WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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5 Jun 2019 | Commentary

80 Homeland Security Agents to Guatemala? We’ve Seen This Before. It Doesn’t Work.

Washington Post reporters Nick Miroff and Kevin Sieff revealed that agents from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) may soon deploy to Guatemala to help local security forces stem migration. “At least several dozen” or “about 80” agents and investigators, from Customs and Border Protection (CBP) and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), “will work as ‘advisers’ to Guatemala’s national police and migration authorities, and they will aim to disrupt and interdict human smuggling operations.” The Post reporters’ sources “hope that the effort will cut off popular routes to the United States and deter migrants from beginning their journeys north through Mexico.”

This new deployment may be larger in scale, but it’s not dramatically different from what the Obama and Trump administrations’ Homeland Security departments have attempted in Guatemala during the past several years, with no lasting success. Some examples:

  • Special agents and analysts have long been stationed at the ICE Attache Office in the U.S. embassy in Guatemala. This office saw a personnel increase in 2017, according to testimony from then-Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly.
  • In 2016, according to testimony from that year, ICE was “in the process of expanding its DLO [Deportation Liaison Officer] footprint” in the Guatemala Attache Office.
  • ICE agents created and accompany a Guatemalan Transnational Criminal Investigative Unit (TCIU) in Guatemala. According to 2016 testimony from ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) division, “TCIUs are comprised of foreign law enforcement officials, customs officers, immigration officers, and prosecutors who undergo a strict vetting process and complete a prerequisite three-week International Task Force Agent Training (ITAT) course at the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center (FLETC). Upon completion of training, TCIU members work together with ICE to investigate significant threats.” The Guatemala TCIU was expanded in 2015, explains the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO).
  • Since 2015, ICE agents working with TCIUs in Guatemala have periodically carried out “Operation Citadel,” which contributed to “the dismantlement of several large-scale transnational criminal organizations involved in human smuggling,” according to 2016 HSI testimony. In 2017, the U.S. military’s Southern Command expanded its cooperation with Operation Citadel, according to testimony from its commander.
  • “Partner nation authorities in Central America, including immigration services and border police, collect biometrics in cooperation with the TCIUs and through ICE’s Biometric Identification Transnational Migration Alert Program (BITMAP),” according to 2016 DHS testimony. “The host country owns the biometric data and shares the information with ICE for intelligence and screening.”
  • CBP, according to May 2018 agency testimony, “conducts International Border Interdiction training, coordinated and funded by the Department of State,” in Guatemala through its International Affairs International Technical Assistance Division. “These courses provide instruction on multiple aspects of border security, including targeting and risk management, interdiction, smuggling, search methodologies, analysis, canine enforcement, and narcotics detection identification.”
  • CBP and ICE were among the agencies (including the State Department-funded International Law Enforcement Academy and Colombia’s National Police) that trained 4,600 Guatemalan police in 2017 alone, according to GAO.

These deployments and operations, obviously, failed to achieve their stated goal of slowing migration. They failed because Guatemala’s 600-mile border with Mexico is easily crossed at dozens of formal and informal sites. They failed because Guatemala—unlike, say, East Germany—doesn’t prevent citizens from leaving its territory. They failed because migrants fleeing violence and poverty, and the smugglers who charge them thousands for the journey, are adept at avoiding capture. They failed because seeking asylum, as tens of thousands of Guatemalan children and parents are doing each month, is not an illegal act.

They failed, too, because unpunished corruption within Guatemalan and Mexican security and immigration forces works to smugglers’ advantage, undermining the efforts of Homeland Security agents and their counterparts. And in Guatemala, where the government is slamming the door on the CICIG, a much-admired international investigative body, the corruption problem is only getting worse—just as more U.S. agents arrive.

There is no reason to believe that 80 agents, carrying out a similar mission on a somewhat larger scale, might make much of a dent. They will assuredly capture lower-ranking smugglers and block some unfortunate families from leaving. But migrants’ desperation and higher-tier smugglers’ sophistication will remain unchanged. And corruption will continue to erase gains as long as there is no accountability for those on the take. DHS officers can do little, for instance, about the Mexican road checkpoint officials charging cuotas for passage in an April account in The Guardian by reporter Sarah Kinosian, who found that “buses typically pay about $2,600 at each of five checkpoints. In the border state of Sonora, they must pay another $20,000 ($500 per person) to organized crime groups.”

Homeland Security is not the only law-enforcement agency with years of work in Guatemala. The Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) has had an investigative and operational presence for decades. The Justice Department’s Office of Overseas Prosecutorial Development Assistance and Training Program (OPDAT) carried out the Operation Regional Shield anti-gang operation in 2017, according to 2018 State Department testimony. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI)’s Transnational Anti-Gang Task Forces (TAGs), a program that began in El Salvador in 2007, are “headed by FBI agents who lead vetted teams of national police and prosecutors,” according to 2017 FBI testimony, and “coordinate with FBI legal attachés assigned to those regions and with the Bureau’s International Operations Division.” Florida’s Miami-Dade County Police Department has also delivered police training in Guatemala, according to GAO.

The U.S. military has an even larger presence in Guatemala than the Department of Homeland Security.

  • Starting in 2013, U.S. Southern Command built bases, delivered vehicles and equipment, and provided training to Inter-Agency Task Forces (IATFs): combined military-police-prosecutorial units stationed in Guatemala’s border zones. Inter-Agency Task Force vehicles were misused in late August 2018 in a menacing show of force against the CICIG’s headquarters and the U.S. embassy in Guatemala City, far from Guatemala’s borders. The incident contributed to a suspension of U.S. military assistance to the IATFs more than six months later, in March 2019.
  • Under “Special-Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force Southern Command,” dozens of Marines have deployed to Guatemala for months every year since 2014, participating in natural disaster response and, a 2016 Southern Command release reads, “conduct[ing] training and security cooperation engagements that are tailored to each partner’s needs.” Another 2016 release explains, “After the current team’s deployment comes to an end, new teams will arrive to help continuing to reinforce skills where previous teams left off.”
  • Southern Command’s Special Operations Forces component helped Guatemala to create a Naval Special Forces unit to carry out maritime drug interdiction, according to 2016 testimony. The commander of Southern Command asserted this year that Guatemala’s Naval Special Forces unit “is now among Central America’s most competent and responsive maritime interdiction units.”
  • Southern Command’s Operation Hornet, according to 2018 testimony, “illuminates threat network activity along the Guatemala-Mexico border, has led to the identification of 36 illicit organizations to date, many with linkages across Central America and Mexico.”
  • The same testimony describes Operation Together Forward, in which “U.S. soldiers work with counterparts in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador to improve cross-border collaboration against threat networks.”
  • In 2015, Southern Command’s commander explained, U.S. Army-supported operations “contributed to the disruption of TCO [transnational criminal organization] networks especially in Honduras and Guatemala.”

These efforts have barely made a dent in migrant or drug smuggling from Guatemala, and WOLA has heard from government and legislative sources that the “Inter-Agency Task Force” effort is currently moribund.

Still, more U.S. military personnel could be on the way. “Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has indicated that he would welcome the introduction of U.S. troops on Guatemala’s northern border,” reads an April letter to president Trump from a Texas Democratic member of Congress, Vicente Gonzalez. “If you want to see fewer apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexico border, I would strongly encourage you to seriously consider President Morales’ offer.” Guatemala’s foreign ministry is now denying that it made this request, and that U.S. military personnel currently in Guatemala are carrying out the latest of a 20-year-long string of regular humanitarian exercises.

Whatever the new deployments look like, inserting more U.S. personnel in Guatemala—whether law enforcement or military—is unlikely to make much of a difference in migration or drug flows. As the long lists of deployments here make clear, the U.S. government has tried this before, repeatedly, over the past few years. And migration and drug flows have increased.

Ultimately, there is no substitute for a “root cause” strategy. One that patiently works with reformers and innovators, both inside and outside of government, to stamp out corruption, to protect threatened people, to make institutions more responsive, and to create opportunity.

Instead, the Trump administration is mulling sending 80 DHS agents to border areas while zeroing out all “root cause” assistance. That is absurd, and it is doomed to failure.