US Policies Exacerbate Migration Crisis in Guatemala

Current migration trends are inextricably linked to the legacy of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. The long-term legacy of state-sponsored violence has contributed to family and community disintegration, high rates of generalized violence, out-migration, and a myriad of related social problems.

Will the U.S. continue with failed strategies, or take this crisis as a much-needed opportunity to examine our own policies and priorities and their impact on the most vulnerable groups in Central America?

“Gangs in a nearby neighborhood wanted to kill me and some other people,” recounted David, a 16-year-old from Guatemala, when he was asked why he left Guatemala. “They wanted me to give them money, but what money was I supposed to give them? They held my cousin and me for three hours, tied up. My cousin was able to untie the rope and he helped me untie mine. We heard gun shots and we ran.”

David is one of tens of thousands of children who have traveled from Central America to the U.S without their parents. Nearly 50,000 unaccompanied children were apprehended by Border Patrol in the first 8 months of this fiscal year, an increase of 90 percent from last year. The situation has left lawmakers in the US scrambling to find a solution to the overflows in immigration detention facilities along the southern border.

The topic brought the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador to the U.S. this week to meet with President Barack Obama about how the four countries can work together to stem the flow north. At an event on Thursday, Guatemalan President Pérez Molina suggested that the U.S. should divert one tenth of the $20 billion that it has spent on securing the U.S.-Mexico border to invest instead in security in Central America.

Unfortunately, this proposal, like Obama’s request to Congress for emergency funds, ignores how U.S. policies are contributing to the very violence and insecurity that many of the children are fleeing. As the case of Guatemala makes clear, there is an urgent need to stop and evaluate U.S. drug, security and economic policies to see how they fit into the root causes of this crisis.

Why are children fleeing?

Current migration trends are inextricably linked to the legacy of Guatemala’s internal armed conflict. During the country’s 36-year civil war, which led to genocide and where torture and disappearances were commonplace, over one million people were forcibly displaced; an estimated 200,000 fled to Mexico, the U.S., and other countries as war refugees. Some of the children leaving Guatemala today are reuniting with relatives who left during this time. The long-term legacy of state-sponsored violence has contributed to family and community disintegration, high rates of generalized violence, out-migration, and a myriad of related social problems. Although peace accords were signed in 1996, historic imbalances in power and wealth that fueled the conflict remain largely in place as the many crimes against humanity perpetuated primarily by the military against Mayan campesino communities have largely gone unaddressed.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) March 2014 report, which David’s testimony was part of, includes interviews with 404 children from Mexico, El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala, all of whom since October 2011 entered the U.S. without their parents. The children interviewed, who were randomly selected, cited societal violence, domestic abuse and hardship as the primary “push factors,” and family reunification and the desire for better educational or employment opportunities as the primary “pull factors.” Only two out of the 404 children mentioned changes in U.S. immigration policies when describing their reasons to migrate, contradicting claims in U.S. media that the surge in child migrants is a result of Obama’s “lax” immigration policies.

Not surprisingly, one of the central findings of the UNHCR report, “Children on the Run,” was that the reasons that children migrate are complicated and diverse. Most of the children cited multiple factors that influenced their decision, a phenomenon reflected in the accounts of other children who have chosen to share their stories.

Adolfo De La Cruz, a 17-year-old Guatemalan migrant, is one example.

In an interview with a local newspaper in New Bedford, Massachusetts, Cruz explained that he traveled to the U.S. to reunite with an older brother, Pedro, after he and his family were threatened by organized crime.

“They came by and pulled out a gun and said they were going to kill me, all of my family,” said Adolfo. Law enforcement in his hometown of Tonolá was unable or unwilling to help. Adolfo’s mother went into hiding, while he and another brother set off on what would be a two-month long journey to reach their destination in the U.S. “In Guatemala it was better…but there are so many criminals there. They don’t let you live in peace. I think it’s better here,” mused Adolfo, reflecting on the difficult choice he had made.

Guatemala is plagued by widespread violence and persistent impunity. Though lower than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, Guatemala suffers from one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Impunity for all crimes is one of the highest in the western hemisphere, and impunity for crimes committed against women, children and other vulnerable populations can reach 98 percent. The UNHCR found that almost 40 percent of unaccompanied children from Guatemala could be eligible for international protection due to the violence in their homes and communities.

Looking at the map of the municipalities from which the children interviewed by the UNHCR hail, they are predominantly from the western part of the country, where there is less violence, but greater poverty, less access to education or opportunity for employment, and where state institutions and programs have limited reach.

According to UNICEF, Guatemala has one of the highest poverty rates in Latin America, as well as one of the highest rates of income inequality in the world. Almost 60 percent of Guatemalan children live in poverty. According to the World Food Program, almost 50 percent of children under the age of five suffer from chronic malnutrition, the fourth highest rate in the world. Food insecurity was exacerbated by the global economic crisis, which “reduced remittances, exports, foreign investment, tourism revenues, and access to credit, thereby increasing the Government’s budget deficit and unemployment.”

Where do U.S. policies fit in?

To address the crisis, President Obama requested $3.7 billion from U.S. Congress, which included $300 million for the Department of State to address the root causes of the migration and help Central American governments with repatriation of deported immigrants. The Senate countered with a bill that would grant $2.6 billion, cutting many of the funds requested by the President for the domestic response, but maintaining the full $300 million for the Department of State.

Within that is $85 million for International Narcotics Control and Law Enforcement, ignoring reports like that of the Organization of American States (OAS) which say that U.S. efforts to combat drug trafficking have actually worsened security in Central America and Mexico.

Both proposals also ignore the endemic corruption and disregard for human rights demonstrated by both police and military forces in Guatemala, despite reports from the State Department itself. In recent years, the Guatemalan government has increasingly relied on so-called “iron fist” polices that heavily involve the military in law enforcement, which have been counter-productive, worsening security in both countries.

In Guatemala, for example, homicide rates had been recently dropping each year. However, in 2013, after significantly increasing the use of the military in internal security, Guatemala saw the first increase in the number of homicides committed since 2008. The U.S. claims that it doesn’t condone this militarization, but it continues to financially support it.

Women’s and human rights organizations from the region, as well as Nobel Peace Laureates, Jody Williams and Rigoberta Menchú, have reported a clear correlation between U.S. foreign aid for security and counter-narcotics programs, and violence against women.

In April of 2013, over 145 civil society organizations in Mexico, the Northern Triangle and the U.S. sent a letter to President Obama and the presidents of Mexico, El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras that stated:

Human rights abuses against our families and communities are, in many cases, directly attributable to failed and counterproductive security policies that have militarized our societies in the name of the “war on drugs.” The deployment of our countries’ armed forces to combat organized crime and drug-trafficking, and the increasing militarization of police units, endanger already weak civilian institutions and leads to increased human rights violations.

Earlier this year, Austria blocked a firearms sale by Glock to Guatemala’s police, citing high rates of impunity and violence as well as police corruption and concerns about infiltration of the police by organized crime. In 2011, U.S. defense contractor CNA reported “an abundance of evidence that criminal organizations engaged in trafficking have penetrated even the highest levels of the Guatemalan military and police.”

Last week in Guatemala, investigators uncovered six bodies of people who were kidnapped, tortured and killed by a gang called the Sierra Ovando. The gang, believed to have murdered around 100 people, is made up in part by former and current police officers, and one of their tactics is to pretend to arrest victims in order to hold them for ransom. Horrific stories like this one reflect the extreme levels of corruption and insecurity that characterize some regions of Guatemala.

Unfortunately, Guatemala has shown a lack of political will to implement effective strategies to tackle insecurity. For example, efforts by the U.S. to fund and support police reform in Guatemala have largely failed. According to a USAID report, “Despite numerous well-conceived and executed discrete police reform projects, international assistance has been largely ineffective in producing concrete, tangible, and persistent results, as acknowledged by the US Embassy’s own staff.”

As the U.S. decides how to appropriate funding for Guatemala, it is not only important to take into account the poor track record on police reform in the country, but also to consider how many of the security policies carried out in Guatemala have served to uphold entrenched inequality and poverty and thus contribute to reinforcing some of the very “push factors” that lead migrants to seek better opportunities in the U.S.

In October of 2012, 15,000 indigenous protesters blocked Guatemala’s main highway demanding lower electricity prices and rejecting proposed reforms to the teacher training and to Guatemala’s constitution. Soldiers opened fire on the crowd killing at least 6 people and injuring dozens of others. The soldiers and their commanding officer have still not been tried.

Across the country where protests have erupted against mines and hydroelectric dams, the police and military have been mobilized to break them up. Various military outposts have been opened in regions with ongoing conflicts over these “development” projects instead of in regions with high levels of violence. The Guatemalan government has also repeatedly used states of siege to suspend constitutional guarantees and raid homes in response to these conflicts.

Human rights defenders who advocate for policies that would reduce inequality and poverty are killed with near impunity. For example, in 2013, the International Trade Union Confederation called Guatemala the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist citing 68 documented assassinations of trade unionists since 2007. Suspects have been arrested in only one of the murders. According to the Guatemala’s Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit, 18 defenders were killed last year for their work.

It is heartening that proposals to tackle the root causes of the surge have included programs to improve access to education, create youth outreach centers and other gang prevention efforts, and reduce poverty. However, there is a striking lack of willingness to examine existing counter-narcotics and security polices and whether they are contributing to the problem.