Category Archives: Academia

"Root out corruption in the Central American ruling class, and the gangs and crooks will go down with it."

Jose Miguel Cruz rightfully criticizes the Trump administration's infatuation with MS-13 and other street gangs in the US and Central America. The administration is really taking us back a decade or more to a time when mano dura policing and the criminalization of low-income youth caused a spike in violence throughout Central America. While we should not take our eyes off the havoc caused by street gangs, they should not distract from efforts to support political reform in Central America.
The whole idea that the U.S. government can make America safer by getting tough on crime in Central America is questionable. But if the Trump administration wants to try, it should at least start at the top.
Political institutions in the grip of organized crime use their power to erode the democratic rule of law in the region. They shield criminal organizations in exchange for economic support and political backing in gang-controlled barrios.
Root out corruption in the Central American ruling class, and the gangs and crooks will go down with it.
Revelations that both the ARENA and FMLN parties negotiated with street gangs during the 2014 presidential contest have not led to serious investigations by the attorney general's office of any political officials. Revelations of the relationships between drug traffickers and Honduran political and economic elites have just scratched the surface. Far from paradise, Guatemala's attorney general and CICIG are models for the region. The US must continue its support for strong, independent attorneys general (Paz y Paz and Aldana) and collaborative initiatives (CICIG).

US policy towards gangs and corruption in Central America does not seem to have changed dramatically since Trump assumed office. That's a positive. However, we should worry that how AG Sessions and President Trump speak about gang violence in the US will enter into US policy towards the region. We and our Northern Triangle partners have been there and done that. And it wasn't pretty.

Opioid legislation and PA Congressman Tom Marino

State Senator Gene Yaw, a Republican from Williamsport, who has been a leader in the Legislature on opioid issues, said the strong Republican lean of Mr. Marino’s 10th District might not be enough to ensure his re-election if he seeks a fifth term next year.
“The drug problem is nonpartisan,” Mr. Yaw said. “There’s no question the pharmaceutical companies have contributed to it.’’ He said the controversy over Mr. Marino’s withdrawal from consideration to lead the Office of National Drug Control Policy was “not a plus” for his political future. (NYT)
Given President Trump's reputation for rewarding loyalty, even for those who come under tremendous, well-deserved, scrutiny, Congressman Tom Marino’s withdrawal from consideration for the country's top drug post speaks volumes about the controversy surrounding his leadership on legislation that weakened the federal government’s ability to hold drug manufacturers accountable for their role in encouraging the opioid epidemic in Northeastern Pennsylvania and elsewhere. Tom Marino is my congressman in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Trip Gabriel of the New York Times asked my thoughts on how the revelations are likely to affect Marino and Pennsylvania politics. I answered that Congressman Marino’s political and electoral support is obviously likely to suffer as a result of the explosive allegations. Like much of the country, Northeastern Pennsylvania has been hit hard by opioid abuse. At least 231 residents of Lackawanna County, many of whom are Marino's constituents, died of overdoses between 2014 and 2017. The Institute for Public Policy & Economic Development, which whom I have collaborated, reported on the crisis last year. 

It was only last month that attorneys for Lackawanna County filed a civil lawsuit against 14 drug companies for their responsibility in "spawning the opioid epidemic." Marino spearheaded legislation in Congress that has made it more difficult for the Drug Enforcement Agency to hold pharmaceutical agencies accountable.
Overdose project in front of Scranton courthouse October 19, 2017 
It is quite possible that Marino's electoral support will also erode because of the country's low approval of President Trump. Congressman Marino was one of his earliest and most outspoken proponents during the campaign. You can see how the opioid controversy and his close relationship with President Trump are likely going to make Marino's reelection more difficult.

However, the congressman has comfortably controlled his seat in Pennsylvania’s 10th congressional district for nearly one decade. He won his seat in 2010 even though he had been under investigation by the Department of Justice. Therefore, he has successfully overcome scandal previously (obviously that could go both ways).

His ability to continue in office will depend upon voters’ willingness to hold him personally responsible for legislation that passed with bipartisan support, even if legislators and the Obama administration were not entirely aware of what changes they were endorsing, and the quality of his challenger.

It is really too early to understand the electoral implications of these allegations given that we are only days removed from their publication. They are likely to hurt his electoral prospects but perhaps not enough to cause him to withdraw from re-election or to lose. At a minimum, it might cause him to reconsider running for the governor's office.

You can read the story in Harsh Words Back Home for Tom Marino, Congressman Tied to Opioid Law.

The US relationship with Guatemala’s "Killer President." No, not that one.

Frank Ortiz was the US Ambassador to Guatemala at a time when the Carter Administration (and Democrats in Congress) sought to reorient US foreign policy towards one that emphasized human rights. Michael Cangemi recounts Ambassador Ortiz's difficulties in promoting a human rights-focused policy at a time of escalating government repression in Guatemala and the region. Guatemalan President Fernando Romeo Lucas García (1978-1982) was not interested in what the US was selling, no matter the cost.
Guatemala offers a useful case study for understanding the limits of the Carter administration’s diplomatic influence, especially in Central America. Fundamental differences in how governments in Central America and the United States, as well as different bureaus within the State Department, defined human rights facilitated Central American governments’ suspicion of a human rights-based foreign policy as a form of U.S. interventionism.
This was particularly apparent in Guatemala, owing in part to the United States’ history of direct and indirect intervention in the country’s domestic affairs. Further, Guatemala was able to counterbalance the Carter administration’s arms and economic sanctions more successfully than other Central American states. Successive Guatemalan governments were able to mitigate the absence of U.S. military assistance by purchasing more arms and munitions from other states, as well as from private U.S. manufacturers. Similarly, Guatemala was able to secure large development loans from multinational banks in the late 1970s despite the United States’ criticisms of the Guatemalan government’s human rights record.
These developments ultimately weakened the Carter administration’s diplomatic influence in Guatemala and across Central America, and contributed to its inability to address the region’s political and human rights crises in an effective manner. They also suggest that Ortiz’s recall was part of much larger bureaucratic and diplomatic problems within the Carter administration. Specifically, by the late 1970s the diplomatic apparatus that the U.S. government had utilized throughout the Cold War era was administratively and ideologically unprepared to fully incorporate human rights and smaller states’ emerging diplomatic, economic, and political agency into foreign policy formation and implementation.
Read "Ambassador Frank Ortiz and Guatemala’s “Killer President,” 1976–1980" in Diplomatic History.I wrote related blog posts four years ago - Just what does US-backed dictator mean?,  International involvement in Guatemala's civil war, and NY Times continues debating US role in Guatemala (in particular).

El Salvador: A Far Cry from Peace

The Instituto de Ciencia Política at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile just published its recent edition of Revista de Ciencia Política (RCP). This edition includes sixteen articles from across Latin America that try to make sense of the year 2016.

Kevin Pallister (Guatemala), Orlando Perez (Panama), Fabian Borges (Costa Rica), and I (El Salvador) address Central America.

Here's the abstract from my article on "El Salvador: A Far Cry from Peace":
El Salvador continues to struggle with elevated levels of criminal violence perpetrated by street gangs, drug trafficking organizations, members of the security forces, and other criminal groups. The Attorney General’s Office and courts have taken some positive steps towards tackling impunity for current and civil war-era crimes. However, a history of corruption and favoritism within those institutions continues to undermine citizens’ faith in the legitimacy of their actions. Finally, El Salvador confronts a challenging road ahead characterized by uncertainty over the implications of an overturned amnesty law, low rates of economic growth, and a new U.S. president in the White House. 
You can read these and other contributions here.

New Book: How Development Projects Persist

Erin Beck, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Oregon, has a new book out on How Development Projects Persist: Everyday Negotiations with Guatemalan NGOs that might be of interest to many of you. Erin had a guest post on Countering Convergence: Agency and Diversity Among Guatemalan NGOs on this blog in June 2014.
In the book, Erin looks into the operations of two Guatemalan microfinance NGOS, Fundacion Namaste Guatemaya (Namaste) and Fraternidad de Presbiteriales Mayas (the Fraternity).

Drawing on twenty months of ethnographic fieldwork, she shows how development models and plans become entangled in the relationships among local actors in ways that alter what they are, how they are valued, and the conditions of their persistence. Beck focuses on two NGOs that use drastically different methods in working with poor rural women in Guatemala.
She highlights how each program's beneficiaries—diverse groups of savvy women—exercise their agency by creatively appropriating, resisting, and reinterpreting the lessons of the NGOs to match their personal needs. Beck uses this dynamic—in which the goals of the developers and women do not often overlap—to theorize development projects as social interactions in which policymakers, workers, and beneficiaries critically shape what happens on the ground.
This book displaces the notion that development projects are top-down northern interventions into a passive global south by offering a provocative account of how local conditions, ongoing interactions, and even fundamental tensions inherent in development work allow such projects to persist, but in new and unexpected ways.
While reading the book, I wanted one of the NGO models to succeed. However, that wasn't necessarily the case. Each organization had its own strengths and weaknesses. Success meant different things (greater income or leisure time, spiritual growth, companionship, meetings attended, people trained, profitability) to different people (donors, recipients, trainers, directors) at different periods in time.

At the end of the book, I walked away with thinking that there must be a better way. So much money is spent and so much time invested on these projects by really well-meaning people that you'd like to see more than isolated cases of success.