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April 8, 2020
GHRC reporting from Washington and Guatemala
The COVID-19 crisis is hitting Central America’s fragile Northern Triangle–Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador–full force. Though to date relatively few confirmed cases have been reported, a serious food crisis appears to already be underway.
As in most of the world, Guatemala’s and Honduras’ economies have been crippled by measures needed to control the spread of the virus. Police-enforced curfews and the closing of borders, public transportation, schools and non-essential businesses, including the informal sector that sustains the majority of the population, are provoking early reports of food crisis. These economies are dependent on remittances sent by migrants working in the United States, who tend to work as day laborers and non-salaried employees, the most affected by work slowdown and, frequently non-citizens, they do not receive government benefits.
With extremely limited availability of intensive-care level treatment, and virtually no savings, no functional unemployment benefits and no reliable food security programs, people are scared of what the coming weeks and months will bring. COVID-19 testing is extremely limited, and there is doubt that the numbers accurately reflect the extent of the pandemic’s spread in the Northern Triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
Statistics on the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Central America’s Northern Triangle
Currently Central America appears to have a lower ratio of confirmed infections to the general population than the United States or Canada. While official statistics can serve as a point of reference, significant differences in COVID-19 testing policies, as well as concerns about the reliability of reported results, call their significance into question.
Honduras reported its first two confirmed COVID-19 cases on March 11, Guatemala reported two on March 13 and on March 18 El Salvador reported one case. By April 7, confirmed cases in Guatemala had grown to 80 (60 active cases, 3 deaths, 17 recovered); in Honduras to 312 (284 active cases, 22 deaths and 6 recovered); and in El Salvador to 93 (9 deaths, 79 active infections, 5 recovered). In Guatemala, on April 5 the rate of infection was 1 per 250,000; in Honduras it was 1 per 33,054. By comparison, in the United States this ratio stands 1 to 979, in Canada 1 to 2,358 and globally 1 to 5,881.
In Guatemala, where distrust of the government is pervasive, there is widespread skepticism about the low number of confirmed cases, and the relatively high numbers of early recoveries reported. One member of the Guatemalan Congress raised concern about the number of deaths attributed to atypical pneumonia.
COVID-19 testing in the Northern Triangle is severely limited. Reporting on March 27 indicated that just 491 tests had been administered in Guatemala, 510 in Honduras and 170 in El Salvador, contrasting to Panama’s 4,248 tests and Costa Rica’s 2,562 tests. At that time Panama and Costa Rica reported 1,142 and 341 cases respectively. On March 29, El Periodico reported that 1,300 individuals in quarantine in Guatemala were awaiting availability of tests, and that the National Congress had approved Q100 million (approximately USD$13 million) for the Health Ministry to improve testing capacity.
Controlling the spread: borders are closed but deportations continue; curfews and stay at home orders are enforced by arrest; without work, hunger is growing
On March 6, Guatemala declared a State of Disaster, closing schools and restricting large gatherings, among other measures. Days later, European, Chinese, Canadian and U.S. citizens were barred entry into the country. On March 16, President Giammettei announced only Guatemalans would be able to enter by land, water or air; the same day he announced closure of all non-essential businesses and closure of public transportation.
On March 16 a strict 4pm to 4am curfew went into effect in Guatemala, enforced by arrest or fines. More than 2,500 people have been arrested and detained for up to 24 hours in jails prior to hearings. The same day, in Honduras a 24-hour curfew was implemented, with specified hours in which people may leave home to buy supplies and obtain essential services, also enforced through fines and arrest.
Millions of Central Americans work in the informal sector; more than 50 percent make less than $3USD per day. With no savings and already very high rates of chronic malnutrition, not being able to leave home to work is already devastating to the majority of the population, who are unable to buy food. Protests against the 24-hour curfew began appearing across Honduras on March 27, though they were limited by the curfew conditions and shut down by arrests. The US embassy in Tegucigalpa issued a travel warning reporting cars were being stopped to take groceries, and unconfirmed social media sources report robbery of food from homes. There are also widespread reports of companies firing workers without providing required benefits for employment termination.
On April 3 Guatemalan press reported that 31 members of the medical staff in Guatemala’s principal public hospital, the Hospital Roosevelt, had been sent to quarantine, apparently related to a suspected emergency room exposure. Social media reports a lack of personal protective equipment for medical workers.
Impact of the COVID-19 on human rights defenders
Human rights defenders under threat are unable to move, feel more vulnerable to attack and some are reporting increased harassment. As in other areas where stay at home orders are in effect, domestic violence reports have risen, but the strict enforcement of curfew measures means defenders are unable to respond. Energy, gas and oil, mining and agribusiness were exempted from restrictions, a cause for concern given the level of human rights abuses surrounding these industries. On April 3 it was reported that a Guatemalan sugarcane company operating in Honduras illegally and violently evicted 62 families from their homes in the department of Choluteca, killing a woman in the process.
Central American Migrants and COVID-19
Reports are surfacing from ICE detention centers across the United States that detained migrants may become a humanitarian disaster. ICE has not responded to calls from state officials and the US Congress to release detained asylum seekers while they await hearings, so lawsuits by migrants rights advocates are being filed around the country. In Pennsylvania alone 5 detainees have tested positive for the virus. In Louisiana, a focal point for ICE detentions, detainees report asylum seekers, including the elderly, are forced into group quarantine with fellow detainees displaying symptoms of COVID-19, in spite of begging their jailers for protection.
Despite the risk of spreading the novel corona virus to Central America, the U.S. has refused to respond to requests to stop Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) flights that return deported migrants and asylum seekers who have been barred from the U.S., including unaccompanied minors. The U.S. has, however, suspended deportations to Guatemala through the ACA or “Safe Third Country“ agreement of non-Guatemalan migrants requesting asylum in the U.S.
Concern that deportees may bring corona virus was widely voiced. In Guatemala, initial reports indicate that at least on the Mexico-Guatemala border, where Mexican authorities drop off deportees, no screening for the virus was occurring. Guatemala began temperature screening in the airports, followed by COVID-19 testing when a fever was registered. Thus far Guatemalan officials report that one deportee tested positive. Two ICE flights last week brought passengers with high fevers, though health authorities report COVID-19 testing was negative.
Honduras is implementing a mandatory quarantine of everyone entering the country, including deportees. Quarantine conditions were reported to be very bad, leading to resistance to enter the quarantine facility and escapes punished with imprisonment. On March 22, 92 deportees entered Honduras on an ICE flight from Houston. Though none showed symptoms, the deportees were sent to mandatory quarantine. Seventy escaped from the facility; 58 were subsequently arrested.
Rural communities are reacting with community controls, particularly in Guatemala. Concerned about the spread of the virus and with little information from the government, there are reports of communities barring entry not only to deportees but also to residents who have been working in other parts of the country, as well as stringent promotion of home quarantine. Though in many cases neighborhood associations are urging families of detainees to comply with self-quarantine, there are reports of abusive measures.
Remittances Expected to Plummet
Given the economic crisis in the United States. The largely undocumented Guatemalans, Hondurans and Salvadorans that send remittances to their family are among the most vulnerable to the economic impact of the COVID-19 crisis in the US, where they work as day laborers, and do not have access to benefits like unemployment. It is logical that remittances will drop. Mexican banks estimate that remittances could fall as much as 21% in 2020 and 2021, and an analysis of the impact on the Americas suggests remittances could drop 20 percent to 30 percent.
Remittances sent from the United States to Central America have come to sustain the economies of the Northern Triangle. In Honduras the value of remittances now outpaces exports, and in El Salvador and Guatemala remittances come close to the total income from exports. In El Salvador and Honduras it has been reported that remittances represent about 20 percent of the GDP, while in Guatemala the number stands at approximately 14 percent.
Multilateral development banks and international assistance in reaction to coronavirus
The COVID-19 pandemic has the potential to reshape health systems and economies throughout the world and especially in Central America, where both are highly influenced by policies promoted by multilateral development banks and policy objectives promoted through foreign assistance. Multilateral development banks have promoted policies that are reported to reduce access to healthcare for the poor and that provoked nationwide protests in Honduras throughout 2019. Business financing, meanwhile, has benefited extractive industries that increase poverty and inequality.
The president of Guatemala announced he is seeking approval in the Guatemalan Congress of two packets of loans for COVID-19 response, one totaling Q7 billion (approximately USD$909 million) and another totaling Q11 billion (approximately USD$1.42 billion). Though little information is as yet available, there is concern in Guatemala that the measures contemplated may be disproportionately focused on the economic impact of the crisis and not treatment and prevention of the disease, and that the economic measures do not benefit small producers and the informal sector that have been dramatically impacted by the crisis, but are focused on assistance for industrial agriculture and extractive industries.
On March 24 the Guatemalan Congress approved redirecting two existing loans totaling $450 million to fund actions to address COVID-19, though the specific budget priorities are unclear. The first, a $200 million World Bank loan, was originally intended to promote natural disaster preparedness. The second, a $250 million Inter-American Development Bank loan, was redirected from a plan to improve tax collection and government transparency. On March 26, president Giammettei presented Congress with a $915 million Economic Reactivation Plan, which would be supported initially by a $200 million World Bank loan and a $193 million loan for economic reactivation from the Central American Bank for Economic Integration. Guatemala’s Congressional Finance Committee proposed a law that would exonerate new businesses from paying taxes for 100 years.
While the World Bank group has provided very little information regarding plans to strengthen health systems, their public statements have focused on promoting investment to sustain businesses through the crisis. On March 17 the World Bank Group announced a $14 billion package in response to COVID 19. Eight billion dollars of this will increase investment in the private sector through the International Finance Corporation (IFC), focused on supporting financial institutions. The IFC’s funding of financial intermediaries has been widely criticized as benefiting enterprises that extract resources from communities, augmenting poverty and inequality and increasing human rights abuses. It is believed that the sugarcane company responsible for the April 3 eviction of 62 families is funded by the IFC financial intermediary.
On March 25 the World Bank Group president and the IMF president issued a joint statement calling on multilateral banks to provide debt relief for the countries the World Bank classifies as the world’s poorest nations (IDA nations) in response to COVID-19. This would include Honduras but not Guatemala. On March 27, the US authorized a $5.5 billion capital increase for the IFC, as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act (CARES Act), which the World Bank Group called timely due to the “IFC’s large role in COVID-19 response.”