U.S. to unveil human trafficking steps; Harris visits Guatemala

by Reuters
Monday, 7 June 2021 01:51 GMT

U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris and Guatamala's Foreign Minister Pedro Brolo wave upon her arrival at Guatemalan Air Force Central Command in Guatemala City, Guatemala, for her first international trip as Vice President to Guatemala and Mexico, June 6, 2021. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

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The vice president will announce steps to combat human trafficking and focus on economic development, climate and food insecurity and women's issues

By Nandita Bose

GUATEMALA CITY, June 6 (Reuters) - The United States is expected on Monday to announce steps to tackle human trafficking and smuggling in Guatemala, a senior U.S. official said, as Vice President Kamala Harris visits the region to try to lower migration from Central America's Northern Triangle countries.

Harris' trip to Guatemala and Mexico this week is likely to emphasize cooperation with non-government organizations, amid some criticism from local officials over the timing and thrust of her mission to curb migration to the United States from the region, advisers and experts said.

The focus on civil society could be a sore point in Mexico, which sent a diplomatic note to Washington in May complaining about U.S. support for a group that President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador considers to be part of the political opposition.

Speaking as Harris flew to Guatemala, a senior U.S. official said that in addition to announcing the steps to combat human trafficking, the Biden administration hoped on Monday to unveil anti-corruption measures in the Central American nation.

The vice president's first overseas trip since taking office, which began on Sunday, will focus on economic development, climate and food insecurity and women's issues, White House officials say.

Harris's advisers said she will meet community leaders, workers and entrepreneurs, and have sought to lower short-term expectations from the three-day trip, highlighting her focus on root causes for migration such as corruption that have plagued the countries for years.

Harris landed in Guatemala on Sunday and was to fly to Mexico on Tuesday where she will spend the day.

"This trip is not about having a fully fleshed out plan for the region...but hopefully understanding what the direction is," Andrew Selee, president of the Migration Policy Institute, who participated in a meeting Harris convened about problems in the region.

A key measure of success for Harris's trip will be whether she can show that the United States cares about creating legal pathways for migration from the region, Selee said.

After President Joe Biden took office in January, the number of migrants taken into custody by U.S. agents per month on the Mexican border rose to the highest levels in 20 years. In March, Biden tasked Harris with lowering migration from the 'Northern Triangle' countries- Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Since then, Harris has met with civil society leaders, announced additional aid of $310 million for the region, and secured investment commitments from companies included Microsoft . The Biden administration has also committed to sharing vaccines with both countries.

Mazin Alfaqih, a special adviser to Harris for the Northern Triangle region, told reporters on June 1 the administration understands that foreign assistance alone can not tackle the problems in the region.

"We hope that the vice president's first visit shows that she, and the United States, are standing with the people and communities organizing for change, and not with corrupt and abusive government officials," said Lisa Haugaard, co-director of the Latin America Working Group, another participant in the Harris meeting.

In May, some Central American leaders pushed back on the Biden administration's anti-corruption strategy, which included releasing a list labeling 17 regional politicians as corrupt.

Mexico's diplomatic note in May asked the United States to suspend financial backing for Mexicans Against Corruption and Impunity (MCCI), a group Lopez Obrador says seeks to undermine his government.

Harris Mexico visit comes as Mexicans elect a new lower house of Congress, state governors and local lawmakers, in a race seen as a referendum on Lopez Obrador's efforts to shake up the country's institutions.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, a Mexican government official said the timing of Harris's visit was not ideal and, expected the Mexican government to keep the talks low-key as the results of its biggest ever elections were processed.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose; Additional reporting by Frank Jack Daniel in Mexico City and by Ted Hesson and Dave Graham in Washington; Editing by Alistair Bell, Peter Cooney and Diane Craft)