Inviting Locusts

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Guatemalan authorities recently detained two Americans for attempting to steal scores of Mayan artifacts – “stone spheres, mortars, sphinxes, yokes, anthropomorphic figures – loaded on a truck,” according to the Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project. The arrests were an unfortunately rare example of Guatemalan officials succeeding in their struggle to protect their Central American nation’s heritage, deal with foreign influences and uphold the rule of law.

As social anthropologist Giovanni Batz explained in a North American Congress on Latin America blog post earlier this year, Guatemalan officials have been dismantling laws and measures to curb corruption and prevent state violence against citizens. The upshot is that the country has been sliding into authoritarianism. The tragedy, argued Batz, is that Guatemalans hoped for better when peace accords ended the Guatemalan civil war almost 26 years ago.

Fighting claimed the lives of more than 200,000 people in the civil war, which ran from 1960 to 1996, according to PBS NewsHour. More than 80 percent of those killed were Mayan. Today, Mayan communities still fight against extractive industries like mining and hydroelectric power that allegedly circumvent rules, to protect their human rights and the environment.

Similarly, anti-corruption probes between 2015 and 2018 promised to end, or at least reduce, the culture of corruption in Guatemala. But former President Jimmy Morales shuttered the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala that was conducting the probes.

Morales’ successor, President Alejandro Giammattei has continued in this vein, analysts say. He has taken over the country’s judicial system, ensuring that prosecutors only go after the president’s enemies rather than act independently. The arrest this summer of renowned journalist José Rubén Zamora symbolized how Guatemalan authorities now act with impunity, Americas Quarterly claimed.

The Washington Office on Latin America, a think tank, concluded that Guatemala was in a “downward spiral.”

These changes are occurring as activists are warning about Giammattei’s plan to reform the country’s environmental regulators, news site Mongabay wrote. The activists are worried that the changes would give officials too much power, allow them to give foreign companies unfettered access to Guatemala’s resources, and cut out public participation in environmental policy. Investors’ new interest in environmental, social and environmental projects has exacerbated this dynamic, left-leaning Democracy Now! added.

In the meantime, foreign powers are circling Guatemala. For example, Chinese and American companies are competing aggressively in the region, found GIS, a Liechtenstein-based think tank. The US recently initiated sanctions targeting Russian involvement in mining, Reuters reported.

One would hope that such natural riches and demand set the stage for a more inclusive, healthier democracy. But in this case, say analysts, the locusts are swarming – with an invitation.

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