Guatemala Takes a Hard Line Against Migrants—With US Support

Guatemala Takes a Hard Line Against Migrants—With US Support

Guatemala Takes a Hard Line Against Migrants—With US Support

Long before Trump, Washington was exporting control of migratory routes, along with repressive policing, to Mexico and Central America.


Guatemala City— On January 18, hundreds of Guatemalan soldiers armed with batons and wooden poles, backed by the Guatemalan National Civilian Police, violently confronted and dispersed thousands of Honduran migrants and asylum seekers who had formed a caravan in the hope of reaching the United States.

As the tear gas cleared, the estimated 8,000 Hondurans—fleeing poverty, the destruction caused by two consecutive hurricanes, and both state and gang violence—were pushed off the highway in Vado Hondo, Chiquimula, in eastern Guatemala. Thousands were forced to return to Honduras. Some managed to slip through the police lines but were later detained along Guatemala’s border with Mexico.

Guatemala’s violent disbanding of the first caravan of 2021 was widely denounced by migrant rights advocates, but it was praised by the US State Department, with Michael Kozak, the acting assistant secretary for Western Hemisphere affairs, tweeting his support of the violent eviction on the final day of the Trump administration. Days later, on January 22, US Ambassador William Popp held a joint press conference with Guatemala’s foreign minister, Pedro Brolo, and Mexico’s ambassador to Guatemala, Romeo Ruíz Armento, to declare that the three countries will not tolerate migrant caravans.

As Guatemala has taken a more hard-line stance against migrants, it is becoming harder for migrants passing through the Central American country to reach the United States. This stance has meant an expanded use of the military as a response to social problems, and it has extended the presence of the United States border apparatus farther south.

“Mexico was the southern border for many years, but Guatemala is now using that same strategy,” Ursula Roldán, an immigration expert at Guatemala’s Rafael Landívar University, told The Nation. The United States “may not be building the walls now,” she said, “but they are building those walls here in Central America.”

The Washington Connection

As tens of thousands of desperate Hondurans and Salvadorans streamed through Guatemala on their way to the United States, the Trump administration increased pressure on the Central American country to control migratory routes. In response, the Guatemalan government has increasingly deployed the military, backed by police, to disband caravans and “irregular” migration.

Ahead of the January 2021 caravan, the administration of Alejandro Giammattei declared a state of emergency in the departments along the borders with Honduras and El Salvador. The declaration suspended constitutional rights in the region and led to the deployment of thousands of soldiers and police. “The states of prevention [one level for states of emergency in Guatemala] are a mechanism that permits [the government] to bring out the armed forces,” Roldán said.

In the past 15 years, Guatemalan governments have frequently declared states of emergency to confront and dismantle social protests—but Giammattei’s declaration was the first one called to confront a caravan of migrants and asylum seekers. However, this was not the first time Giammattei’s right-wing administration has turned to the military to stop a caravan. Last October, the military and police disbanded a caravan of over 3,000 Honduran migrants, forcing them to return to their home country.

Elements of the Guatemalan military and police have received support and training from the United States for years. In 2013, the government of Otto Pérez Molina launched new border security task forces. These interagency forces, which combined elements from the military, the police, tax authorities, and other agencies, received support and training from Washington, including Customs and Border Protection agents, as well as military J-8 Jeeps.

“You look at these border forces that exist now, that are young relatively speaking, that come from this long legacy of US domination in Central America and Guatemala,” Todd Miller, the author of Empire of Borders: The Expansion of the U.S. Border Around the World, told The Nation. “It is about maintaining dominance and control in an area, in almost a new face of counterinsurgency.”

The United States Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) has maintained a presence in Guatemala, working with and training police units. These efforts are part of the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI), a Central America offshoot of the Mérida Initiative that was established in 2010 under the Obama administration to support police training to confront gangs, drug trafficking, and address border security across the region. The Trump administration maintained CARSI but placed more of a focus on addressing and controlling migration.

The Department of Homeland Security began operations in Guatemala during the Trump administration. In May 2019, the administration of then-President Jimmy Morales signed an agreement with the DHS to deploy agents from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement to Guatemala. Following the signing of the agreement, the DHS agents began working with a small division within the Guatemalan National Civilian Police. Part of that effort is to target networks of migrant guides, known as coyotes, whom Washington has labeled as “human smugglers.”

Guatemala’s Division of Ports, Airports and Border Posts (DIPAFRONT), a border and ports security unit, is also receiving support from the United States, including training from the CBP’s elite BORTAC unit. In 2018, 540 officers were recruited to DIPAFRONT, with at least another 100 agents recruited and trained in 2019. The INL states in its 2018 summary of operations in Guatemala that the bureau’s goal is to increase the ranks of DIPAFRONT to 2,500 by 2023.

In late 2019, nearly 90 agents from the Department of Homeland Security were deployed to Guatemala to help police units set up checkpoints across the country and work alongside them in checking people’s immigration status. In tactics similar to those used in Portland, Ore., during the Black Lives Matter protests, CBP and DIPAFRONT agents rented vans to pick up migrants and return them to the Honduran border. That operation came to light in a report titled “DHS Run Amok: A Reckless Overseas Operation, Violations, and Lies,” which was commissioned by Senator Bob Menendez for the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations.

The crackdown on migrants goes against Guatemala’s own migration law, which recognizes the rights of migrants.

“In Guatemala, the agenda of risks and threats established by the National Security Council cannot consider migrants a threat,” Francisco Jimenez, a former interior minister and current researcher at Guatemala’s Center for National Economic Research, told The Nation. “We are a country with a migrant characteristic, and Guatemala recognizes the right to migrate as a human right.”

Jimenez adds that the actions against the caravans go against a regional agreement signed in 2006, the CA-4, which permits residents of Guatemala, Honduras, El Salvador, and Nicaragua to travel between the four countries with only an identification.

“What Jimmy Morales did, who at least was smarter about this, was to let [the caravans] pass, to certify that they were passing, maintaining order until it reached the border,” Jimenez said. “There at the border Mexico could see how they would resolve the issue of the caravan.”

Since October, Guatemalan officials have utilized the Covid-19 pandemic to justify the crackdown on migrants and caravans. Officials argue that migrants have not complied with measures put in place to control the pandemic, but Roldán disagrees. “Infections are not brought by migrants,” she said. “The infections are the result of government measures that did not contain the pandemic adequately.”

Roldán adds, “The idea is to place fear of migrants in the population, as is the case in Mexico. Another of the means to activate fear of others and of the other: an external enemy.”

Moving the Border South

The United States has for years exported the control of migratory routes to Mexico and Central America. The repression of the most recent Honduran migrant caravan highlights this shift, but the effort began much earlier, during the Obama administration. As Col. Oscar Pérez Figueroa, the spokesperson for the Guatemalan military at the time, told me in 2017 in an interview about border security in Guatemala, “The US changes the president, but they continue the same politics that prioritize actions for the national security of the US.”

Indeed, in his first presidential term, Obama increased US support for migratory controls in southern Mexico. That effort led Alan Bersin, Obama’s “border czar,” to declare in 2012 that “the Guatemalan border with Chiapas is now our southern border.” These efforts were intensified following the arrival of thousands of unaccompanied minors to the US border in 2014, when Mexico’s president at the time, Enrique Peña Nieto, announced the establishment of Programa Frontera Sur.

Mexico’s aggressive policing of migrants continued after populist leader Andrés Manuel López Obrador was elected president. In January 2020, the Mexican National Guard, which he had created the previous year, confronted and violently stopped a caravan of thousands of Honduras. The migrants were loaded onto buses and deported back to their home country. Mexico is thus increasingly a barrier to migrants rather than a way station. According to the Guatemalan Institute of Migration, in 2020 Mexico deported nearly 23,000 Guatemalans.

But as Todd Miller points out, the increased repression is not just limited to Guatemala and Mexico. The United States is expanding the border apparatus across the hemisphere and the world. These operations include strengthening of border security in Panama, Colombia, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. This has led to a new world of borders confronting migrants from all over the Global South.

“The US presence is forming a scaffolding in the world,” Miller said. “And by its own admission, it is to extend the border to stop the people from coming to the US border far before they can reach it.”

He adds, “It is keeping a status quo in place; a status quo of a world of dreadful inequalities, a world of a heating globe where there are super hurricanes that are displacing people, who then are corralled by these global border systems.”

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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