GUATEMALA CITY (Reuters) -U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris promised U.S. support to tackle issues such as corruption, in meetings with Guatemalan civil society leaders on Tuesday as the United States seeks to stop an increasing number of migrants fleeing the region.
"I'd love to get your thoughts on policies and in particular which U.S. policies ... have and have not worked in the past," Harris told the virtual roundtable.
President Joe Biden tapped Harris to lead U.S. efforts with Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala as his administration grapples with the growing number of families and unaccompanied minors arriving at the U.S. border.
Former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein, who took part in the discussion, said he told Harris that "forced migration" would not stop until corruption and impunity were addressed.
"I insisted that there are sufficient indications that organized crime and structures of corruption are infecting public institutions and are trying to co-opt the public decision-making centers of the Guatemalan state," said Stein.
The meeting came one day after Harris met virtually with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and U.S. sanctions were imposed on Felipe Alejos Lorenzana, an elected member of Guatemala's Congress, and Gustavo Adolfo Alejos Cambara, chief of staff under former President Alvaro Colom, over corruption allegations.
Felipe Alejos Lorenzana and Gustavo Adolfo Alejos Cambara did not respond to Reuters' requests for comment.
Speaking to local media, Felipe Alejos said he learned of the U.S. sanctions through news reports.
"At this moment, I have no opinion in respect to the matter," he said.
Alvaro Montenegro, representative of the Justice Now Movement, who took part in the meeting, said he thanked Harris for Monday's sanctions and stressed that more should follow. He added that Harris did not respond directly to his appeal.
While top U.S. officials have railed against corruption in Guatemala and other Central American nations, frictions have emerged between Washington and Central American governments.
Guatemalan lawmakers refused this month to swear in a corruption-fighting judge, Constitutional Court President Gloria Porras, despite her having the support of the United States.
On Monday, the Constitutional Court ruled against a motion seeking to allow Porras to take her seat on the bench.
Another participant in Tuesday's meeting, Salvador Biguria, vice president of the business group the Foundation for the Development of Guatemala (FUNDESA), appealed to Harris' background as the former attorney general of California.
"As a former prosecutor, Madame Vice President, you know well that the certainty of punishment is more effective than the severity of such punishment," he told Harris. "In Guatemala, the reality is that there are little consequences for most crimes."
On Monday, the White House announced an additional $310 million in U.S. government support for humanitarian relief and to address food insecurity in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.
The humanitarian aid includes $125 million from USAID to deal with repeated droughts, food shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic, along with $104 million from the U.S. State Department to help with the safety and protection of refugees and asylum seekers.
(Reporting by Sofia Menchu in Guatemala City and Nandita Bose in Washington; Writing by Laura Gottesdiener; Editing by Grant McCool and Peter Cooney)