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.
New govt of President Giammattei, inaugurated in Jan, continued anti-corruption drive and focused on security issues. In attempt to purge civil service of ghost jobs – salaries collected without work being performed – govt 10 Feb said census to verify extent of phenomenon was ongoing. Security also high on govt agenda; following Jan declaration of State of Prevention – allowing emergency measures aimed at fighting crime – in Mixco and San Juan Sacatepéquez cities, Giammattei announced further State of Prevention in cities of Chimaltenango 5 Feb and in Escuintla 14 Feb; authorities reported 76 people arrested in Chimaltenango by 10 Feb and at least 50 in Escuintla by 20 Feb. Congressional committee 4 Feb began examining bill to designate gangs as terrorist groups, part of Giammattei’s electoral pledge, however Human Rights Ombudsman previous day said it had yet to make sure bill does not violate human rights, while civil society group Diálogos 4 Feb criticised it for being applicable to many social groups. Congress 11 Feb passed controversial bill allowing authorities to sanction NGOs which disturb public order, sparking criticism from civil society, indigenous communities and U.S.; Giammattei 27 Feb signed bill into law. Amid regional concern on migration, govt 5 Feb signed agreement with UN to improve management of migration flows; govt late Jan said several annexes to July 2019 Asylum Cooperation Agreement with U.S. had not been signed, and procedures for receiving asylum seekers still had to be negotiated. Court in U.S. 11 Feb sentenced former presidential candidate Mario Estrada to fifteen years in prison for financing election campaign with drug-trafficking money.
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