You don’t often hear a U.S. ambassador say something that sticks in the memory. But in 1994 Ambassador Marilyn McAfee memorably stated that Guatemala had become the southern frontier of the United States.
At the time, NAFTA had tied the U.S., Canada and Mexico into a single customs unit — so Guatemala, just under Mexico, became NAFTA’s southern neighbor. Today McAfee’s statement springs back even more powerfully as people in unprecedented numbers come streaming out of Guatemala toward the U.S.
After long ignoring Central America, U.S. journalists can’t make sense of the migration. Nearly all mimic the official view that it’s due to increased violence and instability. As with many stories from the Obama administration, that’s a clever twist on the truth. A recent visit to Guatemala showed another view: that heightened migration can be traced to Obama’s own policies.
The town of San Pablo, 15 miles east of the Mexican border, is in a region that has produced many migrants. It is also an epicenter of “social conflict” — meaning the domination of left-wing militias that call themselves “human-rights groups.” I was traveling with Richard Pollock, an investigative reporter for the Washington Examiner, whose story from September 18 contains an account of the visit. Richard and I spent a very uncomfortable 22 minutes conversing with “indigenous authorities” who surrounded us in a threatening attitude as we tried explaining the idea of a free press.
Our guide in San Pablo was a young woman attorney, Gilda Aguilar. In 2012, Gilda — then a prosecutor for the Ministry of Justice — brought arrest warrants against people associated with the “Committee of United Campesinos” (CUC). The CUC had destroyed equipment at a hydroelectric plant, rampaged through a neighboring town and, most critically, forced ordinary citizens to take part in its actions. After exposing the CUC’s methods, Gilda — instead of being thanked — was put on the carpet by Guatemala’s attorney general, Claudia Paz y Paz, who said that the CUC was a “human-rights group” and could not be prosecuted.
Paz y Paz took Gilda off the case and began disciplinary proceedings against her. Three weeks later, Gilda’s car was riddled with bullets. By luck, she escaped injury. The justice ministry did not investigate the crime. Gilda resigned from the ministry and brought criminal charges against Paz y Paz for dereliction of duty. Gilda also investigated the shooting, and found evidence linking the head of the CUC to it.
President Obama’s State Department is in this matter up to its knees. Attorney General Paz y Paz, whose term ended earlier this year, was a personal favorite of Hillary Clinton’s, and John Kerry and by assistant secretary Roberta Jacobson also sang her praises. The U.S. embassy in Guatemala often went to undiplomatic lengths in praising Paz y Paz and in urging (without success) that Guatemala’s president appoint her to a second term. When two U.S. citizens spoke to the U.S. ambassador about Paz y Paz and her treatment of Gilda Aguilar, the ambassador turned scornfully away.
Earlier this year, in a State Department ceremony, Michele Obama presented an “International Women of Courage” Award to one of Paz y Paz’s hanging judges, Yassmin Barrios. When the Guatemalan bar association, some weeks after the State Department award, voted to sanction Barrios for her conduct on the bench, the U.S. embassy let loose a verbal volley against the bar association (and got the sanction reduced).
The embassy’s constant meddling in Guatemala’s internal affairs is the sign of a sensitive policy matter. And the First Lady’s presence puts the matter at the White House door. The U.S. government is supporting a policy of social conflict in Guatemala.
The policy instruments are the “human-rights” or conflict groups that hold sway with official support. Those groups realize that if ordinary people can prosper and become independent, their own power will be degraded. So development and foreign investment are violently discouraged. The conflict groups target hydroelectric projects, reforestation projects, mining companies, cement companies — any that might create employment or wealth.
Many people wish these enterprises would flourish. But they are thwarted by the militias, who can treat them quite brutally. Gilda Aguilar obtained a document, written by the social-conflict group of San Pablo (“Front for the Defense of Natural Resources”) and signed by police officers, who therein promise not to intervene in social conflicts.
The spread of social-conflict zones is at once visible in a chart that shows their multiplication across Guatemala between 2010 and 2014. This is a map of misery. It shows not growth but stagnation. Social conflict creates unemployment, poverty, and a lack of hope. Finally it fosters an unnatural desire to leave one’s home and seek opportunity elsewhere. That’s the root cause of migration. And the U.S. is firmly behind it.
In Guatemala, a change of government policy is always promised. For the moment, however, the comment of a prosperous coyote — whose business is the transport of aspiring migrants to the United States — seems more trenchant. Speaking with us last month, he raised his Coca-Cola and said: “To President Obama!”
David Landau, a contributor to The Daily Caller, is a novelist and playwright living in San Francisco. He has been involved in Guatemalan politics since 1995, when he advised a candidate in that year’s presidential election.