MR BROWN: All right. So this morning, we have two briefers here. We have Hugo Rodriguez, our deputy assistant secretary of state for – in our Western Hemisphere Affairs Bureau, and from INL, we have Patrick Ventrell, who is the director of the Office of Western Hemisphere Programs. And we’re going to be talking a lot about – Anticorruption Day is coming up soon, so we’re going to be talking a lot about that in the coming week, and they have some things they want to share with you this morning.
This briefing is on the record. They’re going to give – both give opening statements and then we’ll take probably somewhere between 10 and 15 minutes of questions, okay? All right. Hugo.
MR RODRIGUEZ: All right. Thank you.
QUESTION: Do you mind coming a little closer?
MR RODRIGUEZ: Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR RODRIGUEZ: Thanks. Let me know if you can’t read that. As Cale said, my name is Hugo Rodriguez. I’m the DAS for Mexico and Central America in the Bureau of Western Hemisphere Affairs, and we just wanted to share with you some of the stuff we’re doing in – particularly in Central America on anticorruption, but in the region in general.
So since December 9th is International Anticorruption Day, we hope to shine a light on corruption and inspire citizens, watchdogs, and journalists like you to do the same, because as the saying goes, sunlight is the best disinfectant. Central America, with the notable exception of Nicaragua, is blessed with democratic institutions, young populations, and thriving U.S. trade and investment. Yet despite these competitive advantages, Central America suffers from perceptions of widespread corruption.
In the past few years, we’ve seen numerous Central American government officials forced from office, sent to prison, and investigated for corruption. It’s no surprise that a majority of people in Central America believe that corruption is pervasive. Corruption threatens the national security of the United States and the countries of Latin America, and Central America in particular, in three significant ways.
First, corruption undermines democracy by stoking cynicism about the integrity of politics, causing citizens to lose faith in government officials and institutions. Second, corruption stifles economies because when powerful interests capture a country’s public resources for private gain, they undermine the drivers of economic growth such as financial stability, investment, public services, and disposable income. And third, corruption promotes criminality by facilitating a variety of other crimes such as drugs and weapons trafficking and allowing criminal organizations to operate with impunity.
The U.S. Government fights corruption by partnering with our Central American government and civil society partners to enhance the rule of law, bolster justice systems, and strengthen democratic institutions. Patrick will provide details on our targeted anticorruption foreign assistance programs designed to advance these objectives. To fight corruption, the U.S. also denies visas to foreign government officials and their immediate family members who are involved in significant acts of corruption, and it has applied economic sanctions against corrupt officials in Venezuela, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.
U.S. sanctions and assistance alone cannot solve this problem. It’s essential for Central American government leaders to demonstrate the political will necessary to combat endemic corruption by prosecuting officials involved in wrongdoing no matter how connected or high-ranking they may be.
This morning, I’d like to recognize a few anticorruption heroes in Central America. First, in Costa Rica – first is Costa Rica’s first female attorney general, Emilia Navas, who prosecuted numerous public officials for embezzlement, obstruction of justice, and influence peddling related to the Cementazo scandal in 2017.
Second, the prosecutors from El Salvador’s anti-extortion task force obtained convictions last year against 13 major gang leaders as well as a former congressman for his involvement in an extortion scheme.
In Honduras, the anticorruption body MACCIH has fought corruption alongside the Honduran public ministry since 2016. Thanks to hard work by Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla and his fiscalia team, MACCIH investigators have successfully investigated and convicted a former first lady on fraud and embezzlement charges. It is vital that the Honduran Government approve the renewal of MACCIH’s mandate before it expires next month.
These are just a few examples, and we’ll share more over the coming week via social media to highlight this issue and honor these heroes.
Let me turn it over to Patrick Ventrell from INL.
MR VENTRELL: Okay. Good morning, everybody. It’s great to see all of you. It’s been a handful of years since I was in the Bureau of Public Affairs and had a chance to work with many of you, but it’s good to see you all back in my role here in the INL bureau, which is International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs.
I wanted to share with you some of our efforts in INL to fight corruption in Central America today. For us, corruption is a key security concern as it contributes to lack of trust in institutions and a lack of hope for people that things will improve in their countries. And when combined with insecurity and weak economic prospects, these factors prompt illegal immigration from Central America to the United States.
INL partners with governments and civil society to implement transparency reforms, internal affairs controls, and oversight to reduce the potential for corruption. We also build capacity of police, prosecutors, and judges to investigate, prosecute, and sentence corrupt officials.
One example of that is in El Salvador, where INL and the Department of Justice support the anti-impunity group, a specialized unit in the attorney general’s office which has secured the conviction of transnational criminals and corrupt officials, including a 10-year sentence for former President Antonio Saca on charges of money laundering and embezzlement of approximately 260 million of government funds.
You heard DAS Rodriguez mention, in Costa Rica, where we’ve had a very productive relationship with the attorney general’s office and their work to improve internal administration, to reduce vulnerability to corruption, and the help of the attorney general, Emilia Navas, who’s brought corruption charges, as DAS Rodriguez mentioned, against numerous public officials.
I want to underscore to you all today the department’s commitment to continue working with the prosecutors and the judicial authorities in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador in particular, to further strengthen their institutional capacity to fight corruption and impunity. In INL, we are actively building these capacities and pushing for an intensification of host-country efforts to deliver results.
INL also manages unique anticorruption visa authorities, which bar the entry of corrupt officials and their families to the United States. These lifetime restrictions not only hold the individuals accountable but also deter future criminal behavior.
In March of this year, Secretary Pompeo publicly designated former Guatemalan supreme court magistrate Blanca Stalling under 703(c) – 7031(c) due to her involvement in significant corruption. Our visa authorities allowed us to publicly designate her family members as well, ensuring the families of corrupt officials do not benefit from their illicit acts. And as you saw from the statement from the Secretary yesterday, we have made the same designation for former Guatemalan minister Alejandro Sinibaldi and his family, who now face a lifetime ineligibility to enter the United States.
We will continue to intensify the use of this significant policy tool in Latin America and globally, and I want to make it clear today that corrupt leaders and former leaders in the hemisphere need to take note that we will be much more aggressively using these anticorruption visa authorities in coming weeks and months, which will cut off their travel and their family’s travel to the United States and publicly name and shame them. So no more shopping trips or trips to Disney for corrupt leaders. No more prestigious studies in the United States for immediate family members who benefit from ill-gotten gains robbed from public coffers. And we hope this powerful tool will serve as an impactful deterrent for public officials across the hemisphere who face the temptation of using their offices toward corrupt ends.
So thank you for the opportunity to talk to you all about our work in INL in Central America, and we look forward to hearing your questions.
MR BROWN: Okay. Matt.
QUESTION: Hey, Patrick. The – when the aid to the Northern Triangle countries was suspended —
MR VENTRELL: Yes.
QUESTION: — how much of your – how much of that was money that goes to anticorruption, which you said in your opening is a key way to reduce illegal immigration?
MR VENTRELL: Yeah, I —
QUESTION: And how much of it has been restored?
MR VENTRELL: We may have to get back to you to see if we can get a number figure on that, but as I can describe it a little bit better. There were some FY18 funds that were reprogrammed away from Central America. Recently, there were the FY17 funds that were put on hold, which have been now turned back on and we’re actively using.
QUESTION: All of them?
MR VENTRELL: In INL, upwards of 95 to 98 percent of our funds for FY17 were turned back on. And I would describe, as we looked at the program that we had in place as we had the pause, I don’t think we really had to pull back on any of our lines of effort, including the counter-corruption efforts or the training of judges or prosecutors. None of that was suspended and we were able to take the pause to prioritize, target some of our programs, see what was working and not, but we weren’t in a place where we had to cut off – we had enough pipeline in most of these countries to continue our significant lines of effort.
QUESTION: Okay. So for your portfolio, the suspension didn’t have a measurable impact?
MR VENTRELL: I mean, the suspension provided for a moment where we did need to prioritize some of our efforts. We did have to look at what was working and not and make some judgments. But we weren’t in a place where we – there are some contracts that we’ll have to re-compete and a few things that we’ll have to turn back on, but by and large we didn’t stop the majority of our programs. But it was very useful leverage to get the governments to take more proactive measures.
MR BROWN: Okay. Now, Carol.
QUESTION: You did not specifically mention the demise of CICIG in Guatemala. What do you think the impact of that has been? And since you talked about the importance of naming and shaming, what do you think the message is the United States was criticized for basically staying silent as the government there harassed and worked to end that UN program? And some people thought there might have been something of a quid pro quo with the relocation of the embassy to Guatemala (inaudible). But what’s the – basically, what’s the impact? And in retrospect, do you think you should have spoken out more about it to protect it?
MR RODRIGUEZ: So for any of these programs, whether we’re talking about CICIG or MACCIH or now the new CICIES that’s sort of underway in El Salvador, it’s critical for those programs to get buy-in across the spectrum. They’re not going to be successful if they can’t bring the government along with them and the private sector and the citizen on the street. And so I think one of the things that undermined CICIG was their inability to sort of bring everybody with them. The Guatemalans pointed out that this was, at least as far as the sitting government was concerned, a sovereignty issue. And I think we have learned and others have learned a lot from this experience. We’ve pressed hard on the Government of Honduras to renew the MACCIH mandate, and we think that some of the things that CICIG failed to do MACCIH is doing much more effectively, and that’s also informing sort of our input with the Government of El Salvador on CICIES as well. So it’s a learning process, but we think CICIG did a lot of good work as well, and we’ve learned from those efforts and taken those lessons with us to Honduras and El Salvador as well.
MR BROWN: Tracy.
QUESTION: Just a —
MR VENTRELL: I just wanted to add to that because I think it’s important to note: INL, we’ve done a lot of work over the years to build capacity of the local prosecutors, of the local judicial systems, and CICIG not being there anymore doesn’t change one iota our commitment to the anticorruption efforts, the training we’re doing – they have a special unit within their prosecutor’s office that does this kind of work. One of the first things I did when I came into this position was go to Guatemala and make sure that we’re pushing so that that unit has the right support, that any of the case work that was done under CICIG is maintained and none of that case work lost. And so our commitment to anticorruption there is quite firm.
MR RODRIGUEZ: Yeah.
MR VENTRELL: I know DAS Rodriguez and his leadership, as well as our leadership in INL, met with the incoming president to make very clear our commitment to anticorruption, and I think our capacity-building efforts from INL across all three countries that we’re talking about will continue in these special prosecutorial units that each country has.
MR RODRIGUEZ: That’s very true. President-elect Giammattei has signaled on a new – on a number of occasions to me and to my leadership as well his commitment to anticorruption and anti-impunity efforts. So working through INL, we are hoping to keep the pressure up on the new government as they take office in January.
MR BROWN: Back to Tracy.
QUESTION: I just wanted to – yeah, thank you. I just wanted to follow up on that. I don’t really understand how it would be a sovereignty issue that they could claim. I mean, it was UN-sanctioned. And if you’re going to – anytime the UN sanctions something you’re going to declare it a sovereignty issue, it seems like that opens the door to any government that gets a little upset about how close they’re getting to them, which was the perception that the president felt he was going to be next on the list, and so he raises the sovereignty flag. I’m just confused about how that could be acceptable.
MR RODRIGUEZ: I can’t speak to what the president’s concerns were, but having worked in the region pretty much my entire career, if you can’t bring the government along with you, you’re not going to be able to get anything accomplished, and I think that’s where we learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t work. And so as far as whether the sovereignty claim is – has grounds or not, CICIG was not able to bring the government along with them, and that’s what they need to work on.
MR BROWN: Beatriz.
QUESTION: Thank you. The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, has been accused of corruption, allegedly, of receiving money from El Chapo in New York – in the court of New York for his presidential campaigns. Do you consider him a reliable partner fighting corruption?
MR RODRIGUEZ: So as far as the Hernandez family, I would defer to DOJ on those questions. As far as whether Honduras is a reliable partner, we continue to work closely with Honduras at cabinet level, sub-cabinet level to make progress across a full range of shared priorities.
Patrick can talk a little bit about the specific programs. I will just mention that we continue to signal to the Government of Honduras the importance we place on them extending the MACCIH mandate and the good work that MACCIH has been doing there with the attorney general’s office. We really think that they need to continue that mandate and continue to support those efforts.
MR VENTRELL: And we from INL continue to have funding available to support those efforts particularly on countercorruption, but also our training of their police and the judicial and prosecutorial authorities in Honduras as well.
QUESTION: But just a follow-up. Apart from trusting and working with the Government of Honduras, all the officials there, do you personally trust the president of Honduras to work in these matters?
MR RODRIGUEZ: We have worked with President Hernandez up to this point. We have signaled to him that we continue to have priority issues we want to engage with the government on, and he’s indicated that he wants to continue to work on those issues with us. But as far as where things stand, that’s a DOJ issue.
MR BROWN: Good. Michel.
QUESTION: Yeah. To what extent is Hizballah benefitting from this environment to finance itself, and if you have any numbers?
MR RODRIGUEZ: Do you —
MR VENTRELL: I don’t think we have anything specific to Central America. We’re obviously aware of some of their efforts more widely in Latin America and the region, some of their money laundering efforts. We work in INL with a number of the governments across the Western Hemisphere to strengthen their money-laundering capabilities, their antinarcotics capabilities, and certainly we have an eye toward anything that Hizballah might be doing in the region, but I don’t have anything further for you.
MR BROWN: Jessica.
QUESTION: Could you talk about the outlook for FY 2019? Looking on — at the government figures, it seems that there’s a significant drop in aid to the Central American region as sort of a trend across the board, but it’s quite sharp. So what are you expecting for FY2019, and how’s that going to affect your programs?
MR VENTRELL: Yeah, I mean, I don’t have an outlook yet to share on FY2019. We’re working through that. From INL’s perspective, we continue to work on our programming and our main lines of efforts. Some of the pause that we had, or freeze if you’d like to call it, was a really useful moment for us to see where we’re targeting our assistance. And in a couple of countries we’ve been able to say we need to more narrowly target it or make it more. In Guatemala, for instance, we were probably spreading our assistance to too wide an area, and now we have some zones that we’re going to target strategically, so we were able to make some of those judgments during this time of pause. And we now have a pipeline that’s sufficient to really carry through in all three of these countries on a number of our strategic priorities from INL.
MR RODRIGUEZ: I think we have also identified partners both in the private sector, in the NGO community, that have expanded the breadth of the things that they were doing as well. So we continue to press, our embassies continue full-bore moving forward on our priorities with these governments. So I don’t anticipate we’re going to see a big decrease in activity in 2020.
MR VENTRELL: DAS Rodriguez makes an important point about the private sector. In El Salvador in particular, the Howard Buffett Foundation stood up and decided to build their important forensics laboratory in consultation with us and our expertise in INL. They funded some of the police athletic leagues and other anti-gang recruitment activities and tools we have in El Salvador. So we’ve got an interesting public partner – public-private partnership that’s kind of come up in a couple of these countries that’s been very productive.
MR BROWN: Michele.
QUESTION: You mentioned, Patrick, that the pause in aid gave you some leverage with these governments. So what did they do that changed their outlook on things?
MR VENTRELL: Well, a lot of this had to do with the migration space, and I’d defer to DAS Rodriguez on that. But then I can talk about the programming.
MR RODRIGUEZ: Generally speaking – so obviously, migration is a major national security concern for the administration. The pause was very useful in signaling to the governments of the Northern Triangle in particular the high level of interest we put on this. And so we have found them to be very cooperative partners on what we see as a shared challenge. That’s I think what Patrick means by getting a higher level of political will, a higher level of focus on these issues.
One of the challenges is we can’t do this by ourselves. And what DHS has seen on the southwest border in terms of a real crisis of sort of unseen proportions in terms of arriving migrants is not the kind of challenge that we can take on and resolve alone. So we have been able to bring that challenge to our Central American counterparts, signal to them the importance we place on it, and get their buy-in, get their cooperation.
MR VENTRELL: And then on the programming side, we’ve had an opportunity to look very carefully at where the highest outbound migration areas are, the highest violence, and try to target our programming so that it’s not enough just to spend the foreign assistance dollars and to do the programming, but to make sure that it has – not only that the training happens, but then it has the added impact that we’re looking for. And so we’ve been able to better target some of that.
QUESTION: Can you give an example?
MR VENTRELL: As I mentioned before, Guatemala. I think that’s one where we’ve been able to look at some of the areas in Honduras, too, where some of the highest outbound areas are, where the violence is highest. We’d already been doing some place-based strategy, but this helped us further target using metrics and look at some advanced metrics about where the most troubled areas are. In El Salvador, we’ve been able to ramp up our efforts, combining with President Bukele’s Plan Territorial, I believe it’s called. We also have a plan called Programa Contra Programas where we’re going after gangs at the leadership level, down to the clique level, down to the gang members on the street. And we’ve been able to target that in geographic spaces and have some pretty positive results on gang violence on the streets in El Salvador, and we’re seeing the homicide rate continue to go downward in El Salvador, which is a very positive indication.
QUESTION: Could I just follow up specifically on this? You mentioned getting the buy-ins of those governments. Is that what you would attribute the decline in El Salvador migration to the United States?
MR RODRIGUEZ: It’s – I think it’s a host of factors. I think that through the efforts, combined efforts with the Government of El Salvador, Governments of Guatemala and Honduras, and the Government of Mexico, we have been able to demonstrate the dangers of the journey, we’ve been able to sort of separate out those who are legitimately seeking asylum and those who are traveling for economic reasons and basically disincentivizing some of that outbound travel.
QUESTION: Thank you.
MR BROWN: Sure.
QUESTION: Thank you. You mentioned that the renewal of the MACCIH in Honduras is very important for the United States. How hard are you pressing on this? Are you meeting officials in the Government of Honduras? Are you meeting with people in the parliament that, as you know, passed these laws that give them immunity? So who are you working with?
MR RODRIGUEZ: We are. We’re meeting at all levels of government, we’re meeting with civil society, we are out in social media. The Assistant Secretary has been out on social media in the last couple of weeks pressing again on MACCIH. The Secretary has as well, working with the OAS and other international partners to press for this. So we’re pulling all the levers we’ve got. The president of Honduras, foreign minister of Honduras, they know where we stand. I have personally delivered the message on a number of occasions. This is very important to us.
QUESTION: How did you deliver the message to them?
MR RODRIGUEZ: Personally.
QUESTION: Did you —
MR RODRIGUEZ: Verbally. (Laughter.) The same way I’m delivering it to you today, eye-to-eye. (Laughter.) Yes.
QUESTION: Can you talk at all about the possibility of terrorist designations for cartels in Mexico?
MR RODRIGUEZ: So, as the President said, it’s something that we are looking very closely at and we have been looking very closely at. I don’t think we have any specifics to share at this point. We’re also in conversations with the Government of Mexico.
What we’re looking to do is put at the service of the Government of Mexico any and all tools we have at our disposal to cooperate on the shared security challenge that the drug trafficking organizations pose.
QUESTION: But they’re pretty furious at the idea now, aren’t they?
MR RODRIGUEZ: I think they’ve been very measured. Again, I mean, it’s about cooperation, right, and so we have to work with them to find the tools that are going to be appropriate in the context. But as the President mentioned, this is something that the U.S. interagency has been looking at for the past – I want to say months.
QUESTION: How does a U.S. FTO designation help Mexico?
MR RODRIGUEZ: Well, FTO designations bring with them the ability to sanction.
QUESTION: That’s worked so well in Lebanon. What – I don’t understand how —
MR RODRIGUEZ: I think that’s —
MR BROWN: Any questions on corruption in the Western Hemisphere?
QUESTION: I understand how you – I understand how it gives you guys tools, but I don’t understand how it gives Mexico tools.
MR RODRIGUEZ: Well, it’s a shared fight, so – I would just say that —
QUESTION: Well, but your argument in favor was that we want to give Mexicans everything – as much as we possibly can to help them. I don’t get how a U.S. FTO designation helps Mexico.
MR RODRIGUEZ: So let me go back again. It is a shared challenge and a shared fight. So if we have tools at our disposal that we can use that help contribute to addressing the DTO challenge, we’re looking at it.
MR VENTRELL: And I’d just add our assistant secretary traveled down I believe about six weeks or so ago to Mexico to have a very serious conversation about our concerns about the evolving drug threat, in particular synthetics, the growing strength of the cartel. So it’s a very serious conversation we’re having with them at a high level because they threaten people on both sides of the border with really serious ramifications. So we take the cartel threat very seriously, and it’s one that we’re in INL taking seriously as my assistant secretary engages very closely with Mexican authorities as well.
MR BROWN: All right, last question, Humeyra.
QUESTION: Do these tools involve any deployment of U.S. forces in any way? There is the sovereignty issue. Can you talk a little bit about the tools?
MR RODRIGUEZ: It’s – yeah, it’s really speculative. I – we are not at that level of discussion on this.
MR VENTRELL: What I —
MR BROWN: This is an internal deliberation, something we can’t really speak to here.
MR VENTRELL: But from INL —
MR BROWN: Anything on corruption?
MR VENTRELL: From INL, we train the Mexican police and have for many years, and so we’ve built up their capacities and some really – with some programming over many years that’s given them significant new capacities.
MR BROWN: All right.
QUESTION: Thank you.
QUESTION: But just to clarify, the President has said that this designation was happening. Like, he said this is happening, but what you’re saying is that it might be happening and it’s under deliberation. So what should we take away from that? Is it a done deal or not?
MR RODRIGUEZ: Internal deliberations.
MR BROWN: Can’t speak about internal deliberations. Thanks.