Opinion: Corruption in Guatemala and why Central America won’t go away

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales
Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has tried to undermine efforts to crack down on corruption in his country (source: dpa)

Throughout his first year in office, as he had during the campaign, United States President Donald Trump has focused attention on Mexico as a problem he wants to solve: He wants to stop illegal immigration and renegotiate the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). While this focus may work in electoral terms, it is not a foundation for sound policy. Trilateral talks to revise NAFTA have shown that the deal is not so bad after all, and that there are a lot of people who benefit from it.

By the same token, building a wall on the border with Mexico does not even begin to solve the problem of illegal immigration, much less offer a reasonable way to deal with the 10 million undocumented residents in the U.S. To be effective, policy must consider the factors that provoke migration. Once we do that, we realize that net migration from Mexico is declining, and that migration from the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America (Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras) now constitutes more than one-third of the total entering the U.S. illegally from the south – and the number is rising fast.

In response, the Trump administration has continued a project begun under former President Barack Obama called the Alliance for Prosperity, designed to spur economic development in the three countries. But a one-size-fits-all policy will not do the job. Examining what distinguishes each country from the others will explain why.

A map of the Northern Triangle region of Central America
The number of migrants from the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are rising sharply, but a “one-size-fits-all” solution for the region won’t work (source: macpixxel for GIS)

Corrosive force

To illustrate the argument, we will take a closer look at Guatemala, where corruption is the corrosive force making good governance difficult. It undermines the rule of law, making it harder to combat the growing influence of Mexican drug cartels in the northern region of the country and to protect the indigenous villages and the small farmers who want to escape the violence by migrating to the U.S. Migration from Guatemala can only be reduced if something can be done to reduce corruption.

The CICIG’s work points the way to an effective policy for the Trump administration


What makes the fight against corruption in Guatemala so interesting – and potentially so important – is the role of the international community, specifically the United Nations anticorruption commission, known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG. Both the commission and the extraordinary influence of international civil society are a legacy of the long and difficult process through which peace in the country’s decades-long civil conflict was achieved. The CICIG’s work in exposing public corruption, its support of the Guatemalan judiciary and attorney general, and its defense of the rule of law all point the way to an effective policy for the Trump administration.

The current Guatemalan crisis began in August, when CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velasquez announced that he was preparing criminal indictments against President James Ernesto (“Jimmy”) Morales, his brother and his son, and asked the Guatemalan Congress to lift the president’s immunity from prosecution. President Morales responded by declaring Mr. Velasquez a persona non grata. Two days later, the country’s Constitutional Court nullified the president’s order.

Ivan Velasquez, Commissioner of the UN’s anticorruption body for Guatemala
CICIG Commissioner Ivan Velasquez has brought his fight against corruption in Guatemala all the way to President Morales’ doorstep (source: dpa)

Congress, acting under a state of national emergency (declared in June because of the bad state of the country’s roads), first voted to maintain the president’s immunity. It then passed legislation essentially gutting the country’s anticorruption laws, making it virtually impossible to prosecute President Morales or any government official for taking bribes. In the few days between these legislative acts, information became public that the armed forces – among others – had been paying Mr. Morales a monthly fee they called a “responsibility bonus.” These bonuses allegedly amount to some $25,000 per month, which is in addition to his monthly salary of $27,000, among the highest in the hemisphere. What is to be done?

Support for the CICIG

For the moment, it looks as if the CICIG is safe. UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has declared his support, while half of President Morales’ cabinet resigned to protest his attempt to get rid of Mr. Velasquez. The attorney general, who is responsible for what is called the Ministerio Publico, the enforcement instrument to carry out Mr. Velasquez’s request, appears to support the effort to clean up the mess. On the other hand, the economic elite are hostile to the CICIG and do not want to lose any of their power.

The key to the situation is in the hands of the U.S., which pays most of the CICIG’s budget

The key to the situation is in the hands of the U.S., which pays most of the CICIG’s budget through a grant to the UN. The Trump administration has given mixed signals on the matter. U.S. Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley has spoken forcefully against the efforts of the Guatemalan Congress to protect the president. On the other hand, Vice President Mike Pence has indicated that he wants Guatemala’s support in U.S. efforts to reduce migration and cut down on drug trafficking through the country.

A proposal from the U.S. Southern Command to get the Guatemalan military more involved in combating crime will only make matters worse, as the military is one of the major sources of bribes to the president and his family. Several senior military officers have been implicated in working closely with the Mexican drug cartels that have set up safe havens in the northern districts of the country and threaten the safety of the indigenous villagers there.

International unity needed

The local civil society, which erupted in protest in 2015 against the previous administration of President Otto Perez Molina and in support of the CICIG, has fragmented and does not have the influence it had two years ago. The role of international civil society, which was so crucial to the peace process and in the creation of the CICIG, is less clear. Transparency International has urged the European Union to get involved and has worked hard, along with the International Crisis Group and other NGOs, to keep up the activism of Guatemalan civil society. The problem is that there is a disconnect between these organizations and the multiple political parties.

The best solution for all involved would be for the EU, the U.S. and the UN to throw their collective influence behind the CICIG. That would send a powerful signal throughout Guatemala that the institutions designed to support the rule of law are legitimate and deserve the support of the people. That, in and of itself, will improve the quality of life of all Guatemalans.

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