(Information from August 2014)
Each week, an estimated 120 Guatemalan children, many unaccompanied, are arriving at the U.S. border. When they arrive in the U.S., they have already survived a long and perilous journey through Mexico, where extortion, kidnapping, rape, and murder are common; many survive these horrors only to die crossing the U.S. desert. Often these children make the journey north not by choice but because they face daily violence and life-threatening poverty; some are literally running for their lives. In a study by the UNHRC, almost 40% of Guatemalan children interviewed who had entered the U.S. unaccompanied and undocumented raised international protection concerns due to violence in society or abuse in the home; close to 30% spoke of deprivation.
In the face of this humanitarian crisis, the Guatemala Human Rights Commission/USA (GHRC) calls for the U.S. government to treat all migrants with dignity, and accept its legal and humanitarian responsibilities to protect refugee children and youth.
The root causes of forced migration in Guatemala are linked to a complex set of factors that include rampant violence, acute poverty, corruption and high rates of impunity — conditions long exacerbated by U.S. policies. GHRC condemns misguided or inhumane responses, such as expedited deportations, that will not only send children back to situations of dire violence, but will also contribute to a cycle of forced migration. Instead, the U.S. response must include deeper analysis of these root causes, including our own role in exacerbating forced migration.
GHRC calls for a humane U.S. response, in line with international protection obligations, to address the immediate needs of children and vulnerable populations.
- The U.S. should fully comply with international obligations and provide comprehensive screening for possible international protection needs. To do so, The U.S. should guarantee legal representation for migrants and refugees that arrive at the U.S. border, especially for vulnerable populations such as unaccompanied minors.
- The U.S. should maintain protections under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (“TVPRA”) for Central American children.
- The U.S. should base all decisions regarding the treatment of child migrants on the best interest of the child; family reunification in the U.S. should be top priority.
- The U.S. should halt all deportations until a system is in place to provide both legal representation and screening for international protection needs for all migrants. This is important because the Guatemalan government does not have established programs to support the safe and effective reintegration of deported migrants, and does not have the capacity to receive large numbers of unaccompanied minors, particularly those at risk.
GHRC calls for a long-term strategy that addresses the root causes of migration and focuses on helping people to stay in their communities, instead of a militarized or “mano dura” enforcement approach that will only provoke further fear and instability.
- The U.S. should halt security assistance to Guatemala’s police and military, both through the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) and other bilateral security assistance programs, until credible evidence shows they are protecting human rights and effectively combating internal corruption and links to organized criminal networks. If security assistance is provided, it should be contingent upon strict compliance with human rights conditions and should focus on prevention programs as well as services for at-risk populations such as women’s shelters and witness protection programs.
- The U.S. should re-negotiate the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) to create more balanced trade regulations and address ongoing poverty and inequality in the labor, textile, agricultural, and service sectors. USAID programs should prioritize support for local and community-based programs to alleviate poverty, and increase access to education, social services and employment opportunities. The U.S. should ensure that any assistance program meets priority needs identified by the local population. To address displacement due to large-scale extractive industry projects, the U.S. should also urge Guatemala to meet its obligation to indigenous communities of free, prior and informed consent before any development project is carried out.
- The U.S. should continue to provide support to strengthen the judicial system and accountability mechanisms; this includes support for the high risk courts and the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) in Guatemala and efforts to increase judicial independence. The U.S. should also encourage full compliance with Guatemala’s human rights obligations under regional and international law.
- The U.S. should support increased protections for human rights defenders, many of whom faced targeted threats and violence due to their work to improve social and economic conditions in Guatemala.
U.S. policies in the region have been a significant factor contributing to decades of forced migration from Guatemala.
GHRC has documented conditions in Guatemala for over three decades, during which time forced migration has been inextricably linked to social and political factors rooted in historic poverty, inequality and state-sponsored violence – conditions aggravated by U.S. policies, particularly over the last 60 years.
After backing a coup against Guatemala’s democratically elected president in 1954, the U.S. supported the reversal of democratic reforms for economic equality and, for the next forty years, funded, trained and supported the brutal violence unleashed against Guatemala’s civilian population. During Guatemala’s internal armed conflict, which reached the peak of brutality in the early 1980s, over one million people were forcibly displaced, and an estimated 200,000 fled to Mexico, the U.S. and other countries as war refugees.
The long-term legacy of this violence is complex and includes family and community disintegration, high rates of generalized violence, outmigration, and a myriad of related social problems. These challenges were not resolved with the signing of the 1996 Peace Accords and instead have become more acute over the past decade. A history of violence and impunity has also contributed to structural violence, as well as high levels of domestic violence, organized crime, corruption, and weak state institutions. These conditions often violate the universal right to life, liberty and security.
The U.S. response to post-war instability and violence in the region has in large part exacerbated the factors that contributed to forced migration.
1) The U.S. continues to fund security policies in Guatemala that have failed to reduce generalized violence in the region and, in some cases, has reduced Guatemalans’ sense of security. Bilateral and regional assistance has increased steadily from 2008 to today, including over 100 million dollars of security assistance to Guatemala through the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI).
Over this same period, violent crime in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador) has escalated and the region now has one of the highest homicide rates in the world. Guatemalan women suffer particularly high rates of domestic and sexual violence. In 2013 Guatemala registered the second highest rate of femicide ; over 50% of migrants from Guatemala that year were women  and GHRC has supported numerous asylum cases of women who fear persecution and violence if forced to return.
While U.S. support for the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has been important, aid to Guatemalan security forces has not succeeded in reducing overall levels of organized crime. Organized criminal networks continue to operate freely throughout Guatemala, trafficking drugs, guns, and human beings. Gangs control entire sections of Guatemala City and other urban areas through extortion, forced recruitment, and other acts of intimidation and violence.
Children are the most vulnerable of all. Every 17 hours a child or teen dies from gun violence. And every two hours a child younger than five years of age dies of preventable causes . Children suffer widespread abuse, sexual exploitation, prostitution, and forced marriage . Where gangs are present, children and youth are specifically targeted for forced recruitment and threatened with severe retaliation if they refuse to join gangs and perform criminal activities or serve as coerced sexual partners .
The Guatemalan government is often unable to offer its citizens protection from violence. Impunity for all crimes is one of the highest in the western hemisphere, and impunity for crimes committed against women, children and other vulnerable populations can reach 98%. The police are undertrained, understaffed, underpaid, and often corrupt. Rather than focus on reforming the civilian police, Guatemala has increasingly relied on the military for law enforcement, a strategy that has proven ineffective and, in many cases, counterproductive.
Moreover, there are credible allegations of collaboration between organized criminal groups and members of the Guatemalan military and police , as well as police and military involvement in serious crimes , exacerbating impunity and denying victims the right to security and justice. Such abuses are often not investigated or prosecuted.
The infiltration of Guatemala’s security forces by organized criminal networks also leads to concerns that ongoing U.S. aid to these institutions inadvertently strengthens the very groups it seeks to combat, and ultimately increases the risk of violence and human rights abuses against vulnerable populations.
2) U.S. economic policies have reinforced poverty and undermined employment opportunities, both of which continue to be important push factors for forced migration. According to the UNDP, more than 51% of Guatemalans live in poverty, with 17% surviving on less than US $1.25 per day . Over half of children under age five suffer from stunting due to malnutrition and 23% of the entire Guatemalan population is undernourished. Chronic under-nutrition in indigenous areas reaches 70% .Guatemala continues to be one of the lowest spenders on social programs of any country in Central America, and many Guatemalans lack of access to basic healthcare, social services, and education.
U.S. economic policies such as the Central America-United States Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) have further contributed to impoverishment and economic instability at the community level. CAFTA has failed to provide sustainable economic opportunity. Steady, long-term employment in many regions is few and far between; 75% of working people are employed in the informal sector, with no job benefits or security, and no guarantee of earning the minimum wage .
Many people in rural communities are heavily dependent on subsistence agriculture. CAFTA has increased the trade imbalance between the U.S. and Guatemala and imports of U.S. subsidized crops have undercut local markets , forcing people to find work elsewhere, including in the United States. Meanwhile, labor violations and abuse in the workplace are an ongoing reality for those employed in the textile and service sectors. The open CAFTA complaint against Guatemala, filed by U.S. and Guatemalan labor unions in 2009 for the government’s failure to address persistent and systematic labor rights violations, has not produced any results .
The U.S. has done little to address conflict in many rural and indigenous communities, which has spiked due to the rise of international investment in mining, hydroelectric power, petroleum extraction, and other large-scale commercial agriculture. These land-intensive projects create few jobs and leave immense environmental devastation in their wake. By means of community referendums Guatemalans have expressed their overwhelming opposition to this model of imposed “development,” yet the Guatemalan government has refused to recognize the results of these plebiscites and has even questioned their legitimacy. Meanwhile the government has neglected to carry out its own consultations with the indigenous populations affected by these projects, in direct violation of obligations under international law. Instead, the Guatemalan government has relied on repressive policies and, in some cases, martial law, to protect the economic interests of transnational companies rather than the safety of its citizens. Facing displacement, contaminated water, polluted environments, and repression from the government, Guatemalans may be forced to seek their livelihoods elsewhere.
3) The U.S. has not done enough to protect human rights defenders, many of whom are working to improve social and economic conditions at home. Those who seek to address root causes of migration – including violence, impunity, land rights and economic inequality – face defamation, persecution and targeted violence. In 2013, Human Rights Defenders Protection Unit of Guatemala documented 18 assassinations of human rights defenders. That same year, the International Trade Union Confederation called Guatemala the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, citing 68 documented assassinations of trade unionists since 2007. Suspects have been arrested in only one of the murder cases .
 UN Human Rights Council, Update Paper, World Model United Nations 2013. See also “Guatemala es el segundo país del mundo con más casos de femicidios, según ONU” lainformation.com, November 20, 2012. Available online at http://noticias.lainformacion.com/asuntos-sociales/conducta-abusiva/guatemala-es-el-segundo-pais-del-mundo-con-mas-casos-de-femicidios-segun-onu_qrUtoDkn9B83D3LYp9OGD7/.
See, for example: Marked for Death: The Maras of Central America and those who Flee their Wrath, Jeffrey D. Corsetti, 20 Geo. Immigr. L.J. 407, 2005-2006. Available online at http://www.uscrirefugees.org/2010Website/5_Resources/5_3_For_Service_Providers/5_3_9_Gangs/MarkedForDeath_Part1.pdf
 Gonzalez, Rosmery Austria deniega permiso de venta de armas a gobierno de Otto Pérez, El Periodico, (May 2, 2014) available online at http://elperiodico.com.gt/es/20140502/pais/246662/
 World Food Program. “Guatemala.” 2013. Available at http://www.wfp.org/countries/guatemala
 Taken from World Bank at http://www.voxxi.com/latin-american-workers-swallowed-by-informal-employment-low-wages/
 See reports from the Stop CAFTA Coalition from 2006, 2007, 2008. Available online at http://www.ghrc-usa.org/resources/publications/other-publications/.