GUATEMALA CITY — The teenager sitting beside Nikki Haley had a red scar along her jaw line, and elastic bandages covered her arms.
She had clasped Haley’s hand as she guided the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations around the shelter where she lives. Haley gently placed one hand on the girl’s knee, encouraging her to tell her story.
She talked haltingly of surviving a fire at a state-run orphanage where 41 girls died in a locked room. Now, the dead girls and the 15 survivors have come to symbolize much that is wrong in Guatemala — the deepening poverty, the crying need for social services and the cronyism that brought inexperienced leadership to the agency that oversaw the home.
“The pain you have — pull something out of it to make you feel it was worth it,” Haley said. “We aren’t defined by what happens to us. We are defined by what you do with it. You are meant for great things.”
Haley’s visit to the shelter, which just got $2.2 million in U.S. aid, was part of her vaguely defined trip to Central America to determine whether she can push counternarcotics and anti-corruption initiatives at the United Nations. Everywhere she went, she met with people who want U.S. funding to continue or be expanded.
The time Haley has spent with ordinary citizens sets her apart from other officials who have visited the region with a similar agenda. On her overseas travels, she often makes a point of talking to women and girls like those in El Refugio, where she met the burn victim. She thinks of them as a truth squad and frequently mentions them in her U.N. speeches.
“Women really are great at being blunt and telling the truth,” she said. “They’re great at identifying challenges but also have an interest in solutions.”
It is no coincidence that Haley visited Guatemala and Honduras. The two countries sided with the United States on a resolution condemning the U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. That prompted her pledge to “take names” of the 128 countries that denounced the U.S. move.
Haley says she is convinced the United Nations can play a role in curbing international trafficking in drugs and humans, although she is not clear how. Her talks with the presidents of Guatemala and Honduras focused not only on traditional U.N. concerns but also bilateral issues more typically addressed by the secretary of state.
At a meeting Wednesday, Haley told Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, a former television comic who was elected in 2015, that the United States supports a United Nations-backed anti-corruption panel and its head, Iván Velásquez. Morales has sparred with Velásquez over a fraud investigation that implicated the president’s brother and son, and has sought Velásquez’s removal.
Haley said she told Morales that it was “in his best interest” to support the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which gets $44 million, almost a third of its budget, from the United States. She also met with officials from the commission, urging them not to tout their approval ratings, which are higher than the government’s, or pass out bumper stickers saying “I love CICIG.”
“I told them they should be like the FBI,” she said. “Everybody knows they do their job, but they do it quietly.”
“They don’t need to be in the paper every day,” she added.
The commission, which has operated in Guatemala for a decade, sees its anti-corruption efforts as integral to fighting poverty and malnutrition in a country where 7 in 10 people are officially poor, and half live in extreme poverty.
“At the end of the day, we are trying to strengthen democracy here in Guatemala,” said Osvaldo Lapuente, an official with the commission. “We think the U.S. is a really important ally for us in that agenda.”
On Thursday, Haley flew to a Guatemalan naval base that has played a key role in maritime interdictions of boats used to smuggle cocaine north from Colombia. Standing in an open-air auditorium where seized cocaine is laid out for cataloguing, she heard Guatemalan officials make a pitch for more planes, boats and equipment to replace their aging fleet.
An old U.S. ship from the Vietnam War era stood on blocks in the shipyard, its interdiction days over. Nearby were dozens of seized fishing boats and a handful of homemade submarines fashioned from fiberglass, canvas and duct tape. The newest ships, 11 Boston Whalers, are eight years old and often run out of gas mid-mission.
Last year, Guatemalan crews seized more than 10,000 kilos of cocaine, a 40 percent increase over the previous year. But they say they could do more.
“We want more equipment and training,” said Enrique Degenhart, the government minister in charge of police and security. “We’re not asking for boots on the ground. We’re basically looking to be more efficient.”