An Open Letter to President Trump

Mr. President, I am a Mayan-K’iche’ woman from western Guatemala, one of five women of approximately nine million indigenous people in my country who hold a PhD. This fact should not be celebrated as an individual achievement, but understood as a product of the exclusion of indigenous peoples in Guatemala and throughout Latin America over the past five centuries. I am a journalist and a social anthropologist. I know Central America. For two decades, I have worked with communities, organizations, and institutions throughout the region. I have traveled across the isthmus, and I live there. I write because I cannot silence the deep pain I feel witnessing the humanitarian crisis experienced by my Honduran brothers and sisters, one reflected in the more than five thousand people—children, youth, adults, pregnant women, the elderly, and people with disabilities—who have left their homeland and are now heading, by any means possible, to the United States.

While Honduras is currently attracting attention, the crisis has also undermined the stability of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Nicaragua. Every seventeen minutes, a Central American leaves his or her country. This sobering reality indicates that we are not dealing with isolated cases, but with a crisis of the political and economic system. This is not a problem caused by a lack of laws or the existence of legal loopholes. These are families and individuals shouting to the world that they are leaving their place of birth because their governments refuse to create opportunities for them to stay and fulfill their dreams.

In many Central American countries, politicians allied with traditional economic and military elites—groups responsible for crimes against humanity—have coopted the state as a source of personal enrichment and a means to secure economic and racial privilege. This occurs while large populations languish in violence and hunger. Today, in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, gangs are stronger than security forces. Criminal organizations have better weapons and resources than the national police. Within criminal structures, individuals who manage to survive and do their jobs can rise through the hierarchy, while within the state most professionals never advance; positions are assigned through nepotism or to pay electoral favors.

In Guatemala, members of the National Civil Police recently took to the streets with their wives and children because police stations offer neither sanitation services nor a living wage. People are organizing, leaving their homes and all that is familiar because they can no longer wait for politicians to act on their behalf; presidents spout lies and speeches filled with false promises. When civil society tries to create alternatives, these are immediately dismantled. Thus, we have Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and his cabinet, who have forgotten to govern. As a result, the country’s entire infrastructure verges on disaster. It is difficult to reach frontier departments like Huehuetenango, one of the largest in the country, because the Pan-American Highway is in such poor condition. Morales has repeatedly demonstrated that he does not care if the population lives or dies. He has focused exclusively on securing impunity for himself, his cabinet, and his financial backers. This has entailed concerted efforts to dismantle—by legal and illegal methods—the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

Morales, along with economic and military elites, has paid millions to lobbyists in Washington to destroy the CICIG. Guatemala’s current attorney general, María Consuelo Porras Argueta, is doing her best to dismantle the notable reforms to the national justice system implemented by her predecessors Claudia Paz y Paz (2010–2014) and Thelma Aldana (2014–2018). Both began to build professional and honest teams at the highest levels. Funds from international partners, including the United States, financed these measures.

The CICIG was created in Guatemala in 2006 due to the state’s inability to curb corruption, cartels, and parallel power networks with origins in the counterinsurgency of the late twentieth century. During that time, financial aid and training that the United States provided to military governments in Latin America did not create democracy or peace. Instead, the funds armed and lined the pockets of military officials and members of organized crime networks.

Central American migration is not new. If you really want to stop it, Mr. Trump, your country must undertake a critical historical analysis of its foreign policy. You must assume responsibility and learn from the mistakes of the past. In the 1980s, thousands of Central Americans fled to the United States because of the violence that Central American states and their security forces, financed by your government, visited on hundreds of thousands of families and communities.

After a period of democratic transition, corruption networks and mafias now permeate the state; they have looted it for decades. As a result, core government ministries like health and education have negligible budgets and cannot meet the people’s most basic needs. An ongoing lack of services and access to fair credit contributes to a chronic inability to create and run small, medium, or large companies, cooperatives, and businesses.

During the so-called postconflict period after the peace accords were signed in 1996, political, economic, and military elites and mafias have been squeezing the middle classes while increasing the privileges of the wealthiest. This 10 percent of the population holds 45 percent of the national wealth and pays no direct taxes. It is thanks to international cooperation that Guatemala’s health and education systems survive at all. Working in the development sector, I have witnessed how the national budget in these vital social areas is maintained thanks to the support of the United States and other donor countries. Without that help, millions more would have died or abandoned the country. Furthermore, financial assistance from the United States and twelve other countries allowed some of the promises of the peace accords to be met when the Guatemalan state ignored its responsibility.

Based on my experience working and living in urban and rural indigenous and nonindigenous communities in Guatemala and throughout Latin America, the best investment your country and others have made in Guatemala has been the CICIG. Under the direction of Iván Velásquez, the CICIG has proven that Guatemala is not a poor country; on the contrary, it is rich. The problem is that tax revenues do not reach the population. Instead, they are funneled through multiple networks to the pockets of presidents, ministers, diplomats, magistrates, judges, deputies, mayors, governors, and private national and foreign companies, who become millionaires. In the meantime, Guatemala’s poverty rate increased by 8.1 percentage points over the last decade.

The United States wants to stop migration from Latin American countries. We Latin Americans want to live in our countries. We want justice to close the wounds of recent armed conflicts. We want to be prosperous, to attain basic, dignified living conditions for all. We are tired of acute violence that prevents us from growing, investing, and living in our countries. Instead, we live with frustration and permanent indignation that only strengthens the historical trauma we carry.

In recent years, our best minds, people trained in multiple areas and specialties, have left Central America. They leave because of repression and violence but, above all, because of the inability to find decent jobs outside corrupt networks. If the most highly educated and trained are leaving, then imagine the pain of the poor: families that cannot support themselves; unemployed youth with lost dreams; indigenous communities in isolated territories; women who see their children die in the absence of hospitals, drinking water, vaccines, or doctors. There is no other option than migration. Indeed, migration also sustains those who stay. Remittances represent 12 percent of Guatemala’s Gross Domestic Product; 18.3 percent in El Salvador, 19.5 percent in Honduras, and 10.2 percent in Nicaragua. Without these funds, the crises would be more acute. The world must know that the massive migration of Central Americans is a natural human reaction, a solution to escape hunger and death. Under similar conditions, anyone would do the same.

Guatemala has only seven hospitals for 17 million inhabitants, and these are in deplorable condition. Up to 80 percent of children under five suffer from chronic malnutrition. Poverty is concentrated in indigenous regions due to structural racism. Meanwhile, health officials defend the lack of services by claiming budget shortfalls while they, together with pharmaceutical companies, pocket the meager monies assigned to the ministry. There is no way to obtain a bed in a hospital without resorting to corruption. Medical specialists make less than $500 per month.

For these reasons, and in view of the results that the CICIG has produced over the past five years—jailing over six hundred officials who embezzled state funds, dismantling networks involving key figures from trade unionists to presidents—it would be a massive error for your administration to allow the destruction of this unique and successful entity. If you continue to support the corrupt regimes of Central America, the waves of migrants will be unstoppable. Today, Central Americans no longer believe or trust those in power. Their anger, frustration, and courage is fueled by this loss of confidence. They know that their elected leaders lie with impunity. This was made evident on October 18, 2018, when congressional deputies in Guatemala City passed a law reducing penalties for illegal campaign financing. Now, neither President Morales nor the political parties that feed off undeclared financial backing will face judgement. Meanwhile, Guatemala weathered a tropical depression that devastated the nation. This crisis mattered little to the deputies, who took advantage of the emergency to impose a criminal amnesty. As our elected representatives continue to put their interests before those of the people, they lose legitimacy and undermine what is left of the democracies that emerged after the armed conflicts of the 1970s and 1980s.

As a witness of and active participant in the movement to build an alternative Central America, I strongly believe that the best way to utilize U.S. taxpayer money in the form of foreign assistance is to strengthen institutions like the CICIG, to build solid states that function to serve their citizens, and to eliminate the networks that siphon off this funding. Aid must be directed not to the sectors that continue to impoverish the country, but to community leaders and regional and local authorities. They know the priorities in their territories and how to address them. For that reason, assistance for Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador must be revised, rethought, and redesigned. Otherwise, the story will repeat itself. Millions of dollars will be lost to corruption. Only a long-term process of institutional cleansing and transparency will allow us, little by little, to build prosperity and stability. The United States has the opportunity to support the CICIG: the institution it helped to create, one that can potentially be replicated in many other countries where war, hunger, malnutrition, migration, violence, and social conflict are rampant.

Central America is a beautiful and rich territory. It cannot continue expelling its population, its labor force, its heart. It is urgent to invest in all of its diverse inhabitants and to create institutions that generate stability and promote the sharing of wealth.

Update

On January 5, 2019, President Jimmy Morales banned a CICIG investigator from entering Guatemala. The investigator was granted entry twenty-four hours later thanks to a ruling from the Guatemalan Constitutional Court. The next day, Sandra Jovel, Guatemala’s minister of foreign affairs, informed United Nations Secretary General António Guterres that Guatemala was withdrawing from its agreement with the United Nations regarding the CICIG. Subsequently, at a press conference, Morales officially terminated the CICIG´s mandate. One day later, CICIG staff left Guatemala. All cases in the process of being tried by the CICIG are at risk.

Note

This piece was originally published in the Guatemalan newspaper El Periódico on October 19, 2018.