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Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border
Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
A​ ​Civic​ ​Awakening​ ​in​ ​Guatemala
A​ ​Civic​ ​Awakening​ ​in​ ​Guatemala

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.

A​ ​Civic​ ​Awakening​ ​in​ ​Guatemala

Originally published in Miami Herald

Few countries have done more, more quickly to combat corruption than impoverished, violence-wracked Guatemala. In less than a year prosecutors have linked nearly 100 officials and business people to schemes that may have robbed the state of more than $120 million in customs revenues, while earning fortunes in kickbacks.

A sitting president and vice president, accused of masterminding the conspiracy, both resigned after losing immunity and now await trial in prison.

Perhaps most remarkably, Guatemala accomplished this without illegally ousting a government and reigniting bloody cycles of repression and rebellion. Citizens from across the political spectrum took to the streets in massive, non-violent demonstrations to demand the ouster of corrupt politicos and then took part in one of the country’s most peaceful recent elections to choose a political outsider — Jimmy Morales, a TV comedian — as president.

Has Guatemala turned a corner toward more effective, transparent governance? In a world where such civic awakenings have too often disintegrated into sectarian strife or reverted to authoritarian rule, no one should take the country’s transformation for granted. Moreover, the country has had unprecedented international help in combating corruption — a unique, U.N.-sponsored commission against impunity, known by its Spanish acronym as CICIG. 

CICIG is an internationally-financed investigative entity that is embedded within — and yet independent of — the domestic justice system. Unlike international tribunals, it relies on national courts. Unlike most capacity-building efforts, CICIG not only trains national prosecutors and police, it also works side by side with them to hold dangerous or powerful suspects accountable before the law. Its success has inspired plans to install a similar entity in Honduras, sponsored by the Organization of American States.

But CICIG is also a crutch. Although leading politicians say they support its mission, including president-elect Morales, it is far from clear whether Guatemala can continue to combat political and institutional corruption or abuse without international help.

CICIG has accomplished more than might have been expected when it started operations in 2007 in an attempt to salvage human rights and security agreements included within the U.N.-brokered peace agreements that ended 36-years of intermittent civil war in 1996. At the time, Guatemalan prosecutors who had the will simply lacked the way to uncover and dismantle powerful criminal syndicates. There was no legal procedure allowing investigators to wire-tap suspects (though intelligence services eavesdropped without restraint). Nor could prosecutors bargain with low-level defendants, encouraging them to inform on upper echelons, or go after illegally-acquired wealth through asset forfeiture procedures.

CICIG-promoted laws now provide Guatemala’s justice with these and other essential investigative tools. Perhaps most importantly, CICIG has shielded prosecutors from the political pressures that once smothered controversial cases before they ever reached trial.

Under the leadership of Iván Velásquez, a Colombian jurist known for uncovering the links between politicians, traffickers and paramilitary forces, CICIG and the public prosecutors’ office enjoy high approval ratings among citizens exhausted by crime and corruption. In a traditionally polarized country, the fight against impunity has won applause from business associations to labor unions, from urban professionals to indigenous leaders.

But prosecuting allegedly crooked officials with international help is the easy part. To sustain progress, Congress needs to pass additional reforms, including crucial legislation to make judges and prosecutors more independent. Most importantly a government with one of the region’s lowest rates of tax collection, must demonstrate its commitment to rule of law by paying for it. It cannot continue to rely on international donors to foot the bill.

Guatemalan voters chose President-elect Morales based on what he is against: “Not corrupt, not a thief” was his campaign slogan. To demonstrate that he is not just anti-corruption but pro-justice, he will need to make hard political and financial choices, ideally in alliance with CICIG and the peaceful but determined citizens who want more honest and effective government.