Exclusive: U.S. backing for Guatemala drug cartel fight key to ending graft, minister says

FILE PHOTO: Guatemalan Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo holds a news conference accompanied by U.S. President Joe Biden's special envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zuniga (not pictured), during a two-day visit to the country, in Guatemala City, Guatemala, April 6, 2021. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) - Guatemala has asked the United States for support in fighting drug cartel money-laundering that the Central American country sees as a key source of corruption, Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo said, as Washington ramps up a focus on graft in the region.

The government of President Joe Biden has put the battle against corruption at the heart of efforts to slow migration to the United States from Central America.

Last month, Washington was outspoken in criticism of Guatemalan authorities for perceived backsliding on judicial independence; sanctioned a former and a current lawmaker for alleged corruption, and announced a plan to create an anti-corruption task force for Central America.

Brolo said a department in President Alejandro Giammattei's office that had U.S. support was fighting corruption in the executive branch, and that the government had identified that funds from drug traffickers were a key driver of graft.

"There is a historic cause of corruption in Guatemala and it is drug trafficking," Brolo said in an interview with Reuters on Tuesday during a visit to Mexico.

"The president has asked for support, a collaboration to follow the traceability of laundered money," he said, calling money laundering a major cause of corruption and highlighting a new anti-laundering law proposed by Giammattei.

Guatemala is a major transit country for drugs, especially cocaine, and for trafficking proceeds.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment for more details of the request. Brolo did not give more details.

The State Department's 2021 global narcotics control report said cartel activity fueled corruption in Guatemala. The report said more progress was needed on fighting money laundering.

It says the Guatemalan Navy has been an effective deterrent to trafficking by sea, but that trafficking using executive jets increased last year.

The government's focus on cartels had helped reduce sea shipments of drugs by 90% and in the past month and a half Guatemala had not detected drugs flights in its territory, Brolo said.

The State Department report also stated that drug traffickers have influence over some elected officials within Guatemalan institutions.

Brolo said it was not his place to comment on possible links between Mexican drug cartels and elected officials, including lawmakers in Guatemala's Congress, seen by anti-corruption campaigners as a major issue undermining the rule of law.

"That definitely corresponds to criminal justice entities, the Attorney General's office, to define who has such links of not," Brolo said, adding that the government was focused on seeking international help strengthening institutions.

Guatemala was aware of the U.S. plan to create an anti-corruption task force of U.S. investigators but did not have further information about its scope, Brolo said.

Brolo also said it was not the government's place to comment on a recent power struggle that ended with Congress preventing judge Gloria Porras from being sworn in to another term on the country's highest court, in what critics including the White House said was a step back for judicial independence.

"We can't interfere in that process," Brolo said, referring to a series of appeals over the election of three of the 10 judges and alternates who sit on the court.

(This story corrects date in dateline to May 5)

(Reporting by Frank Jack Daniel; Editing by Alistair Bell)

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