contributor perspectives

Corruption Fuels a Feedback Loop in Guatemala

Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran
Board of Contributors
6 MINS READOct 9, 2019 | 10:00 GMT
This photo shows Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales speaking to reporters during a news conference in Guatemala City on Aug. 14, 2019.
(JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP/Getty Images)

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, pictured speaking during an Aug. 14 news conference in Guatemala City, signed a 'safe third-country' agreement with the United States in July. Guatemala is considered far from safe for migrants, nor is it considered capable of managing migration flows.

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Highlights
  • After strong opposition by the current Guatemalan government, the U.N. Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala left the country in September after 12 years of investigating corruption.
  • Given its weak institutions, Guatemala's "safe third country" agreement with the United States will likely add to the region's instability.
  • U.S. President Donald Trump's threats to punish Guatemala over migrant flows to the United States will only increase the country's institutional weaknesses if they are made a reality.

The political and social situation in Guatemala is key to Central America's stability. With stronger institutions and relatively less violence than Honduras and El Salvador, Guatemala is usually where U.S. operations of assistance in the Northern Triangle begin.

This assistance doesn't mean, however, that Guatemala is a peaceful land of consolidated institutions. In fact, some indicators measuring Guatemala's human development, corruption and violence levels are comparable with the rankings of some of the world's most turbulent countries. For instance, child malnutrition in Guatemala reaches half of the population below 5 years of age, a situation comparable with those in Yemen or Burundi. But when compared with Honduras and El Salvador, the two other countries that constitute Central America's Northern Triangle, Guatemala usually provides the best location for diplomatic operations in the region, where corruption, extreme poverty and violence remain sources of social and political unrest.

Government Efforts to Secure Impunity

Considering Guatemala's importance to Central America, the United States has supported anti-corruption efforts in the country since at least 2014 to address a structural source of institutional weakness and social instability. Todd Robinson, the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala from 2014 to 2017, often spoke strongly against local corrupt practices that characterize the country. In 2015, for example, Reuters reported that earlier that year "the U.S. government pressured Guatemala's then-President Otto Perez (Molina) to rid his administration of corrupt officials and to renew the mandate of a U.N. Commission charged with investigating corruption in Guatemala." The U.S. diplomatic pressure coincided with protests against government corruption, which led to Perez Molina's resignation on Sept. 2, 2015, and arrest the next day on corruption and tax evasion charges.

Protests and U.S. diplomatic pressure also resulted in Perez Molina extending the mandate of the U.N. Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG, as it is known by its Spanish acronym). After 2015, that extension translated into the prosecution of several politicians and business leaders involved in corruption and illicit electoral funding, as well as the arrest of the son and brother of Guatemala's next president, Jimmy Morales.

However, even as the United States expressed its support for CICIG and anti-corruption investigations, Guatemala's traditional centers of power began to push against what they saw as a threat to the status quo. With the arrival of a new U.S. presidential administration in 2017, the Morales government began a lobbying push against the CICIG in Washington. Meanwhile, it portrayed the commission's anti-corruption efforts domestically as part of a left-wing agenda trespassing on Guatemalan sovereignty.

Guatemala's traditional centers of power pushed against the U.N. commission's anti-corruption efforts, which they saw as a threat to the status quo.

At first, Guatemala's lobbying campaign seemed to gain little traction. But in May 2018, Guatemala followed the U.S. lead and opened its own embassy to Israel in Jerusalem only two days after the U.S. government faced strong criticism for doing the same. The Morales government's lobbying effort suddenly began to bear fruit. Communication between Morales' administration and the White House became more established, and U.S. expressions of support for anti-corruption investigations in Guatemala waned — along with its explicit support for CICIG. In August 2018, Morales announced that he wouldn't renew CICIG's mandate, meaning the commission would have to leave the country at the end of its term in September 2019. The Morales government even blocked CICIG's chief, Ivan Velasquez, and various investigators from entering the country.

CICIG was the prosecuting party together with the Guatemalan attorney general in ongoing cases. Without the commission's head and investigators in the country, coordination was difficult, and CICIG was removed from several key cases, including the one involving Morales' son and brother. A court exonerated them in August.

The 'Safe Third Country' Agreement

In July, after U.S. President Donald Trump had reduced aid to Guatemala and threatened tariffs and remittance fees because of Guatemala's inability to control the flow of Central American migrants headed toward the United States, the U.S. and the Guatemalan governments announced they had reached the equivalent of a "safe third country" agreement. The agreement requires asylum seekers heading north through Guatemala to request refuge in Guatemala instead.

The agreement came under strong criticism in both countries for two main reasons: Guatemala is far from "safe," and it is far from capable of managing migration flows. According to 2017 figures from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, more Guatemalans were granted asylum in the United States — 2,954 or 11.1 percent of the overall total — than individuals from any other country except China (5,548 or 20.9 percent) and El Salvador (3,471 or 13.1 percent). The fact that Guatemalans are one of the largest groups seeking asylum in the United States suggests the country isn't safe, nor is it prepared for receiving refugees or deploying institutional measures to manage a large number of asylum-seekers. To address this issue, the Trump administration announced Sept. 23 that it was sending $47 million to help Guatemala build up its asylum system.

Guatemala's Constitutional Court has ruled that the country's Congress must ratify the agreement before it takes effect, but it has not yet done so. And the candidate elected in August to succeed Morales, Alejandro Giammattei, has criticized the agreement and seeks changes to it.

Risk of Instability to Come

With the end of CICIG's mandate in September, Guatemalan authorities will have to investigate and prosecute complex criminal networks that involve the country's most powerful economic and political figures on their own, a task that seems impossible in Guatemala's current political climate. In fact, the Guatemalan attorney general's office didn't "absorb" the analysts and investigators previously trained by CICIG, so it will be almost impossible for it to bring continuity to ongoing investigations or prosecutions.

Morales is wrapping up his time in office with a lack of public legitimacy, but with the support of Guatemala's traditional power players, especially the active-duty and former military officers who worked to neutralize anti-corruption efforts during the past five years. Giammattei, the president-elect who takes office Jan. 14, speaks against Guatemala's "disgusting" corruption, but he also campaigned against CICIG. Giammattei, who shares the country's traditional political interests, spent 10 months in detention in 2010 before he was acquitted of charges of responsibility for the deaths of seven inmates when he directed the country's prison system in 2006. His authoritarian approach doesn't seem like an opportunity for bringing forward an administration with a renewed interest in tackling corruption.

If the safe third country agreement survives the opposition, the country's institutions would still struggle to honor the deal's commitments because of Guatemala's structural incapacities, which likely won't satisfy Trump's demands that Guatemala control the flow of migrants to the United States. If Trump punishes Guatemala with tariffs or remittance fees or again cuts assistance, it will strengthen a vicious cycle: With less U.S. assistance for social and institutional strengthening, Guatemalan institutions will continue to exacerbate the poverty, corruption and violence that drive its citizens to head north. And behind them will be those who arrive to find there is no "safe third country."

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