In the first part of this series I discussed the recent events in Guatemala that led to the resignation and arrest of former president Otto Pérez Molina. Of course, the prospects for meaningful and sustained reforms will hinge on the results of the congressional elections and the second round presidential elections on October 25th.
In the meantime Guatemala’s neighbors in the Northern Triangle of Central America, Honduras and El Salvador, are also consumed by crises that not only affect citizens in those countries, but also the United States.
Honduras and El Salvador are mired in a cycle of violence, corruption and instability that has cost thousands of lives, pushed countless others to flee their homes and eroded the rule of law and democratic governance. These problems have a direct effect on the United States, particularly thorough migration. From 2013 to 2014 tens of thousands of unaccompanied migrant children from Central America arrived in the United States as a result of the violence, corruption, economic deprivation, and political instability raging in Central America, and in particular its northern tier of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
There are 3.2 million Central American immigrants currently living in the United States. This population grew exponentially during the region’s civil wars in the 1980s. While the rate stabilized with the peace accords of the 1990s, the flow has jumped yet again with the crime and violence of the past two decades, with Central American-born living in the U.S. growing by more than 50 percent between 2000 and 2013 alone.
The case of Honduras is a sad illustration of the confluence of political instability and political and social decay. In 2009 the country suffered a coup that toppled an elected president under the pretext he had violated the constitution. The U.S. role generated controversy that the Obama Administration, and Secretary of State Clinton specifically, may have given a green light or at least acquiesced in the unconstitutional ouster of a duly elected (though rogue) president.
The circumstances surrounding the coup notwithstanding, post-coup governments have failed to strengthen democratic governance. And since 2009 Honduras has also witnessed an increase in crime and violence. In recent months, the country has been consumed by corruption charges leveled against president Juan Orlando Hernández for his alleged involvement in a scheme to divert social security money to his party’s campaign in the 2013 elections. Popular mobilizations have called for his resignation and prosecution. So far, Mr. Hernández has maintained his innocence and refused to step down.
El Salvador’s already high murder rate has escalated in recent months with the death toll rising to 52 murders in the single day of August 23rd, making August the most violent month in the country’s post-civil war period. El Salvador today is considered the most violent nation in the world, surpassing even Iraq and Syria. While corruption has not touched the presidency directly, it has affected the police and courts.
Rather than deal with violence and corruption within the ranks of the country’s security forces, successive governments in El Salvador have doubled down on iron-fisted responses to the crime wave and allowed the armed forces to assume a greater role in internal security—never a good thing. The use of the military, while perhaps a short-term answer, reduces civilian control over policing duties and all-too-often leads to an increase in the abuse of human rights and violations in due process. The reasons are obvious: militaries are simply not equipped or trained for day-to-day police functions, nor do they have the level of civilian oversight and accountability of police forces. Unfortunately the U.S. has often been an enabler, if not complicit, in the mission creep of Central American militaries into domestic security functions.
But there is a bright spot. The success of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has led some to call for the creation of a similar agency in Honduras and El Salvador. U.S. officials have supported the CICIG model in other countries. Thomas Shannon, Counselor to the Secretary of State, said “it would be an intelligent move for El Salvador and Honduras to seek assistance from the international community… CICIG worked well.”
Nevertheless, opposition in both Honduras and El Salvador was swift. In Honduras, President Hernández and other officials argued that an international commission would divert attention from strengthening local institutions, and in El Salvador the presidential spokesperson said it would represent foreign meddling in the internal affairs of the country and that such an agency was necessary “only in countries where institutional integrity had been lost.”
Those that are pushing for an international commission in El Salvador and Honduras, however, ignore the history behind Guatemala’s CICIG and the arduous process that would likely be involved in establishing a UN presence in other countries.
In Guatemala the involvement of the UN dates to the late 1990s when it mediated the peace agreements that ended 36 years of violent civil war. The United Nations established MINUGUA (United Nations Verification Mission in Guatemala) that helped monitor implementation of the agreements. MINUGUA was instrumental in investigating and cataloging the abuses committed during the civil war by government and guerrilla forces, and was critical in ensuring the provisions for demobilization of paramilitary forces and the separation of police and military functions.
The success of MINUGUA cemented in the minds of civil society organizations in Guatemala the role of the UN as an independent body with the authority to manage complex post-conflict issues. Later, the mounting evidence that former military officers had infiltrated and corrupted vast sectors of the country’s political, judicial and economic system—what became known as Poderes Ocultos (Hidden Powers), raised international pressure on the Guatemalan government to adopt measures to address the country’s spiral into state-corruption. As a result, in 2006 the Guatemalan government agreed to the creation of CICIG.
The UN has also had a long history of involvement in El Salvador but with a different conclusion. The UN played a critical role in the peace negotiations that ended that country’s civil war in 1992 and subsequently established ONUSAL, the United Nations Observer Mission in El Salvador. ONUSAL monitored the accords and verified the demobilization of combatants, their reintegration into society and respect for human rights commitments. ONUSAL’s mandate ended in April 1995, and a small UN office, the United Nations Mission in El Salvador (MINUSAL), was created to verify implementation of the remaining provisions of the Peace Accord. In December 2002, the UN formally ended verification activities in El Salvador.
By most measures, the UN mission in El Salvador is seen as a model for international verification in post-conflict societies. But El Salvador did not confront the “hidden powers” that seemed to control Guatemala’s political system.
Honduras’ transition in the 1980s was different. Democracy did not emerge from a post-conflict peace but rather from gradual political reforms. Under that context the UN never assumed the verification activities it did elsewhere, though it did have a role in the post-Hurricane Mitch reconstruction. But, of course, that mission was quite different from those in post-civil war El Salvador and Guatemala.
There are a number of specific reasons beyond the contextual factors that make the establishment of an international commission in Honduras and El Salvador unlikely.
First, the experience in Guatemala—with an aggressive CICIG playing a role in the resignation of a former vice president and president—will certainly frighten neighboring country elites away from accepting the involvement of an independent institution with investigative powers.
Second, the establishment of such a commission will take, by some estimates, up to three years. In the meantime, the contentious debate to get approval for the extra-national commission and to get it up and running will divert attention from the necessary steps to strengthen local institutions. After all, an international commission is not a silver bullet and delaying domestic reforms until a commission can be established seems to be counterproductive. Carlos Hernández, the Honduran representative for Transparency International, said “it [an international commission] would be good, but we must be realistic…that would take time…in the meantime we need urgent actions and cannot wait until an international commission against impunity is established.”
Third, it is not certain the U.S. is willing to spend the political capital needed to push for such an institution in the midst of local wrangling. There is no doubt the U.S. supports a commission and would provide funding if it is established. However, given the often episodic nature of U.S. foreign policy, Washington will likely not have the stomach for a sustained and difficult fight. U.S. efforts and money are likely better used to support initiatives that directly strengthen local prosecutors, courts and other law enforcement agencies, as well as promoting regional security cooperation. Expanding Vice President Biden’s $1 billion plan would be more helpful than wishing for a commission that might never materialize.
Orlando J. Pérez, Associate Dean, College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Millersville University of Pennsylvania. Author of Civil-Military Relations in Post- Conflict Societies: Transforming the Role of the Military in Central America (Routledge, 2015).