GUATEMALA CITY – During her first trip abroad as Vice President, Kamala Harris said the United States would support investigations into corruption and human trafficking in Guatemala. He also gave a clear and frank message to undocumented migrants waiting to reach the United States: “Don’t come.”
Harris issued the warning during an early but crucial test trip for a Vice President tasked with the difficult challenge of ending a cycle of migration from Central America by investing in a region plagued by corruption, violence and poverty.
While President Biden campaigned for a promise to relax some of the Donald Trump administration’s border restrictions by allowing migrants to seek asylum at the U.S. border, Harris reinforced the government’s message that those crossing the border into the United States cross, be turned away and that, rather, they should find legal channels or protection closer to their countries of origin.
He did not shy away from harshness when speaking about corruption with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, who has been criticized for persecuting officials who fight corruption and for setting a political agenda.
“We will try to eradicate corruption wherever it exists,” Harris said, adding that the government will support a special prosecutor. “That was one of our top priorities in terms of focus that we set here after the President asked me to bring up this issue of focus on this region.”
Harris, whose presidential claims have been clarified, was chosen by President Biden to invest in Central America to deter the most vulnerable from embarking on the dangerous journey north. During the early months of his tenure, Biden was criticized by Republicans and some moderate Democrats for the increase in unaccompanied minors crossing the US-Mexico border.
The Vice President’s top aides have tried to distance her role from the border management minefield, saying it is focused on working with overseas governments to boost Central America’s economy and create more opportunity for those who now believe theirs best option is to go to the states .united.
Harris announced new measures in this effort on Monday. The Biden government will deploy national security officers to Guatemala’s northern and southern borders to train local officials, a tactic similar to previous governments’ tactics to deter migration. The US State Department and Justice Department will also set up a task force to investigate corruption cases with ties to Guatemala and the United States and to train Guatemalan prosecutors.
“We had a very honest conversation about an independent judiciary,” said Harris. “We had a conversation about the importance of a strong civil society.”
The Biden government also outlined a plan to invest $ 48 million in entrepreneurship programs, affordable housing and agricultural businesses in Guatemala as part of a four-year $ 4 billion investment plan in the region. Last month, Harris asked a dozen private companies, including Mastercard and Microsoft, to help develop the Central American economy.
The question arises, however, of how to ensure that such US aid programs go to those who need it most, not just the contractors appointed by the United States or Guatemalan officials.
In 2019, Guatemala designated a United Nations-backed anti-corruption body called Cicig, which worked with Guatemalan prosecutors on corruption cases but was condemned as politically motivated by the country’s conservatives.
Ricardo Zúñiga, President Biden’s special envoy for Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, described these independent anti-corruption commissions as “very successful efforts”. Harris’ team didn’t say, however, that they believed Guatemala needed an independent body to investigate corruption.
“The point is that there is no specific model,” said Zúñiga. “It’s about supporting the people within government or within the institutions – mainly the judicial authorities – who have the will and the ability to promote these cases.”
In his opening address, Harris stressed that he was encouraging potential migrants to stay closer to their homes while they apply for a permit to enter the United States and await a response. Days ago key staff announced they would be opening a new center in Guatemala where people can learn how to get asylum or refugee protection without leaving Central America instead of traveling to the border with the United States.
“Most people don’t want to leave the place where they grew up. To her grandmother. To the place where they pray. The place where their language and culture is spoken is familiar, ”said Harris. “And when they leave it usually has two reasons. Either they are fleeing danger or they simply cannot meet their basic needs.
In Chex Abajo, a mountain village 250 kilometers from Harriss Rede, Nicolás Ajanel Juárez said that despite the promises made by several US presidents, his community could not meet these needs.
The people of the indigenous corn farmers embody the difficult task facing the Vice President of the United States. Juarez, one of the local leaders, said many of the 600 residents were swept away by some hurricanes. The income from maize cultivation is no longer secure as the dry season is now longer due to climate change.
Many families here depend on remittances from their relatives from the United States. Those who benefit from a better lifestyle thanks to money from the north have larger houses made of concrete and steel marked with stars and American flags. The main street in the city is called Ohio because many migrants have found gardening jobs in the state.
“It would be better if the aid came directly rather than through the government, because that’s where it is lost,” said Juárez, who was at a nearby ceremony in honor of a community neighbor who was a United States and who died two years ago. “The politicians don’t know because they don’t come here to see the needs of the people with their own eyes.”
After meeting with Giammattei, Harris held a meeting with a group of women who had organized development programs for indigenous communities or training for those looking to acquire business skills.
She recognized the symbolic weight of being the first female vice president and that Guatemala is her first trip abroad in office. When a group of protesters with placards protested Harris’ visit near the entrance to the military airport, a number of families, many of them women, waited by another fence in hopes of glimpsing Air Force II, the landed in Guatemala.
“In that it could have an impact based on my gender and being the first, it’s wonderful,” said Harris. “You can be the first on something, but make sure you are not the last,” he added.
Pedro Pablo Solares collaborated with coverage from Guatemala City
Zolan Kanno-Youngs is the White House correspondent covering a range of national and international issues at Joe Biden’s White House, including national security and extremism. He joined the Times in 2019 as a national security correspondent. @KannoYoungs