Guatemala: State of emergency

Key sectors: all

Key risks: violent crime; deadly clashes; extortion; political violence

On 4 September President Jimmy Morales declared a 30-day state of emergency (SoE) in 22 municipalities in six north-eastern departments a day after three soldiers were killed and five injured by alleged drug traffickers in El Estor, Izabal department. The SoE put Guatemala in the spotlight. Drug trafficking is a long-standing security concern for Guatemala and the SoE highlighted its changing dynamics. Alongside street gang violence and migration, the drug trade represents some of the most pressing security-related issues that right-wing president-elect Alejandro Giammattei will face when taking office in January 2020. Recent developments suggest that despite promises to “rebuild Guatemala”, addressing structural crime and violence will prove easier said than done.

Guatemala’s three primary, interrelated security challenges include street gang violence, drug trafficking and migration. The country remains one of the world’s most violent, located in the troubled Central American so-called ‘Northern Triangle’ alongside El Salvador and Honduras. Homicide rates in Guatemala doubled from 20 to 40 per 100,000 inhabitants in the past decade. Violence stems from several sources including local street gangs (pandillas), transnational street gangs (maras) and transnational criminal organisations such as Mexican cartels operating in the border areas. No government has yet managed to successfully address the issue and crime-related violence will continue to pose a protracted security risk.

The SoE highlights the severity of the links between expanding drug trafficking operations and the lack of effective rule of law and state presence, particularly in rural areas. The 3 September incident, rather than indicating an escalation of violence, likely underscores longer-term changes in the drug trade. The attacked patrol was reportedly searching for a previously downed drug-trafficking aircraft. According to some reports, local community members were involved in the ambush aimed at protecting the traffickers. The fact that the state had to resort to an SoE is testament to the need to secure state presence in areas where new trafficking routes, mechanisms and support networks are being developed. Guatemala is located mid-way between Colombia and the United States (US) in one of the world’s busiest drug trafficking and smuggling routes. As the US border becomes increasingly militarised, criminal groups in the region will continue to turn to alternative routes to avoid direct land border crossings into the US.

On top of its strategic location, fragile institutions beset by impunity and corruption left by a 36-year long civil war that ended in 1996 have turned Guatemala into a lucrative place for criminal groups. Impunity and corruption remain key to explain the violence observed across the country. Weak and underfunded institutions marred by corruption scandals have undermined efforts to address such violence. The United Nations (UN)-backed anti-corruption commission CICIG managed to bring down impunity rates from 95 per cent to 75. However, its mandate expired in September and was not renewed. Incoming Giammattei has expressed opposition to it. Impunity and corruption compounded by the proliferation of drug trafficking groups and unremitting gang activity will continue to weigh on insecurity. This will continue to fuel Guatemala’s third security challenge: migration. Guatemalan migrants represent a quarter of those apprehended at the US border and Mexico has in 2019 deployed over 21,000 troops to its southern borders to curb migration flows, which are also exposed to smuggling networks. Giammattei will have to address decades of security dilemmas for the emergency to truly end.