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Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border
Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas
Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas

Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border

Ending bloodshed in this neglected border region requires more than task forces: credible institutions, access to state services and continuing security are also needed.

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Executive Summary

One of the most dangerous areas in Central America is located along the border of Guatemala with Honduras. The murder rate is among the highest in the world. The absence of effective law enforcement has allowed wealthy traffickers to become de facto authorities in some areas, dispensing jobs and humanitarian assistance but also intimidating and corrupting local officials. Increasing competition over routes and the arrest or killing of top traffickers has splintered some criminal groups, empowering new, often more violent figures. President Otto Pérez Molina has promised to bolster Guatemala’s borders with joint police/military task forces, but the government must also take immediate, comprehensive efforts to bring rule of law and economic opportunity to its long neglected periphery.

Over the past decade, drug routes through Central America have become more viciously competitive. The Mexican government’s offensive against the cartels forced traffickers to land drugs first in Central America. The entry point of choice is often Honduras, where the 2009 coup weakened already fragile institutions of law enforcement and justice. Its long Atlantic coastline and remote interior plains, with little population or infrastructure, offer the ideal environment for drug boats and small planes to operate undetected.

From Honduras, the drugs pass into Guatemala, where family trafficking networks working with Mexican cartels transport them overland toward U.S. markets. These networks have traditionally operated under the radar, corrupting government officials and co-opting popular support, but they have come under stress as a result of the struggle for routes and pressure from the government. An emboldened public prosecutors’ office, under the leadership of former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz and with the help of the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), arrested both Mexican operatives – especially members of the hyper-violent Zetas cartel – and top Guatemalan traffickers wanted on charges in the U.S. The capture of these local drug lords has shaken once powerful organisations, allowing a new generation of sometimes more violent criminals to emerge.

The arrest of suspected drug lords can be a mixed blessing for the residents of some border communities. One of the hardest hit networks is that of the Lorenzana family in the department of Zacapa. The family patriarch, Waldemar Lorenzana, was arrested in 2011 and extradited to the U.S. in March 2014. Authorities also arrested two of his sons on U.S. charges, while a third is a fugitive with a $200,000 reward on his head. The Lorenzanas deny that cocaine smuggling is the source of their wealth, citing their legitimate businesses such as fruit-exporting. Some Zacapa residents complain that the arrests of Waldemar and his sons have cost jobs and sparked a struggle among splinter groups for dominance.

These less well-known but still powerful groups continue not only to move drugs but also to create other illegal enterprises, such as loan sharking and local retail drug sales, thus fuelling further violence. Their wealth and firepower make them de facto authorities, admired by some and feared by many. Residents of Zacapa and Chi­qui­mula departments often assume police and local politicians have been paid off or intimidated by powerful criminals. A climate of distrust taints politics and inhibits journalists and other civic actors from holding local leaders accountable.

The Pérez Molina government has created inter-institutional task forces for border areas that include military troops, civilian police, prosecutors and customs officials. This is a first step toward bringing security to the border, provided the units are under civilian control and respect human rights. Bringing security to these regions, however, also requires building credible, democratic institutions. Local police should be vetted and held accountable, while given the resources and training to arrest powerful criminals. Local politicians should be required to report campaign contributions and also given public resources so their constituents can rely on government – not criminal bosses – for vital services and humanitarian assistance.

An urgent shift in national policy is required: the government should send not just troops and police to border regions, but also educators, community organisers, social workers, doctors and public health officials. Guatemala and Honduras should learn from regional experiences, such as the border development programs in the process of being implemented in Colombia, Ecuador and Peru. Honduras, where overall levels of violence are higher and institutional capacity weaker, is in particularly dire need of assistance. Donors – especially the U.S. – should put their money, training and technical aid behind public security and violence prevention on the border rather than focusing primarily on controls and interdiction.

Migrants walk across the Paso del Norte border bridge after being deported from the United States amid the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Ciudad Juarez, Mexico April 21, 2020. REUTERS/ Jose Luis Gonzalez

Deportation and Disease: Central America’s COVID-19 Dilemmas

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.

Under-resourced health systems and poverty, along with the grassroots power of criminal groups and gangs, make Central American countries highly vulnerable to COVID-19 and the knock-on effects of national lockdowns on people’s livelihoods and security. But it is the region’s relentless migratory flows, whether legal or undocumented, forced or voluntary, that are shaping up to be the weakest links in virus prevention campaigns. Above all, deportations from the U.S. and Mexico now threaten to become leading vectors of southward transmission and could spark worsening unrest among fearful residents. Central American governments should respond by urging the U.S. either to pause deportations or to reform how they are handled, ensuring that strict health checks are in place before any more migrants are sent back.

Deportations without Testing

While all three northern Central American countries – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – have banned passenger air and land travel in and out of their countries, deportations have not stopped. U.S. flights carrying deportees to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador have proceeded on and off over the past few weeks, though they are now on hold in Guatemala at its government’s request. Meanwhile, deportations overland from Mexico have continued unabated. In total, the U.S. and Mexico have returned at least 6,500 Guatemalans, 5,000 Hondurans and 1,600 Salvadorans between March and mid-April, according to available figures.

Virus testing by U.S. and Mexican migration authorities before deportation, however, has been far from being reliable or robust. Although mass testing in South Korea and elsewhere has consistently shown that most carriers of COVID-19 are asymptomatic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have been testing only those deportees who report symptoms, mainly fever (efforts will reportedly now be made to test up to 2,000 migrants in custody per month). The Guatemalan government has already confirmed that 100 deportees have tested positive for the virus, one fifth of the entire tally of recorded cases in the country. But the real total could be higher, as Guatemala only started widespread testing of returning migrants, and setting up ad hoc reception centres, after a 26 March deportation flight arrived bearing various infected passengers. Before that, migrants had been invited to observe a two-week voluntary quarantine. Mexico has identified at least sixteen Central American migrants with coronavirus in its northern Tamaulipas department, fourteen of them infected by one migrant previously deported from Houston, Texas.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) detention facilities in the U.S., which host more than 32,000 convicted or illegal migrants, are turning into a hot-spot for COVID-19, intensifying concerns as to the risk of contagion via deportees. At least 360 migrants held by ICE of only 425 who had access to a test turned out to have been infected, while at least 9,000 Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials have been sidelined from their official duties after testing positive or having been exposed to the virus. The Mexican government has been slow to react to the pandemic and has taken virtually no preventive measures in its migrant detention centres, according to UN officials and humanitarian workers to whom Crisis Group spoke.

The squalid conditions, coupled with fear of exposure to the virus, have already sparked mutinies in the U.S. and Mexico.

The squalid conditions, coupled with fear of exposure to the virus, have already sparked mutinies in the U.S. and Mexico, where a Guatemalan migrant died in a revolt at a migrant detention centre in Tenosique, Tabasco, at the end of March. After this episode, Mexican authorities started releasing most of the 6,000 migrants stranded in detention facilities, and even shut down the Tenosique facility. One humanitarian worker stated that most of these released migrants have been put on buses heading south, and are sometimes abandoned in the town of Tapachula on the southern Mexican border with Guatemala, a migration bottleneck. Authorities give them no shelter and have blocked access to public spaces where migrants used to gather. In some cases, Mexican officials reportedly have even incited them to return to their home countries via illegal crossings often employed by criminal traffickers. Meanwhile, representatives of shelters run by non-governmental organisations told Crisis Group that, due to the pandemic, they have scaled down their operations and are unable to receive more incoming migrants.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has asserted that, alongside deportees and detained migrants, higher numbers of Central Americans are independently heading back to their homelands overland from the U.S. and through Mexico, using illegal crossings. UN officials consulted by Crisis Group have identified at least 700 Central Americans trying to return to their countries through various blind spots in Guatemala’s borders with Mexico, El Salvador and Honduras in the past two weeks alone.

Central American Migrants and the U.S. Response

U.S. determination to press ahead with deportations of Central American migrants and refugees despite the pandemic follows years of tightening border and migration policies, notably under President Donald Trump. The draconian migration policy adopted by the Trump administration, to which Mexico signed up fearing tariff reprisals, has aimed above all to stem rising flows of migrants out of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, which together account for around 8 per cent of the total legal immigrant population in the U.S., and 15 per cent of the illegal, according to Migration Policy Institute estimates.

Migration toward the U.S. has long been an escape valve for hundreds of thousands of Central Americans fleeing grim living conditions and chronic insecurity. But over the past couple of years, the lethal mix of gang-related violence, economic stagnation and prolonged, climate change-induced drought has spurred a sharp increase in northward migration, urged along further by concern that the Trump administration will completely prohibit entry into the U.S. U.S. authorities apprehended more than 600,000 Central American migrants – or almost 2 per cent of the region’s entire population – at the southern border with Mexico between October 2018 and September 2019, according to U.S. Customs and Border Protection figures. Between 27 and 48 of the Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran interviewees in a recent survey by the Inter-American Development Bank cited violence or insecurity as their main reason for making the journey.

In response, the Trump administration has increased border patrols, established stricter requirements for obtaining asylum or visas, and put pressure on Mexico and Central American countries to process asylum requests filed in the U.S. (through so-called Migrant Protection Protocols and the Asylum Cooperation Agreements). According to U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, these measures have helped reduce the number of Central Americans arriving at the U.S. southern border by 70 per cent since numbers peaked in May 2019. Mexico’s deployment of the National Guard to its southern border with Guatemala in June 2019 also curbed the flow northward. In 2019 alone, the U.S. and Mexico deported more than 250,000 Central Americans, according to figures from the International Organization for Migration.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the Trump administration has redoubled its efforts to impede would-be migrants from reaching the U.S.

Since the COVID-19 outbreak began, the Trump administration has redoubled its efforts to impede would-be migrants from reaching the U.S. On 21 March, the president allowed Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials to immediately expel illegal migrants found at the border. As a result, they have turned back at least 10,000 migrants to Mexico in a matter of weeks. On 22 April, Trump went further, signing an executive order halting immigration for green card seekers for at least 60 days.

Tough measures imposed by the Guatemalan, Honduran and Salvadoran governments to contain the pandemic, including border shutdowns, curfews and restrictions on internal movement, have further complicated the journey north. These measures have “only raised the cost of bribes officials expect from those who can afford it”, said a humanitarian worker in a shelter in southern Mexico. “And they’ve pushed those who can’t to more dangerous and remote trails, where they risk getting extorted or kidnapped”.

The Need for a Coordinated Response

Poor coordination among the U.S., Mexico, Central American states and UN agencies, as well as the lack of proper health checks in U.S. and Mexico migrant facilities, could have dire effects across a region ill prepared to combat the pandemic. None of Guatemala, Honduras or El Salvador has ever managed to provide returnees with proper resettlement and protection services, and all three are now channelling most available resources toward strengthening health systems. Undetected COVID-19 cases among deportees could spread the virus in the poor and often violent areas which they left and to which they often return. This risk is already triggering unease, violence and stigmatisation of returnees. In one recent episode in Quetzaltenango, Guatemala, locals first threatened to set fire to a centre designed to host some 80 deportees, and then set off in hot pursuit of several who had reportedly tried to escape.

Ideally, the U.S. and Mexico should immediately pause all deportations.

Ideally, the U.S. and Mexico should immediately pause all deportations. Both countries, however, are likely to keep toughening law enforcement, including deportations, to curb migration north, especially in view of Trump’s re-election bid. Therefore, the urgent priority for Central American countries should be to negotiate with the U.S. and Mexico a safer, more orderly and coordinated return process, including far stricter health measures in U.S. and Mexico migrant detention facilities, stepped-up testing and possibly a quarantine period prior to deportation. In parallel, the region’s governments should seek UN agencies’ and humanitarian organisations’ assistance in setting up decent reception centres and improving protocols that ensure fair treatment and resettlement of returnees. They should also maintain channels of dialogue with communities that receive returning migrants, ensuring that they follow strict quarantine rules so as to minimise the risk of violent backlash. Continuing to deport migrants without taking these steps and in disregard of the potential for contagion is a recipe for turmoil.