The Christian advocacy group International Justice Mission, which fights sex trafficking and works to improve justice systems in countries where it operates, cut about one-third of its staff in Guatemala in anticipation of cuts to Central American aid by the U.S. State Department.
Officials with the NGO recently spoke with The Christian Post about the impact that planned cuts by the Donald Trump administration has had on funding for its work in Guatemala and El Salvador, two of the three Northern Triangle countries where people have fled by the tens of thousands to the U.S. southern border in recent years.
While IJM’s work in El Salvador started just last year, the organization began operating in Guatemala in 2005 and has helped the nation’s prosecutors, police and judges implement better practices and procedures allowing them to deal more effectively with cases involving sexual violence against children.
The work of IJM and its partners to train specialized police forces, judges and prosecutors has led to the adopting of a more victim-sensitive environment in the justice system throughout Guatemala.
As a result, the country’s justice system has seen a tripling in the number of verdicts reached in cases of sexual violence against children, according to data from an IJM endline study released in 2018 that was compared with a baseline study conducted in 2012.
That same study, which was based on database reports from the Guatemala Public Ministry, also found a 157 percent increase in the number of indictments related to sexual violence against children cases.
“In 2016, we received a grant from the U.S. Department of State to expand that [work] further to other areas of Guatemala that we had not been working in and also to equip other organizations in those areas to do a similar model that IJM has,” Erin Payne, IJM’s regional program manager for Latin America, told CP.
“With the support of the U.S. government, we have been able to expand upon the successful program and truly seeing this transformational for Guatemala in the areas of IJM’s focus.”
IJM has hopes to expand upon its work in Guatemala to include sexual violence against women. Since its founding in Guatemala, IJM has helped nearly 1,000 survivors of sexual abuse and has partnered with over 350 Catholic and evangelical churches in the country.
But now, Payne said IJM’s momentum has slowed down a bit as the organization has been anticipating the impact of Trump’s vow to cut aid to Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
In March, Trump ordered about $600 million in aid to three Northern Triangle countries to be cut in an attempt to force those governments to stop the flow of migrants to the U.S. southern border.
But in June, the State Department said that after a review of over 700 projects, it would move forward with $400 million in grants and project funding that had been approved while escrowing about $200 million until further consultation with Congress.
According to the Associated Press, the $400 million in funding for Central America comes from the 2017 budget and will be spent on anti-crime efforts that many believe will help reduce the flow of migrants to the U.S. southern border. The $400 million will also be spent on poverty alleviation programs, health and education.
However, the State Department stated that about $450 million in funding from the 2018 budget will not be spent.
According to U.S. officials, the State Department review found that many of the projects being funded by the U.S. in Central America were far too advanced to halt.
IJM was notified in early 2019 by the U.S. State Department that the agency had experienced a significant reduction in funding for programs in Guatemala that also included funding for IJM's program.
IJM has received around $5.3 million from the U.S. government for the Guatemala program since funding began in 2016. CP was told that the organization is "likely to receive funding to close out the project" but "has not received any additional funds for work in the Northern Triangle countries at this time."
“We're still waiting for the final word about the impact of those cuts,” said Payne. “We’ve been in a bit of a holding pattern. While we have been in waiting, we have had to make some staff reductions just because it's hard to sustain when you don't have guaranteed funding.”
“So that, unfortunately, has caused us to pull back just a little bit with our program and we're awaiting a final word from the State Department on our funding."
While IJM has been in a “holding pattern,” Payne noted that IJM efforts in Guatemala have received support from its partners to keep the work “afloat in the meantime.”
“It certainly has not brought it up to its full funding,” she admitted.
Among the positions that have been cut by IJM was the director of church mobilization in Guatemala, according to Jim Martin, IJM’s vice president of spiritual formation.
“There's a deep irony on this side of the border that funding would be cut for this kind of programming now from the State Department,” Martin told CP. “What the State Department is trying to accomplish is to decrease the flow of migrants at the southern border. And we're saying, ‘Hey, in the midst of your punishing countries for too many migrants coming north, what you're doing is cutting funding to programs that are credibly preventing people from migrating in the first place because they're making home more safe.’
“And so we're wanting Christians to understand that in a highly polarized environment, there are ways to look at this that are different, that aren't polarized, that aren't vitriolic and that actually take a Christ-centered approach to looking at caring for people who are poor and vulnerable.”
CP was assured that IJM is not trying to disparage the State Department and stressed that the organization has had a great working relationship with the agency and are working collaboratively to make progress in Guatemala.
Along with IJM, partner churches have been at the forefront of improving Guatemala's justice system as it pertains to sexual violence against children.
One example is Iglesia Vida Real in Guatemala City, which hosted a 12-week training course for 30 law enforcement officers designed to improve methodologies and best practices for specialized investigations on sex crimes.
The course allowed experts from IJM and its partners to provide critical training to the officers on best investigation practices for sexual violence cases and identifying victims and survivors of sexual violence.
Martin said that many Americans may see the issue of Central American aid funding as simply “throwing money at a problem that is just going to end up in someone’s pocket.” Martin assured, however, that the approach of IJM and its partners is more of a “direct intervention” rather than funding something that “you hope will work.”
“Sometimes from far away, people can feel like corruption is an insurmountable problem,” he said. “What we have found is that these programs are demonstrably working. The reforms are simple and implementable.”