How did a 7-year-old Guatemalan girl end up dead in US custody?

The corrupt Guatemalan government has as much responsibility in Jakelin’s death as US border officials and politicians.

Jakalin Caal protest - Reuters
A picture of Jakelin Caal is seen during a protest held to demand justice for her in El Paso, US December 15, 2018 [Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters]

Jakelin Caal was a seven-year-old child from Guatemala who fled outrageous poverty conditions with her father. Last week, she died at Providence Children’s Hospital in El Paso in still unclear circumstances. This was the tragic end to her 3,200 km journey seeking to reach the United States. Although, even the word tragedy seems like an understatement – some of her last moments in this world were in custody of Border Patrol officials.

This heart-breaking story has brought renewed attention and scrutiny to the conditions that undocumented migrants face at the US’s southern border. However, her death must also shed light on the hopelessness that pushes thousands of families, such as Jakelin’s, to face unsurmountable odds migrating north.

As we know, people choose to cross a desert not out of boredom but out of despair. While many politicians and citizens in the US do not empathise with the migrants’ need to flee hopelessness at home, they also forget that migration is, in part, a result of political instability triggered by equivocal foreign policies towards Central America.

Decades of US interventions caused widespread civil war, death squads and constant unrest in the region. In Guatemala, US foreign policy during the Cold War resulted in the backing of military governments that committed unspeakable human rights violations, deployed scorched earth tactics and forced disappearances against individuals or entire villages suspected of backing communist fighters. According to the Guatemalan truth commission facilitated by the United Nations after the civil war ended, 83 percent of identified victims were members of indigenous communities.

Migrant caravan – Many struggling to cross into US (2:59)

Jakelin was a member of the q’eqchí’ people, originally from a small village, called San Antonio Seacortez, in the Alta Verapaz province, in northern Guatemala. According to the UNDP, in this province, 79 percent of people live below the poverty line. This number increases to 86 percent for indigenous communities, out of which, 48 percent survive under extreme poverty conditions. In what was once home for Jakelin, there is 59 percent chronic malnutrition among children. Her story is the story of thousands of Central Americans who, like her, did not choose to be born into conditions of dismal misery and are forced to leave their home countries.

There is plenty of blame to go around. Surely, the legacy of US intervention in Guatemala is nothing but tragic. However, focusing on the north alone to explain why people are fleeing their homes would take responsibilities of those conducting politics at home. There is a rapacious elite that for years has eroded state coffers and destroyed credibility in state institutions. For example, in Jakelin’s village, according to her grandfather, workers earn as low as 20 Quetzales (approximately $2.60) a day working in local plantations. This is less than a quarter of the national minimum wage.

However, there are no state institutions capable or willing to enforce the law. Corruption is pervasive and therefore, state capacity is greatly hindered. The governments of the Central American region are comprised, for the most part, of a corrupt political class that sees government as a way of enriching themselves.

For its part, the Guatemalan government seems to be more preoccupied with ensuring impunity from anti-corruption probes for themselves and their allies than to finding answers for the death of Jakelin. At the moment, the comedian-turned-president Jimmy Morales is at odds with a UN-backed anti-corruption commission, called CICIG. Morales’s administration sole consistent policy has been to disarticulate and cripple the Commission’s operational capabilities.

Last year, he illegally ordered for the expulsion of the Commission’s chief, Colombian judge Iván Velásquez Gómez. The decision, albeit blocked by the Constitutional Court, plunged the country into a year-long constitutional crisis. Furthermore, the Interior Minister has removed police support for the Commission. Most recently, on December 18, the government ordered the expulsion of 11 key international investigators of the commission, including those responsible with investigating the president’s brother and son. These are blatant acts of obstruction of justice.

In a way, the CICIG became a victim of its own success. Tensions with the political class have escalated as high-profile corruption charges against corrupt members of the elite have piled up. But this has not always been the case. In 2015, thanks to the work of CICIG alongside local prosecutors, the sitting president and a plethora of high-level officials were indicted for corruption. Guatemalans felt a refreshing breeze of hope. Massive citizen-led protests were sparked, and an anti-corruption movement was born.

The CICIG continued its campaign against corrupt officials, businessmen and politicians throughout 2016 and 2017. Monthly, Guatemalans witnessed shocking revelations of intricate corruption schemes ranging from illegal campaign financing, tax evasion, kickbacks for infrastructure projects, defrauding of dialysis patients, among other horrendous displays of contempt towards taxpayers in Guatemala. To be sure, this is especially appalling in a country where children, like Jakelin, are in dire need for state action.


For these reasons, citizen support for the CICIG has been robust, in spite of consistent governmental efforts to shut down this mechanism. According to a CID-Gallup poll, 70 percent of the population approve of CICIG and want it to continue the investigations against corrupt officials. Furthermore, a recent report by the International Crisis Group estimated CICIG’s presence to have contributed to a net reduction of 4,500 homicides during the 2007-2017 period. This makes the CICIG one of the most effective and popular rule of law mechanisms in the region. Under these circumstances, there are strong reasons to believe that the only ones opposing the presence of the CICIG are those who potentially will be investigated, their allies or family members.

The US has a historical responsibility that should be met and make amends for a string of disastrous interventions that have occurred in the past. But this is not the only reason to do so. Strengthening national institutions from within will be beneficial to both countries. If policymakers in the US are interested in curbing immigration from Central American countries, they should forcefully support cooperation efforts such as CICIG. Guatemalans, on the other hand, will eventually be able to have a trustworthy government that will respond to their needs, instead of forcing them out.

Until then, Jakelin will remain the face of Guatemala. She died as a result of ongoing inequalities and a chronic lack of justice. The ultimate act of justice for Jakelin will be that children like her flourish and are not forced to flee despair. Her fate should never be repeated. For that to occur, Guatemala needs to wipe its political landscape of criminals and opportunistic networks. This will only happen under the rule of law, not the rule of self-serving elites. Though this may sound like a surreal goal, it can and is happening as the direct result of the joint work of courageous activists, local prosecutors and CICIG. The continued support of the international community is crucial for these efforts to not be undermined.

Not all hope is lost, even when Jakelin’s story suggests otherwise. Since 2015, Guatemalans have seen that change is possible and they will not give up on it so easily.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.