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Harris Heads To Guatemala

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Vice President Kamala Harris travels to Guatemala this week as part of an effort by the Biden administration to address the issues pushing people to leave their countries. Corruption and failure to adhere to the rule of law are among the concerns Harris is expected to address. Her visit comes after Guatemala recently forced a senior judge with a reputation for fighting corruption off the bench. Maria Martin reports.

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VICE PRESIDENT KAMALA HARRIS: It is an honor to be with all of you.

MARIA MARTIN, BYLINE: A few weeks ago, Vice President Kamala Harris hosted an extraordinary meeting in Washington with four Guatemalan judicial officials globally considered champions of justice.

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HARRIS: A table of leaders who have fought for justice, who have fought against injustice, often at great peril.

MARIA MARTIN: One of the justices present was a magistrate with Guatemala's highest court, constitutional court Judge Gloria Porras. She had just a few weeks earlier been prevented by Guatemala's Congress from being sworn in after being elected for a third term. During her decade on the bench, she battled corruption and graft. Porras has criticized her removal as an affront to judicial independence.

GLORIA PORRAS: (Through interpreter) The reasons they gave to not seat me are, as I understand, political and illegal.

MARIA MARTIN: The same week that Harris met with Judge Porras, there were several controversial arrests in Guatemala, arrests many democracy activists term politically motivated, such as that of reformist politician Juan Solorzano Foppa, a former tax agency head who went after powerful tax evaders. And just last week, a legal action was introduced to dismantle the anti-impunity prosecutor's office of the Justice Department.

PORRAS: (Through interpreter) The situation in my country is quite complex, as it's currently undergoing various levels of conflict, all of them related to the fight against corruption.

MARIA MARTIN: Democracy activists say Vice President Harris has her work cut out for her.

MANFREDO MARROQUIN: Because she's going to have to be able to change all the country. The system is run by the corruption.

MARIA MARTIN: Pro-Democracy activist Manfredo Marroquin of Accion Ciudadana believes since the ouster of the U.N.-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity two years ago, Guatemala has returned to its traditional power structure, with a very few wealthy and influential individuals in charge playing along with the growing strength of drug and other mafias. This makes viable change, he says, almost impossible and presents a huge challenge to Vice President Harris and the Biden administration.

MARROQUIN: The migrants - they never going to stop trying to go to the U.S. if the country doesn't change. And that has to do with the governance system of government and the rule of law and democracy and human rights.

MARIA MARTIN: In her meeting with Porras, Vice President Harris said battling injustice is the main aim.

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HARRIS: Injustice is a root cause of migration. And in particular, it is causing the people of the region to leave their homes involuntarily, meaning they don't want to leave, but they are fleeing.

MARIA MARTIN: So Judge Gloria Porras and others who want to see a different Guatemala are placing their hopes on Vice President Harris.

PORRAS: (Speaking Spanish).

MARIA MARTIN: "Both countries need each other," says Porras. "It's just out of the question that Guatemala become a country whose main export is its own citizens." For NPR News, I'm Maria Martin in Antigua, Guatemala. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.