Exclusive: US targets Central American officials over possible sanctions for corruption – envoy

© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden’s Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zuniga holds a press conference during a two-day visit to Guatemala City, Guatemala, April 6, 2021. REUTERS / Luis Echeverria / File Photo

By Matt Spetalnick and Ted Hesson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Biden administration plans to release a list of corrupt Central American officials that may face sanctions by the end of June, a U.S. special envoy told Reuters as Washington attempts to curb a root cause of increasing migration to the US-Mexico border.

Ricardo Zuniga, President Joe Biden’s contact person for the Central American countries of the northern triangle of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, also said the government is considering further sanctions against officials in the region for alleged transplants under the Global Magnitsky Act.

US officials see corruption as one of the main drivers of the flow of migrants – alongside poverty, gang violence and the aftermath of hurricanes last year – and want to ensure that a $ 4 billion aid package put together for the region does not fall victim to graft.

“That is the mandate of Congress. We have a responsibility and we will fulfill it, ”said Zuniga in an interview on Wednesday. “This is reflected in our commitment to defending those who fight impunity.”

Zuniga was referring to a law sponsored by then US Representative Eliot Engel and passed by Congress in December that requires the State Department to compile an Engel list of corrupt actors in the Northern Triangle within 180 days.

The administration, he said, would meet that Congressional requirement. Those affected could then be banned from traveling to the United States, seized US property, and banned Americans from doing business with them.

Due to geographic proximity and historical relationships, Central American officials may be more likely to have assets in the United States than those from countries with less financial ties to the United States.

Another avenue for sanctions in Central America could be through the use of so-called Global Magnitsky measures, which the United States has been imposing for years on those charged with corruption, human rights abuses and anti-democratic actions around the world.

Zuniga declined to name those who could face sanctions.

When asked if Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez could be targeted, Zuniga said, “I will not comment on him because of the Justice Department’s involvement in his case.” Hernandez is under investigation in the US for alleged links to drug cartels. He denies any involvement in drug smuggling.

Biden’s aides have spoken out in recent days against the Guatemalan legislature’s refusal to summon an anti-corruption judge and the recall of top judges and the Attorney General in El Salvador.

US MEXICO SPEAKS LOOM

Zuniga spoke just days before a virtual meeting between Vice President Kamala Harris, hired by Biden to lead diplomatic efforts to curb unauthorized migration, and Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador. She plans to visit Mexico and Guatemala on June 7th and 8th.

The influx on the U.S.-Mexico border, including many Central American migrants, has emerged as Biden’s greatest political weakness in the early months of his presidency, opinion polls show when he tried to reverse the harsh immigration policies of his predecessor Donald Trump.

Harris and Lopez Obrador are expected to discuss how to stem the movement of migrants to the border on Friday.

Harris’ initiatives include trying to get US companies to invest more in the impoverished Northern Triangle.

Zuniga said that many US firms are keen to do more business in the region, but that “there is a reluctance to invest due to local corruption, poor infrastructure and other problems.”

“Companies see problems like this and hold back,” he said.

Zuniga said US firms are also concerned about the strength of justice systems in the Northern Triangle and regulatory structures that are “very difficult to navigate” or “favor local businesses over foreign investors.”

Prior to Harris’ talks with Lopez Obrador, Zuniga stressed an ongoing partnership with Mexico on migration issues, saying, “We want to work closely with Mexico in Central America.”

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