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’s anti-corruption drive continued while Constitutional Court overturned NGO decree that sparked concern over democratic backsliding. Court 2 March sentenced former president of Congress Pedro Muadi to 30 years in prison for heading criminal structure which handed out ghost jobs – salaries collected without work being performed; same day, court found 30 people, mostly former Congressional staff, guilty of using ghost jobs to launder money. President Giammattei 11 March said legal proceedings against companies over fiscal issues was “stupid persecution”, raising concern about his determination to pursue anti-corruption efforts. Constitutional Court (CC) 3 March ruled govt’s Feb decree allowing authorities to shut down NGOs on ground of disturbing public order as unconstitutional citing threats to human rights. Giammattei next day said bill would come into effect regardless of ruling but backed down 6 March after CC reiterated suspension of law and 9 March said he would present amendments in upcoming weeks so decree can enter into force. Amid regional concern over migration, govt 6 March said talks were ongoing with U.S. over implementation of July 2019 Asylum Cooperation Agreement signed by previous govt, which allows U.S. to transfer asylum seekers to Guatemala so they can apply there, including over responsibility for transfer costs. Guatemalan Institute for Migration 6 March said 823 people had arrived through scheme since Nov, with sixteen formally requesting asylum in Guatemala; govt 17 March blocked deportation flights from U.S. to prevent spread of COVID-19, after declaring state of emergency and closing borders for two weeks 16 March, but 19 March resumed reception of flights carrying Guatemalan deportees. Govt late March extended state of emergency and related curfew until 12 April.
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.
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
Originally published in Miami Herald