Guatemala has captured the attention of media and policymakers across the globe with historic proceedings against former leaders, discussions on drug decriminalization, its U.N. Security Council and OAS involvement, organized crime, and other hot topics. Despite progress on important fronts like security and an improved image abroad, the pressing issue of deportation from the U.S. remains unsolved and continues to worsen, increasing pressure on an already fragile economic and social fabric.
Guatemala’s bilateral relationship with the U.S. is its most important, reflected by the country’s 12 diplomatic posts there and plans to open others soon. In 2012, cash flows from the U.S. reached record levels, totaling over 10 percent of Guatemala's GDP at $4.78 billion. President Otto Pérez-Molina's government is encouraging migrant families and their recipients to invest these funds, aware that creating opportunities for Guatemalan citizens and influencing the U.S. Congress to provide legal status to the over 700,000 undocumented Guatemalans living in the U.S. are crucial to the economic and social sustainability of Guatemala.
Deportations from the U.S. in 2013 have already surpassed 2012 levels, with two months remaining in the year. This further exacerbates pressures on the Guatemalan government to provide those with a “stunted American dream” access to key services, sound infrastructure and, most importantly, jobs.
With activities like the Guatemala Investment Summit, the manufacturing, tourism and construction industries are providing Guatemalans with job opportunities and the chance to integrate into the country’s economy. Although many higher-skilled and English-speaking workers are able to find jobs upon returning to Guatemala, the biggest remaining challenge is to create opportunities outside of Guatemala City.
Guatemala’s congress and Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina are at odds on how to deal with the ongoing violence between mine security guards and the public in two Guatemalan departmentos.
Tension in the two departments of Jalapa and Santa Rosa prompted Pérez Molina to declare a state of emergency in four towns in early May, with the president claiming that organized criminal groups were causing trouble. "I took the decision with ministers who have been on the ground, not MPs who sit at a desk, who do not even know what goes on inside the country," said Pérez Molina. "The statements of the deputies did not influence me, absolutely not. Nor do I care about their opinion.”
However, the Guatemalan congress rebelled against the enforcement that would remove constitutional rights for citizens. With Congress’s refusal to ratify the States of Siege, Pérez Molina ordered states of prevention to be issued in the four municipalities. States of prevention allow the government to militarize an area, prohibit or prevent strikes or work stoppages, limit outdoor gatherings, use force to break up a meeting or demonstration, prohibit parking in certain areas and require broadcasting bodies to avoid inflammatory or inciting material.
"I am not going to allow this to continue," Pérez Molina told reporters. "We have conducted a six-month investigation in this area with the attorney general's office for various criminal activities."
At the end of April, hostilities between a subsidiary of the Canadian-owned Tahoe Resources Inc. silver mine and San Rafael’s population deteriorated after the company’s security guards shot and wounded six demonstrators that were protesting that the Escobal silver mine would contaminate their water supply. In response, locals kidnapped 23 police officers and an attempt to free the hostages left a police officer and demonstrator dead.
In remarks to the UN General Assembly in New York on Wednesday, Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina and Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos called on the UN to begin a serious debate on alternative ways to combat drug trafficking.
“Today, I am proposing formally that [the UN]…carry out a far-reaching assessment of the progress and limits of the current prohibitionist approach to drugs,” said the Mexican president. Calderón and his counterparts in Guatemala and Colombia made their remarks before the 193 nations of the General Assembly, challenging on an international stage the oppositional stance that nations such as the U.S. have taken toward drug legalization.
"It is our duty to determine—on an objective scientific basis—if we are doing the best we can or if there are better options to combat this scourge," said Santos.
The OAS is already studying the idea of drug legalization in the Americas as a way to cut down on crime and cartel-related violence, and is expected to release a report with recommendations within a year. In Mexico, the government last reported in January that 47,000 Mexicans had been killed between December 2006 and September 2011, but it is now estimated that 60,000 people have died in Mexico’s drug violence since Calderón took office.
Calderón, who will step down as Mexico’s president in December when Enrique Peña Nieto is inaugurated, asked drug-consuming nations “to evaluate with all sincerity, and honesty, if they have the will to reduce the consumption of drugs in a substantive manner.”
In his address to the UN, Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina was expected to bring up drug legalization, as he has in the past, but he did not do so. Instead, he said that Guatemala was interested in convening nations that are “well disposed to reforming global policies on drugs” to consider “new creative and innovative alternatives.”
In an interview with the AP on Tuesday, Pérez Molina, a retired general who vowed to fight crime in Guatemala with an “iron fist,” said that he needed more military equipment to effectively fight drug trafficking. The U.S. cut off military aid to Guatemala after the country’s brutal civil war, but the U.S. has still spent $85 million fighting drug trafficking in the country since 1996. Under the Central American Regional Security Initiative, the U.S. has spent $496 million since 2008 supporting security forces in Central America.
Last week Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina lifted the state of siege on Santa Cruz Barillas in which 17 residents were arrested for public disturbances. But tensions still remain high weeks after community members first demonstrated their opposition to the building of the new Hidralia Energia dam in this primarily Indigenous town close to the border with Mexico.
Pérez Molina declared the state of siege on May 3 and sent in an initial force of 260 troops and national police to Santa Cruz Barillas to “restore order” after a group of 200 men armed with machetes and guns took over a military base in the area. He justified martial law on the grounds that rioters’ ties to the Zetas drug trafficking cartel contributed to the disturbances.
Despite lifting martial law, Interior Minister Mauricio Lopez said 150 troops would remain behind to “guarantee security and avert new disturbances.” Many Guatemalans, however, backed the residents of Santa Cruz Barillas. Guatemala City resident Brenda Hernández said, “We want the government to respect the pueblo.”
At the height of martial law, an estimated 850-army and national police officers were deployed in Santa Cruz Barillas. Thousands marched in Huehuetenango, the regional capital on May 15 to denounce governmental action. Protester Juan Juarez, a 70-year-old resident of Ixcán Playa Grande, Quiché said to citizen journalist website HablaGuate, “Santa Cruz Barillas is suffering repression by the government of Pérez Molina. We worry because the government of Guatemala is defending the interests of the hydroelectric company more than Santa Cruz (Barillas).”
Clashes first arose after the death of community leader Andrés Francisco Miguel who had opposed the hydroelectric dam. Subsequent attacks on other community leaders left two seriously injured. It was the culmination of years of protests over the building of the dam, which protesters said they were not consulted about; they called for a suspension of the company's license.
According to the Guatemala Human Rights Commission, UDEFEGUA (the Guatemalan Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit), the Dioceses of Huehuetenango and the Renovated Democratic Freedom Party had denounced the state of siege in Barillas and demanded it be lifted. There have been numerous reports of violations of community members’ rights such as the illegal entry into homes and the destruction of private property in the search for weapons.
But the Spanish company Hidralia Energia wouldn’t budge and stated that the project met all environmental and legal requirements.
Local residents have historically been opposed to the dam. In 2007, 46,000 residents voted against allowing mining or hydroelectric companies to operate in the area. Hidralia Energia, whose local company is Hidro Santa Cruz, did not enter into negotiations with the locals who believe construction would harm the Cambalan river ecosystem. Tensions between the locals and the company increased with allegations that Hidralia Energia was using landmines and Claymore-type bombs to protect their equipment.
This latest incident is unfortunately part of Central America’s long history of conflict between hydroelectric companies and Indigenous groups that are often forcibly removed to make way for the dams.
In 1976, the Guatemalan government announced plans to move Achi Indians (who were living along the Chixoy River) in order to build a hydroelectric dam. The village of Rio Negro, the only one that had refused to relocate without adequate compensation, was attacked by soldiers in 1979. Three years later, in February 1982, 73 villagers were ordered to report to Xococ by the local military commander. Only one woman returned; the rest were raped, tortured and murdered by the local Civil Defense Patrol (PAC) in Xococ.
A month later, 177 Achi women and children were killed at the massacre of Rio Negro by Xococ patrolmen. Three members of the PAC were sentenced to death in 1998 for war crimes; in 2008 five more former paramilitaries were sentenced to 780 years in jail each for their role in events in Xococ.
In Honduras, the El Cajón dam has been an environmental and financial disaster. Finished in 1985, the resulting soil erosion has led to lower water quality, negatively affecting the surrounding flora and animal population. Resistance against the project was so fierce that an army base was constructed at its entrance to ensure its safety.
At the crux of the problem is Central America’s energy crisis—a result of ageing infrastructure and demand that is increasing by an average of 5-6 percent per year. Guatemalan government reports from 2011 warn that the country could reach full capacity by 2015. That is part of the government’s urgency in building the plant in Santa Cruz Barillas, which is estimated to provide 10 percent of Guatemala’s electricity demand once operational.
Still, actions such as the recent governmental siege are not a long-term solution for balancing local needs with development priorities. A new approach is needed to meet the country’s competing interests and demands.
Photos and additional reporting by Brenna Goth.
*Nic Wirtz is a contributing blogger to AQ Online. A freelance journalist who has lived in Guatemala for the last six years, his work has been featured on the Christian Science Monitor and GlobalPost and he edits the website Vozz.
In the mid-1990s, the Inter-American Development Bank published various reports indicating that El Salvador and Guatemala had the highest homicide rates in Latin America. Fast-forward sixteen years later and these two countries form, along with neighboring Honduras, the most violent region in the world by all accounts.
With a combined population of 28 million, Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador constitute the northern triangle of Central America; a sub-region that has experienced almost twice-as-much violence as Mexico has since 2006, when Calderon’s war on drugs started. According to official data, approximately 50 thousand people have been killed in Mexico since 2006. In contrast, the northern triangle, with a population four times smaller than Mexico, has endured nearly 90,000 murders during that same period. But while Mexico, with an annual homicide rate of 18 deaths per one hundred thousand inhabitants, is a tragedy, the northern triangle, with average homicide rates surpassing 60 per one hundred thousand, is a catastrophe.
Many believe that the appalling rates of violence in the sub-region are the result of the penetration of Mexican and Colombian drug cartels. According to this argument, in their effort to control the drug routes from South America to the United States, criminal organizations are not only bringing unparalleled violence to Central America, but also taking over highly fragile public institutions. The logical extension of this argument then is that this relentless assault of transnational gangs can only be addressed with greater police and military force.
Although the presence of criminal cartels has undeniably contributed to the skyrocketing violence in the northern triangle, the fundamental problem of security in Central America does not have to do merely with drug traffickers—or social conditions, for that matter. It has to do with government institutions. It has to do with local political and criminal-justice organizations that are extremely corrupt. It has to do with institutions that have been historically pervaded by local criminal lords, death squads, crooked politicians, and vicious paramilitaries who were present long before the Mexican Zetas or the Colombian syndicates began crowding the illegal enterprises of the region.
During last year’s presidential campaign in Guatemala, many were wary of what a government headed by a former military officer, then-candidate Otto Pérez Molina, would look like. Specifically, the concerns centered on if Guatemala could retrogress to the era of abuse and totalitarianism that ruled the country from 1954 to 1986.
To the surprise of many, however, things appear to have turned out quite the opposite. President Pérez Molina of the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) has thus far helped restore confidence in government institutions in a country plagued by high levels of organized crime and impunity.
The president has governed pragmatically, particularly by way of his progressive stance on drug decriminalization: an issue that dominated the media coverage of the Sixth Summit of the Americas earlier this month in Cartagena, Colombia. His decriminalization position represents a major shift in a country with strong traditional and religious values and a highly conservative economic and political class.
The hemisphere is listening. At the summit, Organization of American States (OAS) member-states agreed for the regional body to investigate the prospect of decriminalizing drugs—a notable breakthrough from previous regional conferences. Although some believe this is a political strategy to pressure Washington to boost aid in Guatemala, Pérez Molina’s push has brought results, including President Barack Obama’s recent announcement to increase security cooperation in Central America.
Survey results released yesterday show that 82 percent of Guatemalans consider President Otto Pérez Molina’s performance during his first 100 days in office “good” or “acceptable,” while 11 percent consider it “bad.” Approval of the formal military general, who represents the Partido Patriota (Patriot Party) was highest (87 percent) in the capital, falling to 82 percent in rural areas and 81 percent in other urban areas.
The survey of 1,201 Guatemalans was conducted between April 10 and 15 by the private firm Prodatos and published yesterday by the newspaper Prensa Libre. It had a confidence level of 95 percent and a margin of error of 2.8 percent.
Pérez Molina’s stance on education, security and decriminalization appeared to be among the factors most strongly influencing Guatemalans’ perceptions of his administration. Manuel Pérez Lara, an analyst and dean of the Universidad del Istmo, said, “My sense is that [the citizenry] recognizes a certain leadership in the new government, in that its lines of action have been clear and defined from the beginning.” Eight-two percent of those surveyed approved of the government’s performance on education issues, 81 percent supported its fight against delinquency, 71 percent responded favorably to its initiatives to combat narcotrafficking, and 67 percent supported its efforts to fight corruption. In contrast, 12 percent of survey respondents said the president’s efforts to decriminalize drugs are “the worst” thing he has done.
The survey results also show that Guatemalan citizens recognize that much remains to be done, although they are on the whole positive about their current leadership and the future. Forty-eight percent of respondents said they thought things would improve in Guatemala in the next few months, compared with 23 percent who believe things will stay the same and 29 percent who say they will get worse. The majority of respondents consider President Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti “hard-working,” “well-intentioned,” “honest,” “sincere,” and “open to dialogue.”
In an interview with Prensa Libre, Pérez Molina said he would rate his first 100 days an “eight,” although he acknowledged that the period is a short one from which to evaluate his administration. He cited fiscal reform and the Hambre Cero program to combat malnutrition as signal accomplishments.
Top stories this week are likely to include: Dilma Rousseff in Washington; Sixth Summit of the Americas on Saturday; Chávez possibly seeking treatment in Brazil; Maras and Zetas reportedly joining forces; and Boudou under investigation.
Dilma in Washington: Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff begins a three-day visit to Washington today, where she will meet with her U.S. counterpart Barack Obama. This is Rousseff’s first visit to the U.S. since taking office in January 2011. Aside from meetings at the White House, Rousseff will speak at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce later today, and give a public speech at Harvard University tomorrow. In the Financial Times, Moisés Naim calls for the two countries to agree to a trade deal as a tangible outcome. Adds AQ Editor-in-Chief, Christopher Sabatini, “There will be plenty to discuss, from improving bilateral commerce and investment, Brazil’s recent flurry of legislation favoring local content and business, Iran, and—I hope—the upcoming presidential elections in Venezuela.”
Summit of the Americas on Saturday: Cartagena, Colombia, will host this weekend the Sixth Summit of the Americas, the regional conference of heads of state organized under the aegis of the Organization of American States. This year’s theme is “Connecting the Americas: Partners for Prosperity.” But will the summit yield any significant results? Notes Sabatini: “While this will be a great opportunity to show off how far Colombia has come in the 18 years since the summit process started, there is really very little the summit can accomplish beyond speeches and vague promises.”
Chávez May Seek Treatment in Brazil: Although Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez landed in Havana on Sunday to receive his latest round of radiotherapy, Brazilian media has been reporting that Chávez may seek further treatment at Sírio-Libanês hospital in São Paulo. This is the same hospital where former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva last year successfully recovered from cancer surgery. Specifically, O Globo has reported—citing anonymous sources—that Chávez’ cancer has metastasized and may spread to his liver. Although the Venezuelan embassy in Brasília has denied the reports, pay attention to how this story develops over the coming days.
Maras-Zetas Alliance: Guatemalan authorities this weekend reported that the deadly Mara Salvatrucha gang, which dominates Central America’s Northern Triangle, has formed a pact with the equally dangerous Zetas group in Mexico for control of key drug transit routes from South America to the United States. In an already violence-plagued Central America, the alliance spells bad news for counternarcotics officials and may bolster the positions of Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina—a proponent of drug legalization—at this weekend’s Summit of the Americas. “An alliance between two of the region’s most feared criminal networks yet again reinforces the critical need for a real regional approach to reducing insecurity. The drug traffickers don’t respect borders and neither should counternarcotics efforts,” notes AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak.
Future of Boudou: Argentine Vice President Amado Boudou is now under investigation by federal authorities for his actions as economy minister—in the two years prior to assuming the vice-presidency—specifically that he helped printing company Ciccone Calcográfica get out of bankruptcy. Boudou has denied the charges and still has the full support of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her administration. After a raid of Boudou’s apartment last week, there may be new developments this week on the ongoing investigation.
Small countries like Guatemala hold little leverage in global energy markets; not surprisingly, Guatemalans are also strongly feeling the adverse effects of rising petroleum prices in their daily activities.
As the saying goes, good business trumps politics—and Guatemala proves the maxim true. Although firmly opposed to acceding into the Petrocaribe agreement with Venezuela in 2008, President Otto Pérez Molina is now looking south to Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez’ Petrocaribe organization for any possible relief. He is left with few choices as fuel prices hover closer to 40 quetzales ($5.15) per gallon.
Guatemala has tried to position itself as a Central American petroleum hub through efforts to get off the ground construction of a possible regional refinery and by attracting investments into the exploration and production of its designated drilling blocks. But despite these efforts, Guatemala has not been able to finalize any refinery deals nor has it attracted much international interest in its oil exploration activities.
More recently, in 2011, to the dismay of government officials, only two natural resource companies submitted bids for the four drilling blocks made available to investors that year. With up to 12 potential onshore and offshore oil areas currently available for exploration, Guatemala will have to raise the country’s profile in key global energy hubs. Another key challenge for bringing in energy investment is putting forth clear and more investment-friendly laws.
Top stories this week are likely to include: the pope’s visit to Mexico and Cuba; Chávez at home and in campaign mode; Argentina’s threat of legal action on the Malvinas/Falklands; drug decriminalization talks in Central America; and Venezuela taking a stand against narcotrafficking.
Papal Visit to Mexico and Cuba: Pope Benedict XVI will arrive in Mexico on Friday for a five-day, two-country tour that will wrap up in Cuba. Benedict XVI will land in León—in the central Mexican state of Guanajuato—and celebrate a holy mass at the Parque del Bicentenario on Sunday.
But expect greater a focus around Benedict XVI’s visit to Cuba. AQ Editor-in-Chief Christopher Sabatini predicts: “Will he repeat Pope John Paul II’s call for Cuba to open up to the world and the world to open up to Cuba? And if he does, how will he frame it? While Cuba hasn’t done much, the U.S. hasn’t changed the embargo at all. How much weight will the Pope give to the Castros’ release of prisoners and the economic reforms—likely more than he will give to President Obama’s tinkering on the margins of the embargo.”
Chávez Back Home: Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez tweeted late Friday afternoon that he was departing Cuba after a three-week sojourn for a second surgery to remove a cancerous tumor. Shortly after arriving home, his first public appearance in Caracas turned into an impromptu campaign rally. As Chávez transitions into radiotherapy, expect continued speculation about his long-term health to grow while the president remains publicly visible and boisterous.
Argentina Ready to Sue: Last week, Argentine Foreign Minister Hector Timerman announced that he promised to sue any companies that exploit natural resources in or around the Malvinas/Falklands Islands. This is the latest salvo in intensifying rhetoric between Argentina and the United Kingdom ahead of the April 2 anniversary of the 1982 war over the archipelago. Will Argentina carry through with litigation?
Decriminalization Talks in Central America: Less than three weeks after the Central American presidents met with U.S. Vice President Joe Biden in Honduras, the region's leaders will come together again later this week in Antigua, Guatemala, to discuss the idea of drug decriminalization. "The March 24 meeting gains increased importance now that decriminalization will be part of the agenda at the Summit of the Americas in mid-April. This is especially true for Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, who is leading the charge, and is looking to convince skeptical countries like El Salvador and Honduras to get behind him. It will not be an easy task," says AQ Senior Editor Jason Marczak. Will the region come up with a unified stance?
Venezuela Combating Narcotrafficking: Venezuela’s military announced Operation Sentry last week: a plan to move 15,000 troops across its borders with Brazil, Colombia and Guyana. This appears to be a sign of seriousness from President Chávez’ administration, particularly from Defense Minister Henry Rangel, to confront the narcotics threat. With only 2,000 troops dispatched thus far, look for any progress this week regarding the deployment of the remaining 13,000.