Harris in Guatemala announces initiatives to address corruption and human trafficking in Central America

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GUATEMALA CITY – Vice President Kamala Harris, during a trip to Guatemala, announced initiatives Monday to address corruption and human trafficking in Central America and urged people from the region not to come to the U.S.-Mexican border.

"There are many reasons why this is one of our highest priorities, which I think the people of Guatemala know well and the people of the United States understand well," Harris said during a news conference after a meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei. "If we are to be effective, if we are to be true to our principles, we must root out corruption wherever it exists, and that is one of our highest priorities for that reason."

Harris planned to travel to Mexico on Monday evening for the second part of a two-day trip aimed at addressing the flow of Central American migrants coming to the U.S. border. Over the past several months, Harris and her team have worked closely with Guatemala and Mexico to find solutions to the root causes of the immigration surge, which includes people escaping violence and corruption in their home countries.

Harris announced that a task force would be created to work with the Justice, Treasury and State Departments to investigate corruption in the region. U.S. officials will train law enforcement in Guatemala to conduct their own investigations.

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“Corruption does not know borders, and we want to make sure that this is about transnational crime, and we have to follow the money, and we have to stop it,” Harris said. “And that’s what we intend to do.”

Joint Task Force Alpha was established to enhance U.S. law enforcement efforts against human smuggling and trafficking groups in Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

"I have personally worked on these cases in my career and can say that when we see some of the most vulnerable in our communities being taken advantage of, being sold for profit, being abused, it should be a priority for all of us who care about the human condition and humanity," Harris said.

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"Corruption really does sap the wealth of any country and in Central America is at a scale where it is a large percentage of GDP across the region," said Ricardo Zuniga, the State Department's special envoy for the Northern Triangle. "We see corruption as one of the most important root causes to be dealt with."

Part of the strategy to slow the pace of migration is creating better living conditions and economic opportunities for people in the region through investment. Last month, Harris secured the commitment of 12 U.S. companies and organizations – including MasterCard, Microsoft and Chobani – to invest in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

In May, Harris announced the United States would invest $310 million for humanitarian relief in the Northern Triangle countries.

Last week, the Biden administration announced it would deliver an initial 25 million surplus doses of coronavirus vaccine to countries through the global alliance known as COVAX, aimed at helping poor countries inoculate their populations. Harris called Giammattei to notify him that Guatemala would receive 500,000 doses before their meeting, Harris spokeswoman Symone Sanders said. One million excess doses are headed to Mexico, where Harris will meet with President Andres Manuel López Obrador.

Harris urged people from Central America not to attempt an illegal trip to the USA.

“Do not come. Do not come. The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our border,” Harris said. “If you come to our border, you will be turned back. So let's discourage our friends or neighbors or family members from embarking on what is otherwise an extremely dangerous journey.”

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Why Guatemala is key

Paul Angelo, a fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, said Guatemala is the only country in the Northern Triangle the United States can work with, partly because of its geographical location.

Guatemala borders Mexico to the south, and it is north of El Salvador and Honduras. Individuals from the latter two countries have to pass through Guatemala before reaching Mexico and the U.S. border.

“Guatemala is the link between Central America and Mexico,” Angelo said. “It's geographically situated in such a way that it provides a geostrategic advantage for slowing migration.”

In April, Guatemala deployed more than 1,000 police and military officials to its southern border to help mitigate migration from Honduras and El Salvador.

“Our relationship with Guatemala is a more positive relationship than the kinds of diplomatic relations that the U.S. currently enjoys between El Salvador and Honduras,” Angelo said.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is under investigation by the Department of Justice as an alleged co-conspirator in drug trafficking. El Salvador President Nayib Bukele fired the country's attorney general and multiple supreme court judges.

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Zuniga has had discussions with officials from El Salvador and Honduras, but Harris has yet to meet with those nation's leaders.

“Against that backdrop, Guatemala looks like a pretty good contender for our partnership,” Angelo said, and Giammattei “is a bit more amenable to working with United States on any number of issues of bilateral concern and is less compromised than his counterparts in the other Northern Triangle countries.”

Corruption in Guatemala is an issue

Guatemala faces its own issues with corruption, particularly in the court system. Zuniga acknowledged it posed a challenge.

"The best way to deal with these cases where you have a very complex relationship in a country like Guatemala is to talk clearly and plainly as partners, as countries that have to get along," Zuniga said.

Giammattei criticized Guatemala’s special prosecutor, which oversees corruption cases.

Asked whether he is part of the corruption in Guatemala, Giammattei accused social media of “carrying misinformation.”

“I would like to turn this question back to you of how many cases of corruption have I been accused?” Giammattei said. “I can give you the answer to that, zero.”

He said corruption isn't limited to politicians, and he told the United States that the "Guatemalan government is not interested in getting one single penny for us."

"We are interested in working in public policies that transfer those resources effectively, significantly and without the cost of an intermediary to ensure that these funds get to the communities where we can bring about changes in the way of living, in the way of producing, and help them," Giammattei said.

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Reach Rebecca Morin at Twitter @RebeccaMorin_

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Kamala Harris in Guatemala announces anti-corruption plan