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Sep 5, 2020

The Robert Mueller of Latin America

Co-produced with PRX Logo

Crusading prosecutor Iván Velásquez has been called the Robert Mueller of Latin America. He’s known for jailing presidents and paramilitaries.

But Velásquez met his match when he went after Jimmy Morales, a television comedian who was elected president of Guatemala. Morales found an ally in Donald Trump.

Like the alleged quid pro quo with Ukraine that prompted Trump’s impeachment, the details can seem confusing – but, ultimately, Velásquez says, the both parties got what they wanted: Morales got Trump to pull U.S. support for an international anti-corruption force that was going after his family. And he says, Trump secured Guatemala’s support for some of his most controversial policies, both in the Middle East and on immigration.

Veteran radio journalist Maria Martin teams up with Reveal’s Anayansi Diaz-Cortes for this week’s show. Martin takes us to Huehuetenango, a province near Guatemala’s border with Mexico that sends more migrants to the U.S. than anywhere in Central America. There, she shows that Trump’s hard-line immigration policies are doing nothing to slow the movement of people from Guatemala to the southern border of the U.S.

Credits

Reported by: Maria Martin, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes, Aaron Glantz
Lead producer: Anayansi Diaz-Cortes
Edited by: Aaron Glantz and Kevin Sullivan
Production manager: Najib Aminy
Production assistance: Najib Aminy, Claire Mullen, Amy Mostafa, Priska Neely
Sound design, mix, and music by: Jim Briggs, Fernando Arruda
Special thanks: Willi Vergara, Jo Marie Burt, Deborah George, Martin Reynolds, Kate Doyle, Luis Solano, Paula Worby, Fund for Investigative Journalism
Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan
Host: Al Letson

Transcript

Reveal transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors. Please be aware that the official record for Reveal's radio stories is the audio.
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Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting in PRX, this is "Reveal". I'm Al Letson.

 

Al Letson: It's recess, we're outside a tiny five room schoolhouse in a remote village in the mountains of Guatemala. On this late Summer day, children play in the dirt and grass outside the blue stucco building. Some are dressed in sweat shirts, others wearing indigenous clothing; red and white shirts with embroidered collars. Veteran reporter, Maria Martin is here.

 

Maria Martin: Good Afternoon.

 

Al Letson: Everywhere you look in this village, you see American flags painted on the sides of houses and flying in front of cinder block homes. Those houses are built with money sent home from abroad. This has been going on for generations.

 

Maria Martin: [Spanish]

 

Al Letson: "How many of you have family in the US?" Maria asks.

 

Maria Martin: [Spanish]

 

Al Letson: Hands spring up.

 

Maria Martin: [Spanish]

 

Maria Martin: I ask them if they also wanted to go North to the US. [Spanish]

 

Maria Martin: Most of them said yes, and I was struck by the reasons for wanting to go. It wasn't to live a better life or to eat MacDonald's or find the American dream. [Spanish] It was, they said, to pay their families' debts.

 

Al Letson: Debt. These eight year olds are worried about their families' debt. It's a story Maria heard often in her reporting in Guatemala.

 

Maria Martin: This small village in the municipality of Todos Santos, Huehuetenango is really poor. In this mostly indigenous province, the poverty rate is over 70%. People here have no opportunity to get ahead unless they have relatives in the States who can send them money, and because of this dire situation, migration has become almost a tradition. A rite of passage.

 

Al Letson: Maria has been coming to these communities for decades, living in Guatemala for more than 15 years.

 

Maria Martin: I've always felt called to cover Central America because it seems that, except when there are wars or earthquakes, there's little interest in Guatemala or the Central American region. But when Trump was elected I knew that migration would become a big political story and that despite his hard line immigration policies, people would continue to come North. And I wanted to know how that would play out in a place like this community of Todos Santos.

 

Zoila Calmo: [Spanish 00:03:31].

 

Maria Martin: That's where I met [Zoila Calmo 00:03:37]. She's a round-faced Maya woman who looks a little beaten down by life, and understandably so. I followed her family for the past two years. I've traveled to her village where she lives in a small house made of wood, metal sheeting and dirt floors, it sits on top of a hillside with no road access and no running water.

 

Maria Martin: Her husband, Hilberto, who's here too, makes six dollars a day when he can get work. But the work is sporadic, she feels completely abandoned by the government.

 

HIlberto: [Spanish 00:04:10].

 

Maria Martin: Even now, the only future that Zoila and her family see is in the US.

 

Zoila Calmo: [Spanish 00:04:26].

 

Maria Martin: Zoila speaks in the Maya "Mam" language. Through a translator, she tells me about a dark day back in 2018. Her husband Hilberto had left the village to journey north to the US. He took their eight year old son "Franklin" just as Trump's family separation policy was at it's peak.

 

Zoila Calmo: [Spanish 00:04:52].

 

Maria Martin: She tells me that when they got to the US, she found out that Franklin had been separated from his father. And for months, they had no idea what happened to him.

 

Al Letson: So Maria, when we hear about these people fleeing to the US, the question that often gets asked is why? Why do they leaves their countries and why should it be the responsibility of the US to take them in?

 

Maria Martin: The answer to that question is rooted in a history that goes back to the 1950s.

 

Maria Martin: In 1954 the CIA, under president Eisenhower, ousted Guatemala's first democratically-elected president.

 

Speaker 6: [Spanish 00:05:37].

 

Maria Martin: This was during the cold war. The US claimed that supporting military dictatorships prevented the spread of communism. These were regimes that the US government helped put in power and funded with taxpayer money, and that committed massacres and genocide and were responsible for the disappearance of an entire generation of Guatemalans. Over 200,000 people according to the UN. The majority, indigenous Maya.

 

Maria Martin: It wasn't until 1999, after Guatemala was at peace, that president Bill Clinton traveled to the country and apologized.

 

Bill CLinton: I will reaffirm America's commitment to shed light on the dark events of the past, so that they are never repeated.

 

Maria Martin: The US had apologized, but the legacy of those violent conflicts remained. In the wake of those wars corrupt politicians, not too different from military dictators, took power. They perpetuated a system where a handful of elites got much richer and everyday Guatemalans were stuck in a cycle of poverty.

 

Al Letson: There was a moment in Guatemala when people experienced real hope and saw possibility for change?

 

Maria Martin: That's right, it was a moment when the United Nations, the US and Guatemala all came together in an effort to root out corruption and establish the rule of law in the country. They promised that everyone, no matter how rich or powerful, would face justice so that eventually people could live securely in a society where they could support their families.

 

Maria Martin: This effort was really unprecedented, but that dream was short-lived.

 

Al Letson: How that dream fell apart and who's responsible. That's what today's show is about. Reveal's Anayansi Diaz-Cortes has spent the past year working with Maria to connect those dots. It's a story that shows how families like Zoila's intersect with some of the world's most powerful players: Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump. And it all revolves around an alleged quid pro quo between Trump and the president of Guatemala.

 

Al Letson: Anayansi begins the story in South America.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: I fly to Bogota, Columbia to meet the man they call "The Robert Mueller of Latin America." His name is Iván Velásquez and he bought down some of the most powerful people in Guatemala and I'm here to talk to him about it.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: We meet at a Best Western in one of the fanciest neighborhoods in the city. When he steps out of his taxi, he stands out.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: [Spanish 00:08:47].

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Sunglasses, a pressed shirt, good taste in shoes. We go up the elevator and settle down for a long conversation.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: So let me back up a little bit. In 2013, Velásquez was put in charge of the special United Nations body called "The International Commission against Impunity." Better known by its Spanish acronym, "CICIG."

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: The UN and the Guatemalan government, with backing from the US, set up the commission to root out corruption in Guatemala. This was after decades of civil war and military rule there. As head of the CICIG, Velásquez could investigate anyone, even the president. I ask him if he had any idea what he was getting into when he took this job.

 

Iván Velásquez: [Spanish]

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: He tells me he had no idea how complex the situation would be, even though he'd done similar work in Columbia where he'd investigated 139 members of congress and bought down the president for his links to paramilitary groups. So when the UN asked him to head the CICIG he thought, "It could be an interesting experience." And he says, "Without a doubt it was a very interesting experience."

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Not long after Velásquez started in 2014, Guatemala was at the center of an international migration crisis. 50,000 unaccompanied children arrived at the US-Mexico border and most of them came from Central America. So president Obama dispatched Joe Biden to Guatemala city, where Biden announced the US was throwing a ton of money at CICIG. It was something he talked about that whole summer.

 

Joe Biden: Here's the deal. There's a lot more we can and should do in the United States to deal with the root causes of this problem.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Root causes like violence and poverty. The US believed that CICIG could help prevent those by going after corruption. Velásquez's first big target went all the way to the top. He authorized wire taps that led to bribery and fraud charges against then president Otto Pérez Molina, who's still in prison today.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: With Pérez Molina behind bars, Guatemala had to hold new elections. Enter political newcomer, Jimmy Morales. Morales was best known for this weekly comedy show.

 

Jimmy Morales: [Spanish]

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: It's so crass. In almost every episode, he appears as a clown. But in blackface. And the show opens with Morales on a flying carpet. In the space of one minute he makes fun of black people, blind people. He makes a crude joke about the female anatomy. This direct, bigoted appeal, it's what helped get him elected.

 

Iván Velásquez: The business elite in Guatemala created Jimmy Morales. They paid for him to play the part.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Morales is a lot like Donald Trump. They're both very famous right-wing populists with no experience in government. Like Trump, Morales promised to drain the swamp. In fact, his campaign slogan was "Ni corrupto, ni ladrón." "Neither corrupt, nor a thief."

 

Iván Velásquez: I also believed that he could have good intentions, but I too was fooled.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: When Morales takes office, he has the support of the United States. At his inauguration in 2016, Vice president Joe Biden flies to Guatemala again. Biden walks down the stairs of Air Force two, whips off his sunglasses and waves to the crowd. President Morales is there, waiting to greet him on the tarmac. Later, the two world leaders meet at the InterContinental hotel.

 

Joe Biden: I spent so much time...

 

Speaker 13: The audio is a little hard to hear, but Biden is joking that he spends so much time in Central America, maybe he should run for office in Guatemala.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Biden and Morales sit in heavy arm chairs a few feet apart, talking as the press cameras flash.

 

Joe Biden: I want to compliment you on your-

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Biden doesn't just congratulate Morales, he announces $750 dollars in Us aid to Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras.

 

Joe Biden: We are [inaudible 00:13:45].

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: That money would go to the military, to economic development and to CICIG to fight corruption.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Just a week before Obama and Biden left office, Velásquez is photographed holding an oversized check from the US embassy for $7.5 million.

 

Iván Velásquez: When you can investigate, justice becomes achievable. Citizens develop a civil conscience, they become aware of and respect the law, seeding fear amongst the corrupt.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: It was a dream team. Velásquez's US office, president Jimmy Morales and the Guatemalan supreme court pulling together with US backing. Velásquez told me that for the first time, Guatemalan people were seeing the powerful being held accountable.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: And then...

 

Donald Trump: I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear...

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Donald Trump takes office.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: By then, things had begun to unravel between Velásquez and Morales. It starts with breakfast. 500 breakfasts, actually. Velásquez was investigating a case of fraud. Someone had charged toe government $11,000 for breakfasts that were never served. So Velásquez reaches out to Morales.

 

Iván Velásquez: And I told the president "Did you hear about this investigation? Your son's name appeared and it seems he has participated in fraud. I think your son should go before a judge."

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Several members of Morales' family were implicated. It wasn't a lot of money, but Velásquez says that's not the point.

 

Iván Velásquez: When we have known and seen always in these countries that justice does not reach the powerful. And our stance was serious, nobody's above the law.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Velásquez urges Morales to go on national television and condemn his own family. And Morales does.

 

Jimmy Morales: [Spanish 00:16:01].

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: With his wife by his side, Morales tells the country that they support their family and that he also believes justice should run its course. But that speech, it's not enough for Velásquez. He wants the president's family members to stand before a judge. And the breakfasts, well they were part of a much larger investigation. In fact, Velásquez was looking to impeach Morales for campaign finance violations. Morales was not okay with that.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: So Morales posts a video on twitter that ends up on national television where he denounces Velásquez.

 

Iván Velásquez: He declares me "Persona non grata." And he also demands that I leave Guatemala, effective immediately.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: But Velásquez refuses to leave the country and won't disband CICIG.

 

Iván Velásquez: I think that in this situation the masks came off, everyone was who they really were.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: The people of Guatemala take to the streets to support Velásquez. But then the Guatemalan congress gets involved. Lawmakers declare Morales immune from prosecution. CICIG is allowed to keep going with its other anti-corruption, but Morales is off limits.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: So Morales and Velásquez, they're kind of at a stalemate. But there's another campaign happening outside of Guatemala, one that will eventually bring down Velásquez.

 

Al Letson: After the break, Anayansi takes us 3,000 miles from Guatemala to a coffee shop in San Francisco. There, she meets a foreign agent who wants to topple Velásquez.

 

David Landau: We wanted the CISIG out.

 

Al Letson: And we head back to the hills of rural Guatemala, where families like Zoila's still dream of a better life in the States. This is Reveal, from the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I'm Al Letson. This week, we're spending the hour talking about Guatemala and how what happens there is connected to decisions made here in the US. We left off with crusading prosecutor Iván Velásquez standing his ground, refusing to leave Guatemala despite pressure from the president, former TV comedian, Jimmy Morales.

 

Al Letson: Reveal's Anayansi Diaz-Cortes picks up the story from here, tracking down one of Velásquez's most relentless opponents in the unlikeliest of places.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: We're in a coffee shop in San Francisco to meet a man whose part of this campaign to bring down Velásquez. It's just a few days before the pandemic closes everything and the place is crowded. Since we're in the bay area, we start with vegan cookies.

 

David Landau: These are California sun cakes. Have a bite, see if you like it. I hope you do!

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: This is David Landau and before we get to those cookies, let me tell you how we ended up here. While we were reporting the story, we kept hearing about this international lobbying organization called "The Association for the Rule of Law in Central America." We have no idea whose behind this group. We have just one clue, this document we uncovered filed under the Foreign Agents Registration act.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Scribbled at the bottom is the name of the American representative; David Landau. And this is where the world gets smaller. It turns out that my editor on this story, Aaron Glantz, he knows David.

 

Aaron Glantz: You showed me this document and I saw his name and I was like, "David Landau, with an address on the West side of San Francisco? I know David Landau, I worked with him at a radio station 20 years ago!"

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: So Aaron arranges for us to meet David in this coffee shop.

 

David Landau: I decided to make it easy for you, because I know you. I've known Aaron for a long time.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: David's an independently wealthy white guy. He dresses like a beatnik and still takes pride in being the editor of the Harvard Crimson back in the early 1970s. He doesn't seem to have to do anything for money, so he spends his time on his hobby: Writing about Latin America.

 

Aaron Glantz: So we ask him what his role is in this Guatemalan lobbying group.

 

David Landau: I agreed to become the American what ever it was, am I a director? Am I the president? I don't even remember what I am.

 

Aaron Glantz: Actually, he's listed as the director on the document we mentioned.

 

David Landau: We wanted the CICIG out. The activity was an effort at political persuasion between the government of Guatemala and find a way of reaching the president.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: In other words, they wanted to get Donald Trump to end CICIG. As for who his associates are? That was tougher to get out of him.

 

Aaron Glantz: Who are you helping?

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Who are the people?

 

David Landau: I am helping the funders of this activity and then the people who were carrying it out, but it wouldn't really be responsible for me to say who they were.

 

Aaron Glantz: So he's not going to tell us who's providing the money. And he doesn't have to, because in America, if you're lobbying on behalf of a foreign interest you have to tell the government that you're doing it. But you don't have to say where the money is coming from.

 

Aaron Glantz: The unfavorable way to look at this is money laundering, right? Because there are actors who are hiring a lobbyist and you are not those actors, but you are putting your name in and it obscures the actual actors from the public view.

 

David Landau: No, it doesn't. The fact is that I happen to be the one with an American address, post office box, whatever it was.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: I don't understand why David, an independently wealthy [Spanish] is so invested in Guatemala. And what's more, where does this grudge against CICIG come from? We spent two hours talking to David and he weaves this complicated story which essentially boils down to this.

 

Aaron Glantz: They're Marxists! Velásquez and his gang.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Even now, in the 21st century, David still sees communists everywhere. It goes back to this old idea that by going after the rich and powerful in Guatemala, CICIG is following a Marxist agenda to redistribute the wealth. You sometimes hear the same sort of thing from conservative politicians in the US who consider tax reform that helps the poor socialism.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: But David claims that's not it. He says Velásquez is a Marxist because he acts like a dictator. He even lumps Velásquez in with what he calls "The children of Fidel Castro." David says CICIG showed its true colors in 2018.

 

Aaron Glantz: CICIG began to work with the Russians and began to work with Putin, and-

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: You're saying this with a straight face, do you realize how crazy that sounds to a US audience?

 

Aaron Glantz: Yeah, but this was proven. This was demonstrated.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: I should say, there's no evidence that Velásquez worked with Putin or ever took money from him. And Putin isn't even a Marxist.

 

Aaron Glantz: A family called the Bitkovs, who had fled from the USSR. I'm sorry, it's me in the 20th century. Russia, okay? They fled from Russia and the CICIG took on the case of the Bitkov family.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: The Bitkovs are a family of Russian millionaires. Putin went after them for embezzlement, so they fled to Guatemala and bought fake passports to get Guatemalan citizenship. Velásquez had charges bought against them and the Bitkovs were thrown in prison. This is where David is trying to draw that Putin-Velásquez connection.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: It all sounds like a fringy conspiracy theory, but David's ideas soon make their way into the mainstream. First, the Wall Street Journal publishes a series of columns supporting the Bitkovs and before you know it, law makers are talking about it in the halls of congress. In April 2018, republican congressman Chris Smith questioned why Velásquez prosecuted the Bitkovs.

 

Chris Smith: These sentences were far harsher than those given to Guatemalan officials who perpetrated the sale of passports, they're harsher than sentences given to rapists and to murderers.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Law makers also suggested Velásquez was working with Putin. This is the same thing David landau told us. Velásquez turned down an invitation to testify at this hearing. While we were in Colombia, we asked him if he had any connections to Russia.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Are you a Russian agent? [Spanish] Vladimir Putin?

 

Iván Velásquez: [Spanish 00:26:23].

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: He tells me he's never been to Russia.

 

Iván Velásquez: [Spanish 00:26:33].

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: He has no relationship with anyone from Russia and CICIG has never received a single cent from anyone in Russia. No one has provided any evidence to the contrary. Velásquez says the reason they wanted him out has nothing to do with Russia, or Marxism. It has to do with who has power in Guatemala, and how to keep it.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: [Spanish 00:27:02]. I tell Velásquez it all seems like a cold war novel.

 

Iván Velásquez: [Spanish 00:27:07].

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: "Yes" he says, "But one written by Gabriel García Márquez." Velásquez was experiencing the solitude of his office. He was losing his political allies in the white house while Jimmy Morales was becoming closer to president Trump. They even attended the national prayer breakfast in Washington, together.

 

Iván Velásquez: President Jimmy Morales tells president Trump "I understand what you're going through. You are being persecuted by Robert Mueller in the states, I am being persecuted by Iván Velásquez in Guatemala. I know how much you've suffered throughout all of this."

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Velásquez was in trouble. His old ally, Joe Biden, was gone. And when Nikki Haley, Trumps ambassador to the United Nations paid Guatemala a visit, she told Velásquez to "Tone it down, stop bragging that you're more popular than the government and get rid of those "I love CICIG" bumper stickers."

 

Iván Velásquez: When ambassador Nicki Haley visits Guatemala, it's an explicit show of support for Morales. She has a series of complaints for me; Stop doing press conferences, [inaudible 00:28:16]. That is what is expected of my role at CICIG.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Within days of returning to Washington, Nikki Haley was talking about Guatemala again.

 

Nikki Haley: Thank you so much. You guys are amazing! Thank you so much.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Haley's speaking at the APAC convention, the largest pro-Israel lobby. Trump had recently announced that the US was moving its embassy to Jerusalem. A city both Palestinians and Israelis claim as their capital.

 

Nikki Haley: God bless Guatemala. They even joined us in moving their embassy to Jerusalem.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: You know who else spoke there? Jimmy Morales. He got a standing ovation

 

Jimmy Morales: Good afternoon. [Spanish 00:29:04].

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: We start to see a budding bromance between Trump and Morales. Velásquez believes the lobbyists helped bring them together by telling Morales, "Move the embassy and Trump will help you out." And what did Morales want in exchange?

 

Iván Velásquez: What Morales really wanted was to end CICIG. And if that was not possible, he wanted to make sure that at least I was no longer running it.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: So what's going on here? We started with David Landau. He and his lobbyist group wanted CICIG out. He had a theory that Velásquez was working with Vladimir Putin. A Wall Street Journal columnist and members of congress piled on. Velásquez is on the outs with the US while Morales is getting cozier with Trump.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: About six months after Morales pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem, Velásquez turns on the TV.

 

Jimmy Morales: [Spanish 00:30:01].

 

Iván Velásquez: And there's the president. Surrounding him are 50 military officers backing him up as he announces CICIG will not continue. Jeeps with mounted artillery are summoned to the capital. They park in from of the CICIG, the machine guns manned and pointed. A threat, with the military.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: The US military had provided the Jeeps to fight drug trafficking. It's a tense situation, Velásquez picks up the phone.

 

Iván Velásquez: I then talk to the US ambassador.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: But the United States won't help. And all of this shook Guatemalan society to the bone. It was a dark reminder of the civil war and military rule.

 

Iván Velásquez: Guatemala is a country that for decades suffered merciless repression by military dictatorship. An entire generation of intellectuals killed. There was a genocide. Thousands of indigenous people murdered, disappeared, tortured, all commanded by a government ruled by the military. So a military presence literally behind a president, it was a reminder, especially for those over 40 or so, this is how things used to be.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Velásquez tries to stick it out, but when he leaves the country for UN meetings in New York a few days later, Morales issues another public statement.

 

Iván Velásquez: Then they declare that I will not be allowed back in to Guatemala. I will not be let in.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: In spite of this, he boards his plane to Guatemala City and he's deported.

 

Iván Velásquez: My personal belongings stayed in Guatemala, but were later shipped to me.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: To Bogota, Colombia. His home country where we met earlier this year.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Velásquez says Morales also did something else for president Trump. In July 2019, Trump announces the so-called "Safe Third Country Agreement" with Morales.

 

Donald Trump: We've signed agreements with Guatemala that have been tremendous in terms of really both countries, but our country with respect to illegals coming into our country.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Under this deal, migrants from other Central American countries like Honduras and El Salvador can not apply for asylum in the US. Instead, they have to ask for asylum in Guatemala.

 

Donald Trump: Guatemala's been terrific.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: One month before this deal was announced, the Trump administration took care of one of Morales' biggest headaches. It cut off US funding to CICIG. I asked Velásquez if it was a quid pro quo.

 

Iván Velásquez: Yes, it's a transaction where both parties seek to win something. You help us by ending this persecution alleged by the CICIG and we will help you and help you shut down CICIG by cutting the funds. And that is exactly what happened.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Velásquez doesn't have documentation to back up his claim. We did talk to a senior state department official who told us he doesn't have evidence of a direct quid pro quo either, but he said "CICIG was a bargaining chip and both sides got what they wanted." Morales wanted CICIG gone and the Trump administration wanted Central Americans to stay in Central America.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: The trump administration wouldn't respond to our questions, but Trump has said he cut funding to CICIG because it hadn't done anything for the US. We also tried to reach Jimmy Morales. I got cell phone numbers for his son and his brother, you know, the breakfast people. And this summer, I gave them a call.

 

Samuel Morales: Hello?

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: [Spanish] Samuel Morales?

 

Samuel Morales: [spanish 00:34:28].

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Morales' brother Sammy picked up. We talked for 20 minutes, but he didn't agree to be interviewed on air. He told me that CICIG was corrupt and that Velásquez was only interested in publicity. "He sent a SWAT team to my home, he made a scandal over $11,000." Sammy told me.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: After Velásquez was kicked out of Guatemala, Sammy was acquitted.

 

Anayansi Diaz-C...: Velásquez tried to run CICIG from Colombia, but the end of US money made that impossible.

 

Al Letson: Trump and Morales say Guatemala is safe. But, if it's safe, why are thousands of people fleeing every year? When we come back, we head to the hills of Guatemala and investigate. That's coming up on Reveal.

 

Al Letson: From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal, I'm Al Letson. Today, we've been investigating the larger political forces around president Trump's immigration policy. Before the break, we heard how the Guatemalan president, Jimmy Morales, sent tanks to surround the headquarters of CICIG, the UN-backed anti-corruption commission. Veteran journalist Maria Martin was there in September 2019, a few days before CICIG finally closed its doors for good.

 

Maria Martin: To get to the CICIG's headquarters, I have to walk past a concrete wall and through a metal gate with guards. The mood is somber, as if somebody had died.

 

Maria Martin: CICIG spokesman Matias Ponce points out the chair where Ivan Velásquez used to sit. Tapping the furniture, as if to bring back the past, Ponce tells me about the 120 corruption cases that were investigated on this exact table.

 

Matias Ponce: [spanish 00:36:43].

 

Maria Martin: We continue our conversation in English.

 

Maria Martin: Some people say that this decision, to get rid of the CICIG by the Morales government will take Guatemala back decades of effort, decades.

 

Matias Ponce: Decades of effort because we were able to show to the people that the law is important to make a better country, independently of your economic and political power. All of society should respect the law.

 

Maria Martin: Ponce says CICIG's building is expected to be demolished. And just like that the UN anti-corruption force that took on two presidents and represented a beacon of hope for an entire generation of Guatemalans is no more. Without it's [Spanish 00:37:43], many Guatemalans are afraid. That brings us back to Zoila and her family, who we met earlier in the show.

 

Maria Martin: I've made so many trips to Zoila's small village. It's in a mountainous province, near Guatemala's border with Mexico that sends more people to the United States than anywhere else in Central America.

 

Maria Martin: During the civil war in the 1980s, Todos Santos was a center of bloodshed. For generations these indigenous communities have been marginalized, systemic discrimination has denied them access to educations and healthcare while investment has passed them by. And even today, there's little evidence of Guatemalan government support money or that US aid money that Joe Biden was talking about.

 

Maria Martin: The main economy here isn't factories or coffee, it's money sent home from abroad. From family members who have gone north. Everywhere you look there are spacious, multi-story American-style suburban homes. But for those who don't have relatives abroad, there's little for them here. I drive past Todos Santos and towards Zoila's village. We climb up higher into the mountains on a narrow, winding road. In some parts of this region people raise sheep, but here it's quiet. The houses get smaller and the roads turn to dirt.

 

Maria Martin: When we heard from Zoila earlier, she was telling us the story of how her husband Hilberto and their son franklin had been separated by the US border patrol. Hilberto tells me what happened next.

 

HIlberto: [Spanish 00:39:46].

 

Maria Martin: After they were separated, Hilberto was taken to a jail in Florence, Arizona. He didn't know what happened to Franklin.

 

HIlberto: [Spanish 00:40:00].

 

Maria Martin: This was Hilberto's second trip to the US. He'd also come north in the early 2000s. He worked in construction, building suburban track homes outside San Diego, but he was deported after a traffic stop. This time, sitting in the detention center in Arizona, he's given a choice. Incarceration or deportation.

 

Maria Martin: Hilberto says that in his cold cell, he couldn't take the sadness. He though he was going to die and he had no idea where Franklin was. So Hilberto made a difficult decision. He signed his deportation papers, leaving Franklin in the United States.

 

Speaker 21: Tonight, outrage across the country.

 

Speaker 23: Do you agree that we need to take care of those children?

 

Maria Martin: This was at the height of president Trump's family separation policy. His administration was separating thousands of children from their parents at the border and incarcerating them in gyms, warehouses and even cages. As for Zoila, she tells me through a Mom to Spanish translator about those dark days in 2018 when she didn't know what had happened to her husband, or to her son.

 

Zoila Calmo: [Spanish 00:41:47].

 

Maria Martin: Zoila said it was so hard when Franklin was gone that she started to get physically ill. "I thought he was dead and I was sick from the sadness, my whole body ached" she tells me. Zoila fell apart, outraged that her husband had gone to the US and returned without her son. She thought she would never see Franklin again.

 

Maria Martin: Zoila fell into a deep depression. Most days she didn't even get out of bed. She knew she needed help but couldn't afford to go to the doctor. And as for Hilberto, he had traveled 2,000 miles twice. He wanted to be able to send money home so that one day he could build one of those glorious suburban-style homes for his wife and children. But he'd been deported twice and now his family was accusing him of abandoning Franklin.

 

Maria Martin: Finally, Hilberto finds a lawyer in town and with his help, they're able to track Franklin down.

 

HIlberto: [Spanish 00:43:17].

 

Maria Martin: Where is Franklin? He was in New York, imprisoned in the federal detention center for children separated from their parents. When they finally reach him on the phone, it's heart wrenching.

 

HIlberto: [Spanish 00:43:37].

 

Maria Martin: "Why did you leave me here?" Franklin asked. "I didn't know where you were. When am I going to go back?" Hilberto didn't know what to answer. From his small village, even making a phone call was difficult. But finally, with the lawyer's help, six months after they were separated, Hilberto gets some good news. He's told to go to Guatemala city, that Franklin will be waiting for him there.

 

Maria Martin: Franklin was reunited with his parents on October 28, 2018. Around the same time the head of CICIG, Ivan Velásquez, was kicked out of the country. Franklin was still struggling to readjust to life in the village. I visited them the following September, while CICIG was closing it's stores for good.

 

Maria Martin: Franklin and I sit together, opening bottles of coke right at the bottom of the hill, not far from their house. His mother Zoila brings out a meal of boiled eggs and black beans. I try to make conversation with Franklin about what the shelter was like in the US, but he's withdrawn. The first time I saw him, he shrank against the wall. His father Hilberto says that Franklin came back a different little boy, he used to be talkative. And even now, a year after he came back home, when I ask him about his time in detention it's hard for him to say more than a simple yes or no. The only time he lights up is to say he liked the food he got there.

 

Maria Martin: "I liked the cornflakes and doughnuts at the shelter" he says. The family is happy to be back together, but at the same time Zoila and Hilberto don't have enough money to feed their three children one meal a day, every day. So for all the heartache, Hilberto says he didn't see any other choice when he took Franklin to the US.

 

HIlberto: [Spanish 00:46:03].

 

Maria Martin: "Why did I go?" He says, "Because of poverty." He was making a decision to support his family and in these western highlands of Guatemala, Hilberto's story is one shared by many.

 

HIlberto: [Spanish 00:46:24].

 

Maria Martin: The only job Hilberto can find is picking potatoes or gathering wood. Hilberto makes six dollars a day, but often can only find work two or three days a week. Hilberto says, "Even though the family is back together, they are poorer than before." To get to the states, Hilberto borrowed close to six thousand dollar from a bank to hire a [Spanish] to get them across the border. He still owes the bank that money.

 

HIlberto: [Spanish 00:47:05].

 

Maria Martin: He wants to pay off the debt, but he only makes six dollars a day, so he can't even pay the interest on his loans.

 

Maria Martin: Today, the US border with Mexico is closed and with coronavirus, in Guatemala people are also sheltering in place. Meanwhile, deportation flights sending migrants back from the US continue, hundreds of them since March. In late April, the Guatemalan government said that 20% of all COVID cases in Guatemala were coming from people deported by the US. One US congresswoman accused Trump of exporting death.

 

Maria Martin: I've been checking in on Zoila, Hilberto and Franklin since then. [Spanish 00:48:13].

 

Maria Martin: When I called this month, Franklin had come out of his shell enough to tell me that with the lockdown they aren't allowed to leave their village. And because of the coronavirus, there's even less work than before. "There's no money" he tells me. There's no food and there's no firewood. [Spanish 00:48:48].

 

Maria Martin: Franklin's father, Hilberto, still fantasizes about going back North. But there's no way he could secure another loan for a third trip to the US.

 

HIlberto: [Spanish 00:49:14].

 

Maria Martin: He tells me that he's waiting for Franklin, who's now 10, to reach his 18th birthday. Then his son Franklin can try his luck going North, alone.

 

Al Letson: Since CICIG was kicked out of the country, we've seen a return to the way things used to be. Guatemala's new president, Alejandro Giammattei, has deep ties to drug mafias and former military officials. He used to oversee the prison system and CICIG came after him for illegally killing prisoners. Since he took office, 12 human rights defenders have been killed in Guatemala and others have had to flee the country.

 

Al Letson: Thanks to reporter Maria Martin. Her book "Crossing borders, building bridges: A journalists heart in Latin America" is out this month.

 

Al Letson: Our lead producer this week is Anayansi Diaz-Cortes. Aaron Glantz edited this show with help from executive producer, Kevin Sullivan. Thanks to professor Jo-Marie Burt of George Mason University. Felix Perez-Mendoza, Luis Solano, Maria-Martin Mendoza, Jimena Viagran, Henry Bean, Monica Campbell, Kate Doyle, Jose Carlos-Zamora and Reveal's Laura Morel. And Willy Vergara provided voiceover for us. Thank to the Fund for Investigative Journalism for supporting Maria Martin's reporting over in Guatemala. And special shout out to Priska Neely for her help on the show, this was her last week at Reveal, best of luck to you Priska.

 

Al Letson: Our production manager is Najib Amini, original score and sound design by the dynamic duo: J breezy, Mr Jim Briggs and Fernando 'my man' Arruda. They had help this week from Amy Mostafa. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg, Matt Thompson is our editor-in-chief. Our theme music is by Camorado - Lightning. Support for Reveal was provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Democracy Fund, and the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX.

 

Al Letson: I'm Al Letson, and remember, there is always more to the story.

 

Speaker 24: From PRX.