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Wikileaks Guatemala: Guatemalan Officials “Confuse” Undocumented Migration with Human Trafficking

May 3, 2011

The latest round of cables sent by the US Embassy in Guatemala to the State Department was released by Wikileaks on 28 April 2011. 03GUATEMALA1815, sent on 15 July 2003, discusses the issue of human trafficking, the Guatemalan government’s past and future strategies to combat it, and the State Department’s own plans and opinions.

Following the release of the State Department’s 2003 report on Trafficking in Persons (TIP), Program Officer Greg Holliday traveled to Guatemala to meet with Embassy staff, Guatemalan government officials, local NGOs, and international organizations. The cable reports that the Guatemalan government recognized that TIP was an important issue and was attempting to address the problem yet, nevertheless, the US was seeking to “increase GOG understanding of and will to combat trafficking in persons.”

At an intergovernmental meeting, hosted by the Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs, Holliday urged the Guatemalan government to take further steps to reduce human trafficking, citing Nicaragua as an example to follow. Police in Nicaragua visit local schools to tell children about human trafficking so they are aware of the dangers. Additionally, Holliday noted that the experience of international and non-governmental organizations can contribute greatly to combatting trafficking.

A central issue that arose at the meeting revolved around distinguishing between undocumented migrants and victims of human trafficking. While Holliday emphasized the difference between these, and called on the Guatemalan government not to treat victims as if they were undocumented migrants, US Embassy staff understood Guatemalan officials’ comments to be equating the two. The view of Embassy staff can be seen in their decision to title the section on Guatemalan officials’ discussion of the issue as “GOG Presentations: Confusing TIP with Alien Smuggling.” Additionally, Embassy staff commented at the end of the cable that Guatemalan officials “appeared to be familiar with the difference between trafficking and alien smuggling. Their responses, however, described efforts to combat the latter more than the former. While there is obviously substantial overlap, we will need to continue to emphasize the need for concrete steps focused on trafficking.”

The Director of Immigration, Oscar Contreras Hernandez, focused his comments on undocumented migrants, mostly from El Salvador and Honduras. He spoke of attempts to purge his department of corrupt officials, mentioning that 117 officials were fired and 64 were disciplined for corruption. Additionally, with assistance from the US, Mexico, and Taiwan, Guatemala established “computer networks…where they did not exist.” These have been used to verify documents and create immigration databases. Since 9/11, Contreras Hernandez stated that Guatemala has “tightened up immigration procedures across the board.”

Contreras did also briefly discuss human trafficking and mentioned his department’s cooperation with the US Embassy in the case of the smuggling of 50 Salvadoran children to the US and the arrest of the ringleader of a smuggling ring in Texas. Contreras discussed efforts to assist the victims of smuggling, a proposed police training program and medical center for victims, and Guatemala’s commitment to return victims to their countries of origin quickly. He also stated his willingness to work with NGOS, but added that “they sometimes exaggerate and criticize our efforts to protect the human rights of victims.”

The Human Rights Advisor in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Mario Rene Cifuentes, declared his department’s equation of trafficking with slavery and affirmed that it was taken very seriously. He called for greater bilateral dialogue on the topic and cited various efforts the Guatemalan Government had taken to combat it.

The Secretary of Social Welfare, Marilys Barrientos de Estrada, described her department’s continued efforts to assist victims, especially child victims, and educate children about human trafficking. She also mentioned legislation that is pending in Congress to address trafficking.

Holliday concluded the meeting by calling on the Guatemalan Government to “implement concrete actions to combat TIP” and suggested that many policies in place to prevent “alien smuggling” could be adopted with modifications to combat human trafficking.

Embassy staff reported back to the State Department that “the Embassy will help focus Congress on ratification of the UN Protocol to Combat TIP” and will “press” the Public Ministry to concentrate more energy on trafficking.

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