biden’s billion-dollar aid package for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, already in trouble in Washington, may have nowhere good to go.

September 3, 2015

*Eric Hershberg, director of the Center for Latin American & Latino Studies at American University, witnessed the protests in Guatemala City last week.

A New Line of Defense: Trends at Mexico’s Southern Border

By Dennis Stinchcomb

The boat to Mexico.  Photo Credit: einalem / Flickr / Creative Commons

The boat to Mexico. Photo Credit: einalem / Flickr / Creative Commons

Statistics show that the United States is relying on Mexico to do what U.S. immigration law and the Northern Triangle countries can’t: keep Central American children out of the U.S.  In 2014, the same year in which Mexico announced tightened security measures along its southern border with Guatemala and Belize, Mexican authorities deported over 18,000 children, up 117 percent from just over 8,000 the previous year, according to Mexican government figures.  A similar increase is already being registered in 2015.  During January and February of this year, deportations of minors from Mexican soil tallied over 3,200 – a 105 percent jump from the same period in 2014.  Since launching what U.S. officials have dubbed a “layered approach” to immigration enforcement, data reveal several noteworthy trends:

  • Mexico’s get-tough approach has prevented a significant number of migrants from reaching the U.S.-Mexico border. According to U.S. Customs and Border Patrol, the first seven months of Fiscal Year (FY) 2015 witnessed a 48-percent decrease in unaccompanied child apprehensions and a 35-percent decrease in family unit apprehensions along the U.S. border.  However, considered in light of the unprecedented number of deportations from Mexico, these figures suggest that child and family migration from Central America remain at historic highs. 
  • Central American children detained in Mexico are unlikely to be offered forms of humanitarian protection mandated by international law. Despite increases in child detention and deportation, a report by Georgetown University Law School’s Human Rights Institute points to inadequate screening and arbitrary detention as among the obstacles preventing tens of thousands of children from seeking and receiving relief from removal.
  • Both Mexican and U.S. data show that a growing share of child and family migrants are Guatemalan. According to analysis by the Pew Research Center, the number of Guatemalan children deported from Mexico during the first five months of FY15 doubled since the same period last year and now accounts for 60 percent of all child deportations from the country.  Meanwhile, the share of child deportees from Honduras dropped from roughly one-third to less than one-quarter, and those from El Salvador fell off slightly to just above 15 percent.  An analogous shift is also evident at the U.S.-Mexico border where Guatemalans now comprise 35 percent of unaccompanied child apprehensions compared to 25 percent during FY14.  Similarly, the proportion of Salvadoran and Honduran children has declined from roughly 25 percent each to 18 and 9 percent, respectively.
  • Smugglers and migrants are already adapting to heightened enforcement in Mexico and charting new, more dangerous routes north. Local media reports have covered migrants’ attempts to bypass border checkpoints by sea and traverse Mexico undetected on foot or in third-class buses.  Data show that successful migrants are crossing into the U.S. at less traditional and harder-to-access points.  At the height of last year’s crisis, the majority of migrants were surrendering themselves to border officials in the Rio Grande Valley along Texas’ southern-most border.  While apprehension in the Rio Grande control sector have decreased significantly this year, three sectors – Big Bend (Texas), El Paso (Texas and New Mexico), and Yuma (California) – have registered at least double-digit percent increases in both child and family apprehensions.

During Mexican President Peña Nieto’s recent visit to Washington, President Obama stated that he “very much appreciate[d] Mexico’s efforts in addressing the unaccompanied children [crisis].”  Despite applause from the White House, Mexico’s aggressive border enforcement – driven at least in part by U.S. encouragement and funding – has implications for Mexico’s already problematic human rights record.  While it is true that Mexico’s actions have largely staved off a repeat of last year’s crisis, it has yet to translate into the sort of political bargaining chip the Obama administration has hoped might sway the immigration policy debate in the U.S.  With comprehensive immigration reform legislation long dead and recent executive actions on indefinite hold, the administration apparently hopes that ramped-up enforcement will improve prospects for congressional approval of $1 billion in development assistance to the Northern Triangle.  But with Mexico’s clampdown blocking another surge of migrants into the U.S., many legislators are likely to question the prudence of pouring more money into corrupt, dysfunctional regional governments.  By backing the militarization of Mexico’s southern border, moreover, the administration is privileging political goals at the expense of humanitarian objectives and is indirectly complicit in blocking thousands of Central American children from accessing lawful forms of relief for which most are likely eligible.  Meanwhile, Mexico’s migrant extortion market continues to boom as vulnerable children and families seek new routes north at the mercy of increasingly brutal transnational networks.

June 4, 2015