MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - U.S. President Joe Biden wants three Central American countries to crack down on corruption as part of a plan to spend billions of dollars in the region to stem illegal migration.
Yet accusations of graft and authoritarianism dog some of very leaders Biden must work with in Central America, feeding concerns about their desire to clean up government.
Since taking office in January, Biden's administration has pledged to set up a regional task force to fight graft, and threatened to freeze U.S. bank accounts of corrupt officials in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador - three countries known as the Northern Triangle that account for much of undocumented immigration to the United States.
With apprehensions at the U.S.-Mexican border at their highest level in two decades, Biden is pursuing a $4 billion plan in Central America.
Washington regards corruption and poor governance, alongside poverty and violence, as key factors behind Central American emigration, and is worried that any U.S. financial aid for the region could fall prey to corruption.
The Biden administration is urging the region's governments to meet targets on combating corruption, to support judicial and electoral independence, and to protect human rights, a U.S. State Department official told Reuters.
Leaders in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador need to oversee "systemic change," the official said.
"We're not going to be able to have a close partnership with governments that are not committed to working against corruption," Brendan O'Brien, acting head at the U.S. Embassy in San Salvador, told Reuters.
The region's record on corruption is patchy.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez is himself under investigation by U.S. prosecutors for alleged links to drug cartels and has warned that the allegations could harm international cooperation. He denies any involvement in drug smuggling. His brother was sentenced to life in prison for narcotics trafficking by a U.S. court last month.
To many in Washington, Honduras is the main worry in Central America. Elections to replace Hernandez are due in November but several of the front-runners have already been embroiled in corruption probes.
In El Salvador, the growing concentration of power by President Nayib Bukele, who last year sent troops into the national parliament to pressure lawmakers into approving law and order legislation, also unsettles U.S. officials.
Bukele has criticized Biden's plans as a rehash of the Obama-era Alliance for Prosperity, a regional economic development scheme, which he said failed to yield results.
Last week he ignored a request from the U.S. envoy to the Northern Triangle, Ricardo Zuniga, for a meeting during a visit to El Salvador.
In Guatemala, President Alejandro Giammattei raised alarms in Washington by appointing his lawyer to sit on the country's highest tribunal, the Constitutional Court.
On Tuesday, Guatemala's Congress refused to swear in a renowned anti-graft campaigner as the new president of the court, leaving it controlled by judges with ties to political parties, corruption scandals and the military establishment.
"It's going to be difficult for the Biden administration to find reliable allies among Central American governments," said Adam Isacson of the Washington Office for Latin American Affairs, a human rights advocacy group.
Publicly, the three governments have pledged to eradicate graft. Hernandez's cabinet chief Carlos Madero said Honduras was committed to tackling corruption and would remain a reliable partner for Washington in counter-narcotics.
Guatemala's presidency told Reuters combating corruption was a top priority: not based on "dispositions or conditions from abroad" but because it was "the right thing to do."
El Salvador's government, which did not reply to requests for comment, has promised to clean up public life, launching an internationally backed anti-graft commission in 2019.
But with the Biden administration planning to increase aid to the region and U.S. lawmakers wary about wasting taxpayers' money, Washington will not cut "a blank check" to its governments, a senior U.S. official told Reuters.
U.S. officials say Washington wants to channel support to civil society groups, limiting direct aid to governments.
Still, one U.S. official, who asked not to be identified, expressed concern that NGOs were often not equipped to absorb the millions of dollars Washington wanted to deploy, and that they too required higher levels of transparency.
The United States is considering conditional cash transfers to help address the economic hardships that lead people from the Northern Triangle to trek to the United States, as well as sending COVID-19 vaccines to those countries.
U.S. officials say Central American countries should support a regionally backed and independent anti-corruption commission, similar to ones established in Guatemala and Honduras that were shuttered in 2019 and 2020.
Washington also wants more Justice and Treasury Department officials working in the region to combat crime, and to create a new office for investigating corruption, one U.S. official said.
In El Salvador, Bukele must commit to a clear separation of powers and transparency, the official added.
Corruption is just one factor fueling migration. Governments are also struggling to combat endemic violence by street gangs, and the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. Two hurricanes also devastated the region in November.
"The people get poorer and they, the officials in charge, get richer," said 39-year-old Laura Escobar, a Salvadoran who plans to emigrate after losing her job in the pandemic.
(Additional reporting by Nelson Renteria in San Salvador, Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa, Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Dave Graham, Daniel Flynn and Alistair Bell)