Guatemala City – Some Guatemalan officials and analysts have grave concerns about a possible “safe third country” agreement that their government is negotiating with the United States.
Guatemala is now the top country of origin of migrants and asylum seekers apprehended at the US southern border. The country lacks conditions for the safety and well-being of its own population, let alone other nationals, according to analysts and immigration rights advocates.
Under a “safe third country” deal, Hondurans and Salvadorans travelling north would be prohibited from seeking asylum in the US if they travelled through Guatemala, where they would be expected to seek asylum instead.
“Guatemala is getting ready to sign a Safe-Third Agreement,” US President Donald Trump tweeted on Monday.
Guatemalan minister of the interior Enrique Degenhart said on Tuesday that Guatemala has not yet agreed to become a “safe third country” but that talks concerning its viability have been under way for a while.
“The relationship that we have with the government of the United States is very good. It is very fluid. This concrete action is not an isolated action,” Degenhart told reporters Tuesday.
“It seeks to facilitate the direct combat of criminal structures of human trafficking,” he said.
US economic support for Guatemala to implement the agreement is a key point under discussion at the moment, but it is something that will be resolved in the very short term, said Degenhart.
The announcements have sparked concern and condemnation.
Guatemala should not be on board with current US immigration policy, according to former Minister of the Interior Francisco Rivas, who appointed by current President Jimmy Morales, but was replaced early last year with Degenhart.
“I do not know the agreement, but it seems to me that Guatemala should not be co-responsible for the immigration policy the US is implementing,” Rivas told Al Jazeera.
“Its point of departure is based on principles of border security, immigration control, and reaction against migrants, without understanding the real reasons that force people to migrate,” he said.
More than half of Guatemala’s 17 million people live in poverty. In recent years, the country has had one of the highest homicide rates per capita in the Western hemisphere, and perpetrators are convicted in fewer than five percent of cases.
Guatemalan migrants and asylum seekers are increasingly from rural areas. A US-backed military coup in 1954 to halt land reform and the displacement of one million mostly Mayan people during the 1960-1996 civil war resulted in high levels of landlessness and land tenure inequality.
More recently, climate change, coffee crop disease and price drops, and the aggressive expansion of oil palm and sugar cane plantations have all aggravated poverty and displacement in impoverished rural areas and indigenous regions.
The Guatemalan government does not have the capacity to address the problems forcing Guatemalans to flee, and conditions are similar to those many other migrants and asylum seekers are fleeing in their own countries, according to Jordan Rodas, Guatemala’s human rights ombudsman.
“The US sees migrants as a danger, from a domestic security perspective. That vision is being transferred to the southern border of Mexico but also Guatemala’s [borders] with El Salvador and Honduras, placing all migrants at risk,” Rodas told Al Jazeera.
Resolutions to refugee and asylum cases in Guatemala can take years, and those seeking protection would need attention and support for social and economic integration, said Rodas.
“Those making requests in Guatemalan territory need to have conditions for subsistence – conditions that Guatemala has not been able to provide for its own citizens,” he said.
The presence of a small US State Department delegation in Guatemala to negotiate a “safe third country” agreement was first reported last week by VOA News, which obtained an unsigned copy of a seven-page draft of the agreement. The draft stipulated that Salvadorans and Hondurans fleeing persecution would be required to seek asylum in Guatemala, according to VOA.
The State Department does not comment on discussions with Guatemala on the matter, but the teams are looking at many options and working to ensure they get results, a State Department spokesperson told Al Jazeera.
“The fact that a country like the United States sees us as a safe country is very positive,” Degenhart said Tuesday. “Not just any country is designated safe by the United States.”
A spokesperson for the Guatemalan Ministry of the Interior did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment before time of publication.
But according to its public travel advisories, the State Department itself has significant concerns about safety in Guatemala. The State Department’s travel advisory for the whole country is Level 2: Exercise Increased Caution.
“Violent crime, such as armed robbery and murder, is common. Gang activity, such as extortion, violent street crime, and narcotics trafficking, is widespread. Local police may lack the resources to respond effectively to serious criminal incidents,” according to the travel advisory, updated earlier this year.
Additionally, the State Department has designated five of Guatemala’s 22 departments as Level 3: Reconsider Travel. The US Embassy in Guatemala also issued a security alert in April requiring official approval for Embassy personnel to travel to two other departments due to “on-going security concerns”.
Last month, the Guatemalan government signed a border security agreement with the US Department of Homeland Security.
The “safe third country” talks have also been taking place in the midst of Guatemala’s general elections, which were held on Sunday.
The Morales administration is likely cooperating with the US on immigration policy in order to secure some sort of support for when they leave office in January 2020, according to Iduvina Hernandez, director of the Association for the Study Promotion of Security in Democracy.
As soon as that happens, Morales, his un-re-elected allies in Congress, and other officials will all lose their immunity from prosecution, and many of them face investigations for corruption and other crimes.
“It is related to the need of the Jimmy Morales [administration] to guarantee acceptance or support from the United States government … so that there are no concrete reactions against the Guatemalan government for the evident involvement of high-level officials, including the president himself, in criminal activities,” Hernandez told Al Jazeera.
Morales and other officials have consistently denied any wrongdoing.
The consequences of the Guatemalan government’s actions matter more than the motives to migrants and asylum seekers. Asylum seekers at Mexico’s southern and northern borders told Al Jazeera last week that they do not feel safe in Guatemala or other neighbouring Central American countries and many do not feel safe in Mexico.
General levels of violence are high, and there have been fatal armed attacks targeting migrants and asylum seekers this year in both Guatemala and Mexico. But some Salvadoran and Honduran asylum seekers are also fleeing gangs and other criminal groups whose presence extends into Guatemala.
“A lot of gang members try to force you to join,” Julio*, a Salvadoran teenager travelling alone, told Al Jazeera last week in Tapachula, Mexico, 40km north of the Guatemalan border.
“When they recruit you, they say that if you say no, they will kill you,” he said.
Julio is trying to make it to the US for safety. He knows he might be detained and deported amid Mexico’s current intense crackdown and militarisation, but said he will just come right back and try to keep heading north.
“I will keep trying until I make it,” he said.
*Name has been changed to protect his identity for security reasons.