June 13, 2021

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Guatemala’s president says Kamala Harris “doesn’t hold back” ahead of immigration talks – CBS News

6 min read

Guatemala City — The world leader who has spoken with Vice President Kamala Harris most frequently about U.S. immigration policy describes her as a straight-talking, detail-oriented leader paying careful attention to the long-standing reasons that people leave his country.

Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, who is set to host Harris on Monday here during her first international trip as vice president, also says that the change of administrations in Washington was exploited by human traffickers, known as “coyotes,” who ferried thousands of children to the U.S.-Mexico border within days of President Biden formally rescinding the Trump-era family separation policy. Giammattei wants American lawmakers to toughen federal laws against traffickers and is ready to extradite them to face charges.

Harris, he said, is open to the idea, and is also expected to announce plans for Justice Department prosecutors to partner with Guatemalan authorities to prosecute drug traffickers and other transnational crimes. The White House wouldn’t comment Friday on those apparent plans ahead of the vice president’s trip.

Mr. Biden tasked Harris with tackling the record flow of undocumented immigrants in March. Her two-day trip to Guatemala and Mexico caps weeks of intense meetings with regional leaders and members of civil society, plus what aides describe as intense meetings on the subject with U.S. experts and State Department and National Security Council staffers.  

In their Zoom and telephone meetings so far, Harris “doesn’t hold back, which is good. She is frank,” Giammattei said.

Vice President Kamala Harris Meets Virtually With Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei
Vice President Kamala Harris holds a virtual bilateral meeting with President Alejandro Giammattei of Guatemala on Monday, April 26, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

“We are not on the same side of the coin. It is obvious,” he added, explaining later that “we are in agreement on the ‘what'” of the immigration crisis, “which is something. We are in not agreement on the ‘how.'”

During a bilingual interview with CBS News conducted Friday at the nation’s presidential house, he was asked if Guatemalans are leaving his country now that Mr. Biden is president and Donald Trump is out of office. 

He said the change in government led to a change in message: “The message changed to, ‘We are going to reunite families and we are going to reunite children.'” 

When that happened, “The very next day the coyotes here were organizing groups of children to take them to the United States.”

Given the uptick in migration, “We asked the United States government to send more of a clear message to prevent more people from leaving,” Giammattei said.

Mr. Biden has described the Trump administration’s immigration policy as inhumane and quickly ordered the departments of Homeland Security and Health and Human Services to revamp how they detain and process undocumented immigrants. Thousands of young children are still held each day by federal agencies, but the number is down from spring highs that set records for the time of year, prompting Republicans to criticize Democrats for ripping up previous policy and inviting the record rush of migrants.

But U.S. and Central American leaders agree other factors are also at play. Two major hurricanes last fall devastated portions of Guatemala, and climate change continues to sap other parts of the country dry, making once-fertile lands unusable for families seeking to grow crops to feed themselves or sell and export. The illegal drug trade continues to flourish in the region and domestic violence is a frequent push factors for women and children. Plus, the COVID-19 pandemic has made already unstable economies even more vulnerable. 

“Mostly people want to stay in Guatemala. They want to be in their homes. They don’t want to take a very expensive trip to the United States. So they try internally in the country to migrate internally looking for jobs,” Mary McInerney, country director for Save the Children, told CBS News.

McInerney noted that a domestic travel ban to stem the spread of the virus has made it difficult for poor rural farm workers to travel from the northern highlands to the Pacific coast to help harvest sugarcane or to the nation’s renowned coffee fields to help harvest a me of the country’s most lucrative exports.

“More than anything, it’s down to basics, not having food,” she said. “Any of us, I would go wherever I had to go as a mother to ensure that my children had something to eat.”

Giammattei described himself as “frustrated” by the scenes of thousands of unaccompanied children being detained at U.S. facilities after crossing the southern border. But he went out of his way to describe how his government, in office since January 2019, has redoubled efforts to cooperate with American authorities to stem the flow. 

Several times he noted that the primary reason his citizens choose to leave is a lack of economic opportunity. That distinguishes his country, he said, from neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, where he said violence, fueled by the illegal drug trade, is a leading push factor. 

As for disagreements with Harris over how to respond to the roots of the immigration crisis, Giammattei insisted they are substantive and not personal. He grew especially animated when discussing what he believes is a misguided focus on government corruption. In recent weeks, Harris has met with former Guatemalan prosecutors and judges removed from office or not reappointed to their positions by the national congress. Giammattei and his political allies have questioned the political leanings of some of those former judicial officials and the effectiveness of their role, but their removal comes amid other challenges to judicial independence across Latin America, including in El Salvador.

But Giammattei believes corruption permeates all aspects of society, including business and non-government organizations, whose leaders he said earn hefty salaries.  

“On corruption, who is the biggest corrupter? There is someone else more corrupt than than a government of this size like ours,” he said. “Narco traffickers.”

For years, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras have been referred to as the Northern Triangle, a trio of countries comprising the western half of Central America. In the past, some regional leaders have tried to use the distinction as a way to negotiate regional trade or security agreements. 

But in the interview, Giammattei called the term “an insult” and is actively seeking distance between his country and his two eastern neighbors amid deteriorating political situations. El Salvador is led by Nayib Bukele, an outspoken leader who is actively consolidating power, attacking critics including American lawmakers via social media and has a hot-and-cold relationship with Biden administration officials. Honduras is led by Juan Orlando Hernández, whose brother was sentenced in March to life in prison in the U.S. on drug trafficking charges. 

Privately, Biden administration officials concede that given the political situation in the region, Guatemala is the best worst option for a partner on the immigration issue. Giammattei seems happy to be the lead partner. 

“There is a mistake being made in the United States. They have always looked at us like their backyard. That’s the mistake. We are the front yard,” he said. “And if the front yard is bad, how will the house be? If you all take care of your front yard, how will your house be?”

Asked if he has raised his concerns about the Northern Triangle distinction yet with Harris, he said he would on Monday. 

Fin Gómez, Alex Pena and Tim Perry contributed to this report. 

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