Poverty and violent crime continue to plague Guatemala over twenty years after its last left-wing guerrillas laid down their arms. More than half the population lives on less than $4 per day. Youth are particularly vulnerable to predatory street gangs. After spiking in 2009, crime rates have fallen due partly to a UN-sponsored investigative commission. But the government has terminated that body’s mandate early in response to a series of corruption probes, imperilling the fight against criminal impunity. Thousands of Guatemalans risk being robbed or assaulted on migratory routes. In its research and advocacy, Crisis Group encourages holistic reform and crime-fighting approaches that get at the root causes of insecurity.
President Jimmy Morales has made good on his promise to shut down a UN-backed commission fighting rampant crime and impunity in Guatemala. Though it leaves a vital legacy, the commission’s exit risks strengthening the hand of criminal networks that operate with state complicity.
Govt continued to take strong security measures to address COVID-19, while deportation flights from U.S. sparked tensions. Govt repeatedly extended COVID-19 state of emergency and related curfew imposed late March; 19 April relaxed internal travel restrictions, introduced 4 April, for all but four departments. Mayors and social leaders 3 April said money transfers to poorest, put in place by govt late-March in context of COVID-19, often end up in hands of wealthier households due to flawed data gathering. Govt 5 April subcontracted delivery of 3mn masks to company run by former colleague of President Giammattei’s wife, raising concerns over corruption; Giammattei 20 April dismissed two health vice-ministers and six other officials for alleged wrongdoing in purchase of medical equipment. Fearing social unrest, authorities as of 2 April reportedly trained 200 policemen to break up protests; police 22 March-17 April reportedly arrested more than 10,000 people for allegedly violating COVID-19 curfew. Deportation flights from U.S. sparked controversy; after health minister 14 April said deportations from U.S. contributed to COVID-19 spread in country, govt 16 April announced pause in flights. Residents fearing contagion in city of Quetzaltenango (west) 15 April staged protest against confinement centre hosting 80 Guatemalans deported from Mexico, throwing stones at them and threatening to set centre on fire. U.S. Sec State Pompeo 13 April said migratory flow from Central America dropped by 76% since May 2019 and announced restoral of some aid – cut in 2019 – to help country further tackle migration.
Next year, President Jimmy Morales vows he will end the mandate of the UN-backed Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. Hugely popular, the commission has helped reduce the country’s terrible murder rate. To keep it going, its supporters should refocus on fighting the worst violent crime.
Central American gangs are responsible for brutal acts of violence, abuse of women and forced displacement of thousands. Governments must go beyond punitive measures and address the social and economic roots of gang culture, tackle extortion schemes and invest in communities.
Dramatic changes upended Guatemalan politics in 2015. Forcing the pace were international prosecutors, bolstered in their fight against corruption and impunity by a great wave of support from ordinary citizens. If Guatemala’s national reforms continue when outside help leaves, it can become a true role model for the region.
Ending bloodshed in this neglected border region requires more than task forces: credible institutions, access to state services and continuing security are also needed.
Ensuring a prompt and fair retrial of former dictator José Efraín Ríos Montt is crucial to finally bringing justice to victims of the armed conflict and to reconciling a fragile democracy with its citizens.
The killing of protestors last October was a tragedy foretold by those who have long warned against Guatemala’s use of the armed forces to maintain domestic peace.
Guatemala struggles to adhere to the rule of law. Criminal actors have ways of influencing government decisions that do not produce good conditions for investment or for economic activity in general.
As the coronavirus spreads, and the U.S. presidential election looms, the Trump administration and Mexican government continue to deport migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Some deportees are carrying the virus. Central American states should press their northern neighbours for more stringent health measures.
A year after the election of would-be reformer Jimmy Morales as president, corruption investigations are casting a shadow over his inner circle. Recent appointments bring youth and oxygen to his faltering administration, but much still stands in the way of political renewal.
Originally published in Los Angeles Times