Several human rights organizations are worried that Vice President Harris's upcoming trip to Mexico and Guatemala risks focusing too much on immigration and not other issues such as rule of law and government corruption.
The Washington Office on Latin America, Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights, Latin America Working Group, Due Process of Law Foundation and Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) released a joint statement Wednesday, raising concerns that the vice president's trip could bolster the worst instincts of leadership in the two Latin American countries.
"The administration’s focus on the need to strengthen the rule of law and address economic insecurity and inequality in the region is a welcome shift from the disastrous policies of the Trump era," the groups wrote. "However, our organizations are concerned that in the name of reaching immigration enforcement agreements to limit the number of arrivals at the U.S.-Mexico border, the Biden administration will overlook pressing human rights, rule of law, and governance issues that should be addressed with the governments of Mexico and Guatemala."
Harris is scheduled to travel to Guatemala City on Sunday and to Mexico City two days later, to meet with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, respectively.
The Biden administration on Thursday released a memo setting the fight against corruption as central to its national security strategy, but without mentioning particular hot spots or target areas.
While Biden officials have put pressure on smaller Central American countries — in the past month, Harris hosted Guatemalan dissidents and the United States Agency for International Development cut funding for the Salvadoran government — López Obrador has been given a wide berth by the United States.
"Trump's approach to Mexico was laser focused on immigration and having Mexico do what the U.S. needed Mexico to do to keep people from coming or receive people expelled from the United States," said Maureen Meyer, vice president of programs at the Washington Office on Latin America.
"There's the expectation that the Biden administration would take a more holistic approach," added Meyer, "recognizing that yes, you need cooperation on immigration but there's lots of other aspects of the relationship that shouldn't be overlooked."
The joint statement by the human rights groups lists areas of concern on Mexico where López Obrador has attacked democratic institutions meant to limit executive power, and the militarization of broad areas of government.
Since the democratization of Mexico in the late 1990s, its democratic institutions have strengthened somewhat, but progress has been slow and human rights groups denounced the militarization of the fight against transnational criminal organizations started in 2006.
But no president before López Obrador had publicly attacked autonomous institutions, like the electoral institute, and López Obrador, whose party has a supermajority in Congress, has moved to weaken judicial independence and has hardened control over the attorney general's office.
Still, the Biden administration has followed U.S.-Mexico diplomatic tradition, addressing sensitive issues behind closed doors, avoiding criticism on democracy and human rights in Mexico.
"They are doing everything possible to not provoke López Obrador, wanting to refocus the conversation on issues that they would consider a priority," said Meyer.