Hundreds surrounded a deportation van and ultimately secured the temporary release of two detained men.
United States Vice President Kamala Harris kicked off a three-day diplomatic trip to the Northern Triangle on Monday focused on stemming migration to the US.
During a joint news conference with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei held, Harris said that it is important to discourage people from Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras – the three countries where the majority of migrants hail from – from making a journey to the US border.
“The United States will continue to enforce our laws and secure our borders,” Harris said. “If you come to our border you will be turned back.”
“Do not come, do not come,” she said.
The administration of US President Joe Biden, which took office in January, is under pressure to stem a surge in migrant arrivals from Central America fleeing poverty and corruption.
Harris also announced new steps to combat human trafficking, smuggling and corruption in Guatemala.
“The President and I agreed to continue our work to manage migration at Guatemala’s northern and southern borders,” she said.
“We also discussed illicit drugs that are being smuggled and humans who are being trafficked across these borders undermining the security of both Guatemala and the people of the United States.”
She said the US would help create a smuggling and human trafficking task force as well as an anti-corruption task force, charged with supporting and training local prosecutors to create an independent judiciary that would root our corruption networks in the country.
Non-governmental organisations placed Guatemala’s widespread corruption at the top of their list of concerns before Harris’s visit. Last month, two lawyers who are outspoken critics of Giammattei’s administration were arrested on what they say were trumped-up charges aimed at silencing them.
When asked by a journalist on Monday whether Giammattei would be a reliable partner for the US to combat corruption, the president denied charges that his government is involved.
“How many cases of corruption have I been accused of? I can give you the answer: Zero,” Giammattei said.
William Lawrence, professor of international relations at the American University in Washington, DC said the US is hoping to find ways to stem migration in the short term as well as address the structural issues that have led to people seeking to migrate to the US.
“You have to simultaneously both deal with the border issues – where there have been some improvements despite the surge – and the systemic issues that send so many migrants heading for the border,” Lawrence told Al Jazeera television.
In an effort to tackle the “root causes” of migration, the Biden administration has pledged a $4bn plan to boost development in the region and $310m in humanitarian aid.
Al Jazeera’s Manuel Rapalo, reporting from Tecun Uman on Guatemala’s border with Mexico, said the US aid and funding to programmes in the region and Guatemala in particular, are not new. And making meaningful advances on corruption is going to be the nation’s responsibility.
“Ultimately it is up to the government of Guatemala that foreign aid isn’t lost to corruption,” Rapalo said, adding that without making structural changes “no amount of foreign aid will prevent people from fleeing north”.
Harris is scheduled to meet civil society leaders and entrepreneurs in Guatemala and then fly to Mexico where she will meet President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador on Tuesday.
Harris also announced that the US would supply half a million COVID-19 doses to Guatemala.
Shortly before meeting Giammattei Harris said her trip to the country demonstrated the Biden’s administration focus on re-establishing ties with allies around the world and was “a reflection of the priority President Biden placed on this region”.
“It is in our collective interest that we work together,” Harris said.