Guatemala's 'Slow-Motion Coup' Is Causing Migrants to Flee to the US

The real crisis Trump should focus on, experts say, is hundreds of miles south of the US-Mexico border.
January 31, 2019, 5:00am
Guatemala protests
A protest against Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales in 2017. Photo by Daniele Volpe/Bloomberg via Getty

Defense Department officials announced Tuesday that they’re preparing to send additional troops to the US’s southern border to support Department of Homeland Security efforts to fight what Donald Trump has been calling a national security crisis. But there’s not a whole lot of evidence of the sort of crisis Trump talks about: The number of unauthorized immigrants in the US is at its lowest point in ten years, according to Pew Research, and the number of Mexicans crossing the border without authorization has been declining steadily as well. But it is true that according to recently released statistics from Customs and Border Patrol (CBP), the number of families seeking asylum in the US is increasing, many of them from Central America’s “Northern Triangle”: Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras. Nearly 20 percent of migrants who were apprehended at the southwestern border last year claim their reasons for emigration are fear-driven.

There is a crisis related to these migrations, but it’s happening hundreds of miles south of the US-Mexico border, inside the countries these people are fleeing. The appropriate response, experts told VICE, is not military deployments but an effort to stabilize countries in the Northern Triangle. And though the world’s attention is currently on the unrest gripping Venezuela, Guatemala is struggling with unrest of its own, fueled by political chaos and widespread poverty that disproportionately affects the indigenous population.

“No solution to the migration issue is possible while the Central American states remain captured by organized criminal networks,” said Elizabeth Oglesby, an associate professor of Latin American studies at the University of Arizona. “Corruption siphons off resources that could be used for basic services: to fix the roads, health care centers, to improve schools. That affects everybody.”


In 2018, over 22,000 unaccompanied Guatemalan children and 50,000 Guatemalan family members were apprehended at the US border, according to CBP data, more than from any other Central American country. Many Guatemalan migrants are indigenous, including the two children who died last year in US Border Patrol custody.

The country is in the midst of what many observers are referring to as a “slow-motion coup.” This means not soldiers in the street, but rather a president, backed by powerful allies, taking over government institutions like the courts and challenging human rights protections.

“The current situation in Guatemala is already pushing and forcing people to flee,” said Giovanni Batz, a researcher and fellow at the School for Advanced Research in New Mexico and the son of working-class Guatemalan immigrants. “Crime is constantly on the minds of many. In Guatemala City, when you leave your house, you never know if you will be robbed, assaulted, or worse. The police are corrupt, known to take bribes, and have been implicated in working with narco-traffickers and gangs.” It’s led to a general distrust of law enforcement and the justice system.

The country’s president, former comedian Jimmy Morales, is trying to dismantle a UN-backed anti-corruption commission known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, which was investigating Morales himself for illicit campaign financing. (A Guatemalan court blocked Morales’s order to expel members of the commission from the country, but foreign members of the commission have fled, fearing for their safety.) In addition, the Guatemalan congress is drafting an amnesty law that, if passed, would allow dozens of people convicted of grave human rights violations to walk free. And allies of the president have voted to impeach judges on the country’s highest court who have ruled against Morales’s policies.

Guatemala has a long history of violence. More than 200,000 of its people were killed during the country’s brutal 36-year civil war, which lasted from 1960 to 1996. “People were terrified, because if you spoke out you could be killed or disappear,” said Jo-Marie Burt, an associate professor of political science and Latin American studies at George Mason University. Now that fear is returning, she said: “You can see this slow-motion chipping away at the key institutions that have helped sustain the anti-corruption fight, and the belief of Guatemalan civil society that they can’t speak their minds without being killed.”

In 2015, US Vice President Joe Biden went to Guatemala to meet with then President Otto Perez, who was at the time also being investigated for corruption. Biden threatened to withdraw aid to Guatemala if Perez didn’t comply with the investigation. Perez later resigned, was arrested, and went to prison for his role in a customs fraud case. It validated a growing pro-democracy movement, which has now been upended by the current political leadership. This time, the US doesn’t appear to be interested in getting involved, even as it has thrown its support behind the opposition in Venezuela.


“There remains a double standard in the US regarding Latin American countries,” said Batz. “While attention in the US has been placed on the political turmoil in Venezuela, where the US is supporting a coup, countries such as Guatemala and Honduras, two of the largest migrant-sending countries where their presidents are repressing their citizens, are getting ignored.”

“The silence of the Trump administration in the face of what’s going on in Guatemala is shocking,” Oglesby told me. “It is a catastrophic moral and strategic error.” She is quick to point out that this is fundamentally a Guatemalan problem that Guatemalans must resolve, but noted that at various points over the last several decades, the US has inserted itself into Guatemalan affairs and exacerbated already existing conflicts.

“We could look back on this as a watershed in which future policy makers are going to sorely regret the US silence,” said Oglesby. “We’re at one of those juncture moments where the US has a decision to make.”

Last year, Florida Republican Senator Marco Rubio announced he was placing a hold on $6 million of US funding to CICIG, a significant blow to the anti-corruption commission’s efforts. The move came after a Russian family was jailed in Guatemala for using false documents to obtain Guatemalan citizenship. “I am concerned that CICIG, a commission mostly funded by the United States, has been manipulated and used by radical elements and Russia’s campaign against the Bitkov family in Guatemala,” Rubio said in a statement.


“The US policy has been kind of co-opted by a tiny group of people with Marco Rubio at the head, saying that CICIG has been infiltrated by Russia—it’s utterly absurd,” said Burt. “Yet that seems to be what’s guiding our policy. It’s not evidence-based at all. It’s ideological. We have turned a blind eye to everything that’s happening and it is incredibly discouraging for people in Guatemala who have acted in good faith, trying to do the right thing.”

Earlier this month, Arkansas Republican Representative Rick Crawford tweeted his support for “the people of Guatemala and their president” to expel the anti-corruption commission, though recent polling indicates that 71 percent of Guatemalans support the commission.

There's a partisan divide in the US on the issue: Two weeks ago, 47 Democratic members of Congress signed a letter urging President Trump to take action in Guatemala, citing the recent US response in Venezuela and Nicaragua. “We are deeply concerned that, absent a strong U.S. response, the current government’s pattern of anti-democratic behavior will continue to escalate, and that Guatemala will descend into lawlessness,” they wrote.

This follows legislation recently introduced by California Democratic Congresswoman Norma Torres designed to impose sanctions and deny visas to people who have undermined the Guatemalan justice system. “Allowing the rule of law to disintegrate is a recipe for instability and a growing humanitarian crisis at our borders,” Torres said in a statement.

Other countries are watching, Oglesby said. “This is no longer something contained to Guatemala. The effects of the unraveling of the rule of law could spill over into the rest of the region,” she said. “It will impact other Central American countries and their anti-corruption efforts, and it will have an impact on people’s daily lives and their decision to migrate.”