Biden's dilemma in Guatemala: stopping corruption or migration?

The testimony was explosive: In June, a witness told Guatemala’s top anti-corruption prosecutor that he went to the president’s home and...


The testimony was explosive: In June, a witness told Guatemala’s top anti-corruption prosecutor that he went to the president’s home and delivered a rolled up rug stuffed with money.

This brought prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval one step closer to a head-on collision with the president of Guatemala.

Mr Sandoval’s anti-corruption unit had previously raided a home linked to the president’s former secretary, seeking information about the $ 16 million his team found stuck in suitcases. And in May, a witness told him the president negotiated a campaign contribution of $ 2.6 million in exchange for maintaining government contracts, documents show.

The president publicly attacked Mr. Sandoval. Senior US officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, expressed alarm on efforts to undermine the anti-corruption unit – but the pressure did not work.

In July, Mr Sandoval was brutally sacked and, fearing the investigation would be hushed up, fled the country with the evidence he had gathered.

“The Guatemalan justice system has been overtaken by the ruling mafias,” Sandoval said in an interview from the United States. “I was the last visible resistance fighter in the fight against corruption. “

This is the harsh reality facing the Biden administration as it grapples with the migration crisis on its southern border. Most families and children caught crossing the border in recent years came from Central America, and the thrust accelerates. Border crossings in July, when authorities expected a lull amid the deadly summer heat, reached their highest level in more than two decades.

President Biden came to power promising to tackle corruption in the region head-on, saying the only way to deter migrants is to address the deep issues that force people to leave their homes in the first place.

He appealed to Vice President Kamala Harris to oversee a proposed $ 4 billion effort to tackle these “root causes” of migration, starting with Guatemala – the country where officials believed they had the best chance of success. Ms. Harris met with the President of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei, on his first international trip, and delivered a speech promising “to eliminate corruption wherever it exists”.

But the Biden administration is also dependent on the very governments it has promised the police. Ms Harris’ meeting with the president came just days after her public attack on the prosecutor, and the corruption allegations have not deterred the Biden administration from making deals with him on migration.

Pressed by the United States, Guatemala has agreed to increase the number of soldiers and police at its borders to prevent people from fleeing north and to stop caravans of migrants before they reach Mexico. Guatemala ended up hitting migrants in a recent caravan with batons and spraying them with tear gas. The migrants did not cross the Guatemalan border.

Fearful of torpedoing cooperation on migration, the Biden administration has often been slow to back up its condemnation of corruption with retaliation for bad actors in high places. Today, the gap between America’s harsh rhetoric and its actions is filled by the strongmen of Central America, who have spent months tightening their grip on power and systematically targeting opponents who stand up. on their way.

In recent months, El Salvador’s ruling party ousted the attorney general and five Supreme Court justices, pushed forward plans to attempt to extend the presidential term, and adopted Bitcoin as legal tender in part. to reduce the country’s dependence on the US dollar.

Guatemala’s attorney general, whom the president called a friend, replaced Sandoval with a prosecutor under investigation for mishandling a case against donors to a former president’s campaign. Today, the remaining members of the anti-corruption unit say some of its most important cases are being undermined.

In a statement, the president’s office denied that Mr. Giammattei accepted bribes or engaged in corruption, and said his “absolute commitment” to help dispel any confusion surrounding the allegations.

And in Nicaragua, the government is getting closer and closer to the dictatorship, as President Daniel Ortega jailed nearly every candidate who planned to run against him in this year’s election.

“You have to be careful how you carry out your threats,” said Tom Shannon, who was a senior State Department official in the Obama and Trump administrations and now lobbying on behalf of the Salvadoran government.

“Ortega decided we didn’t have the strength to face him,” Shannon said, referring to the President of Nicaragua. “So he’s standing in the middle of the road with both middle fingers stretched out towards us, and the whole region is watching.”

The administration admits its anti-corruption campaign has not worked well enough, thwarted by powerful Central American forces resisting change.

“We have to recognize that what we’ve done so far has failed to demonstrate the importance of addressing this,” said Ricardo Zúniga, the State Department’s special envoy to the region. “Those invested in the status quo see efforts to fight impunity and corruption as a threat to their interests” and “are very determined to preserve this status quo.”

Central America’s undemocratic slide accelerated under Mr. Trump, who maintained a transactional relationship with the region: as long as the region’s leaders intensified their efforts to intercept migrants, he would largely remain silent. on their internal affairs, former officials said. Mr. Trump has also made it clear that if they refuse, he is ready to impose sanctions quickly – by cutting aid or imposing tariffs, as he has done with Mexico.

Governments in Central America therefore strengthened law enforcement at their borders, but also began to dismantle the main anti-corruption units that were investigating the powerful.

Mr Biden came to power with fewer allies than ever in the struggle for accountability in the region, and though few expect him to live up to Mr Trump’s will to inflict pain the nations to get what it wants, current and former officials say the administration’s relative passivity in the face of corruption has cost the United States leverage in the region.

Besides a handful of new sanctions and the abolition of visas for corrupt actors in the region, much of the sharpest American response has been limited to expressions of anger in news interviews and Twitter posts.

“Tweets are claims and warnings, which of course need to be backed up with concrete action fairly quickly or else they will be ignored,” said Stephen McFarland, the former US ambassador to Guatemala from 2008-2011.

“It’s like when you tell your child ‘Don’t do something’, but when he does, there are no consequences,” said Damian Merlo, a lobbyist representing the government of El Salvador. “With Trump,” he added, “there would be consequences.”

After Mr. Sandoval’s dismissal, the administration is trying to take a tougher line on Guatemala, saying it will stop cooperating with the attorney general’s office. But the administration is still working with the president, Mr. Giammattei: in July, the United States resumed deportation of migrants by putting them on flights directly to Guatemala, a decision that has attracted criticism from human rights groups.

“Their priority is migration, and they sacrifice justice,” said Helen Mack Chang, a Guatemalan human rights activist. “They are doing the same thing as Trump.”

In the weeks leading up to his dismissal, Mr Sandoval and his team worked hard to gather evidence to corroborate the witness’s testimony claiming to have laid a carpet full of cash in the president’s house.

They determined that the witness likely came across a plan by a Russian-backed mining company to bribe Mr. Giammattei for the right to mine part of a Guatemalan port. After laying down the carpet stuffed with money, the witness heard one of the men say that they had just guaranteed “an open door with the port”, according to his statement.

Then in July, just weeks after the investigation began, María Consuelo Porras, attorney general and close ally of the president, sacked Sandoval, claiming he had not obeyed orders. Mr Sandoval was certain she would kill the investigation, so he fled with documents from the case and turned them over to US law enforcement when he fled to Washington.

The Justice Department is currently reviewing the allegations, according to a US official.

Ms Consuelo Porras vowed that the work of the anti-corruption unit formerly headed by Mr Sandoval would not be hampered. But two prosecutors from that unit, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisal, said in interviews that it was already undermining their investigations.

“Investigations are in the hands of the corrupt,” Sandoval said. “No one is stopping them.”

Jody García contributed reporting from Guatemala City.

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Newsrust - US Top News: Biden's dilemma in Guatemala: stopping corruption or migration?
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