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Guatemala’s next president likely to face pressure from Trump over ‘safe third country’ agreement

Sandra Torres, presidential candidate of the National Unity of Hope party, speaks at a campaign rally Saturday on the outskirts of Guatemala City.
Sandra Torres, presidential candidate of the National Unity of Hope party, speaks at a campaign rally Saturday on the outskirts of Guatemala City. (Luis Echeverria/Reuters)
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GUATEMALA CITY — Guatemala’s next president, to be chosen in a runoff election set for Sunday, will enter office facing an immediate choice: to carry through with an unpopular restructuring of the country’s asylum system or to provoke the ire of President Trump.

Pressured by Trump, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has agreed to a “safe third country” accord that could dramatically reconfigure the asylum policies of both countries, potentially forcing tens of thousands of U.S.-bound Central American migrants to seek refuge here rather than in the United States.

The agreement has led to a political debacle in Guatemala. Morales accepted it, but Guatemala’s constitutional court has ruled that he lacked the authority to sign it without approval from the country’s Congress. No matter — Morales’s interior minister signed it anyway.

Trump’s focus on reducing the flow of migrants to the U.S. border and the continuing uncertainty over whether and how Guatemala will cooperate have made migration a major issue in the runoff election between Alejandro Giammattei and Sandra Torres. This Central American nation is the largest source of migrants apprehended at the U.S. border.

Both candidates have spoken critically about Morales’s safe third country agreement, but neither has rejected it outright.

Torres, 63, a former first lady and second-time presidential candidate, and Giammattei, 63, a former head of Guatemala’s prison system and fourth-time presidential candidate, finished first and second, respectively, in a June election to replace the scandal-plagued Morales. Morales, who has sought favor with the Trump administration on migration and other issues, is limited by Guatemala’s constitution to a single term.

Guatemala’s migrant pact with the U.S. threatens to unleash a political crisis

The election campaign is winding down bitterly, with Giammattei threatening to jail Torres if he is elected.

House Speaker Pelosi criticized U.S. treatment of migrants during a visit to Guatemala and raised doubts about a migration deal agreed with the administration. (Video: Reuters)

Morales, who took office in 2016, backed laws seeking to exonerate war criminals and to criminalize abortion. Perhaps most dramatically, he dismantled the U.N.-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, which was formed to investigate corruption in government, including within his administration.

The Trump administration, pleased that Morales backed the relocation of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, has been silent about Morales’s crackdown on CICIG and other investigations into his alleged corruption.

Many Guatemalans had hoped the next president would reverse Morales’s policies, and some of the candidates who did not make it into the second round promised precisely that.

“With the candidates we have left, this seems unlikely,” said human rights activist Iduvina Hernández.

For example, both Torres and Giammattei have said they would not seek to renew CICIG’s mandate, which expires in September.

Giammattei became director of Guatemala’s prison system in 2006. Less than a year later, the Public Ministry accused him of criminal activity and of carrying out extrajudicial killings after police killed seven inmates while trying to regain control of a prison outside Guatemala City. He was found not guilty of the charges in 2011.

He has focused during the campaign on economic growth, job creation, rural development, strengthening the police and improving relations with other countries to attract more tourism and foreign investment. As president, he says, he would build a new anti-corruption project in place of CICIG.

Torres, the ex-wife of former president Álvaro Colom, finished second to Morales in the 2015 presidential election. As first lady, she ran Colom’s social programs, which provided food, health and education to the poor.

The Public Ministry and CICIG have accused her of criminal association and illicit funding during her 2015 campaign. Part of that funding, CICIG alleged, came from accused drug traffickers Ottoniel Turcios and Mauro Salomón. Torres has denied the accusations.

Torres says she would focus on health, education and job creation. She would deploy the army across the country to help the police and put inmates to work to pay for their food. She says she would replace CICIG with a national commission against corruption.

Guatemalans fear Trump threats on migration accord could cripple their economy

The candidates’ views on migration differ.

Torres speaks of giving legal assistance to Guatemalans living abroad, helping deportees through a social reintegration program, addressing the causes of migration with employment and professional training and providing financial education to those who receive remittances from family members abroad.

“We will not keep people from leaving,” Oscar Argueta, Torres’s campaign manager, told The Washington Post. “But we will do our best to improve the lives of those in need.”

Giammattei says he would attract new investment to create more jobs, building an “economic wall” that would keep Guatemalans from migrating. He says he would deploy security personnel to enforce the borders and hand over smugglers to the United States to be prosecuted in U.S. courts.

“Through employment, security, education, local infrastructure and by giving these people access to health care, we will stem migration,” Giammattei told The Post.

Morales made similar promises four years ago. He said increasing employment, education and foreign investment would reduce migration. But the policies never materialized, and migration from Guatemala has surged.

The safe third country agreement with the United States could saddle Guatemala with tens of thousands of asylum seekers, overwhelming the country’s fledgling immigration institutions. Administration officials have said they would increase the availability of temporary work visas for Guatemalans as part of a deal, but they have not provided specifics.

Administration officials have also said they would not implement the agreement until it was ratified by Guatemala’s Congress. Morales has asked the Foreign Ministry and the attorney general’s office to determine whether it requires congressional approval.

Trump threatened to impose tariffs on Guatemala if the pact was not implemented. Morales said the economic pressure pushed him to sign the deal. His successor is likely to face the same pressure.

Trump threatens Guatemala after it backs away from ‘safe third country’ asylum deal

Torres has argued that the deal assaults Guatemala’s sovereignty and that it would unleash a humanitarian crisis the country is not ready to handle. Giammattei called it a “grave mistake.”

But days later, Giammattei said he had talked with Morales, and although he had not seen the agreement, “it’s not as dramatic as people have made us believe.”

Still, when Morales’s interior minister signed the agreement, Giammattei tweeted that it was irresponsible to agree to a deal the Guatemalan people had not read. 

He said he would weigh “how it will benefit Guatemala” before signing or rejecting the deal. 

Torres has remained critical of the agreement but is willing to negotiate, campaign officials said.

The candidates met with Kevin McAleenan, the acting U.S. homeland security secretary, in Guatemala City last month. Both said that they asked McAleenan about the details of the agreement and were told that he did not have further information.

“We are aware that Guatemala must play its part to end this crisis, but we must first know the entirety of the agreement,” Argueta said. “Also, this agreement shouldn’t be signed behind the back of Congress. They must know what it entails.”

Argueta says Torres would demand three things: clarity on the number of work visas the United States would grant in exchange for signing; fair and humane treatment to all Guatemalans in the United States; and an opportunity for undocumented Guatemalans in the United States to legalize their status — perhaps an unrealistic aspiration considering the stalled state of U.S. immigration reform.

The next president will take office in January.

Trump says he has agreement with Guatemala to help stem flow of migrants at the border

Falling coffee prices drive Guatemalan migration to the United States

This school aims to keep young Guatemalans from migrating. They don’t know it’s funded by the U.S. government.

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