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

Guatemala: Fiscal Challenges Await New President

By ICEFI and CLALS*

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

January 23, 2020

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

Latin America: Drug Traffickers Vary Routes as Circumstances Warrant

By Carolina Sampó

U.S officers confiscating narcotics in the Eastern Pacific

Crews from the U.S. Coast Guard Cutter Waesche offload nearly 660 kilograms of narcotics, Feb. 2, 2015 / Coast Guard Compass / Creative Commons / https://coastguard.dodlive.mil/files/2015/07/1785654.jpg

Drug traffickers, who have proven agile at avoiding detection and interdiction in the past, are increasingly creative in moving their product to market through circuitous routes – even moving cocaine through Africa on its way to the United States. Since cocaine is produced only in Colombia, Peru, and Bolivia but consumed in many other countries, the criminal organizations run robust, expansive distribution networks. Routes are not chosen by chance; the traffickers are rational actors who evaluate the risks and advantages depending on circumstances, just as they did by shifting the flow to Central America and Mexico in the early 2000s when counternarcotics operations made the Caribbean less hospitable. My review of the criminal organizations’ shifts indicates they see several basic factors as key to determining a low-risk route:

  • The weakness of the state used as a transit route is key. A state without control of its borders and without effective presence in significant parts of its territory is particularly vulnerable to domination by criminal organizations. Corruption and impunity in government and society in general are also major factors. The availability of logistics networks controlled by local criminal organizations guarantees the secure movement of drugs. To make the business sustainable in the long term, traffickers want groups to have cooperative relations, not competitive tensions, and solid control over operating areas. While some instability has proven helpful to traffickers’ expansion, too much undermines their confidence. Evidence suggests, for example, that the deepening crisis in Venezuela has persuaded some traffickers to choose Brazilian routes. 
  • The countries of the “Northern Triangle” of Central America – Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – are vivid examples of how state weaknesses, corruption, and impunity open the door to Mexican and Colombian criminal organizations’ activities. Traffickers hire smaller criminal organizations – such as maras –to provide them the local support they need. In Venezuela, corruption has long been a factor, but the government’s inability to exercise sovereignty in border areas is increasingly a problem. The Colombian government does not exercise control over large parts of its national territory, and the breakdown of its peace agreement with the FARC suggests the situation will worsen. 

Some trafficking routes seem counterintuitive. Some of the cocaine reaching North America, for example, does not reach that market through Central America. My research indicates that it leaves South America through Brazil or Venezuela and goes to Western Africa, from which it is redirected to a final destination, sometimes entering the United States through Canada. 

  • The UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) reported last year that only 39 percent of the cocaine reaching the United States in 2016 came through Mexico, compared to 70 percent in 2013. Even though it may seem absurd, especially considering the distances involved in shipping through Africa, criminal organizations reduce risks if they do not take the Central American route. They are apparently using this new route also to create a wider market – some of the drug may go to Russia, for example, or to Asia and even Oceania – as well as to satisfy demand on the African continent. 

Governments seeking to stop the drug trade have not shown as much agility as have the traffickers, who have proven over the years that they can adapt to eradication, surveillance, and interdiction – which remain central elements of governments’ strategies. Colombia’s production surge, despite multi-billion-dollar programs over the past 20 years, shows that much work remains on strengthening the state and reducing corruption and impunity there as well as in transit nations. Addressing drug use as a public health challenge holds promise but requires political commitment that most big consumer countries have so far lacked. Efforts to follow the money trail and freeze suspects’ accounts help but haven’t dealt a mortal blow. No single tactic will work, and no strategy will work as long as governments’ partners show the vulnerabilities that traffickers are so adept at exploiting.

September 27, 2019

*  Carolina Sampó is Coordinator of the Center for Studies on Transnational Organized Crime (CeCOT), International Relations Institute, La Plata National University, and a researcher at the National Scientific and Technical Research Council (Conicet) and Professor at the Buenos Aires University.

Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobiernodechile/22180910394

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

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.

U.S. Immigration: Call for Wall Ignores Changing Migrant Profile

by Dennis Stinchcomb

Graph of southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019

Southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019 / Note: FY 2019 data is through November 2018. Figures may not total 100% due to rounding. / Data source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As a record number of Central American families and unaccompanied children flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall ignores changing migrant demographics and leaves largely unaddressed an asylum system buckling under unprecedented strain.  While undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border remains at historic lows, over 48,000 individuals comprising family units (parents traveling with children) were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border between October and November 2018 – a 308 percent increase over the same two months in 2017.  Such a staggering rise comes on the heels of what was already a record-setting year.  Between October 2017 and September 2018, border officials tallied the highest level of family crossings on record; the over 107,000 individuals detained by border officials dwarfed the roughly 40,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children that prompted the Obama administration to declare a “crisis” in summer 2014.

A closer look at recent immigration trends underscores changing realities at the border:

  • Central American families and children represent an ever-growing share of migrants. Because overall undocumented immigration at the border has dropped and families and children have surged, the latter now account for 40 percent of all unauthorized migrants apprehended, up from 10 percent in 2012.  (Prior to 2012, family apprehensions were not publicly reported.)
  • Guatemalans now account for over half of all Central American family and child migrants. Though Guatemala is more populous than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, proportional disparities in migrant flows from the three Northern Triangle countries have widened in recent years.  Guatemalan families apprehended at the border doubled between 2017 and 2018, and the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors increased by over 50 percent.  An increasing share of these migrants are coming from indigenous communities where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, so border officials face compounding challenges including linguistic barriers and health needs – factors that may have contributed to the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children while in Border Patrol custody.
  • Family and child migration from El Salvador has plummeted to its lowest level since 2013. The abrupt decline in Salvadoran migration to the United States has led many experts to point to the chilling effects of the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the U.S.  The “Trump effect” following his early 2017 executive orders, however, was short-lived, and other events, such as possible controversy over elections next month, could renew migratory pressures and further exacerbate conditions at the border.
  • The dramatic increase in migrant flows from Central America has fueled an historic surge in asylum claims. At the border, credible-fear claims – the preliminary step in soliciting asylum – continue to climb precipitously, up from 9,000 in 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.

The U.S. Government’s proposed solutions to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis do not reflect the evolving profile of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  President Trump’s border wall – a hallmark promise of his 2016 campaign – appears aimed at the familiar Mexican adult migrant of the early 2000s or the mythical “bad hombre” spawned by his own nativist tendencies.  His Administration’s recent attempts to deter migrants or bar their access to asylum, either by separating families or rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence, have not stemmed the flood of arrivals.  A new “caravan” of migrants is set to depart Honduras this week.  Nor will a wall extinguish migrants’ legal right to request asylum.  The President’s most recent budget request for modest funds for hiring immigration judges and providing border infrastructure to support “vulnerable populations” is being held up by the political impasse in Washington over his greatly disproportionate spending on a wall, Border Patrol agents, and detention facilities.  Compromise between the President and Congressional Democrats remains elusive three weeks into a confrontation that has shut down much of the U.S. Government.  While Democrats have expressed willingness to beef up border security in exchange for a significant immigration win, such as legalization of the Dreamers or renewal of TPS, anything short of meaningful reform to the U.S. asylum system will do little to resolve the backup at the border.

Jan 15, 2019

A Right Turn in Latin America?

By Santiago Anria and Kenneth Roberts*

Jair Bolsonaro

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro in January 2019. / Marcos Brandão / Agência Senado / Flickr / Creative Commons

After a long winning streak, the left in Latin America has experienced electoral defeats in a number of former strongholds since 2015 – including Argentina, Chile, and Brazil – but the trend is not unidirectional and so far falls short of being a regional “right turn.”

  • Right wing presidents govern today in those three countries as well as Colombia, Guatemala, Paraguay, Honduras, Panama, and Peru – a scenario that is quite different from 2010, when about two-thirds of Latin Americans lived under some form of leftist government. Democratization, financial crises, and market liberalization shaped the 1980s-90s, while mounting social discontent against neoliberal market reforms helped to produce a “left turn” that spread across the region following the election of Hugo Chávez in 1998.  Leftist candidates won 30 presidential elections in 11 different Latin American countries between 1998 and 2014.

The current trend lines are hardly unidirectional across the region.  Mexico, which remained under conservative government when most of the region turned toward the left after 1998, has recently elected long-time leftist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador to the presidency.  Incumbent leftist parties have been re-elected one or more times in Uruguay, Bolivia, Costa Rica, and El Salvador.  Notably, leftist parties in some countries where they have been historically weak, such as Colombia and Honduras, have strengthened electorally and organizationally, laying the groundwork for further growth.  Leftists’ records elsewhere are mixed.  Rivalries among Ecuadorean leftists make their future uncertain.  Venezuelan President Maduro and Nicaraguan President Ortega have resorted to increasingly repressive and authoritarian measures to maintain their grip on power.

  • With the possible exception of Brazil, the right’s surge is not the result of the sort of social backlash that brought the left to power. In general, the right’s victories appear to be a routine alternation of power rather than a regional wave with common starting points and driving forces.  Argentina and Chile are the two clearest examples of routine electoral alternation of power explained by retrospective, anti-incumbency voting in contexts of economic slow-downs, corruption scandals, and social policy discontent.  In countries like Paraguay and Honduras, on the other hand, the shifts were initiated by non-electoral means – a politically motivated presidential impeachment in the former and a military coup in the latter – and then consolidated through elections after the fact.  In Brazil, the right turn can be traced back to the social protests that broke out against Dilma Rousseff’s leftist PT government in June 2013, but former conservative allies’ opportunistic impeachment of Rousseff, along with their imprisonment of former President and PT founder Lula, seriously weakened her party – paving the way for the election of anti-establishment candidate Jair Bolsonaro.

The left in power is still strong, though probably not unbeatable today, in countries like Bolivia and Uruguay, at least in part because of their roots in and strong connections with social movements.  Unlike the PT, both Bolivia’s MAS and Uruguay’s FA have managed to preserve more of their movement character and to avoid extreme forms of top-down control and professionalization.  The ability of mass popular constituencies and grass-roots activism to hold party leaders accountable and steer public policies in desired directions—a condition largely absent in countries like Brazil, Ecuador, and Venezuela—has helped the left maintain cohesion in Bolivia and Uruguay.  This cohesion, accompanied by significant reductions of inequality, helps to explain the continued vitality of left parties in these countries.  The recent strengthening of leftist alternatives in Mexico and Colombia, moreover, should guard against facile assumptions that a region wide right turn is underway.  Conservative forces’ recent victories are better understood as a reinforcement of the post-neoliberal left-right programmatic structuring of political competition in Latin America than a unidirectional political shift to the right.  That said, Brazil wields significant political and economic influence in the region and, traditionally seen as an “early mover” in the region, may be a bellwether of the future.  The ability of President Bolsonaro and his model of governance to deliver the results that Brazilians want—and to operate within the parameters of democratic institutions—will be key factors in determining the direction and strength of the region’s rightist wave.

January 9, 2019

*Santiago Anria is Assistant Professor of Political Science and Latin American Studies at Dickinson College, and Kenneth Roberts is Professor of Government and Director of Latin American Studies at Cornell University.

Guatemala: Is CICIG Dead?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Iván Velásquez and Jimmy Morales

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

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

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

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

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

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

November 21, 2018

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