Biden Faces a Trade-Off: Stop Corruption, or Migration?

The testimony was explosive: In June, a witness advised Guatemala’s high anticorruption prosecutor that he had gone to the president’s house and delivered a rolled-up carpet filled with money.

It introduced the prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval, one step nearer to a head-on collision with Guatemala’s president.

Mr. Sandoval’s anticorruption unit had already searched a house linked to the president’s former secretary, on the lookout for details about $16 million his workforce had discovered jammed into suitcases. And in May, a witness advised him that the president had negotiated a $2.6 million marketing campaign contribution in change for sustaining authorities contracts, paperwork present.

The president attacked Mr. Sandoval publicly. Top American officers, together with Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, expressed alarm over efforts to undermine the anticorruption unit — however the stress didn’t work.

In July, Mr. Sandoval was abruptly fired and, fearing the investigation can be snuffed out, fled the nation with the proof he had gathered.

“The Guatemalan justice system has been overtaken by the mafias in power,” Mr. Sandoval mentioned in an interview from the United States. “I was the last visible holdout in the fight against corruption.”

Mr. Sandoval in Guatemala City in 2019. He fled Guatemala with the proof he had collected within the corruption investigation involving the president and lawyer normal.Credit…Moises Castillo/Associated Press

This is the stark actuality going through the Biden administration because it grapples with the migration disaster on its southern border. Most of the households and kids caught crossing the border in recent times have come from Central America, and the surge is accelerating. Border crossings in July, when officers anticipated a lull due to the lethal summer season warmth, reached their highest ranges in additional than twenty years.

President Biden arrived in workplace promising to assault corruption within the area head on, arguing that the one approach to deter migrants is to repair the deep-seated issues that pressure folks to go away house within the first place.

He tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to supervise a proposed $four billion effort to deal with these “root causes” of migration, beginning in Guatemala — the nation the place officers believed that they had the most effective shot at success. Ms. Harris met with Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, on her first worldwide journey, and delivered a speech vowing to “root out corruption wherever it exists.”

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But the Biden administration can be relying on the very governments it has promised to police. Ms. Harris’s assembly with the president occurred solely days after his public assault on the prosecutor, and the corruption allegations haven’t deterred the Biden administration from reaching agreements with him on migration.

Urged by the United States, Guatemala agreed to extend the variety of troops and cops at its borders to dam folks from fleeing north and cease migrant caravans earlier than they made it to Mexico. Guatemala ended up beating migrants in a current caravan with batons and spraying them with tear fuel. The migrants didn’t get previous the Guatemalan border.

Vice President Kamala Harris and President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala at a information convention in Guatemala City in June.Credit…Carlos Barria/Reuters

Wary of torpedoing cooperation on migration, the Biden administration has typically been gradual to again up its condemnation of corruption with retribution for dangerous actors in excessive locations. Now, the house between America’s powerful discuss and its actions is being crammed by Central America’s strongman leaders, who’ve spent months tightening their maintain on energy and systematically concentrating on opponents who stand of their manner.

In current months, El Salvador’s governing social gathering ousted the lawyer normal and 5 Supreme Court justices, pushed ahead with plans to attempt to lengthen presidential time period limits, and adopted Bitcoin as authorized tender partially to minimize the nation’s dependence on the U.S. greenback.

Guatemala’s lawyer normal, whom the president has referred to as a good friend, changed Mr. Sandoval with a prosecutor beneath investigation for mishandling a case in opposition to a former president’s marketing campaign donors. Now, remaining members of the anticorruption unit say a few of its most necessary instances are being undermined.

In a assertion, the president’s workplace denied that Mr. Giammattei had accepted bribes or engaged in corruption, and said his “absolute commitment” to assist clear up any confusion surrounding the allegations.

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And in Nicaragua, the federal government is tilting ever nearer to dictatorship, as President Daniel Ortega has jailed virtually each candidate who deliberate to run in opposition to him in elections this yr.

“You have to be careful about how you make good on your threats,” mentioned Tom Shannon, who was a high-level State Department official within the Obama and Trump administrations and is now lobbying on behalf of El Salvador’s authorities.

“Ortega has decided that we don’t have it in us to face him down,” mentioned Mr. Shannon, referring to Nicaragua’s president. “So he’s standing in the middle of the road with both middle fingers extended at us, and the whole region is watching.”

The administration admits that its anticorruption push hasn’t labored nicely sufficient, thwarted by highly effective forces in Central America which can be resistant to vary.

“We have to acknowledge that what we’ve done up until now has not succeeded in demonstrating the importance of dealing with this,” mentioned Ricardo Zúniga, the State Department’s particular envoy to the area. “Those who are invested in the status quo see efforts to combat impunity and corruption as threatening to their interests” and “are very determined to preserve that status quo.”

Ricardo Zúniga, the State Department’s particular envoy to the area, at a information convention throughout his journey to Guatemala City in April. Credit…Luis Echeverria/Reuters

Central America’s antidemocratic slide accelerated beneath Mr. Trump, who maintained a transactional relationship with the area: As lengthy because the area’s leaders stepped up efforts to intercept migrants, he would largely keep silent on their inner affairs, former officers mentioned. Mr. Trump additionally made it clear that in the event that they refused, he was prepared to mete out punishment rapidly — by chopping support or imposing tariffs, as he did with Mexico.

So Central American governments beefed up enforcement on their borders but additionally started dismantling key anticorruption items that had been investigating the highly effective.

Mr. Biden got here to workplace with fewer allies than ever within the battle for accountability within the area, and whereas few would count on him to match Mr. Trump’s willingness to inflict ache on nations to get his manner, present and former officers say that the administration’s relative passivity within the face of corruption has price the United States leverage within the area.

Besides a handful of latest sanctions and the elimination of visas for corrupt actors within the area, a lot of the sharpest U.S. response has been confined to expressions of anger in information interviews and Twitter posts.

“The tweets are assertions and warnings, which of course have to be backed up pretty quickly by concrete measures or else they will be disregarded,” mentioned Stephen McFarland, the previous American ambassador to Guatemala from 2008 to 2011.

“It’s like when you tell your kid, ‘Don’t do something,’ but when they do it, there’s no consequences,” mentioned Damian Merlo, a lobbyist representing El Salvador’s authorities. “With Trump,” he added, “there would be consequences.”

After Mr. Sandoval’s dismissal, the administration is making an attempt to take a more durable line on Guatemala, saying it will cease cooperating with the lawyer normal’s workplace. But the administration continues to be working with the president, Mr. Giammattei: In July, the United States resumed expelling migrants by placing them on flights immediately again to Guatemala, a transfer that has earned criticism from human rights teams.

Women blocking the freeway in Totonicapan, Guatemala, final month, in an try and stress Mr. Giammattei to resign.Credit…Moises Castillo/Associated Press

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

In the weeks earlier than he was fired, Mr. Sandoval and his workforce labored furiously to compile proof corroborating testimony from the witness claiming to have dropped off a carpet full of money on the president’s home.

They decided that the witness had probably stumbled upon a plan by a Russian-backed mining firm to bribe Mr. Giammattei for the correct to function a part of a Guatemalan port. After dropping off the carpet filled with cash, the witness heard one of many males say that they had simply assured “an open door with the port,” in accordance with his assertion.

Then in July, simply weeks after the inquiry had begun, María Consuelo Porras, the lawyer normal and a shut ally of the president, dismissed Mr. Sandoval, claiming that he had didn’t observe orders. Mr. Sandoval was sure she would kill the inquiry, so he absconded with paperwork from the case and delivered them to American regulation enforcement officers when he fled to Washington.

The Department of Justice is now trying into the allegations, in accordance with a U.S. official.

Ms. Consuelo Porras vowed that the work of the anticorruption unit as soon as led by Mr. Sandoval wouldn’t be obstructed. But two prosecutors from that unit, who spoke on the situation of anonymity for concern of reprisals, mentioned in interviews that she was already undermining their investigations.

“The investigations are in the hands of the corrupt,” Mr. Sandoval mentioned. “No one is stopping them.”

Jody García contributed reporting from Guatemala City.