OPINION

Opinion: Corruption in Guatemala migrates from seaports to highest tiers of government

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 08:  A Los Angeles Police officer holds his firearm during demonstrations near the shooting site of Manuel Jamines on September 8, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Protesters have continued to demonstrate for a third night after the shooting of a Guatemalan immigrant by Los Angeles Police officers over the weekend.  (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)

LOS ANGELES, CA - SEPTEMBER 08: A Los Angeles Police officer holds his firearm during demonstrations near the shooting site of Manuel Jamines on September 8, 2010 in Los Angeles, California. Protesters have continued to demonstrate for a third night after the shooting of a Guatemalan immigrant by Los Angeles Police officers over the weekend. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)  (2010 Getty Images)

The international media has been covering for months now the anti-corruption rallies taking place in Guatemala, triggered by alarming findings of corruption back in April. The case, called “La Linea (The Line),” involves corruption in seaports and customs facilities around the country.

Corruption at Guatemalan ports is a threat to U.S. security: In exchange for a bribe, freight containers are allowed to enter the country under the radar and without paying taxes – just 2,500 miles south of U.S. territory. (Guatemala is Mexico's southern border.)

No one in Guatemala doubts that the country's institutions need deep restructuring. But, for the sake of its people, these changes must take place as part of a lawful process.

- Reny Bake

One of the main concerns for the United States in terms of national security is the proliferation of nuclear weapons and weapons of mass destruction, of course, especially the risk that they could fall into the hands of terrorist groups.

Is it that hard to imagine a dirty bomb in the hands of terrorists coming from Asia through the corrupted seaports in Guatemala and then reaching U.S. soil?

From a geopolitical point of view, Guatemala is key for the U.S. to be able to control its own borders. If you're in Mexico, you're just steps from the United States. And if you're in Guatemala, you're just one step away from Mexico.

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Guatemala is a country marked by deep corruption affecting all aspects of its residents’ life, and is controlled by an economic, political and social oligarchy that looks only after their own interests. And in many government institutions, the state bureaucracy works like a mafia, protecting its own interests. As a result, the country has witnessed a growing migration of people in search of opportunities, mostly to the U.S. Last summer we saw an example of this, with the crisis of migrant children.

After “La Linea” case, authorities have detained dozens of officials and former officials on corruption charges.

All these corruption scandals erupted just months ahead of next month’s general election. The Guatemalan people are angry with the politicians, so much so that some voices in the country, including NGOs supported in the past by the U.S., spoke against celebrating elections — effectively advocating for a violation of the Constitution. No one in Guatemala doubts that the country's institutions need deep restructuring. But, for the sake of its people, these changes must take place as part of a lawful process.

Perhaps the best help that the United States can provide Guatemala is an open support in rebuilding the institutions destroyed by corruption. A step in the right direction recently was the announcement that the U.S. Treasury Department will be providing advice and support in the much needed reform of the Tax Administration, the entity in charge of customs.

Additional support that the United States could provide is advice on how to build American-style institutions. Did you know that the Guatemalan Congress is not elected directly by the direct name of the candidates, but instead by the closed list of the party? Guatemalans do not know who their representatives to Congress are and these congressmen are not held accountable by those who elected them. This is quite the opposite of what happens in the U.S., where democracy involves the proximity between the voter and his or her representative in Congress.

Changes in Guatemala need to go beyond the elections or a new government, true, but Guatemala cannot and should not move away from democracy.

Reny M. Bake, a graduate from The William J. Perry Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies, is a TV anchor living in Guatemala.

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