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Do you need to counter the authoritarianism in Central America? Observe the cash.

During her recent visit to Guatemala, US Vice President Kamala Harris warned migrants "are not coming" – a message that should be in vain. Many drivers of migration are not in the hands of the USA: climate change, food insecurity, crime and corruption. And although Harris and US President Joe Biden have announced that they will focus their efforts on addressing these root causes, previous efforts – particularly against corruption – have been thwarted by governments in the region that view such efforts as an existential threat.

During the same visit, Harris also announced a new Department of Justice (DOJ) anti-corruption task force for the Northern Triangle, which consists of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. But in recent years its leaders have been busy dismantling any institutions that could provide transparency or control over the president's power, including the anti-corruption commissions of all three countries: the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the Mission to Support the Struggle against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras and earlier this month the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). The day after Harris & # 39; Announcement announced Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele that it would make Bitcoin legal tender and alerted the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about possible easing of money laundering and tax evasion.

During her recent visit to Guatemala, US Vice President Kamala Harris warned migrants "are not coming" – a message that should be in vain. Many drivers of migration are not in the hands of the USA: climate change, food insecurity, crime and corruption. And although Harris and US President Joe Biden have announced that they will focus their efforts on addressing these root causes, previous efforts – particularly against corruption – have been thwarted by governments in the region that view such efforts as an existential threat.

During the same visit, Harris also announced a new Department of Justice (DOJ) anti-corruption task force for the Northern Triangle, which consists of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. But in recent years its leaders have been busy dismantling any institutions that could provide transparency or control over the president's power, including the anti-corruption commissions of all three countries: the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the Mission to Support the Struggle against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras and earlier this month the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). The day after Harris & # 39; Announcement announced Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele that it would make Bitcoin legal tender and alerted the United States and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) about possible easing of money laundering and tax evasion.

Any successful approach to the Northern Triangle must take into account two converging phenomena: the United States is less hegemonic than it used to be, and the region is becoming increasingly autocratic. Presidents consolidate their power in partnership with elite criminal networks to isolate themselves from public accountability and outside pressure.

However, as these governments become more repressive and corrupt, their Achilles heel – reliance on global money – remains on foreign governments, international financial institutions, banks, investors, and their own overseas citizens. And since corruption is largely financial in nature, combating it requires the involvement of these actors; Washington cannot do it alone, and Biden's approach must be both bold and realistic about America's influence and borders in the region. To that end, it should focus on four areas: criminal investigations, targeted sanctions, credit supervision and accountability in trade agreements.

Prosecutors in the United States have already launched criminal investigations into various government officials and government officials in the area. In 2019, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was named a co-conspirator in a drug trafficking case by the New York City Southern District Attorney's Office. That year, a southern district court convicted his brother Tony Hernández, a former congressman whose initials were stamped on packages of cocaine he smuggled. He was charged with using drug trafficking revenues to fund his brother's presidential campaign.

Similar patterns have emerged elsewhere. Bukele is surrounded by numerous officials and individuals with alleged ties to Alba Petroleos, a partnership that effectively serves to launder money for PDVSA, Venezuela's state-owned oil company, which is subject to international sanctions, and the Texis Cartel, another money laundering ring. In Guatemala, several officials have been named for customs fraud and conspiracies, including former Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina. Government officials in those countries who tried to investigate these links, including the former Salvador Attorney General, have been fired and replaced with more personable people. Journalists seeking transparency were intimidated and harassed. That year, Guatemala's Congress refused to put a well-known anti-transplant judge on the Constitutional Court. These raids are often publicly reprimanded by US officials, but not much else.

But money laundering and other financial crimes go beyond borders, and prosecutors in the United States and other countries do not face the same pressures as diplomats. As the DOJ's case against Hernandez shows, criminal investigations can bring such officials to justice. Migrants often cite their own governments as a motivation for leaving; Proof that no one is above the law discourages future misconduct and ultimately creates public confidence in the institutions.

Here too, multilateral fora can play a key role. The Organization of American States, which worked with El Salvador to create CICIES before it was closed, could release information from the government-suppressed corruption investigations requested by human rights groups. International and non-governmental organizations can continue investigations blocked by governments and provide direct transparency to the people.

The Biden administration can also send out a clear, deterrent message with targeted sanctions. The government has already taken steps to identify officials with known criminal connections. A list from the US State Department names, among other things, the head of cabinet from Bukele and the former chief of staff of the President of Guatemala Gustavo Adolfo Alejos. However, this strategy of name and shame requires officials who care about shame. It must also have direct consequences. Comprehensive sanctions are a blunt tool that is often harmful to ordinary citizens and ineffective against government officials, as the Trump administration's policies towards Venezuela and Iran have shown. However, there are more targeted sanctions that can be directed against government officials, particularly the US Treasury Department's Global Magnitsky Act sanctions that freeze their accounts and prevent companies from doing business with them. These have been applied to Saudi officials linked to the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi. As a result of the application of the Magnitsky Act, the Treasury Department's Financial Crimes Enforcement Network can also investigate money laundering by US banks and seize assets held in the United States by corrupt officials. The United States can also ban corrupt officials from obtaining visas. Visa sanctions don't seem like a harsh punishment, but such instruments become more effective when coordinated with visits to other countries.

As other countries know, the United States has significant influence over international credit institutions such as the IMF, the World Bank, and the Inter-American Development Bank. These institutions can continue to require enforceable standards of financial transparency and rigorous audits as conditions for loans to countries in the region in collaboration with the United States and other lenders.

Bukele's Bitcoin announcement, in particular, underscores the desire of some governments to protect themselves from the control of these organizations. But El Salvador's designation of Bitcoin as a currency threatens its access to credit, a dangerous prospect for a country whose external debt is approaching 100 percent of its GDP. Cryptocurrency can make money laundering and sanction evasion easier because peer-to-peer transfers are not monitored by Swift, the global messaging system for banks – a concern previously voiced by US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen. The stalled negotiations with the IMF for a $ 1 billion loan likely reflect the fund's concerns about El Salvador's future ability to fight tax evasion and the possibility of balance of payments problems under a bitcoin dual currency system. To prevent money laundering, the United States and international financial institutions should refrain from accepting funds from Bitcoin transactions as payment for international obligations of the Salvadoran government and consider the risk of default of any government that puts its revenue on the future value of the cryptocurrency.

Procurement fraud is another common form of corruption. Again, credit institutions can play a role in stopping the transplant. Prior to its closure, El Salvador's anti-corruption agency investigated the misuse of funds by the Ministry of Health in the purchase of personal protective equipment and pandemic supplies following an IMF COVID-19 emergency loan. Credit institutions are required to maintain tight oversight and grave consequences for tax evasion and fraud, putting direct pressure on governments that rely on credit to close their budget deficits.

The Biden government can also take immediate action against corruption and anti-democratic measures through its strategic approach to trade in the region. Unlike other parts of Latin America where the United States has withdrawn, the United States remains Central America's largest trading partner. The Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA-DR) encourages many trade activities, including $ 10 billion in exports from the region to the United States. The review of trading conditions in the face of corruption and democratic relapse could have major political implications in the region.

There are precedents for this: In Nicaragua, the US has already responded to the Ortega government's persecution of political opponents and election manipulation by threatening to review the country's participation in CAFTA-DR. Trade agreements contain provisions on workers' rights and in support of civil society organizations, some of which are threatened by these governments. As little as these conditions have been enforced in the past, it is no excuse to let them slide in the future so that repression is not rewarded with trade privileges. Reviewing existing trade agreements is an immediate step towards accountability that administration can take.

Trade deals also need to hold US companies accountable by demanding transparency standards within global supply chains and ensuring that companies do not benefit from tax evasion, bribery or customs fraud. Enforcing high rule of law standards is good for business: Investors and trading partners are looking for predictability and are unlikely to rely on countries where the rules are subject to the whims of individual leaders. A review of CAFTA-DR could fight corruption and authoritarianism as well as strengthen economic health in the region in the long term.

The causes of migration from the region lie not least in the history of the United States on the ground, which often strengthened authoritarian regimes and laid the foundation for today's rulers. For historical, cultural, diaspora, and economic reasons, the United States retains enormous influence in the region. Should it seek to repay its debts to the people of the region, a good start would be to hold the officials who steal from them accountable – and to focus on policies that make life in the region easier for ordinary citizens makes it fairer.

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