Gangs as ‘Terrorists’ Proposal Is a Smoke Screen in Guatemala

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In what appears to be a smokescreen to distract from efforts to undermine anti-corruption initiatives, Guatemala’s new interior minister asked Congress to reform the penal code in order to designate the country’s gang members as terrorists.

Just days after being appointed by President Jimmy Morales, Interior Minister Enrique Degenhart Asturias announced in a press conference that he intended to “request that Congress’ Leadership Council reform the penal code to classify the criminal organizations of the Mara Salvatrucha [MS13] and the Barrio 18 as terrorist organizations.”

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Gangs

The government also announced it intended to ask the United States Treasury Department to include the gangs in its Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) sanctions list, as a way sanction gang leaders’ economic assets.

InSight Crime Analysis

Introducing a debate on whether to classify gangs as terrorist groups may be intended to serve more as a political distraction than as a stand against crime as the government scrambles to undermine anti-corruption efforts.

This announcement was made on the same day that the Constitutional Court ordered Congress to dissolve its newly appointed Leadership Council. According to the court, one of the recently elected board members had changed parties which, under a law that had already come into effect, should have prohibited her from running for a leadership position within Congress.

The disputed Leadership Council was lead by Álvaro Arzú; Felipe Alejos was the vice president. Arzú is the son of ex-president Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen, a former president of Guatemala who served several terms as the mayor of the City of Guatemala. In October of last year, the International Commission Against Impunity (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) — a United Nations backed judicial body created to support Guatemala’s Attorney General’s Office — accused Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen of accepting campaign support from the late Byron Lima, a powerful former army captain known as the “King of Prisons” in Guatemala.

Alejos, or “Felipao” as he is commonly called, also recently found himself under CICIG scrutiny. According to CICIG allegations, Felipao is implicated in a case known as the “Influence Traffickers” case where he is accused of participating in a criminal organization dedicated to streamlining tax refund procedures in exchange for bribes.

What’s more, while it is true that in Guatemala, street gangs are a source of significant violence, homicides are going down in this Central American nation. According to a police report, Guatemala had a total of 4,409 homicides last year, a rate of 26.1 per 100,000 inhabitants, down almost half from 2010.

SEE ALSO: Guatemala News and Profiles

In addition, it’s not clear these types of classifications work to slow crime. El Salvador, which passed reforms similar to those proposed by the Guatemalan interior minister, has a homicide rate of 60 per 100,000.

Although classifying gangs as terrorist groups could have broader implications in terms of international support, the interior minister did not present any information about money laundering investigations pertaining to the gangs in questions. Such information would be essential for the hypothetical OFAC request. InSight Crime, in its assessment of gangs, has only seen the groups move small amounts of money and considers them to be largely hand-to-mouth criminal organizations.

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