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.
Under pressure for alleged corruption in handling of COVID-19, govt created new anti-graft body, while insecurity persisted. Following June removal of health minister and other ministry officials for mismanagement of COVID-19 response, including allegations of corruption, govt 9 July created Anti-corruption Secretariat. President Giammattei’s cabinet same day went into quarantine after minister tested positive for virus, amid reports pandemic had stretched health care facilities to their limits. Govt 27 July introduced ‘‘traffic light’’ alert system, allowing local authorities to impose different levels of restrictions depending on contagion numbers. Following Congress and Supreme Court’s late June attempt to lift immunity of Constitutional Court magistrates, Constitutional Court 25 July ruled to defend its members’ immunity; move came after series of Constitutional Court rulings on alleged irregularities in selection process of judges to Supreme Court and Court of Appeals. Meanwhile, insecurity continued. Unidentified gunmen 14 July injured new mayor of Teculután town, Zacapa department (east), whose predecessor was murdered in May. Govt 27 July imposed 15-day state of emergency in five municipalities in departments of Izabal (east) and Alta Verapaz (north), alleging presence of criminal groups there; peasant (campesino) movement had rejected govt move to impose 30-day state of emergency in same municipalities 19 July saying it would militarise area and restrict rights; in statement published 21 July, 125 national and international rights groups supported peasants’ complaint. Tensions with U.S. remained high over continued deportation flights amid COVID-19 pandemic; health ministry 7 July reported 216 returned migrants had tested positive since outbreak started.
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.
As the coronavirus spreads, and the U.S. presidential election looms, the Trump administration and Mexican government continue to deport migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Some deportees are carrying the virus. Central American states should press their northern neighbours for more stringent health measures.
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