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.
Why else would he pursue so many policies in Latin America that do not serve the national interest?
Americans can be forgiven if they struggle to find any coherence in the Trump administration’s foreign policy. It zigs and zags, with senior administration officials saying one thing and President Trump contradicting them without warning the next day. It punishes our allies and coddles our adversaries; it privileges demagogy over democracy. Mr. Trump’s approach appears impulsive, improvisational and inchoate — devoid of clear purpose, values or even ideology.
Yet, upon closer examination, there is indeed a consistent logic staring us in the face. The unifying theme of Mr. Trump’s foreign policy is simply to service his domestic politics.
Mr. Trump welcomes and encourages Russia, a hostile adversary, to interfere in our elections so long as the manipulations benefit him. He discards decades of bipartisan policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to curry favor with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, and thus right-wing political support. The president follows a basic, if unorthodox, playbook: He and his party over our country.
Nowhere is this pattern more consistently apparent than in the administration’s dealings with Latin America. In recent weeks, Mr. Trump has taken a series of actions that are not tied to coherent strategies and will not deliver the desired results — if those results are to be measured in terms of achieving American foreign policy objectives. Rather, they may succeed only to the extent that they help Mr. Trump gain re-election by dishing up red meat to energize the Republican base.
Take Cuba. Last month, the Trump administration turned the clock back to the Cold War, imposing the harshest forms of sanctions against Cuba allowable under United States law. Mr. Trump reversed the policy of his Republican and Democratic predecessors by permitting Americans to sue foreign companies that use property confiscated without compensation by the Castro regime.
The administration also canceled a deal to allow Cuban baseball players to play in the United States, sharply constrained remittances and promised to end most forms of nonfamily travel, actions that will directly harm Cuba’s people and nascent private sector. In triumphantly announcing this policy shift before veterans of the Bay of Pigs invasion, the national security adviser, John Bolton, repeatedly stressed the contrast with President Obama’s approach and pledged relentless pursuit of regime change.
Anyone familiar with the 60-plus years of failed United States policy toward Cuba before Mr. Obama’s opening in 2014 knows that the embargo only strengthened the Castro regime’s grip on its long-suffering people. Instead of causing the collapse of the Cuban government or the abandonment of its ally Venezuela, Mr. Trump’s approach will again bolster hard-liners in Havana, entrench policies we oppose, drive Cuba closer to Russia and China, further isolate and impoverish the Cuban people and punish our European and Canadian allies, whose companies will now be sued.
Yet, this policy reversal surely pleases the old guard among Cuban émigrés, as it did the Bay of Pigs celebrants who cheered Bolton. Given the changing attitudes among younger Cuban-Americans who largely supported Mr. Obama’s engagement, it remains to be seen how much political sway the hard-liners still have in the crucial battleground state of Florida. Still, Mr. Trump is betting on firing up that faction.
Not content to bank only on the Cuban community in Florida, Mr. Trump is also courting the state’s many Venezuelan immigrants, who justifiably detest the government of President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas. To hasten Mr. Maduro’s exit, the Trump administration has rightly joined with regional and international partners to impose sanctions against Mr. Maduro, his government and cronies, and to recognize the opposition leader, Juan Guaidó, as interim president.
At the end of last week, the caravan arrived on the doorstep to Mexico. Under pressure from the U.S., Mexico offered the migrants asylum but said it would only let in groups of 150 to 200 people a day to process their requests. Anyone crossing the border illegally would be deported, Mexican officials warned.
The Honduran government estimates that 2,000 migrants returned home. Mexico says another 1,000 or so have applied for asylum. But the majority—about 5,000, according to the Mexican government—crossed the border illegally, mostly on rickety rafts run by human smugglers.
.. “We can’t get to the northern border all together” said Irineo Mujica, the head of People without Borders, a U.S.-Mexico nonprofit that has backed the caravan since its arrival in Guatemala. Such a huge group moving across Mexico days before the U.S. midterms, he added, would embolden Mr. Trump. “If this full caravan arrives to the U.S. border, it would be like a declaration of war,” Mr. Mujica said.
.. Most migrants say they want to get to the U.S. but generally don’t know what legal options they have ahead. Many said they were determined to abandon Honduras, which has among the world’s highest rates of violence. When they saw news on television that a caravan had left from San Pedro Sula heading north, many thought it was the right moment to leave.
.. She said a criminal gang extorted her family business and demanded a “war tax,” calling it that because “if you don’t pay the gang destroys your business and kills you.”
.. For many would-be migrants, leaving in a caravan is attractive because they can avoid paying some $5,000 in smugglers’ fees and are safer traveling in numbers... “Most Mexicans are sympathetic to the migrants, so politically it becomes very difficult for the government to move against the caravan given it has such visibility,” he said. “On the other hand, you don’t want to anger the U.S. and be seen as just allowing migrants to cross through your country freely.”.. On Sunday, Mr. Trump warned the migrants on Twitter that if they didn’t accept Mexico’s offer of asylum, they would be denied entry to the U.S. He said Monday the caravan included “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners,” without offering evidence... For fiscal year 2019, the U.S. plans to send about
- $70 million in aid to Guatemala,
- $66 million to Honduras and
- $46 million to El Salvador,
according to the State Department. Most of the funds go to
- violence prevention,
- justice and rule-of-law programs, along with
- funding for border and narcotics enforcement.
.. Cutting aid to Central American countries would be a mistake, since U.S. aid dollars fund programs that reduce violence, strengthen the justice system, and encourage investment that make them more attractive places for their citizens, said Marcela Escobari, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution.
.. Studies have shown that once a country’s GDP per capita reaches between $6,000 and $8,000, the gains from migrating somewhere become less attractive, who served under President Barack Obama as head of Latin America for the U.S. Agency for International Development.
“We need to stop these countries from becoming failed states, because that’s what’s going to cause a tremendous exodus,” she said.
.. Immigrants asking for U.S. asylum either at a legal border crossing or upon being arrested by the Border Patrol for crossing illegally are subjected to a “credible fear” interview to decide if their request should be heard by an immigration judge. More than 75% of immigrants pass the so-called “credible fear bar,” according to U.S. government statistics. Those who don’t pass that initial interview are subject to deportation.
.. Immigration authorities can jail asylum seekers until their case is decided, but bed space is at a premium as the Trump administration steps up immigration enforcement both at the border and in the U.S. interior.
For those released into the U.S., a final decision could take years amid a backlog of more than 764,000 cases pending in federal immigration court. During that time, they can live in the U.S. and apply work permits, something Mr. Trump has repeatedly criticized.
Republicans who spoke up this time should be asking themselves why a president of their party felt he was enforcing its principles by breaking apart families and caging children.
.. But many, many other party leaders have been venturing ever deeper into the dank jungles of nativist populism for quite some time, exploiting the politics of fear and resentment. Mr. Trump did not invent Republican demonization of “the other” — it came about in two ways: gradually, and then all at once.
.. From the early 1990s to 2000, the conservative firebrand Pat Buchanan kept the Republican Party on its toes, running for president three times with an explicitly isolationist message.
.. But it was during the George W. Bush years that anti-immigrant sentiment started to become more central to the party’s identity.
.. Mr. Bush made comprehensive immigration reform a priority of his second term.
.. Conservative talk radio took up the cause, smacking Mr. Bush as squishy on immigration. The very concept of comprehensive reform became anathema to many on the right.
.. The Great Recession that Mr. Obama inherited did nothing to quell nativist resentment among working-class whites, and the rise of the Tea Party pulled the Republican Party further to the right
.. Just ask Senator Marco Rubio, the Florida Republican, who saw his fledgling political career almost snuffed out by his flirtation with comprehensive reform
.. in the wake of Mitt Romney’s presidential loss in 2012, after which the Republican Party briefly decided that one of its principal goals was to improve its image with Hispanic voters.
.. The resulting plan would have done everything from beefing up border security to overhauling visa categories to promoting a merit-based immigration system.
It also provided for the legalization of undocumented immigrants, which meant conservatives hated it.
.. the bill cleared the Senate by an impressive 68-to-32 vote. But John Boehner, then the House speaker, refused to bring it up for a vote in the Republican-controlled lower chamber.
.. Mr. Rubio became a pariah to the Tea Party voters who had propelled him to office three years earlier. Soon, he was denying that he had ever really supported the bill.
.. Party leaders fanned those flames, accusing Mr. Obama of being imperious and “lawless.” In one bit of twisted logic, Mr. Boehner argued that the House couldn’t possibly take up reform legislation because it couldn’t trust Mr. Obama to carry out said legislation.
.. Along the way, Republican candidates continued to play to their base’s darker impulses. On the whole, the rhetoric was subtler than that of the current president
.. Steve King, Republican of Iowa, painting Dreamers as drug mules with “calves the size of cantaloupes because they’re hauling 75 pounds of marijuana across the desert.”
.. Mo Brooks, Republican of Alabama: “I’ll do anything short of shooting them”
.. Nor was Mr. Trump the first Republican to promote the idea that within every immigrant lurks a murderer or terrorist.
.. Louie Gohmert, Republican of Texas, ran around warning of what came to be mocked as the great “terror baby” plot. As Mr. Gohmert told it, radical Islamists were plotting to impregnate droves of young women, who would infiltrate the United States to give birth here. The babies would be shipped back home for terrorist training, then return as adults to wreak havoc on an unsuspecting America.
.. Time and again, given the choice between soothing and stoking nativist animus, Republican lawmakers chose the low road.
.. And he has even less interest in addressing the root causes of migrant families flocking to the border.
.. In 2016, the Department of Homeland Security reported, “More individuals sought affirmative asylum from the Northern Triangle Countries (El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras) in the last three years than in the prior 15 years combined.”
.. Helping these nations stabilize themselves is key to reducing the flow of asylum seekers. But Mr.
Trump does not like complexity or long-term strategizing.
He prefers casting blame and making threats.
.. In the administration’s budget proposals, it has sought deep cuts in aid to these countries — something Congress has wisely ignored. Removing a financial lifeline from nations already in chaos is hardly a recipe for progress.
.. Mr. Trump’s move to kick out as many people who are from these countries as possible threatens to overwhelm nations ill equipped for such an influx. And without the money that many of the immigrants living here regularly send back to their families, the economies of these countries would further crumble.
.. In 2016, 17 percent of El Salvador’s gross domestic product came from remittances from abroad.
.. America’s immigration mess is not going to be cleaned up anytime soon.
.. conservatives are terrified that the base will punish them if they concede even an inch. Speaker Paul Ryan, with one foot out the door, has no juice. And pretty much everyone assumes that nothing will move through the Senate anyway.
.. Trump is planning fresh crackdowns in the run-up to the midterms, to reassure his base that he has not lost his resolve. If anything, given the fragility of his ego, last week’s flip-flop will make him all the more desperate to prove his strength.
.. Mr. Trump is more a breaker than a fixer.
.. The question now is whether the conference will learn anything useful from this episode.
.. There is also his
- politicization of law enforcement, his
- attempts to undermine public faith in the democratic process, his
- attacks on the press, his
- family’s suspect business dealings and his
- habitual lying
.. this is unlikely to be the last time the president puts members of his party in an uncomfortable, and perhaps untenable, position.
.. The weight of this moment should be recognized. Mr. Trump’s capitulation was not a given. With a little less media scrutiny, fewer heartbreaking photos and fewer calls from angry voters, tent cities could have kept on filling with traumatized children.
.. Having done so much to pave the way for Mr. Trump and his immigration policies, they now owe it to the American people to help keep him in check.