U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris said on Monday she had held “robust” talks with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei on the need to fight corruption and deter undocumented immigration from Central America to the United States.
Speaking at a news conference with Giammattei, Harris delivered a blunt message to anyone thinking of making the dangerous journey north: “Do not come.”
“We had a robust, candid and thorough conversation,” Harris said. “The president and I discussed that, fundamentally, most people do not want to leave home, they don’t want to leave the place where the language they know is spoken.”
She said that a task force combining resources from the Justice, State and Treasury departments would work with local prosecutors to punish corrupt actors in Central America.
The U.S. government has been pressing the “Northern Triangle” – El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras – to do more to tackle corruption in order to improve social conditions for its people and make them less eager to emigrate.
But those efforts have been undermined by corruption scandals and resistance to U.S.-backed judges known for their commitment to fighting graft, as well as concerns that the region is drifting towards more authoritarian tendencies.
Harris is due to travel to Mexico after Guatemala for talks with the Mexican government on Tuesday.
The Biden administration on Monday also unveiled details of another task force of prosecutors to combat human smuggling in Central America and Mexico.
U.S. Attorney General Merrick B. Garland said the Joint Task Force Alpha would marshal Justice Department and Homeland Security resources against “the most prolific and dangerous” human smuggling and trafficking groups in the region, according to a statement.
The group will complement the efforts to build cases against corrupt actors in the region, the statement said.
Harris’ Guatemala visit was her first overseas trip as vice president, part of her mission of tackling root causes of migration from Central America to the United States.
“It is in our collective interest that we work together,” Harris said at the start of a meeting with Giammattei.
However, disagreement has emerged over the best way to tackle corruption, with the United States giving recognition to anti-graft fighters the conservative government and its allies see as politically biased.
Giammattei said the fight against narco-trafficking needed to be an integral part of tackling corruption.
Harris will also meet civil society leaders and entrepreneurs in Guatemala and then go to Mexico. Priorities include economic development, climate and food insecurity, and women’s issues, White House officials said.
There has been criticism from some officials in Guatemala and Mexico over the timing and thrust of Harris’ mission to curb migration to the United States from the region, with the Mexico leg following mid-term elections at the weekend.
Harris discussed sharing COVID-19 vaccines with Guatemala during the meeting, she said. She confirmed that the United States would supply half a million COVID-19 doses to Guatemala.