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Elizabeth Oglesby: Supporting Guatemala's anti-mafia fight helps the U.S.

Elizabeth Oglesby: Supporting Guatemala's anti-mafia fight helps the U.S.

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If Arizonans are concerned about migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, there is something we can do that is more effective and far less costly than building a multibillion-dollar border wall.

We can support the efforts in Central America to fight against organized crime. This is a bipartisan issue, as Ivan Velásquez, the head of Guatemala’s anti-impunity commission, told lawmakers in Washington last week.

Recently, Congressmen Edward Royce, R-Calif., and Eliot Engel, D-N.Y., the top-ranking officials of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson asking him to block U.S. visas and access to U.S. financial institutions for individuals in Guatemala who are “committing or facilitating acts of corruption.”

The congressmen also asked that the U.S. withhold funding for Guatemala until significant improvements in battling corruption are seen.

Arizonans should pay attention to this.

Since 2014, we have seen a sharp increase in the numbers of Central Americans crossing our southern border, even while the rate of undocumented immigration from Mexico is at an historic low. U.S. border fortification has done little to reduce the rate of migration from Central America.

The social causes of migration are complex, and no single policy can address them. Yet no solution is possible as long as the Central American states remain captured by clandestine criminal networks. Central Americans are fleeing violence perpetrated by those criminal networks. Moreover, corruption siphons off vital resources that could be used for social development to mitigate migration.

In 2015, Vice President Joe Biden traveled to Central America to make clear that the U.S. government saw a connection between governability, crime and migration. Guatemala’s efforts are viewed as a model for anti-mafia programs elsewhere in Central America and even Mexico.

U.S. officials under Trump have reiterated support for Guatemala’s anti-mafia efforts. There is concern, however, that this issue may fall off the diplomatic radar screen, given the widely reported disarray in the State Department.

Arizona’s congressional delegation, especially Republican Rep. Martha McSally, who sits on the House Homeland Security Committee, should take the lead in focusing U.S. support for the anti-impunity commission and the Guatemalan prosecutors.

Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity, a joint effort by the United Nations and the Guatemalan Attorney General’s office, is leading the fight against these semiofficial “hidden powers.”

Since 2015, the anti-impunity commission and Guatemalan prosecutors have brought charges against dozens of current and former government and military officials linked to violent networks of graft.

In 2015, the anti-impunity commission’s work, combined with massive anti-corruption protests in Guatemala, brought down the sitting president, former army general Otto Pérez Molina, and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti.

But Guatemala’s current president, Jimmy Morales, has been trying to shut down the anti-impunity commission since last summer, amid allegations of his own mafia links. This prompted massive public protests in Guatemala once again, in defense of the anti-impunity commission.

Congress must use all its policy levers, including the threat of economic sanctions, to ensure that the anti-impunity commission is allowed to continue its work in Guatemala. Congress must also push for transparency in the selection of Guatemala’s next Attorney General, and for the protection of judges in the high-risk courts that try organized crime cases, as well as protection for all human rights defenders in Guatemala and Central America.

Otherwise, the billions of dollars being discussed for the border wall, and the billions the U.S. spends every year on immigrant detention, is just money down the drain.

Elizabeth Oglesby is associate professor of Latin American Studies at the University of Arizona and a public voices fellow with The OpEd Project. She is an expert on Guatemala and testified at trial against Guatemalan Gen. Efraín Ríos Montt.


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