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Ending Corruption in Guatemala
Ending Corruption in Guatemala
Undocumented Migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America
Undocumented Migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America
Aerial view during a protest against Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti for the recent corruption cases in the government, in Guatemala City, 25 April 2015. AFP/Carlos Alonzo

Ending Corruption in Guatemala

The work of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) played a crucial role in Guatemala’s recent successes against corruption.

In this Q&A, Crisis Group Guatemala Analyst Arturo Matute explains what the UN-backed body’s investigations have revealed, and how it should fulfil its mission to promote accountability and strengthen rule of law in one of the world’s most violent countries.

Crisis Group: How important is the recent crackdown on corruption in Guatemala?

Arturo Matute: The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has scored its biggest prosecutorial hit yet with the arrest of top officials accused of running a racket to defraud the state of millions of dollars in customs revenues. The scandal has rocked Guatemala’s political establishment, coming as it does just months before the September general elections. It has also sparked condemnation by political and civil society leaders across the ideological spectrum. President Otto Pérez Molina acted quickly to stem the outrage by requesting a two-year extension of the commission’s mandate, pointing out that his government supported its inquiry into possible customs fraud. But charges against Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s private secretary as the group’s alleged ringleader has fractured the governing party.

Why was CICIG created and how does it operate?

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) is a unique UN-backed body set up to promote the investigation, criminal prosecution and punishment of the crimes committed by illicit security forces and clandestine security organisations. These groups – known by the acronym CIACS in Spanish – were initially linked to counter-insurgency and intelligence networks formed to eliminate government opponents during the 36-year armed conflict that ended formally when guerrilla groups and the government finished signing a series of peace agreements in 1996. After the conflict ended, some CIACS mutated into profit-oriented criminal groups, using their ability to influence or infiltrate state justice institutions to commit illegal activities with impunity.

Human rights and other civil society groups, with strong international backing, pushed for creation of an independent body to investigate criminal networks and their links with the state. Despite opposition from some conservative groups, the government signed the agreement creating CICIG with the UN in 2006. As a mechanism for criminal prosecutions, CICIG is an international entity, funded by foreign governments, but embedded in the national judicial system. Evidence gathered by CICIG is used by Guatemalan prosecutors to bring charges in Guatemalan courts; the commission can also act as a co-plaintiff in certain cases. Its mandate also includes advising the government on judicial and institutional reforms.

What has CICIG accomplished?

A justice sector committee charged with evaluating CICIG’s performance credited the commission with helping secure seventeen convictions as co-plaintiff, resulting in the dismantling of criminal organisations, while providing support in another 24 successful prosecutions. Some of its highest profile investigations have been used to secure guilty verdicts abroad, such as ex-President Alfonso Portillo’s conviction in the U.S. on corruption charges and former National Police Chief Erwin Sperisen’s conviction in Switzerland for the 2006 murder of seven inmates. It has strengthened prosecutors’ capacity by helping establish a special investigation methods unit, a criminal analysis section and a witness protection office. It has also promoted legal reforms, including laws to create special high-risk courts, regulate firearms and ammunitions and permit plea bargaining, plus the country’s first asset forfeiture law, allowing the state to seize illegally acquired properties.

But CICIG has also drawn criticism. Despite past investigations leading to the arrest of top officials within the police, the Ministry of Interior and the prison system, some said it had failed to uncover criminal networks within the state or to consolidate institutional reforms. The investigation into customs fraud by CICIG under Commissioner Iván Velásquez, a former Colombian judge known for investigating paramilitary activity and political corruption, has helped change that perception. The scale of the fraud and the seniority of the officials captured have outraged Guatemalans, who often seem disinterested in public issues or reluctant to express dissent, given the country’s history of repression. Timing has also magnified the investigation’s impact: the arrests come as political parties are gearing up for presidential, legislative and local elections.

What did CICIG and Guatemalan prosecutors uncover and how did they do it?

Prosecutors on 16 April revealed the results of an eight-month investigation into a network created to defraud the national revenue agency. Dubbed by prosecutors “La Línea” – or “The Line” for the telephone number provided to importers seeking to evade duties – the group allegedly took bribes in return for underreporting the value of imported goods. According to prosecutors, it operated within customs offices at ports and border crossings, manipulating shifts so that conspirators could be placed on duty at specific times in specific locations.

Authorities arrested 21 suspects on 16 April, including the current and former heads of the revenue agency. The fraud was allegedly orchestrated by Vice President Roxana Baldetti’s private secretary, Juan Carlos Monzón, who recently travelled with her to South Korea. His whereabouts since are uncertain and he has been declared a fugitive.

The investigation conducted by CICIG with the help of a special investigation unit in the Public Ministry (Public Prosecutor’s Office) has collected massive amounts of scientific and documentary evidence, including financial records and the interception of some 66,000 telephone conversations and over 6,000 electronic messages. This means that prosecutors do not plan to rely on witness testimony or confessions to obtain a conviction, an advance reflecting the increasing sophistication and professionalisation of Guatemalan investigators.

What are the political implications of this investigation?

The governing Patriot Party has suffered a huge blow. The incrimination of Vice President Baldetti’s private secretary severely weakens the position of one of President Pérez Molina’s closest political allies. Both Baldetti and Monzón have previously faced accusations of corruption in the press, which they denied. The Patriot Party presidential candidate, Alejandro Sinibaldi, resigned from the organisation three days after the arrests, accusing the vice president of having “sabotaged” his campaign and suggesting he would form an electoral coalition. Five congressmen have also abandoned the party.

President Pérez Molina’s credibility has also suffered. Previously he had publicly expressed reluctance to extend CICIG’s work. After the arrests, he reversed his stance and speeded up the presentation of the justice sector committee’s assessment, which recommended extending CICIG’s mandate. Then on 23 April, he announced he would ask the UN Secretary-General to authorise the commission for another two-year period, in a public ceremony attended by cabinet ministers and diplomats.

But the president’s about-face has done little to quell the outrage expressed in regular and social media outlets. Thousands gathered on 25 April in the capital’s Plaza de la Constitución to demand an end to corruption in one of the country’s biggest demonstrations in recent years. Many also called on both the vice president and the president to resign. The political system in general, however, inspires little confidence. Guatemala is one of the Latin American countries where attitudes are least favourable to stability, according to the Americas Barometer, which measures levels of support to the political system and levels of tolerance to dissenting views.

What should CICIG do over the next two years?

Not only has CICIG been able to renew its mandate, it has enjoyed an outpouring of popular support. Former critics, such as the powerful Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations – known as CACIF – have praised the commission’s work in collaboration with the Public Ministry, calling corruption a “cancer” on the national patrimony. This adds to the multiple expressions of support from civil society organisations, academia, and the media as well as from international actors.

CICIG’s investigations are changing the popular perception that Guatemala’s criminal networks are impregnable. Although widespread corruption in institutions such as the tax authority has long been rumoured, national authorities were unable or unwilling to act. There is now broad agreement that international support is needed to dismantle these networks and bring their leaders to justice. But as Crisis Group pointed out in a 2011 report, Guatemala cannot depend on external mechanisms forever: “National ownership of the commission’s functions and objectives is crucial to guaranteeing its long-term impact”.

The justice sector committee’s assessment recommending CICIG’s extension also called for closer coordination with national institutions, through such measures as a joint work plan. Commissioner Velásquez should embrace these recommendations, which would not only bolster CICIG’s image as an able and neutral actor but also encourage broader engagement with Guatemalan police, prosecutors and judges. The commission can also help ensure that the September elections are clean and credible. CICIG has launched an investigation into political campaign financing, promising to turn its results over to electoral authorities. It is an open secret that criminal groups, including powerful drug traffickers, finance political campaigns, especially in vulnerable border communities.

Beyond these considerations, CICIG should make the most of its current popularity to present a proposal for justice sector and electoral reforms and seek congressional support for necessary legal and constitutional changes. The commission’s work in Guatemala will eventually come to an end. Its greatest challenge over the next two years is assuring that national institutions have the training, tools and determination to combat impunity once it is gone.

Undocumented Migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America

The northward flow of undocumented migrants fleeing economic hardship and violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America exposes thousands of vulnerable people to mass victimisation. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Third Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to continue to pursue an approach grounded in supporting community violence prevention, institutional reform and poverty alleviation in the countries of origin while supporting transiting countries in managing the flow.

This commentary is part of our Watch List 2017 – Third Update.

Flows of undocumented migrants from Central America, through Mexico and toward the U.S. have given rise to a humanitarian emergency, albeit one that at present is largely treated by Washington as a national security menace and a justification for tougher border control. Originally driven by economic hardship, this northbound migration owes its intensity and longevity to multiple causes that make controlling or reducing it extremely hard. Mass victimisation of vulnerable migrants in transit has become the norm and could well be aggravated by Washington’s growing anti-immigration agenda. In this context, the European Union (EU) should adapt its current strategies in Central America to promote a more comprehensive approach to the protection of migrants.

Humanitarian impact

The flow of migrants from the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America (NTCA) – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – to the U.S. has become as much a flight from life-endangering violence as a search for economic opportunity. Surveys of migrants and refugees carried out by Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in Mexico showed 39.2 per cent cite attacks or threats to themselves or their families, extortion or forced recruitment into gangs as the main reasons for their flight.

Once on their journey north, undocumented migrants must chart a perilous path between the dual threats of law enforcement and criminal groups. Crisis Group’s 2016 report (Easy Prey: Criminal Violence and Central American Migration, 28 July 2016) describes how toughened law enforcement has diverted undocumented migration into more costly, circuitous and dangerous channels, where criminal gangs and corrupt officials benefit from policies that lead desperate people to pay increasing sums to avoid detention.

In the process, undocumented migrants are exposed to kidnappings, human trafficking, enforced disappearances, sexual violence, robbery and extortion. The most egregious cases include the 2010 and 2011 San Fernando massacres, in the northern Mexican state of Tamaulipas, in which 265 migrants, most of them Central American, were killed by the Zetas drug trafficking cartel. Stuck in a legal limbo, migrants are doubly victimised: fearful of authorities, they are highly unlikely to report the crimes they suffer or gain access to medical care should they need it.

MSF has described undocumented migrants’ plight as “comparable to the conditions in conflict zones”. Two thirds of migrants reported being victims of violence during their transit toward the U.S.; nearly one third of women surveyed said they had been sexually abused during the journey. Among the migrants exposed to these risks are some of the most vulnerable groups in Central American society. The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports that asylum requests by unaccompanied NTCA minors in Mexico increased 416 per cent from 2013 to 2016.

U.S. policies

Fear of undocumented migration to the U.S. increasingly dominates political debate in that country. Although former President Obama stepped up border controls and continued a vigorous deportation policy – returning over five million people in total – his administration also welcomed legal migrants, acknowledged the humanitarian crisis posed by unaccompanied children arriving from Central America, and extended support to refugees around the world. President Trump, by contrast, was elected in part on a platform of clamping down on immigration, and some of his most influential supporters have made clear that their continued backing depends on implementation of stringent restrictive measures.

Undocumented entry into the U.S. already had become more difficult. 100,000 undocumented migrants made it into the U.S in 2016, compared to over 600,000 in 2006, according to a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) report.

Deepening Mexican collaboration with U.S. efforts to staunch the flow of Central Americans accounts for much of this reduction, and is likely to persist as Mexico strives to mitigate bilateral frictions with the Trump administration. In response to the 2014 crisis presented by migrant children arriving at the U.S. border, Mexican authorities boosted checkpoints, detentions and deportations of Northern Triangle nationals on its southern border with Guatemala. Mexico now deports more Central Americans than the U.S. (see graph).

Sources: Mexican Secretariat of Government http://politicamigratoria.gob.mx/es_mx/SEGOB/Boletines_Estadisticos and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) https://www.ice.gov/statistics

None of this has lessened the Trump administration’s determination to curb recent arrivals from Mexico and the Northern Triangle. The Temporary Protected Status (TPS) – which benefits some 200,000 migrants who came to the U.S. following hurricane Mitch in Honduras in 1998 and an earthquake in El Salvador in 2001 – is at risk of termination in 2018.

Likewise, on 5 September, President Trump rescinded the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, created by the Obama administration to defer deportation and provide work permits to 800,000 undocumented migrants who entered the U.S. as minors. President Trump suggested that Congress should use the six-month wind-down period before the DACA work permits expire to create a legislative framework for the program. But, under pressure from some of the administration’s staunchest supporters, the White House has made clear that it will only support such legislation if Congress also enacts tough new immigration measures. How the legislative process will play out is not yet clear.

Although overall deportations by the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency (ICE) are reported to have fallen slightly – they reached 211,068 as of 9 September 2017, three weeks before the end of the fiscal year, as compared to 240,255 in FY 2016 – arrests of undocumented migrants have risen by 43 per cent since Trump took office, as compared to the same period the year before. Most strikingly, the number of migrants without a criminal record being detained has increased threefold since 2016.

Mexican and Central American responses

An increase in deportations – driven by arrests of undocumented migrants and expiry of the TPS and DACA – would place further strains on troubled social conditions in the Northern Triangle. Although the region has relatively robust legal frameworks to protect refugees, with Mexico at the forefront of international refugee and migrant protection efforts, they frequently are unable to provide what they preach.

For instance, asylum in Mexico can be a prolonged process. Out of 8,788 requests, only 5,954 were resolved in 2016, 3,076 of which were granted. Asylum-seekers must file requests within 30 days of crossing the border, and are kept in detention if arrested before applying. Many give up because of the detention centers’ cramped and insalubrious conditions, or because they have no right to work while their requests are being considered.

Overall, the [Northern Triangle] countries are not adequately equipped to receive new deportees.

Overall, the NTCA countries are not adequately equipped to receive new deportees. El Salvador’s preparations to receive them are almost entirely restricted to the monitoring of suspected gang activities. The National Assembly’s security commission has agreed on measures to track returnees accused of being street-gang members: over 500 suspected gang members have been sent back so far in 2017 to El Salvador, where high rates of violent crime and reported cases of extrajudicial execution of gang members complicate prospects of a return to peaceful civilian life.

Capacities to provide legal counsel, shelter, social reintegration or even transportation for returnees across the Northern Triangle are scant. Proposed legislation in Guatemala to strengthen the state’s readiness to protect migrants has stalled because of that country’s political crisis. In Honduras, the number of departing refugees and arriving deportees is the highest in the NTCA, but its government is concentrating on the president’s re-election campaign and on activating its own protocols against deported gang members.

Recommendations to the European Union and its member states

The more U.S. concerns about security and the economic effects of mass migration continue to drive a restrictive immigration policy, the more important it will be – from both a humanitarian and regional stability perspective – for the U.S. and its partners to help generate economic opportunities, better governance and broader social protection south of the U.S. border. That was the logic behind the “Alliance for Prosperity”, which the Obama administration established jointly with the NTCA governments and pursuant to which some $1.3 billion have been allocated to Central America in the 2017 and 2018 federal budgets. Today, that logic is at risk. A June 2017 high-level summit in Miami on prosperity and security in the NTCA, heralded a far stronger emphasis on security issues at the expense of recognition of the humanitarian emergency related to undocumented migration.

While the European Union (EU)’s role is limited due to the U.S.’s overwhelming influence in the region, it nonetheless could strengthen humanitarian responses and press for a more informed, integral approach to the protection of migrants, especially women and children. Migration forms a significant part of the EU’s cooperation with Latin America. The 2015 EU-CELAC Action Plan as well as the 2014-2020 Multiannual Indicative Regional Programme for Latin America include migration management and the protection of migrant rights as action points. So far, the EU’s initiatives in this field have focused on Latin America as a whole. However, the evolving migration dynamics in the NTCA call for a more targeted response. The EU should adapt its priorities in Central America and promote migration policies that focus on the protection and integration of migrants.

Technical assistance and capacity-building support for the under-resourced Central American consulates situated on the migrant route through Mexico would help ensure better protection for those in transit.

The EU should support Mexican and Northern Triangle authorities in their efforts to strengthen oversight of security agencies and state institutions working on migrant issues. Technical assistance and capacity-building support for the under-resourced Central American consulates situated on the migrant route through Mexico would help ensure better protection for those in transit. The initiative MIgration EU eXpertise (MIEUX), a peer-to-peer experts’ facility that supports partner countries to better manage migration through tailor-made assistance, can be a useful platform and starting point for the exchange of expertise and best practices.

The EU could also boost technical support to expand refugee processing of NTCA nationals in neighbouring countries (mainly Belize and Costa Rica), particularly minors, and ensure regional governments and NGOs provide adequate shelter to those awaiting decisions. Financial and logistical support to neighbouring countries such as Panama and Costa Rica, as well as to other Latin American countries that agree to take a share of refugees, would help cushion the impact of increasingly forbidding U.S. immigration policies.

All in all, the EU should continue to pursue an approach to Central America grounded in supporting community violence prevention, institutional reform and poverty alleviation. Perhaps most urgently, it should assist the three Northern Triangle countries in developing new programs to help them reintegrate deportees, including through initiatives to help them access health care, training, employment and psychosocial support when necessary.