Columns / Corruption
Central America Needs a Commission to Prosecute Corruption, Not a War on Migration
Audrey C. Tiernan

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Victoria Sanford

Following a virtual bilateral meeting last month with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, Vice President Kamala Harris announced a $310 million humanitarian aid package to Central America. Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo followed by announcing an agreement with the United States to establish a new joint border protection task force that would include 16 Department of Homeland Security officials. Two weeks after Harris’s first phone call with Giammattei and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador in late March, the Biden Administration began to militarize Mexico and Central America with proxy forces on their shared borders, including the deployment of 10,000 Mexican troops on its border with Guatemala, 1,500 Guatemalan troops on its border with Honduras, and a “surge” of 7,000 troops within Honduras.

While humanitarian aid is desperately needed, beefing up security forces in Central America while cozying up to authoritarian leaders will only exacerbate the criminality and corruption pushing so many families and youth to seek haven in the United States. Shadowy relations between police, the judiciary, cartels, organized crime, and gangs fuse daily life with fear while also facilitating undocumented migration through trafficking networks. To stem migration from Central America, we need an internationally supported commission to investigate and prosecute corruption throughout the region – not the U.S.-led working group on corruption that is currently under consideration. The United States must carefully choose its institutional partners.

In March, the United States ratified an agreement for $530,000 in assistance to Giammattei’s Presidential Commission against Corruption. Within one week, Guatemalan rights to freedom of assembly were suspended in five departments near the Honduran border. Following a similar decree in January, Guatemalan police and army soldiers attacked a group of Honduran families with tear gas and batons at a checkpoint. On March 30, a Mexican soldier killed a Guatemalan migrant at a border checkpoint following the recent repatriation of the bodies of 13 Guatemalans killed by Mexican police near the U.S. border.

Like the March 2021 contribution to Giammattei’s commission, more aid to his government will not slow the exodus of Guatemalans or make a dent in the struggle against corruption. In 2012, Giammattei was arrested for his role as national prison director in the 2006 Pavón prison massacre, categorized as a series of planned extrajudicial executions by the UN backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). After charges were dropped, Giammattei ran for president promoting the massacre as his “successful” retaking of the prison. Giammattei won the presidency in his fourth attempt in 2019, after the leading candidate, former Attorney General and anti-corruption crusader Thelma Aldana, was driven into exile. In February 2021, Aldana posted that she was “afraid of going back to Guatemala and being killed,” on #TengoMiedo (“I’m afraid”), the Guatemalan Twitter campaign against gender violence. Granted political asylum in the United States, Aldana joins her predecessor in exile, former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who led successful anti-corruption cases with the CICIG as well as securing convictions of army officers involved in the genocide of the 1980s.

Giammattei claims Guatemala no longer needs international presence for prosecutors to safely do their jobs. But if this were true, the two top corruption fighters Aldana and Paz y Paz would not be in exile and the current attorney general would not be using the power of her office to file specious charges against the very prosecutor’s unit meant to investigate corruption. Most recently, anti-corruption crusader and elected Judge Gloria Porras was denied another term on the Constitutional Court by a murky legal challenge stripping the court of its independence and leaving judges vulnerable to the whims of the powerful.

Whether attorneys general seeking to prosecute corruption or regular citizens trying to take a bus to work without having to pay a “tax” to the local gang, rule of law is essential for Guatemalan society to give its citizens a measure of security. Corruption drives legal and unauthorized migration because it collapses public space and civic possibility. Migration from Guatemala went down 35 percent during the CICIG’s first year of anti-corruption work in Guatemala. For five years, the number of Guatemalans apprehended at the U.S. border continued to drop. The CICIG’s successes were a regional model for the fight against corruption.

Giammattei’s anti-corruption commission is the latest in a long trail of presidential Ponzi schemes in Guatemala. Former President Otto Pérez Molina, a former general, utilized the office of the presidency to establish his own import tax system. Called La Línea, the $120 million stolen from customs coffers was part of the $535 million lost to corruption in 2015. The indictment of Pérez Molina and other high-ranking officials revealed the complex arrangements that tie politicians to security structures, cartels, organized crime, and the private sector. Guatemalans overwhelmingly supported the CICIG because it offered a glimpse of how rule of law could break the chokehold of grifters and other clandestine organizations on the state. While Guatemalan migration spiked during the first two years of Perez Molina’s crooked regime, the number of Guatemalans at the U.S. southern border decreased by 29 percent when Pérez Molina was arrested on corruption charges in 2015.

While disliked by the powerful and the corrupt, the CICIG had a 75 percent approval rating in Guatemala. Working with Guatemalan prosecutors, more than 70 criminal networks were dismantled, 100 high impact cases were investigated and prosecuted, 600 suspects were brought to trial, and 400 were convicted. CICIG prosecutions supported Guatemalan prosecutors and made it possible for regular citizens to access justice. As the powerful and corrupt ramped up unrelenting attacks on the CICIG, and the previous US administration remained silent, then-President Jimmy Morales, who was himself under investigation, did not renew the CICIG’s mandate in 2019, and a record 264,168 Guatemalans were caught on the border.

Corruption is the source of increasing inequality, diminished life possibilities, and the hunger and violence that drive migration. If you follow the money, trafficking and organized crime implicate transnational criminal actors, but also implicate failed US government policies and inadequate support for regional and international efforts to combat corruption and impunity. The US government provided an average of $4 million annually to the CICIG over 12 years – a paltry sum compared to the $60 million spent weekly to shelter unaccompanied minors at the border.

Support for access to education, economic growth, expanding labor opportunities and enhancing democracy are benchmarks for U.S. international aid programs, but they cannot flourish in corrupt Central American states. Vice President Harris can address the root causes of migration and re-establish U.S. priorities of strengthening human rights, rule of law, and democracy by working with the United Nations and the Organization of American States to reboot the CICIG as an independent regional commission against impunity that is empowered to investigate and prosecute corruption and criminality in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.

Dr. Victoria Sanford is a professor of anthropology and the founding director of the Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York. She is the author of Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala and the forthcoming Bittersweet Justice: Feminicide & Impunity in Guatemala.
Dr. Victoria Sanford is a professor of anthropology and the founding director of the Center for Human Rights and Peace Studies at Lehman College of the City University of New York. She is the author of Buried Secrets: Truth and Human Rights in Guatemala and the forthcoming Bittersweet Justice: Feminicide & Impunity in Guatemala.

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