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Guatemala Is Not a “Safe Third Country.” Decades of US Policy Made It That Way.

Guatemala is rife with the same dangerous conditions that the Central American migrants are fleeing.

President Trump shakes Guatemala's Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart hand as acting U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security Kevin K. McAleenan watches after a safe-third agreement was signed in the Oval Office of the White House on July 26, 2019, in Washington, D.C.

On July 26, President Trump and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales officially announced their safe third-country agreement. Media coverage was explosive, and rightly so: The agreement would require immigrants from Honduras, El Salvador and possibly other countries to process their asylum claims in Guatemala. If not blocked by legal challenges, there is little doubt that this agreement would result in a humanitarian crisis far worse than what experts are already calling a mass atrocity along the U.S.-Mexico border.

The announced agreement came amid a period of violence in Guatemala: Just the day before, two Indigenous community leaders were killed. The first was 77-year-old Jorge Juc Cucul, who was hacked to death with a machete outside his home while tending to his corn fields with his daughter.

Cucul was a leader with the community organization known by its Spanish acronym, CODECA, the Committee for Community Development. Founded in 1992 to advocate for Indigenous land rights and related issues, CODECA has been the target of a brutal campaign of targeted killings in recent years. Fourteen of its leaders have been assassinated since the start of 2018.

The second was Daniel Coc Maquín, who was found dead after being hit by what was allegedly a mining company vehicle as he travelled home with his 12-year-old son, who was also injured.

Earlier that day, hundreds of Maya-Q’eqchi protesters had gathered outside the entrance to the constitutional court building in Guatemala City (I was at the scene as a human rights observer) to demand that the court revoke the mining license of the Guatemala Nickel Company, which has wreaked humanitarian and environmental havoc in their home community. It remains unclear whether Maquín’s death was an act of retaliation against the community for its mobilization.

These violent deaths highlight two key points with respect to Morales’s and Trump’s “safe third country” deal. First, these deaths point to the absurdity of declaring Guatemala a safe landing zone for refugees when it is so manifestly unsafe for its own citizens. According to a new report from the human rights organization Global Witness, Guatemala is one of the world’s most dangerous countries for land and environmental defenders, such as members of CODECA. Guatemala also has the world’s third-highest rate of femicide.

Beyond violence, Guatemala has the sixth-highest rate of chronic malnutrition in the world, and approximately 2 percent of children die before their first birthday — an infant mortality rate that is roughly four times higher than the rate in the U.S. These indicators should raise serious alarm about Guatemala’s capacity to provide basic safety and public health services for refugees in its custody.

Yet the deaths of Maquín and Cucul point not only to the extent of violence and other social problems in Guatemala, but also to their origins. To a high degree, the circumstances surrounding Maquín and Cucul’s deaths are direct sequelae of the Guatemalan Civil War, a fact which was largely overlooked by U.S. media coverage.

In 1954, under the watch of President Dwight D. Eisenhower, the CIA trained and equipped Guatemalan soldiers to carry out a coup to overthrow the democratically elected Guatemalan President Jacobo Árbenz, whose moderate land reform proposals threatened the U.S.-owned United Fruit Company.

The coup set off 36 years of military rule (1960-1996) during which time the CIA provided ongoing training and support to the Guatemalan military as it carried out acts of genocide that razed 600 villages and killed 200,000 people, 83 percent of them ethnic Maya. In the end, the civil war succeeded in blocking Árbenz’s incipient land reform proposals: Today, just 2 percent of the Guatemalan population controls 70 percent of arable land.

During this period of military control, lobbyists for foreign mining companies and agribusinesses worked tirelessly with corrupt Guatemalan leaders to put in place a legal and policy framework to favor their industries. Chief among them was the predecessor to the Guatemala Nickel Company (then named EXMIBAL), the company that was the focus of last month’s protest.

Thanks to its lobbying efforts, the military government of 1965 suspended the Constitution and passed a new mining code to allow EXMIBAL to engage in open-pit mining and to pay a mere $23,000 per year in royalties to the Guatemalan state.

While we may never know whether the traffic accident that killed Maquín was in retaliation for the community’s opposition to the mine, overwhelming evidence shows that Guatemala Nickel Company and its predecessors have carried out forced evictions by burning down the homes of Q’eqchi’ families, murder and gang rapes. These alleged crimes, for which strong photographic evidence exists, have occurred as recently as 2017. Though no one has been convicted to date, they are now being considered in a precedent-setting court case in Canada.

Advocates and policymakers should be deeply concerned that Democrats and Republicans alike continue to support the kind of neoliberal policies in Central America linked to these violations of the territorial rights of Indigenous people and of human rights more broadly. The Global Witness report makes this link between neoliberal policy and rights violations clear: “private and foreign investment has seen large swathes of land handed out to plantation, mining and hydropower companies, ushering in a wave of forced and violent evictions, particularly in indigenous areas.” In other words, U.S. policy is actively contributing to the underlying conditions — gross inequality in land ownership; laws favoring transnational corporations; corruption of the legal and political system; and, increasingly, climate change — that plunged Guatemala into 36 years of civil war and that today force so many to leave their homes in Central America.

Given the U.S.’s responsibility for creating these conditions, it is incumbent on the United States to help address them. As a starting point, the U.S. must fulfill its moral obligation to provide for the basic needs of refugees, rather than attempting to outsource this responsibility to Guatemala. Beyond this, U.S. lawmakers must replace its short-term focus on economic growth with a foreign policy that repatriates stolen land to Indigenous communities; that helps farmers — especially those vulnerable to climate change — survive on their land; that promotes racial and gender justice; and that supports the fundamental rights to health, education, food and shelter. The task is urgent, because until it happens, refugees and Indigenous and environmental land defenders will continue to pay with their lives.