Kamala Harris, the US Vice President, announced a new anti-corruption campaign, economic aid and stricter enforcement against human trafficking during a visit to Guatemala.
But Harris, on her first overseas trip as vice president, faced skeptical questions about whether the measures she announced would represent a real change in U.S. policy in the region, to a time of deepening poverty and corruption.
At a press conference in Guatemala City after talks with Harris on Monday, the country’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, was repeatedly asked if he was part of the corruption problem, following the arrest of investigators who had investigated government abuses, and allegations that Giammattei filled Guatemala’s highest court with submissive judges.
The president blamed the allegations on misinformation on social media.
“In how many cases of corruption have I been accused? I can give you the answer to that: zero, ”Giammattei retorted.
Harris insisted she was blunt in her talks with Giammattei.
“We don’t have time to gloss over the concerns we have,” she said. “And so we had a very frank conversation about the importance of an independent judiciary. We had a conversation about the importance of a strong civil society. I have expressed concerns about these issues.
On the day of Harris’ visit, the United States Department of Justice announced the establishment of a law enforcement task force to combat human trafficking and human trafficking groups in the United States. Mexico and the Northern Triangle countries of Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.
Harris, who is due to meet with Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador on Tuesday, said the task force aimed to strengthen Guatemalan investigators and civil society groups, and would “follow the money” to those who benefit most from the corruption and trafficking.
Human rights activists say that under the Giamettei government, Guatemala is declining in corruption and accountability. Last month, a corruption charge against a jailed former president, Otto Pérez Molina, was dropped and investigators who had built the case against him were arrested.
Giammattei has installed his chief of staff at the country’s constitutional court. After an anti-corruption activist, Gloria Porras, was elected for a second term in court, the country’s congress, controlled by Giammmattei’s party, prevented her from sitting.
A joint declaration by several human rights groups ahead of Harris’ visit said “the rule of law has continued to deteriorate rapidly” in Guatemala.
“In recent months, there have been alarming attacks on the independence of the judiciary by corrupt elites and criminal networks, seeking to ensure impunity for their crimes and reverse the progress that had been made in strengthening the rule of law, ”the statement said.
“Corruption really undermines the wealth of any country, and in Central America it is on a scale where it represents a significant percentage of the region’s GDP,” said US special envoy to the region Ricardo Zúñiga : “We see corruption as one of the most important root causes to be addressed.
Zúñiga said the two countries will discuss the issue “clearly and simply as partners, as countries that need to get along”.
Harris also announced a strengthened border enforcement, $ 310 million in humanitarian aid to support refugees and tackle food shortages, and half a million doses of the Covid-19 vaccine.
On the eve of Harris’ arrival, Giammattei had accused the Biden administration of spreading conflicting messages about immigration, which had been exploited by human traffickers to persuade Guatemalans to risk travel to the United States. United.
In his remarks Monday, Harris insisted the message was unambiguous.
“I want to be clear with the people of this region for thinking about making this dangerous trip to the US-Mexico border. Don’t come. Don’t come, ”she said.
Billions of dollars in US economic aid have so far done little to deter families from fleeing north to escape political violence, corruption and poverty. Critics say too much money has gone to entrepreneurs and not enough to struggling Guatemalans.
“We know, unfortunately from experience, that most of the time, US resources will not directly address root causes and directly benefit people,” said Erika Guevara Rosas, Amnesty International Director for Americas.
“Vice President Harris should focus on real improvements in the lives of the majority of Central Americans, especially creating decent jobs that allow people to earn a living and not just be a workforce. low-wage for corporate investors, ”said Cecilia Menjívar, professor of sociology at the University of California, Los Angeles. “And less effort should be put into expanding militarized strategies, as they lead to more violence.”