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Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border
Corridor of Violence: The Guatemala-Honduras Border
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
Guatemala Stumbles in Central America’s Anti-corruption Fight
Guatemala Stumbles in Central America’s Anti-corruption Fight

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.

Guatemalans march demanding the resignation of President Jimmy Morales and in support of the head of the CICIG, Colombian Ivan Velasquez, who is investigating corruption in the country, in front of the Culture Palace in Guatemala City, on 26 August 2017 Johan Ordonez/AFP

Guatemala Stumbles in Central America’s Anti-corruption Fight

Guatemala’s fight against corruption is in danger after President Morales attempted to expel the head of a uniquely effective UN-backed anti-corruption organisation. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Analyst for Guatemala Arturo Matute says a corrupt elite is waging a battle to maintain its privileged position.

What is happening in Guatemala?

A remarkable and hopeful two-year interlude in one of Central America’s most corrupt countries may now be ending.

The key reversal came on Friday 25 August 2017, at a meeting requested by Guatemala’s President Jimmy Morales with UN Secretary-General António Guterres in New York. Morales signalled his intent to eject the head of the UN-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), Iván Velásquez. Morales protested that Velásquez had interfered in Guatemalan politics by calling for constitutional reforms and by exploiting media coverage in legal proceedings. After returning to Guatemala he declared Velásquez persona non grata and ordered his expulsion from the country.

This represents a setback to the progress made toward rooting corruption out of Guatemala’s political system between 2015 and 2017, thanks to a combination of popular protests, a new president, a brave external judge and a groundswell of support for change in the growing educated middle class.

Guatemalans are still not ready to go back to the old ways. Two days later, on 27 August, the Constitutional Court – Guatemala’s highest court on constitutional issues – temporarily suspended President Morales’ order. Some members of the government resigned to protest Morales’ move, notably the minister of foreign affairs, the minister of health and most of their vice ministers. Demonstrators in support of Velásquez poured into squares in Guatemala City, while other sets of demonstrators voiced their support for Morales’ move against CICIG’s Commissioner. On 29 August, the Constitutional Court overturned the expulsion order.

Exactly what will happen next is unclear. In a social media posting on Monday 28 August, Guatemala’s president said that he will respect resolutions from judicial bodies. While the fact that he has adopted this position is welcome, it does not mean he will halt his efforts to ensure Velásquez departs the country and to curb CICIG’s influence.

Why has President Morales moved against CICIG?

CICIG – proposed by Guatemalan civil society, in operation since 2007, and acting through the attorney general’s office – has been steadfast in its fight against corruption in Guatemala. Central to CICIG’s recent success has been Velásquez, a courageous former judge with considerable experience dealing with political corruption in his native Colombia. Velásquez has moved CICIG away from a more general mission of fighting impunity toward a tightly-focused mandate of combating illegal money-producing schemes. It has spearheaded probes into political funding and corruption, resulting in almost two hundred defendants facing investigation and trial this year alone. Most are currently jailed on remand, including former President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti.

Corrupt traditional actors who have profited in the past from Guatemala’s rigged political system have campaigned relentlessly against CICIG. Morales was swept into office after the country experienced a wave of disgust at revelations of the depth and breadth of a high-level corruption scandal in 2015 that forced the previous incumbent, Pérez Molina, to resign. Since then he has come under considerable pressure from elements of Guatemala’s political and business elite to revise his initially supportive attitude toward CICIG’s agenda of reform and to oppose the anti-corruption campaign.

Morales had some success in treading a balanced line, but events last week altered his political calculus. On 25 August, the same day that Morales flew to New York, CICIG and the attorney general’s office formally presented a request to the Supreme Court to lift Morales’ presidential immunity, a necessary step before a final decision is made by Congress. They claimed there are sufficient grounds to investigate Morales for illicit financing of his 2015 presidential campaign, specifically $900,000 USD in unreported contributions. It was the first time in Morales’ presidency that CICIG had targeted the president himself, making clear to Morales that his political survival could be at risk. Rather than abiding by his previously balanced line, the president heeded the counsel from elements of the business and political elites and set out to defend his own endangered mandate by seeking Velásquez’s expulsion.

Why does the attempted expulsion of the head of CICIG matter?

The future of Guatemala’s corruption-fighting commission is closely tied to the country’s development as a democratic state. Since the 2015 corruption scandal, CICIG has capitalised on the political fallout from the previous government’s collapse. It has sought to bring about lasting change by backing proposals to reform the constitution and bolster the justice system’s independence.

But Guatemala has been ensnared in an ongoing political crisis between two camps. On one hand, there are social, political and business actors supporting CICIG’s efforts to strengthen Guatemala’s justice institutions. On the other hand, there is a traditional, conservative group of actors who seek to maintain their privileged position. They control ports and customs offices, have links to organised crime and are involved in illicit activities such as people smuggling and drug trafficking. They have wielded significant power and influence over various government institutions for many years.

CICIG’s work also has kindled discord in Guatemala’s foremost business elite group, the Coordinating Commission of Agricultural Commercial Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF). Within the organisation, which traditionally has presented a united public face and has been a powerful actor in Guatemala, younger industrialists and tradesmen who support CICIG’s anti-corruption agenda are pitted against others who seek to reduce the risk of their own prosecution. President Morales’ recent move to weaken the anti-corruption agenda will make it more difficult for the business organisation to maintain its unified position.

CICIG’s support to the justice system through technical advice and direct collaboration designed to reveal large corruption schemes has catalysed previously unthinkable modifications to Guatemala’s legal order.

CICIG’s support to the justice system through technical advice and direct collaboration designed to reveal large corruption schemes has catalysed previously unthinkable modifications to Guatemala’s legal order. The expulsion of its head would have represented a significant setback to the anti-corruption fight, validating claims that CICIG has exceeded its mandate when in reality it is robustly enforcing it. It might even have served as a stepping stone toward a “conservative restoration” – a return to the more corrupt mores of the past – in the country’s political system and damage the country’s favourable image in Latin America as a relative success story. Such an outcome would have reassured other regional leaders that they could continue to act with impunity and could fight back any effort to establish a CICIG-like entity in their country. Finally, it would have meant that even the most innovative tool of international cooperation to strengthen the rule of law in the form of CICIG is not strong enough to break a well-established corrupt system.

What are the next steps and potential risks?

The Constitutional Court’s provisional decision to block Velásquez’s expulsion is now definitive. The court’s final ruling found that the order violated the constitution because it was only signed by the president and not by all of his ministers. While some observers speculate that this merely was a temporary, face-saving measure approved by the UN and Morales to avoid a direct conflict, and that Velásquez will still eventually be removed, for now the president has had to back down.

This is good news. Although there is a risk that Morales might seek to assume more power in light of this crisis, this seems limited given the potential for judicial action against him and significant public opposition to his recent actions. Nor does Guatemala appear likely to experience a resumption of the state-sponsored violence that plagued it in the past. Both the minister of defence, General Williams Mancilla and government Spokesman Heinz Heimann have ruled out the imposition of a state of siege or punitive measures against those who had protested President Morales’ decision to expel Velásquez. That the minister of the interior, Francisco Rivas, a trusted former attorney, has remained in place suggests that heavy-handed methods can be avoided. The army, too, has been weakened in recent years and no longer is a decisive political actor.

That said, protests could well grow. For now, widespread turnout remains significantly short of the unprecedented level of mobilisation that was witnessed during the 2015 corruption scandal. However, should there be a future attempt to remove Velásquez or curb CICIG, this could trigger wider anger. Most importantly perhaps, it remains to be seen what Morales will now do to resist CICIG’s requests to lift his immunity from prosecution for illicit campaign financing.

What can the international community do?

The U.S. has important interests in Guatemala, frequently referred to by high-level U.S. officials as a significant national security concern. The European Union (EU) also has an interest in Guatemala. It has provided as much financial support to CICIG as the U.S. Both the EU and U.S. have made clear their opposition to Morales’ action, the EU through communiqués opposing Morales’ decision, the U.S. through the voice of its ambassador to the UN, Nikki Haley, as well as through various members of Congress. They, along with others, should continue to support Velásquez’s position but without a heavy-handed approach that would smack of interference. Facing such pressure, Morales may already have realised that he has committed a political error, and will need to devise less provocative strategies to avoid the threat of prosecution and a premature end to his presidency. He also will want to avoid overly alienating the U.S., given the risk of counter-measures from Washington, in particular a halt to its financial aid to the Northern Triangle area.

For the international community, CICIG is a unique case study in international support for the justice sector in a weak democracy. It remains to be seen if CICIG will be strong enough to stand up to the power of a national corrupt system under threat. Whatever happens, measures to clean up Guatemala’s system should emanate from Guatemalan institutions, not from obvious direct impositions by outside powers, and the international community should demonstrate its confidence in them and in the country’s citizens. Over the past decade, the CICIG has shown the capacity to act effectively, even if it is now threatened by those who stand to lose money and influence or who seek to justify the defence of their interests by denouncing foreign intervention in a sovereign state. That is an indicator in itself of CICIG’s success, which can and should be replicated in other Latin American countries.