MR PRICE: Thanks very much, and thanks very much for joining us, everyone. We wanted to take a moment to offer a bit of context on what you saw from Secretary Blinken earlier today. As you saw, we transmitted to Congress and released publicly our Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors List.
We have joining us today Special Envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zuniga, who will offer some remarks at the top of the call and who will then look forward to taking your questions on today’s report.
So without further ado, I’ll offer a reminder that this call is embargoed until its conclusion, but I will then turn it over to Ricardo to get us started. Over to you, sir.
MR ZUNIGA: Ned, thank you very much. So thank all of you for joining us today for this briefing. As the White House recently emphasized, combating corruption is a U.S. national security priority. As you know, President Biden and Vice President Harris are very focused on leveraging their experience – years of experience – in addressing the root causes of irregular migration from Central America, and these two topics come together very closely in that part of the world because corruption and attacks on democracy are viewed as some of the most important root causes of irregular migration from Central America. They hobble governance, they distort markets, they undercut development efforts, and ultimately, they demoralize a population that decides to embark on a very dangerous irregular migration to Mexico and the United States because they don’t believe they can build their futures at home.
Today the Secretary of State announced the transmittal to Congress of the Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors List, a report required by Section 353 of the United States-Northern Triangle Enhanced Engagement Act. So this report lists individuals from Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador who have undermined democratic processes or institutions, engaged in significant corruption, or who have obstructed investigations into such acts.
So these efforts are very much in support of the people of Central America. The citizens of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador have consistently repudiated corruption, demanded accountability from their governments and private actors, and acted in defense of democratic institutions. Unfortunately, all too often corruption and abuse from office go unpunished even though they are often investigated by public servants who are attempting to complete their work. The United States stands with Central American citizens, organizations, and public servants who are committed to promoting the public good.
We’re committed to generating opportunity and hope among the people of the region in the face of attacks on democratic institutions and setbacks on the rule of law and efforts to combat impunity. So we will use the full range of tools, including actions like this one provided by Congress, to shine a light on corruption and encourage the strengthening of democratic institutions to make life better for our neighbors in Central America.
So with that, I’ll take some questions.
MR PRICE: Wonderful. Operator, if you want to repeat the instructions for asking a question.
OPERATOR: Certainly. Once again, if you’d like to ask a question, please press 1, then 0 at this time.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to the line of Ted Hesson.
QUESTION: It’s Ted Hesson with Reuters. One thing we noticed with this list of actors is there didn’t seem to be too many officials who were involved or allegedly involved in narco-crimes, and specifically with Guatemala’s UCN party. And we were wondering why that was, if there was a reason for it, and what your response is to that.
MR ZUNIGA: So, there was no effort to exclude people who were involved in narco-trafficking, and in fact, some of the people who were listed do have some affiliation with either trafficking or with criminal organizations. This is – this list is one of a variety of tools that we have available for providing accountability for corruption and undemocratic actions. It’s also not a final list. This is an initial list provided in response to the congressional mandate. It’s required at least once a year, so we will use this and other tools to highlight people who are involved either in corrupt acts or in obstructing the democratic process, or perhaps we can use other tools as well to highlight people who are involved in organized crime. So this is – this list is not exclusive of that, and there certainly was no effort to exclude people who were potentially involved in organized crime activity.
MR PRICE: We’ll go to Chris Sherman.
QUESTION: Hello, good afternoon. Thank you. This piggybacks a bit on Ted’s question. But obviously, this could always be a longer list, and you said this was just the initial one, but can you speak at all to how the line was drawn at where these are? Obviously, there are some people in the region. You had expected to see some other names on there. Can you talk about how it was composed?
And in terms of (inaudible) —
MR ZUNIGA: Sure.
QUESTION: — is that just an initial step? Could there be harsher sanctions for these people?
MR ZUNIGA: So I’ll start with the second part first. And yes, the action that we take under this authority does not exclude other sanctions, and in fact, a number of the people who are on this list have been the subject of other measures by – from the United States, including by the Department of State, to hold them accountable.
The list was prepared based on an extensive review of credible information that we had that was both classified and unclassified information pertaining to the known engagement in acts that undermine democratic processes or institutions who are involved in significant corruption or in obstruction into investigation into such acts of corruption. We vetted those names. There was more of a focus on – because this list is intended to both identify people involved in these actions and to dissuade future activity, certainly there was more attention to more recent cases where we had more recent information and for people who were either currently involved in government or near or were in positions of influence to demonstrate that that’s – this is our area of focus.
As you said, this is not a – we don’t view this as the end of the action but as an initial response to the request from Congress. We are also considering if additional actions will be taken based on information we developed during the – during our – the organization of this list.
MR PRICE: Let’s go to the line of Rafael Bernal.
QUESTION: Thank you for having this. I guess that they asked a couple questions that I had, but I noticed in the Salvadoran list you have a couple of actors here who allegedly engaged with the Chinese in inappropriate behaviors. What’s the message that you want to give Central American, at least government officials, et cetera, on their engagement with other world powers that might be wanting to move in into the region, particularly China and Russia?
MR ZUNIGA: So the real message there as it relates to this list is that it’s the type of activity that we’re targeting. If there’s corruption around efforts to build influence, certainly that is something that is going to get a great deal of scrutiny.
But again, it has to do, in the case of this list, with the act of – acting corruptly to obtain or to act on behalf of another actor. And certainly there – in the cases that you cite, there was concern, very much concern at the time expressed by people in El Salvador and which United States echoed, regarding the use of corruption to try to expand the influence in a commercial deal. And that is very much at issue.
We certainly are aware of there being the real line between normal economic competition and competition that is undermined by the use of purchasing influence or by suborning actors inside of Central America to act on behalf of – well, really any power should – those are all of great concern to us.
So one thing is the normal economic competition that you would have, and the other is actions that are corrupt and that are in – on behalf of an external actor that seeks to build influence that way.
MR PRICE: We’ll go the line of Matthew Russell Lee.
QUESTION: Sure. Thanks a lot. And thanks, thanks for doing the call. I wanted to ask about Honduras. In looking at the list, you have former President Pepe Lobo, you have current Congressman Oscar Najera, and you mention this Cachiros. But being here in the Southern District of New York court and covering the trials of the brother of the current president and of Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, it’s clear that President Juan Orlando Hernandez is mentioned repeatedly by Department of Justice prosecutors as not only getting campaign contributions from drug traffickers but perhaps being involved in it himself. So I’m wondering: On this specific case, can you say what the reasoning is of not having him on the list?
MR ZUNIGA: So for questions about U.S. criminal prosecutions, we obviously refer you to the Department of Justice. We do – this list is intended to demonstrate that we have a commitment to the rule of law and to fighting impunity in Honduras. We’ve made that clear in our communications with governments across the region, including Honduras, and we’ve made clear that leaders who seek a close relationship with the United States have to demonstrate a commitment to combating corruption.
We use, again, a variety of tools for promoting accountability and combating impunity. This is one – this list is one of several tools that we use for that purpose. We do work with other actors in Honduras in government, in civil society, in private sector, and – but again, our primary commitment is to leaders who demonstrate a commitment to combating corruption.
MR PRICE: Well, it looks like we’ve exhausted the questions in queue unless anyone else wishes to jump in. I want to thank our speaker, Special Envoy Zuniga, for spending some time with us today. And thank you to everyone who called in, and we look forward to speaking with you soon.
MR ZUNIGA: Thank you very much, Ned.
MR PRICE: Thanks.