The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The U.S. must support the rule of law in Central America. Let’s start in Guatemala.

Supporters attend a rally for the presidential candidate Alejandro Giammattei, from the party Vamos, in Guatemala City on July 21. (Esteban Biba/EPA-EFE)

Norma Torres, a Democrat, represents California’s 35th Congressional District in the U.S. House.

There’s a foreign election taking place this month that few people in the United States are talking about, even though the results will have a direct impact on our southern border and the current immigration crisis.

On Aug. 11, Guatemalans go to the polls to elect their next president. The winner will have the power to enact policies — such as cracking down on government corruption, improving security, and attracting aid and investments — that could prevent more people from seeking refuge in the United States.

There’s a lot that needs to be addressed urgently in Guatemala. I care about this not only because it’s good policy but also because of my personal experience.

My story is not much different from the story of the children separated from their parents sitting in cold holding cells at the border. During the Guatemalan civil war, my parents were forced to send me to the United States to live with my uncle. My childhood was stolen from me by the corrupt government officials and criminals running the country then. Today, we must do all we can to ensure little girls in Guatemala can keep their country and see their future in Guatemala.

The current president, Jimmy Morales, wants to shut down a popular U.N.-backed agency that has been conducting groundbreaking corruption investigations that have put criminals and even past presidents in jail, and was in the process of investigating Morales’s family for fraud and money laundering.

The next president must bolster the agency, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, known as CICIG, which is the most popular institution in the country. But the two leading candidates — former first lady Sandra Torres or former prisons director Alejandro Giammattei — have said they won’t renew the agency’s mandate.

The repercussions of their inaction will be felt quickly in the United States. The largest number of undocumented immigrants now comes from Guatemala.

The Obama administration took a drastically different approach to the Northern Triangle, which consists of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. Government corruption in these countries is rampant — and the stolen money is often designated for anti-violence and poverty programs. Gang violence and drug trafficking fuel the violence and extreme poverty that plagues the region.

Under President Barack Obama, the United States financed plans to reduce migration from the Northern Triangle that included investing in jobs for young people and reinforcing local border protection. We were also vetting and training their military personnel and national police force. The United States, and other partner countries, funded the U.N.-backed agency to fight government corruption and increase transparency. Joe Biden, as vice president, was in constant communication with regional leaders, meeting frequently with their presidents for progress checks.

Right now, refugees from the Northern Triangle are locked up in inhumane conditions in the United States. It all fell apart under the Trump administration because President Trump lifted political pressure from the leaders in the Northern Triangle and removed necessary funding. In March, he canceled $450 million in humanitarian aid that Congress appropriated to the Northern Triangle.

Things will get even worse now that the Trump administration has signed an asylum agreement with the Guatemalan government, making it more difficult for refugees from countries such as Honduras and El Salvador to seek asylum in the United States. This will deny individuals and families international protection to access the asylum process. The agreement is also fundamentally unworkable in a country like Guatemala, with its elevated levels of poverty.

There’s no longer a way to hold the next president of Guatemala accountable to fight government corruption, end poverty and take on the drug cartels. Trump’s policies punish innocent children and ignore the countries and the root causes of mass migration. This approach doesn’t work — it just creates more problems at our southern border.

But there is a clear path to increase accountability, and Guatemala’s election presents an opportunity.

I’ve passed legislation that requires the State Department to identify corrupt elected officials in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. We should use the Magnitsky Act to impose economic sanctions on elected officials who enrich themselves as living conditions worsen. If you want to end corruption, go after the money. Hit them where it hurts most.

If the next elected president of Guatemala opts to protect a corrupt system, the United States needs to be prepared to respond. That person needs to think twice before going after independent agencies that are trying to strengthen the rule of law.

Read more:

Mark L. Schneider: Guatemala’s election may hold the answer to solving the migration crisis

The Post’s View: In Guatemala, the rule of law strikes back

Stephanie Leutert: How climate change is affecting rural Honduras and pushing people north

Megan McCardel: The immigration conversation we need to have — and soon