For four long years, as President of the United States, Donald Trump harassed Central American migrants with increasingly innovative methods. In particular, the people of the “northern triangle” of Central America have suffered under Trump. When migrants from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador fled poverty, violence and corruption in their home countries and hundreds of thousands made their way north with huge caravans, the then US president denounced them as “criminals” and gave birth to children separated from their parents. American Detention Centers. In the end, he even negotiated agreements with the three countries, which declared Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador safe third countries – despite the dire situation in the region.
“The greatest interest of the United States in Central America is to limit migration,” explains Alvaro Montenegro, a Guatemalan columnist and co-founder of the civil movement. Justice nowwhich fights for transparent policies in Guatemala. Barack Obama had already given top priority to the issue of migration, but the approach was different from Trump’s. “Then the US government also focused on reasons for fleeing, such as widespread corruption,” Montenegro recalled. “So it was primarily about strengthening state institutions and supporting civil society.” The most important political signal from the Obama administration was its unconditional support for the UN Commission to Combat Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which overthrew many corrupt politicians and businessmen, thus achieving spectacular success in enforcing the rule of law in Guatemala. .
But CICIG’s success did not last long: when Trump took office, the fight against corruption and the rule of law in Guatemala became increasingly difficult. This is also due to the lobbying of the conservative elites in the country. During the Trump administration, they worked to reverse important progress in the fight against corruption to protect their own political and economic interests. With a lot of money and perseverance, they tried to discredit CICIG in Washington as a supposedly left-wing guerrilla commission – and in the end their efforts succeeded. When Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales allowed the commission’s term to expire in 2019, Washington did not intervene. “For Trump, the Guatemalan government and the country’s businessmen were the only allies,” Montenegro said. “Now that Biden has taken office, civil society can finally be heard again.”
Engel’s list comes for corrupt elites
This prospect has put the country’s elites on high alert. Now they depend even more on closing their ranks and silencing critical institutions. Therefore, a key event is likely to happen this April, with the replacement of the Constitutional Court of Guatemala, whose decisions have repeatedly run counter to the interests of the powerful elite in recent years. “They will do everything possible to put the Constitutional Court under their control,” said Alvaro Montenegro. The non-transparent nomination process for the country’s highest court is particularly vulnerable to external influences.
US President Biden has already announced his intention to support the fight against corruption in the region with a new, transnational commission.
A law passed by the US Congress only last December could create an obstacle for the elite. The law provides for the annual publication of the names of all individuals from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador who are known to the US government as corrupt and undemocratic participants. Publishing on Engel’s list – named after former Congressman Elliott Engel, who initiated the law – could lead to far-reaching sanctions such as revoking entry permits and closing down businesses in the United States. And in Central America, the list is likely to become an important political tool for all those who fight corruption and for more democracy.
Soon, Salvador President Naibib Bukele could also feel its impact. The head of state, whose authoritarian behavior has repeatedly trampled on basic democratic principles such as the separation of powers and an independent judiciary, has always enjoyed good relations with President Trump. Now even he must fear that members of his own government will be publicly stigmatized on Engel’s list. “We still don’t know how Bukele will react to this,” said Jessica Estrada of the El Salvador Development Trust Foundation (FUNDE). “However, Washington has made it clear that it will no longer tolerate abuse of power and corruption.”
Transnational Commission against Corruption?
US President Biden has already announced his intention to support the fight against corruption in the region with a new, transnational commission. Eventually, not only the Guatemalan CICIG, but a similar institution called the MACCIH (Honduras Anti-Corruption and Impunity Mission) fell victim to Trump’s lack of interest. Meanwhile, the CICIES anti-corruption commission in El Salvador, tasked with fighting corruption in the country over the past two years, has so far failed to achieve significant results.
Whether such a transnational commission, proposed by Biden, can work is at least controversial. Not only will the efforts for coordination between investigators be enormous, but above all they will need the support of the national parliaments of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras. In all three countries, corrupt power elites have a strong majority in parliament.
However, the clearest consequences of the new US foreign policy program can be seen in Honduras.
In El Salvador, incumbent President Bukele has just won a landslide victory in late February and now also controls parliament – he is unlikely to be interested in his non-transparent rule being monitored by international anti-corruption bodies.
The clear case of Honduras
So what leverage does the US government have to exert domestic political influence in Central America? “Washington, for example, could threaten to cut international aid to El Salvador or even suspend co-operation,” Jessica Estrada explained. “This would have a dramatic impact on major US-backed government infrastructure projects.”
However, the clearest consequences of the new US foreign policy program can be seen in Honduras. There, President Juan Orlando Hernandez is its head of state only by the grace of Washington: he owes his re-election in 2017, overshadowed by accusations of fraud and excesses of violence, mainly to the tacit support of the US government. Under Donald Trump, Hernandez – thanks to his migration deal with the United States – managed to escape all the consequences of his proximity to drug cartels and the brutal actions of the police and military against his own population. Like Guatemala and El Salvador, Honduras has been declared a safe third country.
Under Biden, who overthrew the third country at the beginning of his term, this is likely to be much more difficult. Hernandez’s brother has already been convicted of smuggling cocaine in a New York court in 2019. Hernandez himself could probably suffer a similar fate: he is said to have funded his first presidential election campaign in 2013 with millions of contraband of drugs.
However, for a trial and possible sentencing to be possible, the United States will have to prevent him from being confirmed in office next fall so that Hernandez loses his immunity. This would not require direct intervention in the internal affairs of the country. It would be enough if this time the United States – unlike in 2017 – supported the organized forces of civil society and insisted on holding free and democratic elections. Then the days of Hernandez as president of Honduran will be numbered.