The testimony was explosive: In June, a witness told Guatemala’s top anticorruption prosecutor that he had gone to the president’s home and delivered a rolled-up carpet stuffed with cash.
It brought the prosecutor, Juan Francisco Sandoval, one step closer to a head-on collision with Guatemala’s president.
Mr. Sandoval’s anticorruption unit had already searched a home linked to the president’s former secretary, looking for information about $16 million his team had found jammed into suitcases. And in May, a witness told him that the president had negotiated a $2.6 million campaign contribution in exchange for maintaining government contracts, documents show.
The president attacked Mr. Sandoval publicly. Top American officials, including Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, expressed alarm over efforts to undermine the anticorruption unit — but the pressure didn’t work.
In July, Mr. Sandoval was abruptly fired and, fearing the investigation would be snuffed out, fled the country with the evidence he had gathered.
“The Guatemalan justice system has been overtaken by the mafias in power,” Mr. Sandoval said in an interview from the United States. “I was the last visible holdout in the fight against corruption.”
This is the stark reality facing the Biden administration as it grapples with the migration crisis on its southern border. Most of the families and children caught crossing the border in recent years have come from Central America, and the surge is accelerating. Border crossings in July, when officials expected a lull because of the deadly summer heat, reached their highest levels in more than two decades.
President Biden arrived in office promising to attack corruption in the region head on, arguing that the only way to deter migrants is to fix the deep-seated problems that force people to leave home in the first place.
He tapped Vice President Kamala Harris to oversee a proposed $4 billion effort to tackle those “root causes” of migration, starting in Guatemala — the country where officials believed they had the best shot at success. Ms. Harris met with Guatemala’s president, Alejandro Giammattei, on her first international trip, and delivered a speech vowing to “root out corruption wherever it exists.”
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But the Biden administration is also depending on the very governments it has promised to police. Ms. Harris’s meeting with the president took place only days after his public attack on the prosecutor, and the corruption allegations have not deterred the Biden administration from reaching agreements with him on migration.
Urged by the United States, Guatemala agreed to increase the number of troops and police officers at its borders to block people from fleeing north and stop migrant caravans before they made it to Mexico. Guatemala ended up beating migrants in a recent caravan with batons and spraying them with tear gas. The migrants didn’t get past the Guatemalan border.
Wary of torpedoing cooperation on migration, the Biden administration has often been slow to back up its condemnation of corruption with retribution for bad actors in high places. Now, the space between America’s tough talk and its actions is being filled by Central America’s strongman leaders, who have spent months tightening their hold on power and systematically targeting opponents who stand in their way.
In recent months, El Salvador’s governing party ousted the attorney general and five Supreme Court justices, pushed forward with plans to try to extend presidential term limits, and adopted Bitcoin as legal tender in part to lessen the nation’s dependence on the U.S. dollar.
Guatemala’s attorney general, whom the president has called a friend, replaced Mr. Sandoval with a prosecutor under investigation for mishandling a case against a former president’s campaign donors. Now, remaining members of the anticorruption unit say some of its most important cases are being undermined.
In a statement, the president’s office denied that Mr. Giammattei had accepted bribes or engaged in corruption, and stated his “absolute commitment” to help clear up any confusion surrounding the allegations.
And in Nicaragua, the government is tilting ever closer to dictatorship, as President Daniel Ortega has jailed almost every candidate who planned to run against him in elections this year.
“You have to be careful about how you make good on your threats,” said Tom Shannon, who was a high-level State Department official in the Obama and Trump administrations and is now lobbying on behalf of El Salvador’s government.
“Ortega has decided that we don’t have it in us to face him down,” said 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 worked well enough, thwarted by powerful forces in Central America that are resistant to change.
“We have to acknowledge that what we’ve done up until now has not succeeded in demonstrating the importance of dealing with this,” said Ricardo Zúniga, the State Department’s special envoy to the region. “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.”
Central America’s antidemocratic slide accelerated under Mr. Trump, who maintained a transactional relationship with the region: As long as the region’s leaders stepped up efforts to intercept migrants, he would largely stay silent on their internal affairs, former officials said. Mr. Trump also made it clear that if they refused, he was willing to mete out punishment quickly — by cutting aid or imposing tariffs, as he did with Mexico.
So Central American governments beefed up enforcement on their borders but also began dismantling key anticorruption units that were investigating the powerful.
Mr. Biden came to office with fewer allies than ever in the fight for accountability in the region, and while few would expect him to match Mr. Trump’s willingness to inflict pain on nations to get his way, current and former officials say that the administration’s relative passivity in the face of corruption has cost the United States leverage in the region.
Besides a handful of new sanctions and the removal of visas for corrupt actors in the region, much of the sharpest U.S. response has been confined to expressions of anger in news 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,” said Stephen McFarland, the former 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,” said Damian Merlo, a lobbyist representing El Salvador’s government. “With Trump,” he added, “there would be consequences.”
After Mr. Sandoval’s dismissal, the administration is trying to take a tougher line on Guatemala, saying it would stop cooperating with the attorney general’s office. But the administration is still working with the president, Mr. Giammattei: In July, the United States resumed expelling migrants by putting them on flights directly back to Guatemala, a move that has earned criticism from human rights groups.
“Their priority is migration, and they are sacrificing justice,” said Helen Mack Chang, a Guatemalan human rights activist. “They’re doing the same thing as Trump.”
In the weeks before he was fired, Mr. Sandoval and his team worked furiously to compile evidence corroborating testimony from the witness claiming to have dropped off a carpet full of cash at the president’s house.
They determined that the witness had likely stumbled upon a plan by a Russian-backed mining company to bribe Mr. Giammattei for the right to operate part of a Guatemalan port. After dropping off the carpet stuffed with money, the witness heard one of the men say they had just guaranteed “an open door with the port,” according to his statement.
Then in July, just weeks after the inquiry had begun, María Consuelo Porras, the attorney general and a close ally of the president, dismissed Mr. Sandoval, claiming that he had failed to follow orders. Mr. Sandoval was certain she would kill the inquiry, so he absconded with documents from the case and delivered them to American law enforcement officials when he fled to Washington.
The Department of Justice is now looking into the allegations, according to a U.S. official.
Ms. Consuelo Porras vowed that the work of the anticorruption unit once led by Mr. Sandoval would not be obstructed. But two prosecutors from that unit, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals, said in interviews that she was already undermining their investigations.
“The investigations are in the hands of the corrupt,” Mr. Sandoval said. “No one is stopping them.”
Jody García contributed reporting from Guatemala City.