The US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) said last month it was sending a sizable force of agents and investigators to Guatemalan regions bordering Mexico. The Guatemalan government also reportedly expressed interest in a US military presence in border areas to address migration.
Migrants and asylum seekers from other Central American countries pass through Guatemala on the way to the US-Mexico border. Guatemala is also now the top country of origin of migrants and asylum seekers detained at the US southern border. Most Guatemalan migrants and asylum seekers are from predominantly indigenous highlands areas, and many are families with children.
“The [Guatemalan] government did not come up with anything positive for migrants in three and a half years in power,” said Jordan Rodas, the country’s human rights ombudsman.
“That now the only idea that goes through their mind is this kind of measure to request support from another government to prevent migrants from leaving is deplorable,” Rodas told Al Jazeera.
The deployment of DHS personnel aims to enhance security and help mitigate the root causes of Central American migration to the US, according to a DHS official. DHS declined to provide Al Jazeera with any basic details about the deployment, citing law enforcement sensitivities.
The effort stems from a memorandum of understanding the heads of the DHS and Guatemalan Ministry of the Interior signed last week to implement joint initiatives to combat the smuggling of people and goods.
Actions will include “law enforcement training and training to improve criminal investigations”, according to a May 28 DHS statement. The initiatives will help “limit ‘push’ factors that encourage dangerous irregular migration to the US,” according to the statement.
The initiative will also enhance “improvements in the identification, administration, and detention of illegal immigrants,” DHS said.
A spokesperson for the Guatemalan Ministry of the Interior did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
The Homeland Security presence along the border could have a negative effect on Guatemala’s relationship with its Central American neighbours and with Mexico, according to Iduvina Hernandez, director of the Association for the Study and Promotion of Security in Democracy, a Guatemalan non-governmental organisation.
“It is highly worrisome because [the government] is permitting the presence of agents from a third country along the border with another country with which Guatemala has until now had excellent diplomatic relations,” Hernandez told Al Jazeera.
In Guatemala, news of the increased Homeland Security presence generated confusion when it circulated at the same time as a letter obtained by The Washington Post. In the letter sent to Donald Trump, US representative Vicente Gonzalez indicates that the Guatemalan ambassador expressed his government’s openness to US military deployment to Guatemala to stem migration and urges the US president to send troops.
Alarm increased after a statement on Monday by Guatemalan Minister of Defence Luis Ralda was taken out of context, prompting some national and international headlines stating that US troops had already been sent to Guatemala to address migration.
In fact, Ralda referred to the presence of members of the US military currently taking part in medical and school construction brigades in the Huehuetenango department. The projects are part of long-standing US Southern Command joint exercises in Latin America.
“The Department of Defense has no plans or intention to send US forces to Guatemala to address immigration issues/enforcement,” Defense Department spokesman Chris Mitchell told Al Jazeera.
Violation of rights laws
The only forces that can and should safeguard security in the country are the Guatemalan military and police, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales said on Tuesday, though he did not decisively rule out the idea of a foreign military presence to address migration.
“There were proposals and there will continue to be proposals from entities from other countries that pose the possibility of accompaniment from troops to provide security in matters of migration,” Morales told reporters after a regional business summit.
“Someone making a proposal and there being an agreement to sign or approve are two completely different distinct matters,” said Morales.
When asked about the Gonzalez letter indicating it was the Morales administration that requested troops, Morales scoffed, said journalists should ask the letter’s author and promptly left.
Morales’s spokesperson did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Any foreign military presence would require approval by a two-thirds majority in Guatemala’s congress and the executive branch should not even be entertaining the idea, Hernandez said.
Using border militarisation to address migration “is a violation of Guatemala’s own law concerning migration and violates the commitments acquired by the state with the international community in terms of rights,” she said.
The alarm and confusion in Guatemala over US deployment to border areas to address migrants and asylum seekers comes during the chaotic lead-up to the country’s June 16 general elections.
Well into the three-month campaign period, courts barred five presidential candidates from running due to legal issues. Some barred and remaining candidates face allegations of corruption, as have many Morales administration officials and even the president himself.
“This government is giving a good lesson of how not to address the issue of migrants,” Rodas said.
“We need to hear comprehensive proposals with a social approach and with a focus on human rights,” he said. “More of the same would be very unfortunate for Guatemalans.”