GUATEMALA CITY — A new round of illegal immigration to the United States could be sparked by the recent upsurge in political violence in rural Guatemala.
Most Central American illegal immigrants detained in the U.S. are from Guatemala, according to federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
But their numbers could yet go higher as violence in rural Guatemala prompts a fresh wave of illegal immigrants into the United States.
Mauricio Lopez Bonilla, Guatemala's interior minister, has vowed to stop the new round of violence that intensified last month.
His policy reverses that pursued by former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who claimed violence had to be met with "dialogue," not arrests.
Paz y Paz, who enjoyed support from the Obama administration, left office under a cloud when the country’s Constitutional Court removed her in February.
The country's National Civil Police had to cope with gunshots, kidnapping and humiliation in two recent incidents.
The incidents were led by organizations Guatemalans call “social conflict groups” that oppose profit-making companies.
In an Aug. 14 confrontation, protesters blockaded a highway leading to a hydroelectric plant in Monte Olivo. Three police officers were wounded by gunfire and protesters wielding machetes.
The next day, protesters in Raxruha kidnapped eight police officers. The officers were later forced to walk barefoot and handcuffed in the street, according to El Periodico, a Guatemalan daily.
“We’ve had it with the kidnapping of police or municipal authorities,” Lopez Bonilla told the Washington Examiner in a recent interview.
“These are leaders that regularly utilize coercion. They threaten people and they defy authority,” he said. “We are going to be more aggressive in the restoration of authority."
Gabriel Pallares, legal counsel for Liga Pro Patria, a Guatemalan civil society group, welcomed the new policy.
“The political violence practiced against major development projects in Guatemala's rural areas without a proper response from the government has impeded economic growth and promotes illegal immigration to the U.S.,” he said.
His comment was echoed by Armando de la Torre, dean of Guatemala's Francisco Marroquin University, who said the "dramatic increase" in political violence “has worsened economic conditions and increased the incentive for people in those areas to migrate to the U.S.
"The situation will only stabilize and improve if the government begins to properly apply the law throughout the entire country on a continual basis," he said.
The exodus of Guatemalans is not limited to the poor. Alejandro Rivas, an economics professor with two master's degrees, is thinking of leaving Guatemala because of the violence.
"Movements and protest in the rural areas to stop construction keep the country underdeveloped," she said. "They almost always are violent, in the rural area or in the city."
Carlos Sabino, author of Guatemala: The Silenced History, about Guatemala’s brutal civil war that stretched from 1960 to 1996, said the conflict groups are a “legacy” from the former Marxist guerrillas who operated in the same rural areas.
“There are no armed attacks like there were in the guerrilla-armed conflict. But there are armed people who are participating in today’s actions or demonstrations,” Sabino said.
Fredy Perez is a former auxiliary mayor in the village of Nueva Argentina. He supports a nearby hydroelectric plant near San Marcos that was not part of August's attacks.
Perez saw activists attacking company vehicles. “As soon as they saw me, they said, ‘Grab this guy.’ They beat me,” he said.
Elvia Hernandez says she represents 15 mothers in the village of Nuevo Paraiso.
“As a mother, I’m concerned,” she said. “The people where I live put up barricades and won’t let the police in,” she said.
“If you go to work for this hydroelectric company, they will do you harm. We want the police to come in to protect us. There is a lot of insecurity and violence and no protection,” she said.
Hector Herrera works for the hydroelectric company, Genhidro Generadores Hidroelectricos. The company started constructing the hydroelectric project in 2008.
Violence has delayed it. “They take illegal actions. They burn machines and trucks. They are aggressive,” he said.
Hernandez said local protest leader Raul Maldonado ousted the elected mayor. “The group of Maldonado removed the legally elected mayor. They removed him from his office and won’t allow him to perform the duties of his office,” she said.
Hernandez claims if the residents don’t do what Maldonado demands, “they cut off our electricity and cut off our water. We’re defenseless.”
When a Washington Examiner reporter attempted to meet Maldonado, he said by phone that he would do so in 30 minutes at the village plaza.
But when the Examiner reporter arrived, along with his escorts, they were met by about 25 men, led by a man who said his name was “Fausto.”
Wielding a large pole and waving it in a threatening manner, Fausto said the journalists could not take pictures, record the conversation, take notes or cite names. The group menacingly surrounded the reporters.
Fausto told the journalists he was the town’s “indigenous mayor” and that the visiting press must abide “by the rules of our authority.” He insisted his right to govern was guaranteed by the United Nations' Declaration of Rights.