U.S. slaps sanctions on Guatemalan officials in corruption crackdown

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Joe Biden's special envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zuniga walks during a news conference, in San Salvador, El Salvador April 7, 2021. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The United States on Monday imposed sanctions on a member of Guatemala's Congress and a former presidential chief of staff in the country over alleged corruption, as Washington presses a number of Central American governments to crack down on graft.

The move was announced hours before U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was due to meet with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei to discuss an increase in Central American migration that has led to a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border.

In a statement, the U.S. Treasury Department said it had blacklisted Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, an elected delegate in Guatemala's Congress, and Gustavo Adolfo Alejos Cambara, who was chief of staff under former President Alvaro Colom.

"These sanctions support efforts by the people of Guatemala to end the scourge of corruption, as part of the U.S. government’s commitment to support improvements in governance in Guatemala," U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said in a separate statement.

A senior U.S. official last week said the Biden Administration is considering creating a task force of officials from the U.S. Justice and State Departments and other agencies to help local prosecutors fight corruption in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

Ricardo Zuniga, U.S. special envoy to the three Central American nations, also told reporters the U.S. government has authority from the U.S. Congress to craft lists of officials in the region who are involved in corruption, revoke their travel visas and impose financial sanctions on them.

Guatemalan lawmakers recently refused to swear in a corruption-fighting judge, Constitutional Court President Gloria Porras, whom U.S. officials had seen as key to the country's fight against graft.

Monday's move, which Washington said was taken in coordination with the United Kingdom, freezes any U.S. assets of those blacklisted and generally bars Americans from dealing with them.

Blinken said Gustavo Alejos and Felipe Alejos "sought to interfere with the judicial selection process for appointing magistrates to Guatemala’s Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) and Court of Appeals."

He said the two attempted to influence the selection process for magistrates to both courts and to secure judicial rulings that would protect Gustavo Alejos and CSJ judges from corruption prosecutions.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Paul Simao and Dan Grebler)

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