Latin America: Impact of the January 6 Insurrection at the U.S. Capitol

By Ilka Treminio Sánchez, Fábio Kerche, and Esteban De Gori*

Tear gas outside the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021/ Tyler Merbler/ Wikimedia Commons/ Creative Commons License

AULABLOG invited three Latin American experts to comment on the impact of the events in Washington, DC, last month on U.S. relations with the region.

Ilka Treminio Sánchez*

During the Trump Administration, the United States revealed regrettable signs of institutional erosion and democratic backsliding. The political engine that allowed and promoted these actions was based on polarizing political discourse that shaped a hostile atmosphere toward Trump’s and his supporters’ opponents. This behavior escalated to the point of attacks on the electoral results and the violent assault on the Capitol by Trump’s followers on January 6, the day Joe Biden’s victory was certified. The insurrection failed as institutions upheld the legitimacy of the electoral process and the popular will of the citizens.

For Latin America, and for Central America specifically, this episode signifies the rupture of the myth of democratic exceptionalism in the United States. It reveals U.S. fissures and defects that are characteristic of the hemisphere’s weakest democracies. Central America has many times experienced authoritarianism, populism, violence against the adversary, social violence against ethnic groups, attacks on Congress, and attempts to alter electoral results. The Trump Administration’s actions have seriously damaged the United States’ image as a country that guarantees democracy – and its future governments could lose moral authority in the region on this matter.

  • The January 6 assault could give new life to undemocratic “zombie ideas” in Central America, undermining progress in political and civil rights made in the last decades. It could further embolden efforts to weaken election processes and increase presidential authoritarianism already present in the region.

Fábio Kerche*

The insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and President Trump’s campaign to overturn the electoral results were a sad scene for more than just the United States. Democracy is the regime in which a government can be defeated in an election and then leaves office peacefully. The events in Washington revealed that, even in a country in which democracy was a consolidated regime, it is vulnerable – with profound implications for younger and more fragile democracies worldwide. This includes Latin America and particularly Brazil.

  • It is important to remember that the Brazilian political crisis started when the runner-up in the 2014 presidential elections challenged the results. Fortunately, the U.S. political institutions were still strong enough to overcome the impasse in Washington. The United States’ most recent crisis gives Latin Americans cause to consider what should and should not be done to protect and consolidate democracy across our continent. In Brazil, where President Jair Bolsonaro is trying to reproduce Trump’s style, the failure of the U.S. Capitol insurrection – and the triumph of the country’s Constitutional order – should discourage any imagining that there is a way out of democracy.

Esteban De Gori*

The insurrection was undoubtedly shocking for South America. No government and no citizenry had imagined that a group of persons could occupy the U.S. Capitol as they did, nor that challenges to U.S. electoral processes could be so intense. Among the most powerful events: persons supported by the President overrunning the building and deepening the runaway polarization; the struggle of the democratic system to overcome the challenges to the electoral competition; and, perhaps most profoundly, the erosion of popular faith in the system. Leaders in most of Latin America, with the exception of Venezuela and perhaps others, showed concern and surprise. A crisis afflicting a great geo-economic player in the context of a pandemic and trade war with China could bring greater uncertainties and risks and, especially now, few opportunities.

  • The insurrection and the singularly belligerent government of Donald Trump are not the only things driving reassessment of the United States as a promoter of democracy and the rule of law. Since 2008, to take the financial crisis as a point of reference, doubts about the effectiveness of the country’s political system have deepened. That discomfort helped bring Trump to power as it eroded faith in the political system and its ability to balance desires and demands. The early statements and actions of the Biden Administration suggest awareness of this discomfort and willingness to begin addressing it.
  • The events (and Biden’s efforts to overcome them) do not appear likely to significantly change the U.S. relationship with Latin America. The pandemic and other challenges to democracy have placed extraordinary pressure on the region’s leaders, for whom the images of U.S. insurrection may have engendered even a certain empathy. They now know that parliaments and democratic institutions can be illegally occupied; that debate can go horribly awry; that polarization can seriously deepen in any country of the hemisphere.
  • More than the turmoil in Washington, the pandemic and its economic consequences appear likely to influence U.S.-Latin America relations. Joe Biden will probably remain focused on the country’s customary interests in the region – no great changes – although with less belligerence than Donald Trump. China, the other great regional power, will continue to promote its position without big conflicts or stridency. Even if the United States retains its economic edge in Latin America, its problems – and China’s gradual expansion in the region – put Washington on the downward path typical of a great power in decline.

February 11, 2021

* Ilka Treminio Sánchez is the director of La Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales (FLACSO) in Costa Rica, and a lecturer and researcher at the University of Costa Rica, specializing in electoral processes, political behavior, presidential reelection, and Latin American comparative politics.
* Fábio Kerche is a professor at UNIRIO and IESP-UERJ in Rio de Janeiro. He was a CLALS Research Fellow in 2016-2017.
* Esteban De Gori teaches sociology at La Universidad de Buenos Aires and is a researcher at Argentina’s Consejo Nacional de Investigaciones Científicas y Técnicas (CONICET).

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.

Latin America: Moving Toward Active Non-Alignment?

By Jorge Heine*

IV CELAC Summit, Ecuador 2016/ FAOAmericas/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (modified)

A new Cold War between the “great powers” outside Latin America – the United States and China – has again undermined the region’s ability to defend its own interests and given impetus to new ways of establishing its autonomy. The COVID‑19 pandemic has been a stark reminder of the human cost of playing favorites. Over 400,000 have died in Latin America, triggering what ECLAC has called the region’s worst crisis in a century. There is plenty of blame to go around – starting with China, where the virus originated, and continuing with the region’s incompetent management. But less remarked upon has been the U.S. role in contributing to this tragedy due to its obsession with all things Cuban and, more recently, Chinese.

  • In 2019, Washington strongly pressured the governments of Bolivia, Ecuador, and El Salvador to expel the teams of Cuban doctors working there. They complied just before the onset of the pandemic, leaving themselves without a critical mass of needed health professionals. At the same time, Washington slashed funding to the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO), leaving it unable to assist as it did in previous pandemics.
  • Ecuador, with 12,000 deaths, is Exhibit A of the effect, and Bolivia, with 8,000, is not too far behind. Brazilian President Bolsonaro’s agreement to withdraw Cuban doctors from the Amazon contributed to the decimation of Aboriginal tribes. Nonetheless, as the virus was ravaging the region, USAID refused to restore funding to PAHO. In addition to the humanitarian crisis, the region faces a projected negative growth of 8 percent in 2020, the worst performance of any region, and the prospect of yet another lost decade.

Alarm at the cost to Latin American governments of engaging in Cold War games is rising, inspiring support for what my colleagues Carlos Fortín, Carlos Ominami, and I call a policy of Active Non-Alignment for Latin America. Just as in the 1950s, when countries unwilling to choose between Washington and Moscow, between capitalism and socialism, formed the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), the situation today requires some reassessing of international roles.

  • Any new configuration would reflect that the Global South, which represented 20‑30 percent of trade and investment flows in the 1960-70’s, now accounts for 50 percent. The enormous growth of countries from the Global South , particularly of China and India, but also Brazil (under former President Lula), Indonesia and Turkey, does not occur in a vacuum. It has coincided with a growing populism and protectionism in countries of the developed North, which have dismantled the very Liberal International Order they once created, and are now turning inwards.
  • In this emerging Global South, old platforms like the NAM are being replaced by new ones like the BRICS. The old diplomacy of the Cahiers des doleances has been overtaken by the collective financial statecraft of entities such as the Asian Investment and Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (the so-called “BRICS Bank”). These developments suggest that, far from locking herself up within the confines of the Western Hemisphere, as the anachronistic application of a newly dusted-off Monroe Doctrine portends, Latin America will benefit more from opening up to this new “Post Western World,” in Oliver Stuenkel’s expression.

Active non-alignment is not the romantic resurrection of a bygone era, but rather adapting traditions to this new epoch, in a world in flux. It would expand, not limit, the ties of Latin American nations with the vast emerging non-Western world.

  • Genuine non-alignment does not surrender to any major power but focuses instead on the region’s own goals and objectives. For Latin America, it would entail strengthening regional bodies and deepening its commitment to multilateralism; developing an action plan on climate change; establishing a regional Center for Disease Control (CDC); redefining notions of national security to reflect today’s threats; and committing to gender equality and fair labor relations.
  • Chilean Foreign Minister Andrés Allamand has already expressed support for what he has called “active neutralism,” but sitting governments appear unlikely to take up such an unorthodox approach. Nonetheless, the next electoral cycle – in which ruling leaders are likely to pay a heavy price for the COVID debacles – will probably change many minds.
  • The Administration of U.S. President-elect Joe Biden will have its hands full with domestic challenges, and China, fully aware of the sensitive geopolitical situation in place today, does not expect Latin America to take Beijing’s side in its differences with Washington on issues that do not affect the region.  In this conjuncture,  Latin America is at a crossroads, and its current fragmentation and deep-seated crisis call for a fresh approach on how it relates to the rest of the world.

November 13, 2020

* Jorge Heine is Research Professor at the Frederick S. Pardee School of Global Studies, Boston University.

Tough Times in Latin America

By Andrés Serbin*

Protests in Chile

Protests in Chile/ Diego Correa/ Flickr/ Creative Commons License (not modified)

The year 2019 was an annus horribilis for Latin America, but 2020 – with its pandemic and economic slowdown – has more seriously worsened an array of structural challenges that will prompt even greater instability in the post-pandemic era. Last year’s meager and slowing economic growth, barely reaching 0.1 percent, prompted social protests that shook governments on both the left and right, driving a reconfiguration of the political map of the region. This year’s challenges will affect countries differently and more deeply.

  • The Informe Iberoamérica 2020, recently published by the Fundación Alternativas in Madrid, warns of the current and looming challenges to the region. Preexisting inequality has already been affecting stability, as have the growing demands and expectations, associated with advances made in previous years, of greater redistribution, and better public policies. The worst economic performance in 60 years deepened the structural problems of a region that has generally failed to diversify and develop productive structures and overcome its excessive dependency on exports of raw materials (and on Chinese demand for them). Low confidence in political institutions and disillusionment with political elites and leaders’ ability to meet citizens’ needs (and those leaders’ subsequent delegitimization) signal a crisis of representation and steps backward for democracy.

The political polarization generated by this ominous combination of factors is not only worsening ideological fractures in society; it is reducing the region’s ability to develop responses to an international situation that also entails a complex transition: the rivalry between the United States and China is not the only driver of this process.

  • These and other extraregional actors, including Russia, Turkey, Iran, and most recently India, are increasingly making Latin America and the Caribbean, despite the region’s apparent peripheral importance, into a battlefield of geopolitical and geo-economic confrontation that is complicating its struggle to maintain some degree of autonomy from external pressures and to diversify its foreign policies.
  • Three other related factors are aggravating this multi-faceted crisis. The corruption that has traditionally characterized the elites has spread throughout Latin American societies. Military forces are reappearing as political actors in a process that is threatening weakened democratic institutions and giving rise to diverse authoritarian models. Organized crime in its various incarnations – from trafficking in drugs to trafficking in humans – is expanding.

Within this context, to the challenge of leading during a pandemic are added several monumental tasks. Leaders will confront a recession and economic crisis that threatens to ravage the most vulnerable sectors and harm the whole of society. They will be confronted by demands to restore the resilience of democracy and its weakened institutions through strategies and public policies that reflect citizens’ needs.

  • More than ever before, the region’s leaders have an incentive to develop coordinated regional strategies that efficiently deal with these problems as well as other global challenges in ways that promote Latin American and Caribbean international integration with greater autonomy and diversification. Challenges in tough times demand complex, sophisticated social contracts and a deeper regional consensus – all difficult to achieve in a polarized and fragmented region, particularly while grappling with the combined and divisive impact of the pandemic and the economic crisis.

August 3, 2020

* Andrés Serbin is an international analyst and president of the Regional Coordinator of Economic and Social Research (CRIES), a network of more than 70 research centers, think tanks, NGOs, and other organizations focused on Latin America and the Caribbean. This article is adapted from one published in Clarín.

 

U.S. Fails to Consider “Best Interests” of Child Migrants

By Eric Hershberg*

Child sitting down on a grass field

The lack of a “best interests” standard in the U.S. Government’s handling of child migrants subjects the children to enduring harm and skews their chances of fair adjudication of their immigration cases. Its absence is aggravated by recent U.S. policies under which a majority of children and families are unable to present protection claims which they are legally entitled to make.

  • The best interests principle is nearly universally accepted. It is enshrined in a vast body of domestic law, such as when determining the home in which to place a child, and in various international human rights instruments. The UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), which has the force of law in the 196 countries that have ratified it, states that “in all actions concerning children … the best interests of the child shall be a primary consideration.”

The United States is the sole country not to ratify the CRC, but – as a signatory – it pledged not to act in a manner that undermines the best interests principle. Since the late 1990s, the U.S. Government has, on the whole, allowed practices incorporating best interests principles to gain considerable momentum – until the Administration of President Donald Trump brought such efforts to an abrupt halt. Soon after taking office in 2017, the Administration began stripping away the limited safeguards that leaders of both political parties had, albeit sometimes reluctantly, allowed to emerge over the previous two decades.

  • Trump Administration policies have aimed to deter child and family migrants by forcing them either to suffer confinement in increasingly inhumane conditions in detention facilities or await their case outcomes in Mexico. The Administration has steadily sought to erode the baseline protections in the 1997 “Flores Settlement,” which set standards for the detention, release, and treatment of minors. It has ignored the Flores provisions that detained children be held only in “safe and sanitary” facilities and within strict time limits. (U.S. courts having stymied the Administration’s efforts to detain children and families indefinitely.) Other policies have limited the number of migrants allowed to enter the United States each day and have forced families to wait out the immigration process in Mexico rather than be released into local communities.
  • For those children and families undeterred by these obstacles, another set of policies has stacked on requirements that effectively zero out their ability to prevail on their claims for protection. The effort began as a narrowing of the substantive criteria for asylum but, over the last year, has become a de facto ban on asylum for Central American children. Though courts again have played a critical role in thwarting many Administration’s efforts, one failed policy is quickly replaced with another even more drastic attempt to shut off all avenues for relief.

While the Trump Administration has taken rejection of the best interests principle to an extreme, no U.S. President has been willing or able to provide strong leadership in guaranteeing the protections to migrant children that U.S. domestic law affords citizens and residents. Widespread perceptions fed by the Administration that migrants are gaming the system make serious discussion of solutions extremely difficult. Policymakers and immigration officials often claim that embracing the best interests principle would create an open border. But respect for children’s best interests can co-exist with a full and fair adjudicative process. It simply guarantees children’s protection, family integrity, and wellbeing during and after a just determination process – even in the face of rejection of their petitions. Rather than updating the U.S. immigration infrastructure and building regional cooperation ensuring children’s well-being, the Trump Administration has further widened the divide between international and domestic child protection laws and U.S. immigration policy.

  • With the underlying drivers of migration remaining strong and likely to spike as the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic hits Central America, the gap between principle and policy will have ever greater consequences for children, whose best interests are increasingly trampled. The repercussions are enormous, according to numerous studies. For children who are already vulnerable, ongoing family separations are traumatic experiences with potentially long-term implications for their physical and mental health. Unsanitary conditions in detention centers were dangerous even before the pandemic. Inadequate access to food, drinking water, clean clothing, and daily necessities – soap, toothbrushes, and towels – has been well documented. Psychologists fear that these children will struggle throughout their lives, be it in the United States or in their native countries.

July 6, 2020

* Eric Hershberg is the Director of CLALS. The report In Children’s Best Interests: Charting a Child-Sensitive Approach to U.S. Immigration Policy (click here for the full report), based on a joint symposium held in February with over 300 participants. The full program and video recordings are here.

Central America and the Pandemic: Different Priorities and Risky Bets

By Alexander Segovia*

Presidents of Central America participate on a SICA virtual meeting

Reunión Extraordinaria de Presidentes del Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA)/Flickr/Creative Commons

In most Central American countries, the social dimension of the COVID‑19 emergency has competed with economic priorities, and in some it hasn’t even been a top priority. Governments have responded independently of one another, showing little regional coordination aside from a $1.9 billion Regional Contingency Plan approved by the Sistema de la Integración Centroamericana (SICA) and funded by the Central American Bank for Economic Integration (BCIE), to support national-level efforts.

El Salvador has designed a response strategy that prioritizes the health dimension of the crisis, not the need for economic recovery. The rigorous implementation of stay-at-home and social isolation measures has caused a number of problems, including essentially shutting down the economy, with enormous political costs. The Legislative Assembly authorized the government to issue coupons worth $3 billion to help families get by, causing a significant increase in the country’s external debt and fiscal deficit.

  • The Salvadoran response has been well-received by the population so far, but this could change quickly in the face of the high economic and social pain it has caused. Moreover, the authoritarian and militarist way the confinement regulations have been enforced, and the government’s lack of respect for the Constitution and the separation of powers, have also troubled many.

Nicaragua is the opposite case of El Salvador. The government has refused to adopt social isolation measures and has encouraged people to take to the streets and participate in large events. The Ortega Administration’s concern is about the economy, which has been in a deep crisis since the social protests in 2018 and the government’s repressive reaction to them. This priority partly explains the government’s resistance to implementing shelter-in-place and social-distancing regulations.

  • The government is playing with fire. If the health crisis spins out of control, it will cause both a great loss of human lives and a profound socio-economic crisis – which sooner rather than later will spark a social and political crisis of massive proportions.

Costa Rica, with its good universal health care system and the region’s most developed state infrastructure, is best prepared. Its initial response to the health emergency was slow and permissive, reflecting a government decision to confront the crisis in a manner that causes the least damage possible to the economy. It has since acted more decisively and has suffered only 10 deaths from COVID‑19.

  • Costa Rica is the only country in the region trying to finance the additional costs by reducing non-priority public expenditures and by introducing a temporary solidarity tax on capital gains and on the salaries of higher-paid managers in government and the private sector, who have economic security and safe jobs.

Guatemala is implementing a response in which the health emergency is competing with leaders’ desire for economic recovery. This reflects the enormous influence over the government and Congress enjoyed by the economic elites, who hold sway over public policies and have a veto over any that affect their interests.

  • By putting the social and economic challenges on an equal plane, the elites have demonstrated, in what they see as a politically correct way, their ability to equate human life with the accumulation of capital.

Honduras has implemented a strategy that gives insufficient attention to the health crisis by assigning higher priority to containing the economic impact. Its response has been fragmented and confusing; it combines emergency measures with economic recovery actions that will take effect only in the second half of the year. In addition, policymaking processes have been opaque, and there are no guarantees that public funds will be used transparently.

  • Concerns that the crisis has also given rise to greater militarization of the country and an increase in human rights violations by security forces are also mounting.

The best way for Central America to confront the COVID emergency is through energetic responses focused on containing the health crisis – with effective stay-at-home and social-distancing measures – and strengthening of social protection systems and programs, including direct financial payments to households. These policies should be backed up with broad political and social agreements and sustained with absolute respect for democracy and human rights.

  • Preliminary evidence indicates that, while addressing the health crisis has high costs in the short term, delaying that investment increases the number of deaths and leads to a deeper and longer economic crisis. Central American governments and economic elites have a clear choice: pay a smaller price now combatting the virus, or pursue short-term benefits and pay a much higher price in the long run.

May 20, 2020

* Alexander Segovia is a Salvadoran economist. This blog article is based on and updated from an analysis originally published here by Análisis Carolina in Madrid.

Challenges to “Safe Country” Strategy in Central America Mounting

By Fulton Armstrong

San Ysidro

Processing at the San Ysidro Port of Entry/ U.S. Customs and Border Protection/ Flickr/ U.S. Government Works

Challenges to the U.S. government’s “Asylum Cooperation Agreements” (ACAs) with Central American countries – under which asylum seekers approaching the U.S. border are sent to camps in the Northern Triangle – are mounting fast, but the administration of President Donald Trump does not appear likely to budge significantly from its current approach. Under the threat of loss of $143 million in aid to the three Central American countries, Guatemala signed its agreement under former President Jimmy Morales last August; a similar accord with Honduras is to “come online any day,” according to U.S. officials; and El Salvador is also deep in negotiations. (Aid has been restored.) The ACAs stipulate that asylum seekers apply for asylum in the “first safe country” they enter after fleeing their own. As a result, the United States has sent about 800 persons of various nationalities to Guatemala.

  • Immigration and human rights advocates have condemned the agreements. They report that Guatemala – where most asylum seekers have been sent so far – lacks the ability to process them. Human Rights Watch recently reported, moreover, that individuals repatriated to El Salvador since 2013 – as envisioned by the ACAs – have been assassinated at an alarming rate. The group has confirmed 138 cases of individuals killed after deportation and another 70 beaten, sexually assaulted, extorted, or tortured.
  • The chairs of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs and relevant subcommittees (all Democrats) have called the ACAs “illegal, dangerous, and antithetical to U.S. values.” In a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo, they said that U.S. law requires that asylum seekers have “access to a full and fair procedure for determining a claim to asylum” – which the Guatemalan facilities lack. The Congressmen assert, moreover, that U.S. law requires adherence to international law on non-refoulement, which mandates that asylum seekers cannot be sent to a country in which they will face further persecution.
  • The workers’ union representing 700 U.S. asylum and refugee officers has declared that the agreements and the administration’s implementation of them are a “violation” of international treaty obligations. These are the career specialists on the front line charged with carrying out the policies. The Guatemalan government has raised its own concerns, citing its “very limited capacity” to process asylum-seekers sent there. Newly inaugurated President Alejandro Giammattei has never appeared comfortable with the ACA and has asked Washington for “clarifications” of his country’s obligations under it.

U.S. reaction so far has been to deny anything is wrong. Senior officials say that very few asylum seekers deported to Guatemala are applying for asylum there, with the vast majority instead choosing to return to their home countries. Citing experts, the U.S. congressmen say that less than 4 percent have “been able to seek protection through Guatemala’s overburdened system.” Others report that victims of violence in their home countries face similar prejudices in Guatemala.

  • Apparently to encourage potential asylum seekers to apply for U.S. visas, the administration on March 5 announced it is increasing H2‑B visas for non-agricultural workers this year, with 10,000 reserved for applicants from the Northern Triangle. But if H2‑B visas are issued along the same guidelines as other visas, U.S. consular officers will be required to deny them to applicants they have reason to suspect will try to remain in the United States – as all ACA cases have tried.

The ACAs are a key element of the Trump administration’s efforts to move the “wall” blocking asylum seekers as far off the U.S. border as possible, shifting the burden to the same Central American countries whose poverty, violence, and corruption are driving citizens to flee. However compelling the Foreign Affairs Committee’s arguments that the administration is violating U.S. law and values, the letter’s impact has been blunted by widespread perceptions that the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is further proof that the United States needs to keep outsiders from entering the country. The Administration is also not swayed by the fact that the U.S. State Department’s own repeated warnings that U.S. citizens limit travel to Northern Triangle countries – because of widespread “violent crime … rape, and narcotics and human trafficking – contradict the assertion that the ACA partners are “safe countries.”

  • Guatemala’s call for “clarification” of implementation guidelines and talks on the final details of Honduras and El Salvador’s arrangements give the administration a chance to make cosmetic adjustments and, perhaps, promise more resources to the designated “safe countries.” But it has given no sign of reconsidering its overall approach. The Trump administration remains as committed as ever to addressing the migration problem by closing the U.S.’ door rather than addressing the underlying conditions in the region driving people to risk their lives to get to the United States. Central American analysts are already deeply concerned that the economic impact of the COVID‑19 pandemic (including 1 percent growth or less), coupled with USAID’s own budget cuts, spell reduced aid and a worsening of the vicious cycle of poverty that drives emigration and empowers illicit actors.

March 17, 2020

Central America: Hybrid Anti-Corruption Commissions Can Work

By Chuck Call*

Map of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, with Guatemala and Honduras territory being covered by photos of well-known politicians being arrested.

Prospects for an International Commission against Impunity and Corruption in El Salvador: Lessons from Neighboring Countries in Central America logo / CLALS / https://www.american.edu/centers/latin-american-latino-studies/Prospects-for-an-International-Commission-against-Impunity-and-Corruption-in-El-Salvador-Lessons-from-Neighboring-Countries-in-Central-America.cfm

If newly inaugurated Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele pursues his campaign calls for the creation of a hybrid international commission to fight corruption and strengthen judicial institutions, he will face tough challenges from entrenched interests. However, the experiences of Guatemala’s CICIG and Honduras’s MACCIH show that a strong investigative mandate, close partnership with vetted national prosecutors, strong international backing, and transparent accountability will increase the chances of success of any such mission. (Full text of the study is here and aquí.) CICIG and MACCIH were born of political crises, but they were given different authorities, faced different expectations, and delivered different results.

  • Both missions have had historic investigative and prosecutorial achievements – bringing former and current senior officials to account as never before and putting powerful elites on notice that impunity will not be tolerated. CICIG has dismantled corrupt networks, exposing their reach into the Congress and the Cabinet, indicting hundreds. MACCIH has helped indict dozens of legislators and a former First Lady. Working with special units of prosecutors, they have also contributed to local institutional capacity to root out corruption.

Both CICIG and MACCIH have struggled against the pressure tactics of the many corrupt officials, legislators, and economic interests who most feel threatened by them. In contrast to Guatemala, where CICIG was key to the adoption of several laws that served as a foundation for effective investigation of organized crime, the Honduran Congress has refused to pass such laws. Legislatures in both countries have changed laws specifically to vitiate prosecutions (including of themselves) advanced by the missions. Corruption among judges, especially in Honduras, has made winning convictions extremely difficult. After CICIG shifted its sights beyond politicians to powerful businessmen a few years ago, Guatemalan elites launched a campaign to smear CICIG as an incursion on sovereignty and a socialist plot. Both missions have confronted constitutional challenges.

Key lessons from CICIG and MACCIH’s experience include:

  • Realistic expectations are important. The legal and diplomatic negotiations and logistics necessary to set up “hybrid” units combining domestic and international investigators slowed both entities’ starts. It took over two years for CICIG to secure its first convictions, and MACCIH’s investigations have led to only 12 cases, although these are major corrupt networks. The focus of many Hondurans on ousting President Juan Orlando Hernández has obscured some of the important cases advanced by the mission and its Honduran partners.
  • Anti-impunity missions can threaten systems of political and economic power in ways that go beyond judicial processes. Despite the technical and juridical character of both the missions, they have exposed in detail how criminal enterprises interact with political parties, elected, and appointed officials, and current and former security officials. The missions have also detailed how legislators receive illicit campaign funds and how they fraudulently spend public monies, forcing changes to these decades-old corrupt practices. In Guatemala, the prosecutions have dismantled corrupt networks involving cabinet ministers, generals, top business leaders and the former president and vice president, altering the political profile of parties and undermining the ability of prominent and corrupt elite structures of power to operate.
  • Strong partnerships with national prosecutorial units and with civil society are crucial for success and sustainability. CICIG and MACCIH could not have achieved what they did without close cooperation with carefully selected and vetted prosecutorial units. Those units, especially the UFECIC in Honduras, carried out much of the investigation and led the prosecution in both countries. The legacy of the hybrid missions rests in the future of these empowered professionals and society’s raised expectations of clean behavior from their public officials. Both missions have generated a greater sense that high-level politicians, officials and elites can be imprisoned for corruption and organized crime. Yet these missions have not heeded or informed civil society as much as they might have. Moreover, these experiences and the likely end to both missions in the coming months show that civil society is vital to educating society on the importance and possibility of accountable governance, and for demanding it from politicians and the justice system.
  • International sponsorship brings both advantages and challenges. The association with the UN (for CICIG) and the OAS (for MACCIH) has brought valuable political legitimacy, professional capacity, and needed resources. But it has also brought complications. In the case of MACCIH, slow and politicized appointments, questionable allocation of resources, and excessive day-to-day oversight from Washington, not to mention personal spats and undue interference by specific member states, have undermined performance and credibility. CICIG’s status as a non-UN body gave its commissioner the independence needed to take on tough cases and ignore political considerations. However, that lack of accountability is seen as having contributed to the alienation of many sectors in ways that left it politically vulnerable. Wavering U.S. support for CICIG since 2017 has emboldened the missions’ critics.

The experiences of CICIG and MACCIH show that, despite ups and downs, hybrid international-national missions can help a society fight corruption. In Guatemala and Honduras, these commissions achieved more than most observers originally predicted by dint of the vision and discipline of their leaders and sponsors as well as the work of courageous national officials and civil society groups often risking their livelihoods and lives. Their performance also shows that getting the mission right and sustainable takes time, communication, and strong partnership with national prosecutors. The main challenge now is that corrupt officials and businesses have become proficient at blocking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

  • Creating an International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) may be harder now than before CICIG and MACCIH scored their victories. However, President Bukele may have a historic opportunity to press the country’s two main (but weakened) parties, ARENA and the FMLN, to approve a strong mandate that fits the country’s particular needs. Experts advising then-President Mauricio Funes (himself ironically now on the lam for alleged corruption) concluded in 2010 that the country’s Constitution provides the basis for an international mission with a sufficiently strong investigative powers to have impact. The Guatemalan and Honduran missions show that a strong mandate and significant national and international backing could improve help El Salvador’s justice system reduce corruption and impunity. Such efforts may also have comparable impact in exposing in dirty detail, and perhaps reforming, unaccountable and exclusionary systems of political representation.

* Chuck Call teaches International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, where he directs a Center for Latin American & Latino Studies project analyzing MACCIH and anti-corruption efforts in Honduras.

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.

U.S.-Central America: Suspending Aid Won’t Help

By Joseph Wiltberger*

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén during a Northern Triangle meeting on January 14, 2016

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén during a Northern Triangle meeting on January 14, 2016 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reuni%C3%B3n_Tri%C3%A1ngulo_Norte_con_Vicepresidente_Biden2.jpg / Creative Commons

President Trump’s recent announcement to cut off U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – intended to pressure those governments to stop migrant caravans headed for the U.S.-Mexico border – would suspend and divert an estimated $700 million dollars in funds directed mainly to regional security and economic programs with mixed impacts on migration. A comprehensive impact evaluation of recent U.S. aid to the region has not yet been conducted, so the consequences of this move are open to debate. While some of the aid may help those vulnerable to migration, other allocations to the three countries may be counterproductive to slowing migration.

The three countries have received around $2 billion in aid since 2015, when former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden initially committed Washington’s contribution to the Alliance for Prosperity Plan (A4P) in response to a surge in the migration of Central American families and unaccompanied minors. The A4P, a document drawn up by the Inter-American Development Bank and the three nations’ governments, has guided most of the U.S.’s strategic aid allocations to the region. The U.S. Congress allocated about $750 million in assistance in fiscal year 2016, $655 million in 2017, and $450 million in 2018. About a third of those funds have been aimed at improving citizen security through support for police, the judicial sector, and violence prevention programs. Roughly another third has been geared toward promoting economic development, and the remainder has been split mainly between anti-corruption efforts and support for military personnel through training and arms to fight drug trafficking and human smuggling.

  • NGOs working with communities susceptible to migration complain that the A4P was drafted by Central American leaders without their input, and that its framework – also reflected in U.S. aid priorities – favors elite business and political interests. It gives tax incentives to foreign investors and, opponents say, makes way for resource extraction, maquilas, and other transnational industries dependent on cheap labor and known to contribute to displacement. It directs hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to military and police forces notorious for human rights violations that are rarely prosecuted, a problem that human rights advocates warn endangers citizens and can force more migration.
  • Some of the programs aligned with the A4P, however, grasp the underlying causes of migration from these nations and show how aid can help if properly channeled. They aim to combat corruption and reduce violent crime by improving judicial systems and government transparency, and with community-based violence prevention programs. Many projects – such as initiatives to create economic, extracurricular, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth, and grassroots endeavors such as cooperatives of women and small farmers – are led by local organizations with a long-standing track record of effective local work on the ground in marginalized areas. One of the more rigorous impact evaluations to date found that USAID-funded community-based gang violence prevention programs were effective.

President Trump’s announcement to cut aid did not reflect an assessment of its effectiveness but instead appears to be a political maneuver to counter domestic political opponents who support aid and to punish the governments he believes have “set up” migrant caravans and should do more to stop them. Ending assistance doesn’t help. U.S. aid to Central America should be focused on proven ways to improve security and economic conditions and to combat corruption and guard against human rights violations – problems that drive the region’s emigration today. Cutting off aid will not stop caravans and runs contradictory to the A4P’s stated goal of addressing the root causes of migration. It is counterproductive to the current administration’s interests. Aid strategies would benefit from setting U.S. political and business interests aside to instead focus more on measures that effectively fight corruption, protect human rights, and provide support for trusted organizations proven to be effectively creating opportunities and safer communities for those most vulnerable to migration.

April 29, 2019

* Joseph Wiltberger is a cultural anthropologist. He holds appointments as Assistant Professor of Central American Studies at California State University, Northridge and as Visiting Scholar at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.