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Undocumented Migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America
Undocumented Migration from the Northern Triangle of Central America
Guatemalan presidential candidate for National Convergence Front Jimmy Morales addresses the media at his campaign headquarters in Guatemala City, 6 September 2015. REUTERS/Jorge Dan Lopez

Guatemala’s Electoral Dramas

Amid unprecedented scenes of high political drama, Guatemalans voted for major change in a first round of presidential voting on 6 September. They handed first place – for now – to a comic actor. But whether this will deliver political renewal, or a clean sweep of corruption allegations that brought down the previous president and vice president, remains unclear.

Extraordinary citizen mobilisation accompanied the poll, as did judicial investigations into alleged corruption. Just three days before the vote this resulted in the resignation, and subsequent detention, of the president of the country. Guatemalans cast their ballots in record numbers, giving Jimmy Morales – a comedian with little experience in politics – the largest percentage in the poll. He was followed by former First Lady Sandra Torres. Her success narrowly squeezed the previous front-runner, businessman Manuel Baldizón, out of the 25 October second round.

INFOGRAPHIC | 2015 Guatemalan Elections

On the streets, in café conversations and in television phone-ins, citizens are still demanding greater transparency in both government and campaign spending. They know that criminal investigations have weakened, but not eliminated, the nexus between politics and illicit business. For the extraordinary events of 2015 to usher in a deeper process of political reform, however, reformists need to transform their street mobilisation into organised civic engagement.

Prosecutors have carried out a sweeping anti-corruption campaign with the help of the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a hybrid body created in 2006 with the help of the United Nations to investigate and dismantle illicit groups operating within state institutions. As Crisis Group detailed in April, the scandal broke when they exposed a racket dubbed “La Línea” that was allegedly defrauding the government of customs duties in return for kickbacks.

The case enveloped former Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who resigned in May, before claiming President Otto Pérez Molina himself, after Congress voted unanimously 1 September to lift his presidential immunity. In a development that is unprecedented in Guatemalan history, both the president and vice president are now in custody, facing corruption charges. The new president, Alejandro Maldonado, a veteran jurist appointed to succeed Baldetti, took power through the established legal procedures, as called for by Crisis Group, and presided over the elections.

Television comedian Jimmy Morales will stand against Guatemala’s former first lady Sandra Torres in a presidential run-off election on 25 October. CRISIS GROUP/guatemalaelecciones.com

Morales, the winner in the first round, benefitted from name recognition and his status as an outsider from the political class targeted by protestors. An evangelical protestant, he is a conservative who ran on the simple slogan of being “neither corrupt, nor a thief”. Critics worry about his inexperience, which he acknowledges, and his support from military veterans’ groups committed to preventing further trials about human rights abuses perpetrated during the country’s 36-year internal armed conflict.

Sandra Torres is known for implementing social programs popular in rural areas during the government of her ex-husband Alvaro Colom (2008 – 2012). Opponents depict her as a radical, though she has tried to move toward the center by naming a businessman with close ties to the country’s biggest consortiums as her running mate. She has the advantage of a solid national party structure, though electoral authorities and CICIG accused her of unfair campaign practices and critics point out to other grave allegations.

A protester climbs up the columns of Guatemala’s Metropolitan Cathedral. CRISIS GROUP/Arturo Matute

Whoever wins the 25 October runoff will face a divided Congress. Although Baldizón failed to make the second round, his Líder party has the most members of the national legislature, with 37 lawmakers. Torres’ National Unity of Hope (UNE) party won 28 seats in the assembly, which may allow it to build alliances with potentially like-minded groups, such as former President Alfonso Portillo’s Everyone (TODOS) and other smaller groupings.

This could help UNE push for a reform agenda, which Torres says is her objective. Countering critics, skeptical of UNE’s commitment to change, Torres has called on Congress to approve the reforms before the new legislature, although this may be a campaign tactic to muster support from the urban middle classes where her showing was weakest. The runoff could be close. Morales is expected to take much of the urban vote while Torres may be able to pick up votes from former Baldizón supporters in predominantly rural municipalities. The winner will take office on 14 January 2016.

Meanwhile, President Maldonado has promised to take up protesters’ demands for political reform, urging the current Congress to approve amendments to the electoral law before the runoff. His caretaker government also faces a difficult fiscal situation, which will require the government to carefully distribute funds among critical public institutions, especially hospitals, prisons and the police.

Comments left behind on a large canvas in Guatemala City’s central square during a massive demonstration on 27 August, a few days before former President Otto Pérez Molina resigned after a corruption scandal. CRISIS GROUP/ Arturo Matute

The president presented a list of three candidates for vice president, from which Congress chose Alfonso Fuentes Soria, a former rector of the national university and director of the Presidential Human Rights Commission under Alfonso Portillo. It is not clear if Maldonado, Soria and his newly appointed cabinet have the political skills and clout in Congress to forward the reforms.

Citizens’ groups, business associations and activists have come together during the crisis and reached basic consensus on a minimal reform agenda that considers stricter regulations for political parties and campaign funding, an invigorated comptroller to oversee public transactions, more transparency in government procurement, the enhancement of a meritocratic civil service, buttressing the independence of judges and magistrates, and strengthening the Public Ministry’s capacities to investigate corruption.

Unfortunately it’s unlikely that a majority of lawmakers will support the reforms now that the incentive to respond to citizens’ demands implied by their re-election campaigns is over. Nevertheless, it may prove unwise for them to disregard the new popular will. Guatemalan society has been maturing much faster than its political system, mobilising the people and intensifying demands for political change.

Much remains to be done to fulfill the promises made way back in 1996, when a peace accord offered not only to terminate the civil war, but to bring a better democracy to Guatemala, based on transparency, accountability and an enhanced rule of law. Peaceful protests and civic engagement combined with greater judicial scrutiny have already proven to be the best means available to compel politicians to better represent public interest.

If even these mechanisms fail to push forward democratic reforms, society risks opting for more radical demands and means, prolonging the crisis and perhaps descending into violence. The extraordinary steps forward already taken during 2015 are an opportunity Guatemala should not miss.

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.