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Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border
Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary

Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border

Ending bloodshed in this neglected border region requires more than task forces: credible institutions, access to state services and continuing security are also needed.

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Executive Summary

One of the most dangerous areas in Central America is located along the border of Guatemala with Honduras. The murder rate is among the highest in the world. The absence of effective law enforcement has allowed wealthy traffickers to become de facto authorities in some areas, dispensing jobs and humanitarian assistance but also intimidating and corrupting local officials. Increasing competition over routes and the arrest or killing of top traffickers has splintered some criminal groups, empowering new, often more violent figures. President Otto Pérez Molina has promised to bolster Guatemala’s borders with joint police/military task forces, but the government must also take immediate, comprehensive efforts to bring rule of law and economic opportunity to its long neglected periphery.

Over the past decade, drug routes through Central America have become more viciously competitive. The Mexican government’s offensive against the cartels forced traffickers to land drugs first in Central America. The entry point of choice is often Honduras, where the 2009 coup weakened already fragile institutions of law enforcement and justice. Its long Atlantic coastline and remote interior plains, with little population or infrastructure, offer the ideal environment for drug boats and small planes to operate undetected.

From Honduras, the drugs pass into Guatemala, where family trafficking networks working with Mexican cartels transport them overland toward U.S. markets. These networks have traditionally operated under the radar, corrupting government officials and co-opting popular support, but they have come under stress as a result of the struggle for routes and pressure from the government. An emboldened public prosecutors’ office, under the leadership of former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and with the help of the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), arrested both Mexican operatives – especially members of the hyper-violent Zetas cartel – and top Guatemalan traffickers wanted on charges in the U.S. The capture of these local drug lords has shaken once powerful organisations, allowing a new generation of sometimes more violent criminals to emerge.

The arrest of suspected drug lords can be a mixed blessing for the residents of some border communities. One of the hardest hit networks is that of the Lorenzana family in the department of Zacapa. The family patriarch, Waldemar Lorenzana, was arrested in 2011 and extradited to the U.S. in March 2014. Authorities also arrested two of his sons on U.S. charges, while a third is a fugitive with a $200,000 reward on his head. The Lorenzanas deny that cocaine smuggling is the source of their wealth, citing their legitimate businesses such as fruit-exporting. Some Zacapa residents complain that the arrests of Waldemar and his sons have cost jobs and sparked a struggle among splinter groups for dominance.

These less well-known but still powerful groups continue not only to move drugs but also to create other illegal enterprises, such as loan sharking and local retail drug sales, thus fuelling further violence. Their wealth and firepower make them de facto authorities, admired by some and feared by many. Residents of Zacapa and Chi­qui­mula departments often assume police and local politicians have been paid off or intimidated by powerful criminals. A climate of distrust taints politics and inhibits journalists and other civic actors from holding local leaders accountable.

The Pérez Molina government has created inter-institutional task forces for border areas that include military troops, civilian police, prosecutors and customs officials. This is a first step toward bringing security to the border, provided the units are under civilian control and respect human rights. Bringing security to these regions, however, also requires building credible, democratic institutions. Local police should be vetted and held accountable, while given the resources and training to arrest powerful criminals. Local politicians should be required to report campaign contributions and also given public resources so their constituents can rely on government – not criminal bosses – for vital services and humanitarian assistance.

An urgent shift in national policy is required: the government should send not just troops and police to border regions, but also educators, community organisers, social workers, doctors and public health officials. Guatemala and Honduras should learn from regional experiences, such as the border development programs in the process of being implemented in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Honduras, where overall levels of violence are higher and institutional capacity weaker, is in particularly dire need of assistance. Donors – especially the U.S. – should put their money, training and technical aid behind public security and violence prevention on the border rather than focusing primarily on controls and interdiction.

Next to a sign reading "Rest in peace CICIG", people protest against the United Nations International Commission Against Impunity, CICIG, in Guatemala City on 8 January 2019. Noe Perez / AFP
Q&A / Latin America & Caribbean

Curtain Falls on Guatemala’s International Commission against Impunity

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.

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What happened?

The UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) closes its doors today, twelve years after embarking on its mission to help the country prosecute serious crimes and support the rule of law. The CICIG worked with Guatemala’s security and judicial institutions to dismantle criminal organisations and impede their collusion with state officials. The expansion of these criminal networks had contributed to the doubling of murder rates in Central America’s most populous country between 1999 and 2006. By then, the annual homicide rate had reached an historic high of 43.6 killings per 100,000 inhabitants, leading a UN rapporteur to rue that Guatemala was “a good place to commit a murder, because you will almost certainly get away with it”.

Guatemala’s outgoing president, Jimmy Morales, initially supportive of the CICIG, made terminating it a policy priority over the past two years. A political novice famed for comedy sketches on television, Morales swept to office in 2015 on a wave of public outrage at the political establishment following then-president Otto Pérez Molina’s resignation and arrest on corruption charges in a case of customs fraud filed by the CICIG, for which he is still untried.

Even though its case against Pérez Molina helped pave the way for his election, Morales later argued that the commission trampled on the nation’s sovereignty and routinely overstepped its mandate. His hostility escalated markedly after CICIG decided to investigate him, his son and his brother for fraud, embezzlement and campaign finance violations in 2017. Even though the Guatemalan Congress refused to lift President Morales’ immunity in September 2017 – in effect shielding him from prosecution – and his brother and son were recently acquitted, Morales’ relationship with the CICIG soured permanently. In August 2017, Morales declared the CICIG’s head Iván Velásquez, a Colombian jurist, persona non grata. Then, in 2018, he announced that the commission’s mandate, due to expire in September 2019, would not be renewed. The commission’s closing today marks the fulfilment of that pledge.

How did the U.S. and other donors react?

Although Morales’ decision not to renew the CICIG’s mandate sparked domestic and international outcry, the U.S. – the commission’s main donor with almost $45 million in contributions – chose not to push back. In September 2018, the CICIG donors’ group (known as the G13), released a statement regretting the government’s decision, which the U.S. did not sign.

The U.S.’s about-face on the commission was partly the product of an effective influence campaign. Intense lobbying in Washington by Guatemalan politicians and business figures, many alarmed by probes into the thicket of collusion between companies and political leaders, helped to turn various U.S. politicians against the commission. Unproven allegations that Moscow had penetrated the commission’s 2015 investigations against the Bitkov family, who came to Guatemala fleeing Russian persecution and were then accused of securing their residency papers through corrupt means, helped give the campaign against the CICIG some traction in the U.S. Congress.

President Morales, meanwhile, curried favour with the Trump administration by moving the Guatemalan embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in February 2018, and aligning closely with U.S. efforts to dislodge Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro. He also bowed to Washington’s hard line on migration control, signing a Safe Third Country agreement in July 2019. Should it be ratified by the Guatemalan Congress, the agreement will oblige asylum seekers transiting through Guatemala, largely from other Central American countries, to file their requests there rather than in the U.S.

Right-wing President-elect Alejandro Giammattei has already stated he will not reverse Morales’ decision. He has his own grievances with the CICIG, which helped convict and imprison him in 2010 for his alleged involvement in executing seven prisoners while he was head of Guatemala’s prisons, for which he was later exonerated. But CICIG’s popularity among donors and the Guatemalan people – 70 per cent of whom support the commission – has at least persuaded Giammattei to promise a replacement body, funded by the state and headed by three Guatemalan commissioners who, in his words, “will not only prosecute corrupt figures, as did CICIG, but attack the system that fosters corruption”. Doubts remain over the effectiveness of such a new body, both because it would need years to become operational, as did the CICIG, and because commissioners would be designated by the incoming government, raising questions about its independence despite Giammattei’s promise to ensure a transparent, inclusive selection.

Did the commission achieve its goals?

The CICIG made impressive progress, playing a central role in numerous high-profile prosecutions and in reducing violence across the country. Among other things, the CICIG piloted reforms creating a witness protection program, tighter gun controls and rules for court-ordered wiretaps. It spurred the establishment of high-risk crime courts to protect the safety of individuals involved in the prosecution of especially grave crimes, and a special prosecutor’s office against impunity (FECI in Spanish) within the Attorney General’s office. It also trained dozens of prosecutors and police officers in scientific criminal investigation techniques – achieving notoriety in 2010 by proving that a presumed murder victim who claimed in a widely-circulated video that senior officials, including former president Álvaro Colom, had threatened his life, had actually plotted his own homicide in an act of despondency.

Hundreds of investigations hatched or supported by the CICIG have successfully broken up rackets involving prominent officials, business leaders, drug traffickers, extortionists and street gangs. Its work helped oust a dozen corrupt judges, and led to the removal of 1,700 police officials accused of corruption and incompetence. According to the CICIG, unsolved murder cases fell from 95 per cent in 2009 to 72 per cent in 2012.

As Crisis Group has previously reported, these achievements saved lives. In the first seven years of the commission’s operations, while the country’s neighbours and regional peers experienced a 1 per cent annual rise in homicide rates on average, Guatemala saw an average 5 per cent decline, according to World Bank’s figures. Overall, Crisis Group estimates that the CICIG has contributed to a net reduction of more than 4,500 homicides between 2007 and 2017.

What risks does Guatemala face after CICIG’s exit?

The greatest danger is that impunity for serious crimes will rise again, with murder rates and emigration following suit.

According to a recent CICIG report, criminal networks have already begun to revive techniques for obstructing judicial investigations. This has contributed to a fresh spike in impunity rates, which ticked back to 94.2 per cent for homicide cases in 2018, indicating that fragile improvements can easily erode as political support wanes. Had its mandate been renewed, the CICIG might have helped stem the tide, as its presence brought with it UN, U.S. and European backing for robust judicial operations and protection for Guatemalan prosecutors and magistrates. As the lapse of its mandate has approached, threats and attacks have already risen against judges in the Constitutional Court. Attorney General Consuelo Porras has committed to consolidating FECI’s role, but has not confirmed whether her prosecution service will employ the dozens of Guatemalan professionals who built considerable expertise working for the commission.

With the CICIG’s exit, high-level officials and politicians may take advantage of weaker oversight, falling back into the patterns of corruption and state collusion with drug trafficking and other criminal organisations that multiple CICIG cases uncovered. Violence against land rights and other political activists, for which Guatemala already reports the highest per capita rate in the Americas, could worsen. “We are already starting to see a deceleration in the long-term trend of homicide reduction”, said an analyst at the Guatemalan Observatory of Violence.

Although Guatemalans already try to migrate to the U.S. in large numbers for mainly economic reasons, increasing corruption and insecurity are likely to accelerate flight to the north, creating opportunities for criminals who prey on vulnerable migrants through extortion, human smuggling and sexual exploitation.

What significance does CICIG’s closure have for the region?

The CICIG’s closure sets an alarming precedent. The commission had a worthy mandate, more than enough work to do, and the support of the Guatemalan people. What it lacked, in recent years, was sufficient support from the U.S. The evaporation of Washington’s support sends a stark message that the Trump administration is ready to trade away the fight against corruption and for protecting the rule of law in favour of other objectives – including restricting migration and eliciting support for its Israel policy. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández could feel tempted to follow Morales’ example as he considers the fate of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), a body backed by the Organization of American States whose mandate expires in January 2020. Although the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa has reiterated its support for MACCIH, it has also backed the Honduran government’s request that the OAS assess the body’s work before it takes a final decision. It will be critically important that the U.S. not repeat the cold shoulder posture that led to the CICIG’s demise.

At the same time, the CICIG leaves behind a set of accomplishments that others in the region would do well to emulate. Whereas anti-corruption campaigns in other Latin American countries, especially Brazil, have faced criticism over their allegedly selective choice of culprits, political bias and failure to address the conditions that enable graft and impunity to flourish, this charge is far harder to level against the CICIG. Indeed, both candidates in the second round of the last presidential election in Guatemala faced CICIG investigations, and one of them (Sandra Torres) was actually detained on 2 September on illicit electoral financing and unlawful association charges. In scything through the political establishment, the commission spurred its unpopularity with high-level officials – both hastening its demise and securing a legacy that future reformers can look to in taking up the work it was prematurely forced to set aside.