Migrants from Central American countries head toward Queretaro after leaving Mexico City to continue their trek north on Saturday. (Alfredo Estrellad/AFP/Getty Images)

Media coverage of the migrant caravan that moved through Guatemala in October diminished after the U.S. midterms — at least until Saturday’s new interim rule by the Trump administration to “channel inadmissible aliens to ports of entry,” with those crossing illegally ineligible to apply for asylum.

Many of these migrants heading toward the United States are fleeing violence and gangs in their countries. What would help make them feel safe to remain in Central America? A new study by the International Crisis Group on Guatemala provides some answers.

Over the past decade more than 120,000 people in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala have been killed. Criminal gangs, legacies of civil war and corruption have pushed violence levels higher despite the “tough on crime” policies of the region’s governments, driving ever-higher rates of forced migration north to Mexico and the United States, including this fall’s caravan.

Guatemala has reduced the homicide rate

In Guatemala, however, changes spurred by the International Commission Against Impunity — known by its Spanish acronym CICIG — have achieved what was once thought impossible: major reductions in the country’s homicide rate. A new report estimates that the changes associated with the CICIG have avoided more than 4,500 homicides in Guatemala from 2007-2017 — an extraordinary feat.

These results bring into sharp relief Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’s endeavors to curtail the CICIG’s mandate in 2019. Ending or substantially weakening the CICIG would be a major step backward for Guatemala and the region. And the evidence implies that neighboring Honduras and El Salvador could greatly benefit from similar justice changes.

How Guatemala changed course

Guatemala’s trajectory looked similar to its neighbors. From 2000 to 2006, the murder rate nearly doubled; in 2006, 93 percent of homicides went unsolved. A U.N. report that year pointed out the rampant impunity for serious crimes meant that Guatemala was “a good place to commit a murder.”

Organized criminal groups — descendants of the 1990s-era counterinsurgent cells that fought the nation’s civil war and developed major illicit interests in the process — exploited a weak justice system. Connected to and protected by the highest levels of government, they could engage with impunity in corruption, racketeering, and human and drug trafficking.

But 2007 was a turning point. Urged by civil society, the Guatemalan congress authorized a unique U.N.-backed justice change to reduce the impunity of postwar organized criminal groups. The CICIG, which attracted more than $150 million in international support over the past decade, helped to radically restructure the justice sector in Guatemala. It has promoted basic investigative coordination between law enforcement and prosecutors, built capacity in the Public Ministry, and pursued and won convictions for massive high-level corruption within the government. From 2006 to 2013, the homicide clearance rate went from 7 percent to 28 percent.

Guatemala’s president has pushed back

But President Jimmy Morales and other politicians have questioned the premise of the CICIG, arguing that the international commission grossly violates Guatemalan sovereignty. Morales’s scrutiny of the CICIG coincided with corruption investigations that breached his inner circle, including an accusation that his presidential campaign accepted at least $1 million in illegal contributions.

Recently, Morales announced that he would seek to end the CICIG’s mandate in 2019 and blocked CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez from entering Guatemala. In the United States, historically a staunch supporter of the CICIG, some officials have publicly soured on the CICIG, citing fears of Russian and Venezuelan interference — fears that later were debunked.

How effective has the CIGIG been?

Has the CICIG been successful in reversing the most harmful effect of impunity for serious crimes, namely the meteoric rise in homicidal violence in Guatemala in the early years of the 21st century?

To assess its impact, we use an econometric technique called a “synthetic control.” The idea is to use pre-CICIG data from 2000-2006 to identify a set of neighboring countries, which together form a hypothetical control group that evinces similar trends to Guatemala — but countries in which CICIG did not intervene.

We then can look at the period after the CICIG became operational to learn how the real Guatemala compares to the hypothetical one. The difference between these two (a “difference in differences”) gives us an estimate of the effect that the CICIG had on the country’s trajectory.

The numbers bear out the relevance of the comparison. In the figure below, the homicide trend in Guatemala and in the control group parallel one another in the years before the CICIG became operational. But after the commission begins its work, Guatemala experiences a rapid decline in homicides, even as the control group — the hypothetical Guatemala without the CICIG — continues to rise.


Comparative homicide trends in Guatemala and control group
Data: World Bank
Figure: International Crisis Group

On average, Guatemala after the CICIG went into effect experienced nearly three fewer homicides per 100,000 each year than would have been expected. Extrapolating over the 2007 to 2017 period, the CICIG is associated with a net reduction of more than 4,500 homicides. To get a sense of the magnitude of that reduction, there were about 4,400 homicides in all of 2017 in Guatemala.

Might the reduction in Guatemala’s homicide rate be attributable to a third, unrelated factor? It’s unlikely. Other important economic and social indicators — including GDP per capita, household consumption and infant mortality rates — have not changed in either Guatemala or the comparison group. Qualitative interviews discussed in the report confirm that the CICIG is widely seen as responsible for the changes in the capacity and conduct of prosecutors.

What does this analysis suggest? The bottom line here is that the best available quantitative techniques, backed up by qualitative research, indicate that the CICIG has been associated with a sustained and dramatic reduction in Guatemala’s murder rate. That’s an uncommon achievement, one that stands in the commission’s favor at a time when public attention is being drawn to thousands of Central Americans fleeing violence in their homelands.

Thinking beyond the Guatemalan case, changes that similarly boost the provision of justice could help Honduras and El Salvador. This could include supporting existing international institutions (such as the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, or MACCIH), or enacting new domestic policies.

Renard Sexton is an Economics of Conflict fellow at the International Crisis Group and postdoctoral fellow at Princeton University. He will join the faculty of Emory University as assistant professor in 2019.