In a Democratic debate last week, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders argued that to deal with the migration crisis at the U.S. southern border, “we’ve got to ask ourselves, ‘Why are people walking 2,000 miles to a strange country where they don’t know the language?’ ”
It’s a sad day when a septuagenarian U.S. senator can’t grasp the reason for Central American poverty.
The migrants were born in countries that lack rule of law, respect for private property, and economic freedom. The nations of the Northern Triangle—El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras—instead have pursued Sanders-style social justice as a path to prosperity. It’s hardly a surprise their citizens enjoy neither.
Environmental mobs close down mining projects and chase away investors. Activists block roads to shake down the government; they invade farms and steal electricity with impunity. Well aware that upward economic mobility is nearly impossible, Central Americans vote with their feet.
The prospects for change aren’t promising. Ideas matter, and for generations the global left—mostly from Europe and the U.S.—has treated the region as its sandbox, where it goes to play with policies that don’t sell at home. Central America is macerated in the collectivist bunk of this elite, who promise utopia and deliver special-interest mercantilism and corrupt statism.
This is one reason Guatemalans were freaked out Friday when their Prensa Libre newspaper reported that Speaker Nancy Pelosi would lead a congressional delegation to Guatemala City this week “to meet with civil society, businessmen and other sectors.” Her office declined to comment for security reasons. But if she is going, it is worth asking why she would visit in the week before the Aug. 11 presidential runoff election.
The election is an important milestone in Guatemalan politics, and the deciding factor may be urban turnout. Despite a solid lead in a recent poll, center-right Vamos Party candidate Alejandro Giammattei isn’t a shoo-in. If voters in the big cities stay home, social democrat Sandra Torres of the National Unity of Hope Party could prevail.
Ms. Torres was first lady during the presidency of Alvaro Colom (2008-12) but divorced him in 2011 in an attempt to circumvent a constitutional prohibition on consecutively following a spouse into the executive office. The high court didn’t buy it, but she did make an unsuccessful run in 2015.
Ms. Torres is a left-wing populist. Her party, which is known as UNE, dominates rural and small-town Guatemala. Pocketbook issues are a priority in these parts and machine politics are the name of the game. By promising things like child and elder subsidies and tin roofs, UNE maintains a solid base.
Mr. Giammattei is by no means the first choice of Guatemalan conservatives. That designation goes to Zury Ríos, daughter of the late Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt, who held the presidency for less than 17 months after a 1982 coup. Ms. Ríos is a popular politician and made her own run for the presidency in 2015. This time around, the constitutional court blocked her candidacy because of her father’s role as a military dictator.
Yet Mr. Giammattei ran the prison system and pledges a tough-on-crime agenda. He says he will bring investment to the country. With UNE controlling Congress and much of the judicial branch, voters may prefer an executive check on social-democrat power.
Both candidates oppose the immigration-cooperation framework agreement that President Jimmy Morales signed with President Trump in July. The accord is short on detail, but as protocols are added, the expectation is that it will oblige Salvadorans and Hondurans who try to move north to the U.S. to apply for asylum in Guatemala. Speculation was running wild last week that Mrs. Pelosi’s visit was partly aimed at derailing the agreement for domestic American political reasons.
Both candidates promise to fight corruption, but voter apathy implies a high degree of public skepticism. The United Nations International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—a k a CICIG—was supposed to bring about the rule of law. But somewhere along the way the left realized it could use CICIG, accountable to no one, to grab power without the fuss of elections. A judicial reign of terror, designed to silence opposition, ended only in January, when President Morales kicked CICIG out of the country.
The media ran news stories for nearly a decade that read like CICIG press releases. But in March the Guatemalan attorney general petitioned the court to arrest CICIG’s closet Guatemalan collaborator, former Attorney General Thelma Aldana, on corruption charges. As the country’s top prosecutor, she ought to have protected civil liberties. Instead she permitted the commission’s abuses while it refused calls to investigate her. Guatemalans are still trying to recover confidence in their justice system.
Ms. Aldana, who had presidential aspirations, says she is being politically persecuted. But she has fled the country rather than face trial. If voters are uninspired by their political class, and afraid of help from Democrats, who could blame them?
Looking for help on immigration, the Trump administration is silent in the face of Guatemala’s effort to seal its dirty war archive.
With the quiet acquiescence of the Trump administration, the Guatemalan government is threatening to bar access to a collection of national archives that have been at the core of various attempts to prosecute Guatemalan politicians and officers responsible for some of Latin America’s most heinous atrocities.
The move to suppress the archives is part of a larger campaign by Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who faces allegations of receiving illicit campaign funds, to undercut the rule of law through the purge of judges, police officials, and archivists who have been at the forefront of Guatemala’s effort to investigate corruption, narcotrafficking, and war crimes, according to foreign diplomats and independent experts.
But senior U.S. officials in Washington and Guatemala City have rebuffed appeals from working-level staffers and foreign diplomats to publicly challenge Guatemala’s action. And U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration, which is seeking Guatemala’s help in stemming the flow of asylum-seekers and refugees into the United States, has remained largely silent over these developments.
One U.S. official said that America’s reluctance to confront Guatemala is part of a crude unwritten bargain between Morales’s government and the Trump administration: “They promise not to let brown people into the country, and we let them get away with everything else,” the official said.
The “assault on the police archive [is part of a] broader attack against human rights, justice, and anti-corruption efforts,” said Kate Doyle, a researcher at the National Security Archive and an expert on the Guatemalan archives. “The U.S. is saying nothing. The U.S. Embassy has been incredibly absent on these issues. They are not doing anything.”
In the latest sign of U.S. reluctance to challenge Guatemala on human rights, Kimberly Breier, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs, blocked the release of a public statement in early June that would have urged Guatemala to back down on its effort to restrict access to the archives.
“These archives are an essential source of information to clarify and understand critical historical truths from Guatemala’s history,” reads the statement obtained by Foreign Policy, which was suppressed in June. “Access to the archives by historians, victims of abuse recorded in these archives and their families, the public, and the international community, has furthered Guatemala’s progress towards accountability, justice, truth and reconciliation.”
Foreign Policy sought a response from the Trump administration last Wednesday. The State Department did not respond until nearly an hour and half after this article was published Tuesday.
“The United States strongly supports continued public access to the Historical Archive of the National Police,” according to a statement from a spokesperson from the State Department’s Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs. The Tuesday statement included the two sentence cited by Foreign Policy in the suppressed statement.
The initial decision to block the statement—which had been approved by the State Department press office, the U.S. Embassy in Guatemala, and several other key bureaus—came as the United States was engaged in sensitive negotiations on a so-called safe third country agreement, which would commit Guatemala to process political asylum claims from foreigners, particularly from El Salvador and Honduras, who cross its border in transit to the United States. “My understanding is Kim Breier killed this because she didn’t want to do anything that would piss off the Guatemalans,” said one congressional aide.
During the past two decades, the United States has invested in efforts to strengthen the rule of law in Guatemala,
- funding a United Nations commission that investigates corruption and illicit activities by armed groups,
- strengthening the judiciary, and
- training and equipping police units with expertise in counternarcotics and corruption.
- The United States has spent millions of dollars over the years to preserve the police archives, including through the provision of document scanners and the funding of a digitized archive maintained by scholars at the University of Texas at Austin.
Guatemala’s bloody 36-year-long civil war resulted in the deaths of about 200,000 people, mostly at the hands of the Guatemalan security forces. A 1996 U.N.-brokered peace agreement paved the way for the return of exiled rebels, established a new national police force, and pried open the door to the prospect of public reckoning for crimes committed during the war. The Guatemalan military and police resisted, denying that they had preserved detailed records of their activities during the conflict. But in 2005, more than 80 million documents and records, dating from 1882 to 1997, were discovered in seven rat-infested rooms at an unused hospital building in Guatemala City owned by Guatemala’s now-defunct National Police.
Since then, the Guatemalan National Police Historical Archive has helped convict more than 30 military officers, soldiers and paramilitaries, including a former presidential chief of staff, Manuel Callejas y Callejas, convicted of crimes against humanity, and Guatemala’s late dictator, Gen. Rios Montt—who was found guilty in 2013 of genocide for overseeing mass atrocities in the early 1980s — though his conviction was later overturned by Guatemala’s constitutional court.
The archive has proved a valuable resource for U.S. law enforcement. The Department of Justice and Immigration and Customs Enforcement have used the archive to identify Guatemalan rights abusers living in the United States.
But the management of the archives has long infuriated some of those in Guatemala’s most powerful business and security sectors, who believed that it has been used as a tool of the left to gain revenge against their former enemies. They have cited the role of the archive’s former director, Gustavo Meoño Brenner, a former guerrilla leader who has recruited staff from the country’s left wing to run the archives. In August 2018, the U.N. Development Program, which has helped administer the archive program since 2008, abruptly dismissed Meoño Brenner. He has since fled the country, following death threats.
The move to restrict archive access is only one element of a wider effort to defang justice institutions in Guatemala. In September, a landmark U.N. International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala—known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG—whose corruption investigations landed a Guatemalan president and vice president in jail will shutter its office.
The demise of the commission, which had also exposed alleged illegal campaign contributions in Morales’s 2015 presidential campaign, came after a two-year-long effort by the president and his allies, including sympathetic Republican lawmakers and Trump administration officials in Washington, to undermine it. Pro-military lawmakers in the Guatemalan Congress, meanwhile, have been pressing to pass an amnesty law that would result in the release of dozens of military officers and death squad leaders from jail. That effort has been stalled by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court.
The effort to suppress the archives is being spearheaded by Guatemalan Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart, a popular figure in Washington, who has represented Guatemala in the safe third country negotiations.
In a May 27 press conference, Degenhart announced that his office and Guatemala’s National Civil Police would seek greater control of the archive. He also threatened to limit access to the archives by foreign institutions, an apparent reference to the University of Texas at Austin, which has assembled a massive digitized version of a large portion of the police archive. “You can’t allow foreign institutions to have the complete archives,” Degenhart told reporters.
In response, the U.N. and other foreign envoys invited the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala, Luis Arreaga, to join ambassadors from several other countries, including Canada, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, on a visit to the archive to voice opposition to granting police greater control over the archives. Arreaga declined. The spokesperson from the State Department Bureau of Western Hemispheric Affairs declined to comment on whether Arreaga declined the invitation.
In Washington, State Department officials sought support within the administration for a public statement that would place the United States squarely on the side of those seeking to preserve broad public access to the archives.
“The message [Guatemalan authorities] are getting is we don’t care what you do as long as you do everything in your power to prevent” foreigners from reaching the U.S. border, said Rep. Norma Torres, a California Democrat who was born in Guatemala. If that requires “supporting a corrupt government, that is what [the Trump administration] is going to do.”
Public messaging and statements from U.S. envoys and the State Department can have an outsized political impact in Central America, former diplomats say. “It’s astonishing how important the U.S. voice is in terms of journalists, human rights defenders, civil society … in this region,” said Roberta Jacobson, a former U.S. ambassador to Mexico and assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. “There are clearly things that governments would do, actions it would take, but for the U.S. watching and speaking out,” she said.
The lack of response, according to diplomats, emboldened Guatemala to ratchet up its campaign against the archives.
In early July, the Guatemalan Ministry of Culture and Sports informed the U.N. Development Program, which administers the archive budget on behalf of foreign donors, that it would take over full management of the archives, raising questions about its financial viability. The U.N., which pays staff salaries, was forced to lay off the archives researchers and archivists.
On July 10, Guatemala fired its chief national archivist, Anna Carla Ericastilla, on the grounds that she provided access to foreign institutions, including the University of Texas, and improperly raised funds from donors to pay salaries to archivists.
Degenhart, meanwhile, has overseen a massive purge of Guatemala’s reformed police force after being named interior minister in January 2018. The following month, he fired the director of the National Civil Police, Nery Ramos, along with three other top cops. All told, Degenhart fired some 25 ranking officers and more than 100 agents, including 20 of the 45 police agents assigned to work with the U.N. anti-corruption office.
Guatemalans “have observed a systematic process of dismantling the National Civil Police, ordered by the interior minister himself, who seems determined to destroy 20 years of progress,” according to an August 2018 study by the Forum of Civil Society Organizations Specializing in Security, or FOSS.
The fate of the archive has become inextricably linked to the White House immigration policy.
The threat to curtail access to the archives came on the same day that Degenhart had signed an agreement with Kevin McAleenan, the acting U.S. secretary of homeland security, for the deployment of 89 agents from U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection in Guatemala to help stem the flow of refugees through the country. It also coincided with the Trump administration’s negotiation of a safe third party agreement with Degenhart.
Trump in March ordered all U.S. aid to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras to be cut until they drastically reduced the number of migrants traveling north through Mexico to attempt to enter the United States. Critics, including both Democratic and Republican lawmakers, said the move would only exacerbate the migration crisis, as U.S. assistance helped address root causes of instability that caused people to flee north.
In June, the State Department announced it would release $432 million of the $615 million in aid to Central America, but it warned that new funding would not be released until the Northern Triangle governments took more steps to address migration.
Last week, the Trump administration announced that it had reached agreement on the safe third country pact, which would commit Guatemala to processing political asylum claims from migrants who cross its border in transit to the United States. The U.S. has yet to publish a copy of the pact, leading to speculation about what the deal actually entails.
Still, the move has raised concern about the constitutionality of the agreement. Guatemala’s constitutional court has already asserted that such an agreement would require approval by the Guatemalan Congress. Democratic lawmakers and other activists have criticized the move and vowed to fight it in courts. Democratic Rep. Eliot Engel, the chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said it is “cruel and immoral. It is also illegal.”
“Simply put, Guatemala is not a safe country for refugees and asylum seekers, as the law requires,” Engel said in a statement released on July 26, after the Trump administration and Guatemalan government signed the agreement.
After Guatemala joined the United States in moving its embassy to Jerusalem, the Trump administration has been working to weaken an international commission on corruption that is targeting the Guatemalan president, according to three people familiar with the discussions.
The Trump administration is still debating what specific changes it wants to pursue, but talks between agencies have alarmed supporters in Guatemala and Washington who feel the changes could undercut the role the United Nations-backed body plays in combating official corruption and other root causes of illegal immigration.
Proposed changes to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, include changing the body’s mandate to more narrowly redefine corruption, increasing reporting requirements for donors, limiting terms of the commissioner and appointing a deputy commissioner which Guatemala would help select, according to the sources.
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, who with his family is a target of CICG’s investigations, has accused CICIG of abusing its power and has tried to oust the commissioner, Iván Velásquez.
Until recently, the criticism largely went unheeded as the agency got credit for tackling crime and corruption. But the body now faces its own accusations of corruption and abusing its power that Republicans say has gone unchecked for too long.
The White House was particularly grateful to Morales for backing Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital amid international uproar. Guatemala was the second country to move its embassy there from Tel Aviv after the U.S. did earlier this year. Jerusalem is a divided capital with part of it in Palestinian territory.
“The only reason why the U.S. is all about it is because they’re so happy with Guatemala that they moved the embassy to Jerusalem,” said one U.S. source with direct knowledge of the conversations. “Just because the president (Morales) is upset that CICIG is investigating some of his family members then he makes a decision to do the whole thing in Israel to get in front of the Trump administration and then tell Trump, ‘Help me on CICIG.’ “
The United States has spent $44.5 million – the largest individual donor – supporting CICIG since it was established in 2007.
Created to confront and dismantle illegal security forces and criminal networks that have infiltrated all levels of government and society, CICIG has largely received bipartisan support in Washington and international praise around the world for its work providing democratic stability in a violent country that thousands of migrants flee each year to come to the U.S.
It has identified more than 60 criminal networks and helped the Guatemalan attorney general convict more than 200 people for corruption, including politicians, judges, police officers and drug traffickers.
The most high profile case was in 2015, when CICIG helped uncover a customs fraud scheme that led to the resignations of then-President Otto Perez Molina, his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, and members of his cabinet.
State Department officials acknowledged CICIG’s role in fighting corruption helps stop illegal immigration to the United States. A spokesperson for the department’s Western Hemisphere Affairs bureau wouldn’t address specific proposed changes, but said CICIG must continue to tackle corruption and impunity that undermines security in Guatemala.
“Any reform of CICIG should only serve to strengthen the commission and preserve its important, independent mandate,” the spokesperson said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Republicans say CICIG began fighting transnational criminal networks, but Velázquez has led CICIG to focus more on splashier, white-collar investigations that were not what the body was created for.
“They seem more interested in these high-profile, publicity-garnering initiatives like going after Morales’s brother and third cousin, I mean, come on, and then basking in the adulation, to be blunt about it, from the international do-gooders,” said José Cárdenas, who served in the National Security Council under George W. Bush and regularly speaks with Trump administration officials.
Some Republicans became alarmed about CICIG after it helped prosecute a Russian family who was convicted of buying false passports in Guatemala. Igor Bitkov and his family argued they fled Russia in 2009 and looked for safe haven in Guatemala after receiving physical and legal threats from the Russian government looking into their paper business.
The congressional Helsinki Commission held an emergency hearing in April on whether the U.N. body helped “the Kremlin destroy a Russian family.”
Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fl., one of CICIG’s most powerful critics and who has Trump’s ear on this issue, wrote to Morales, questioning “CICIG’s ability to remain free from the corruption that it has been charged with prosecuting.”
Rubio pushed for a hold on $6 million in U.S. funding for CICIG and credited it with generating momentum for needed reforms.
“Until recently, there has been little congressional oversight on how CICIG spends millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars,” Rubio told McClatchy. ”Recent examples, especially the case of the Bitkov family, demonstrate the need for increased transparency.”
Morales was elected in the wake of Pérez Molina’s downfall and ran with the slogan “neither corrupt nor a thief.” Morales pledged his strong support for CICIG and worked with the team until it uncovered more than $800,000 in campaign financing that he couldn’t explain.
Morales declared Velásquez persona “non grata” and ordered him to leave the country. The courts blocked the move.
But Velásquez and members of the private sector didn’t give up.
Wealthy Guatemalans are spending $80,000 a month for Washington lobbyists to promote “the rule of law”, a campaign some say is designed to target CICIG. And Morales has been currying favor with Trump, including the embassy move, which some U.S. allies slammed as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘dangerous.’
After the U.N. passed a resolution condemning the United States for recognizing Jerusalem, U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley invited those countries that voted with Washington to a reception to thank them for their “friendship to the United States.” She then traveled to Guatemala where she told CICG that the U.S. saw room for improvement and they should work more quietly — like the FBI.
Benjamin Gedan, who served as National Security Council director for Latin America during the Obama administration, said it’s unusual that the Guatemalan president is spending so much political capital “begging the White House to neuter CICIG.”
“You’d think he’d be seeking foreign aid from the United States, or defending the rights of Guatemalan migrants,” Gedan said. “Instead, he is colluding to undermine one of the country’s most effective, and popular, institutions.”
CICIG officials said any changes to its charter must be approved by the United Nations and the Guatemalan government.
CICIG spokesman Matías Ponce told McClatchy it is committed to transparency and open to suggestions on how to improve its work. But he slammed attempts to tie the Kremlin and the U.N. body as part of a campaign to undercut the group’s work.
He added that investigations into the private sector and political arena were natural progressions of their pursuit after clandestine security networks that have infiltrated Guatemalan society.
“It is natural for the groups affected by the investigations to react against the commission,” Ponce said. “Currently there are hundreds of people belonging to groups and very powerful sectors affected by investigations or already convicted. The opposition and campaign against is therefore great.”
To make any changes, the United States would also have to convince other major donors to CICIG.. Some, like the government of Holland, have publicly praised CICIG and the commissioner.
“We are 100% behind the valuable work of the @CICIGgt and its Commissioner @Ivan_Velasquez_ in the fight against impunity and in favor of justice,” the embassy of Holland tweeted after Reina Bujis, Deputy Director-General for International Cooperation at the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs met with the Velásquez two weeks ago.
A 2017 poll by Vanderbilt University showed that 70 percent of Guatemalans support the CICIG.
Fernando Carrera, former Guatemalan foreign minister, sees room for improvement, but said any changes must not weaken CICIG and should be timed after the next election so as not to encourage corrupt political forces.
“Let’s put it this way, for those who defend the commission, there are some extremist people who believe that only commission as it is and only the commissioner that exists can provide the right leadership for the fight against corruption,” Carrera. “I don’t go that far.”
Human rights officials and activists have warned that the rule of law in Guatemala is under threat after a UN-backed special prosecutor was banned from re-entering the country – the latest in a series of clashes between the government and an international anti-corruption commission.
The country’s human rights ombudsman, Jordán Rodas, said in a statement on Tuesday that the government’s actions destabilize the rule of law, and expressed his dismay at “the arbitrary measures of the Government of the Republic that undermine democracy”.
Anti-corruption activists fear that the pioneering anti-corruption work of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, Cicig, is now at risk.
Guatemala’s current president, Jimmy Morales, and his family are also the subject of multiple corruption investigations. On Friday, Morales announced he would not renew Cicig’s mandate, which ends in September 2019.
A staunch US ally, Guatemala was one of the handful of countries that backed Trump’s decision in December to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved its own embassy to the city just two days after the US relocated its diplomatic mission.
In the past, the US has been among Cicig’s strongest supporters, but it has not clearly condemned Morales’s recent attempts to derail the commission’s work. In May, Senator Marco Rubio placed a hold on $6m of US funding to Cicig, claiming the panel was being manipulated by radical elements.
Cicig’s success in bringing down corrupt officials, judges and lawyers has soared during the five-year tenure of the head commissioner, Iván Velásquez.
But on Tuesday, the government announced that Velásquez, currently in the US, would not be allowed back into the country, alleging that he was a threat to order and public security.
“The decision to declare Cicig commissioner Iván Velásquez as a threat to national security is an absurdity. The only threat to national security is the arbitrary and illegal action of a ruler accused of accepting illegal financing,” Iduvina Hernández, the director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy in Guatemala, told the Guardian.
Morales, a former TV comedian, has been accused of illicit campaign financing during his 2015 run for president and is currently facing proceedings in congress that could strip him of his immunity from prosecution, though previous attempts to do so have failed.
Last year, Morales declared Velásquez persona non grata, but a successful constitutional court challenge filed by the ombudsman Rodas reversed the measure.
Oswaldo Samayoa, a constitutional lawyer and university professor, considers the ban of Velásquez to be a violation of the 2017 ruling.
“It’s a violation of the principle of constitutional legality. It involves the disobedience of the president and therefore a crime has been committed,” he told the Guardian.
The opposition congresswoman Sandra Morán shares the widespread view that Rodas and the constitutional court are the targets of legislative reform under consideration this week in congress. The reforms would transfer powers from the supreme court to congress that can facilitate the ousting of officials, including constitutional court judges.
“If they replace one judge, the balance of power shifts,” Morán told the Guardian. “It would mean that they would have total control.”
Guatemala has a long history of authoritarian rule, particularly during a 36-year armed conflict in which US-backed state forces carried out acts of genocide against the indigenous Mayan population. Despite a 1996 peace deal, the conditions that led to the conflict remain, and the country’s fraught peace has been plagued by organized crime, drug trafficking, violence and corruption.
The UN secretary general, António Guterres, asked Velásquez to continue at the helm of Cicig from outside Guatemala until there is more clarity on the situation, the UN said on Tuesday.
But Jorge Santos, the director of Udefegua, a national human rights group, warned that there is a danger that Morales could disregard, dissolve or otherwise attack the constitutional court.
“Right now in the country there’s a really major risk of a return to the old patterns that gave rise to the Guatemalan dictatorship,” he said.