US must address its responsibilities south of the border

Opinion: Children are fleeing threat from violent gangs and greedy developers

Guatemalan illegal immigrants deported from the US wait to be processed on their return to Guatemala City this week. Photograph: Reuters

Guatemalan illegal immigrants deported from the US wait to be processed on their return to Guatemala City this week. Photograph: Reuters


Since October 2013, 52,000 undocumented children entered the United States from Central America and it is estimated that this will reach 90,000 by year end. While official statements describe this as an “urgent humanitarian crisis” the government’s less than humanitarian response has been to request more power from Congress to fast track the deportation of these unaccompanied minors, many of them girls under 13 and children as young as four or five, back to Central America, including Honduras and Guatemala.

Under the umbrella of the war on drugs, the United States has consistently supported some of the most repressive governments in the region and has at times colluded in human rights abuses. This unquestioning support has helped to create a highly polarised society where the majority of people live in poverty, caught between state indifference and the violence of the drug cartels which has effectively spiralled out of control.

On a recent mission to Guatemala to assess the situation for human rights defenders (HRDs), environmentalist Yuri Melini explained the history of the country. Guatemala never had a war of independence but a negotiated handover of power from Spain so that the 10 families who controlled every aspect of the country’s political and economic life remained in power – as they still do.

Ninety per cent of the country’s wealth is controlled by this powerful oligarchy and their influence extends to manipulating elections so that their candidate always wins. According to Melini, himself the survivor of an assassination attempt linked to his environmental work, with “virtually complete control of national media and close links to the military leadership their power is firmly entrenched.” A similar situation prevails in neighbouring Honduras, where a 2009 coup led to an upsurge in violence.

Both countries share a history of glaring social inequality and high levels of violence exacerbated by the emergence of powerful drug gangs, who, in the case of Guatemala control an estimated 50 per cent of the country. The climate of impunity created by decades of civil war, a corrupt and inefficient police force and unrelenting gang violence means that in Guatemala 90% of violent crimes are never investigated.

In Guatemala more than half the population live below the poverty line while, among indigenous peoples, 38 per cent of the population, it averages 73 per cent. Nearly half of Guatemala’s children under five are chronically malnourished while in Honduras nearly 65 per cent of people live in poverty and the country suffers from rampant crime and impunity for human rights abuses. The murder rate was the highest in the world in 2013.

Increasingly challenged by a new criminal elite, the old oligarchies seek to reinforce their position by the development of a neo-liberal economy based on the voracious exploitation of natural resources, through the granting of mining and logging licences. The rights of rural communities and indigenous peoples don’t even figure in the equation, resulting in social tension and conflict. In July 2014, in a rare conviction, four policemen were found guilty of murdering HRDs Heraldo Zuniga and Roger Murillo, campaigners against illegal logging in Olancho province in Honduras.

Those opposing massive mining or logging projects, because of their impact on the environment or local communities, or who expose official corruption are at daily risk. Equally at risk are HRDs who support them. A Guatemalan body which documents attacks on HRDs reported 657 such attacks in 2013 and 210 so far this year.

The only longterm solution to this crisis is for the United States government to use all its influence to advocate for political and institutional reform, an end to the climate of impunity for violent crime and investment in sustainable development and the kind of educational and training projects that might generate some hope. A good start would be to focus on the security and protection of those HRDs risking their lives to create more just and equal societies.

Mary Lawlor is founder and executive director of Front Line Defenders -

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