Poverty and violent crime continue to plague Guatemala 25 years after its last left-wing guerrillas laid down their arms. More than half the population lives on less than $4 per day. Youth are particularly vulnerable to predatory street gangs. After spiking in 2009, crime rates fell due partly to investigations by a UN-sponsored commission, but the government terminated that body’s mandate early in response to a series of corruption probes, imperilling efforts to curb impunity. Thousands of Guatemalans risk being robbed or assaulted on migratory routes. In its research and advocacy, Crisis Group encourages holistic reform and crime-fighting approaches that get at the root causes of insecurity.
On 25 June, Guatemalans will elect a new president, completing a campaign riddled with controversy. In this Q&A, Crisis Group expert Pamela Ruiz explains that the contenders are promising tough security policies and distancing themselves from the past international anti-corruption initiatives amid widespread public disaffection.
In polls marred by controversy over banned candidates and violence, voters sent surprise contestant from centre-left and early frontrunner into August presidential runoff.
Tensions ran high in lead up to polls that produced no clear winner. Guatemalans 25 June cast ballots to choose new president and vice president, as well as 160 congressional deputies and hundreds of local mayors. In surprise presidential result, centre-left Bernardo Arévalo finished second with 12% of vote; he will face frontrunner Sandra Torres of Unidad Nacional de la Esperanza party, who won 15% of vote, in 20 Aug runoff. Tensions ran high ahead of elections amid widespread perception that political and business elites manipulated judicial system to bar politicians who could threaten their interests from running for office; judicial authorities prevented more than 1,200 candidates for president, vice president, mayor and congress from running. EU election monitoring mission 25 June said elections took place amid “serious deterioration of the rule of law and the independence of the judiciary, together with severe restrictions on freedoms of expression and of the press”.
Election-related violence spiked. Cabal Party presidential candidate Edmond Mulet 14 June said shooting took place at party headquarters in El Tejar town, Chimaltenango department (centre), and that six Cabal leaders had been murdered since June 2022. Unidentified gunmen 17 June killed National Unity of Hope party candidate Erlindo Rodriguez Samayoa in Concepción las Minas municipality, Chiquimula department (east). Think-tank Diálogos 21 June reported 15 people involved in election campaigns – including drivers and volunteers – were killed Jan-June 2023, while observer NGO 25 June reported 57 incidents of electoral violence.
As the coronavirus rages in Mexico and the northerly Central American countries, criminal outfits have adapted, often enlarging their turf. To fight organised crime more effectively, governments should combine policing with programs to aid the vulnerable and create attractive alternatives to illegal economic activity.
As the coronavirus spreads, and the U.S. presidential election looms, the Trump administration and Mexican government continue to deport migrants from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Some deportees are carrying the virus. Central American states should press their northern neighbours for more stringent health measures.
President Jimmy Morales has made good on his promise to shut down a UN-backed commission fighting rampant crime and impunity in Guatemala. Though it leaves a vital legacy, the commission’s exit risks strengthening the hand of criminal networks that operate with state complicity.
Next year, President Jimmy Morales vows he will end the mandate of the UN-backed Commission against Impunity in Guatemala. Hugely popular, the commission has helped reduce the country’s terrible murder rate. To keep it going, its supporters should refocus on fighting the worst violent crime.
The northward flow of undocumented migrants fleeing economic hardship and violence in the Northern Triangle of Central America exposes thousands of vulnerable people to mass victimisation. In this excerpt from the Watch List 2017 – Third Update early warning report for European policy makers, Crisis Group urges the European Union and its member states to continue to pursue an approach grounded in supporting community violence prevention, institutional reform and poverty alleviation in the countries of origin while supporting transiting countries in managing the flow.
Guatemala’s fight against corruption is in danger after President Morales attempted to expel the head of a uniquely effective UN-backed anti-corruption organisation. In this Q&A, Crisis Group’s Analyst for Guatemala Arturo Matute says a corrupt elite is waging a battle to maintain its privileged position.
Central American gangs are responsible for brutal acts of violence, abuse of women and forced displacement of thousands. Governments must go beyond punitive measures and address the social and economic roots of gang culture, tackle extortion schemes and invest in communities.
A year after the election of would-be reformer Jimmy Morales as president, corruption investigations are casting a shadow over his inner circle. Recent appointments bring youth and oxygen to his faltering administration, but much still stands in the way of political renewal.
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