The waves of Central American migrants heading northwards could soon be joined by Guatemalans fleeing a new explosion of violence unless Washington persuades the country’s president to revoke his decision to shut down a UN-backed crime commission, says the International Crisis Group.
In a report released this week, the Crisis Group, which includes former presidents, prime ministers and legislators from around the world as senior advisers, said the scheduled termination of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG in its Spanish initials) places the future of Guatemalan legal and institutional reforms “in doubt,” and will reverse that nation’s decline in homicides.
Noting that crime and gang violence in Central America accounts “for a rising tide of forced displacement and flight northward to Mexico and the U.S.,” the report said “the decision to remove a bulwark of judicial and police reform in the region is a strategic misstep in the campaign to quell insecurity and deter migration.”
Editor’s Note: Former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine) is listed as a “chairman emeritus” of the Crisis Group Advisory Council.
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales announced last August that the commission would be terminated in September 2019, claiming that it represented an unacceptable level of interference with his country’s domestic affairs.
The commission was created in 2006 in response to skyrocketing levels of violence fanned by organized crime and enabled by corrupt officials—a legacy of the country’s civil war which ended with a 1996 peace accord. Its two-year mandate has already been renewed four times, with popular support.
Traditionally the CICIG commissioner, appointed by the UN Secretary General, along with his senior staff, are foreigners, on the grounds that many of the Guatemalan elite who might qualify would be compromised by association with the country’s corrupt governing class—while those with clean records would be at risk of assassination.
But the CICIG’s aggressive anti-corruption measures, which have included the arrest of powerful Guatemalans such as then-president Otto Pérez Molina and then-Vice President Roxana Baldetti, have infuriated nationalists who say foreigners are trampling on their sovereignty.
Complicating matters, the Commission began investigating Morales himself last year following allegations that he accepted $1 million in illegal campaign donations.
Before the CICIG began operation, Guatemala suffered the same murderous violence as neighboring nations of Honduras and El Salvador in the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America. An estimated 120,000 Central Americans have been killed over the past decade—making the poverty-stricken region the site of the world’s highest homicide rates.
But while Honduras and El Salvador continue to be plagued by spiraling gang violence—one of the motors of the “caravan” of Central American refugees currently traveling through Mexico in hopes of finding safety and work in the U.S.—violent crime in Guatemala has plunged.
According to the Crisis Group study, the murder rate has declined by an average 5 percent annually since 2009, with an estimated net reduction of more than 4,500 homicides in the past decade. The study authors said the reduction was largely due to the Commission’s efforts.
“Nixing the CICIG could undo hard-won progress in public safety that has reduced the impetus for forced emigration,” they warned.
Morales, a former TV comic, was elected in 2015 on a nationalist platform that promoted conservative values with over 67 percent of the vote. Although he positioned himself as a corruption fighter, critics say he is allied with the clique of generals and politicians who have been targeted by the Commission’s tough anti-corruption efforts.
In a speech earlier this month, he lambasted the CICIG for selectively pursuing criminal cases based on ideological bias and for running a campaign of “judicial terror.”
The U.S. has contributed over $44 million to the commission, but in a visit to Guatemala City in February, then-UN envoy Nikki Haley appeared to share some of Morales’ criticisms.
“I think CICIG can improve on a lot of fronts,” said Haley. Declaring that although Washington still backed the Commission and its struggle against corruption, she added that Morales’ own anti-corruption efforts “were not getting heard.”
Morales’ defense of national sovereignty is likely to strike a chord with President Trump, who is a vocal champion of countries’ rights to manage their own affairs without interference from outsiders. And he has also likely gained points with the president after following the controversial U.S. decision to move its Israeli embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem with a similar decision of his own.
Although Trump has lumped Guatemala into his threat to cut off foreign aid to Central American nations unless they intervene to stop the immigrant caravan, his administration has maintained a diplomatic silence over the CICIG shutdown.
However, the Crisis Group warned, lukewarm support from Washington would virtually guarantee more problems at the U.S. border over the next 12 months.
“The U.S. would be unwise to allow the CICIG to perish, and [to] believe that border control alone can deter migration,” the report said. “Instead, Washington should once again put its full weight behind the commission and its reforms.”
In a barbed critique of Morales, the Crisis Group said the “Guatemalan government and its allies recognize that reducing criminal violence is a shared goal far more important than protecting officials inside or close to the current government.”
Nevertheless, few insiders believe that Morales will change his mind, despite an outcry from Guatemalan civil society groups.
See also: “Trump’s Cuts to Central America Aid Will Lead to More Caravans,” by Shannon O’Neill of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Stephen Handelman is editor of The Crime Report. Readers’ comments are welcome.