The Trump Administration recently decided to terminate foreign assistance to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador and to abandon America’ long-standing support for the United Nations/Guatemalan commission fighting corruption in Guatemala. In today’s guest post, retired U.S. Ambassador Stephen G. McFarland explains that corrupt officials and drug lords in the region are conspiring to “capture” these nations’ governments. Their citizens are already fleeing the countries in droves. How much greater will the pressures to migrate be if a coalition of corrupt politicians and narco-trafficantes takes over one of their governments? On national interest as well as humanitarian grounds, the ambassador argues that the United States should not only restore, but increase, support for anticorruption and rule of law programs.
The April 17 arrest of Guatemalan presidential candidate Mario Estrada and accomplice Juan Pablo Gonzalez on drug trafficking charges has major implications for U.S. policy towards Guatemala and Central America’s “Northern Triangle.” The U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) asserts that in January 2019, Estrada allegedly attempted to obtain Sinaloa cartel support for the assassination of rival presidential candidates in Guatemala’s upcoming June 2019 general elections and for financing his election campaign. In return, he allegedly promised that, if elected, he would give the cartel free reign to use Guatemalan ports and airports to traffic cocaine to the U.S.
If the USDOJ’s allegations are true:
- The U.S. averted the attempted “state capture” of Guatemala for the benefit of a drug cartel;
- The U.S. disrupted the attempt to manipulate Guatemala’s 2019 elections through assassinations and drug cartel money. Such an outcome would have provoked enormous instability, even more insecurity, and led to a sharp increase in migration to the United States. According to USDOJ, however, there allegedly remains a threat against at least one presidential candidate;
- Was this an isolated case, or could there be others? The United States should proceed based on the assumption that illegal drug trafficker campaign financing may yet affect Guatemala’s elections for president, congress, and mayors. This was one reason that the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) – the U.N.-led anti-corruption prosecutors supported by Guatemala and the United States till 2018 – had agreed to cooperate with Guatemala’s Supreme Electoral Tribunal. From the U.S. perspective, the allegations inside and outside Guatemala that CICIG — which worked closely with DEA and USDOJ when I was ambassador to Guatemala – threatens the electoral process are groundless;
- United States assistance in rule of law and law enforcement plays a critical role in supporting Guatemala’s prosecutors and judges. The U.S.’ recent decision to end foreign assistance to Guatemala (and to Honduras and El Salvador), and its 2018 reduction of support for CICIG, undermine U.S. interests in democracy, counter-narcotics, and migration. They will instead unwittingly favor more organized crime, gangs, and corruption;
- The United States must support efforts to ensure the integrity of the democratic electoral process in Guatemala and to ensure that organized crime cannot buy its way to power. The latter is a critical requirement for improving Guatemalans’ opportunities so that they don’t have to emigrate to the United States. What makes this challenging is that the elections are wrapped up in an intense debate over whether Guatemala should continue or back off on its widening anti-corruption prosecutions. Some Guatemalan politicians and businessmen have already chosen to end the anti-corruption fight despite the threat of expanding drug cartels.
The United States will not find a “neutral” position on this issue in Guatemala or elsewhere in the region; it must make a tough choice that supports U.S. national security and foreign policy by supporting the rule of law. The America should use its influence and its proven tools – support for CICIG and for host country prosecutors, judges, and vetted police units, and civil society; U.S law enforcement operations; cooperation with other governments in the region; ramped-up individual sanctions ; and targeted foreign assistance – to protect U.S. interests.
Ambassador (ret.) Stephen G. McFarland was the U.S. ambassador to Guatemala 2008-2011. His 37 years in the Foreign Service included 12 assignments in Central and South America, and in Iraq and Afghanistan, where he worked on democracy, human rights, and security challenges in conflict and post-conflict countries. Currently he is a consultant and a graduate student at Georgetown University. These are his personal views.