Of all the migrants apprehended along the Southwest border of the United States so far this year, some 43,000 – the largest share – have come from Guatemala. Stemming that flow will require more than a big wall or stiffer penalties for illegal entry.
As recent events in Guatemala show, the mass exodus from the Central American country will end only when the people there can elect a government that reflects their values, enabling the kind of trust and integrity that can prevent corruption and violence.
In recent years, Guatemala seemed to be heading down that path. Three former presidents as well as dozens of lawmakers, judges, and drug traffickers have been convicted by emboldened prosecutors. This success was part of a decade-long effort driven by popular sentiment and a special United Nations-sponsored investigative body, known as CICIG for its initials in Spanish.
In 2015, a new president, Jimmy Morales, was elected on an anti-corruption platform. Guatemala, along with Argentina, had become a model in Latin America in how to start eroding a culture of impunity among the political elite and military.
A poll last year found 70 percent of Guatemalans support CICIG. In addition, the murder rate fell from a high of 45 people per 100,000 in 2009 to 26.1 in 2017. The country also saw an improvement in the rate of homicide cases solved. The people began to trust their justice system.
In past year, however, the country has started to backslide. After the CICIG began to investigate President Morales and his brother and son, Guatemala fell into a constitutional crisis. Morales defied the country’s Constitutional Court in his attempt to stop the CICIG’s work. This month, he prevented the head of the UN commission, Iván Velásquez, from returning to the country after a visit to the US.
Morales has also started to bring out the military to intimidate his opponents. The move is a throwback to military rule during a decades-long civil war that ended in 1996. And his supporters in the legislature are now trying to pass measures to back him up.
What matters in this crisis is that Guatemalans be allowed to express their values. The country will elect a new president in June. Morales will not be able to run again. Thelma Aldana, a popular former attorney general who led many of the prosecutions, could become the next president.
Guatemala’s future now rests on tapping the people’s values. As a recent World Bank report about developing countries put it, “The idea of power cannot be understood without taking seriously the power of ideas.”
In Argentina, with its own faltering path against corruption, a recent poll found 72 percent of individuals regard family values or individual principles as the key factors motivating them to act with integrity in the professional environment. A much smaller percentage cited legal regulations or codes of conduct. “Values and culture are critical enablers of trust and integrity, both in the short and long term, to reinforce behavior,” stated the survey’s report, which came from the World Economic Forum’s Partnering Against Corruption Initiative.
The flow of Guatemalans to the US border is only a symptom of a deeper need in that country. Recent anti-corruption protests in the capital are a signal of a new awakening, one that demands good governance based on the people’s own views about integrity in public life.