President Joe Biden’s administration is facing a crisis at the U.S.-Mexico border as hundreds of Central American families arrive every day, seeking asylum. We examine the root causes of what’s driving people to flee their homes. 

Crusading prosecutor Iván Velásquez was tasked with rooting out corruption in Guatemala, as part of a plan to improve people’s lives, so they wouldn’t feel compelled to leave their homes. 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 then-U.S. President Donald Trump.

Like the alleged quid pro quo with Ukraine that prompted Trump’s impeachment, the details can seem confusing – but, ultimately, Velásquez says, 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 did nothing to slow the movement of people from Guatemala to the southern border of the U.S.

This is an update of an episode that originally aired in September 2020.

Dig Deeper

Read: How Donald Trump took down the Robert Mueller of Latin America


Reported by: Maria Martin, Anayansi Diaz-Cortes and Aaron Glantz | Lead producer: Anayansi Diaz-Cortes | Edited by: Kevin Sullivan and Aaron Glantz | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Production assistance: Najib Aminy, Claire Mullen, Amy Mostafa and Priska Neely | Mixing, sound design and music by: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Episode art: Gabriel Hongsdusit | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Al Letson

Special thanks: The Fund for Investigative Journalism, Willi Vergara, Laura C. Morel, Monica Campbell, Henry Bin, Félix Perez Mendoza, Ximena Villagrán, Jose Zamora, Jo Marie Burt, Deborah George, Martin Reynolds, Kate Doyle, Luis Solano, Paula Worby, Daniella Borgi-Palomino and Adam Isacson

Support for Reveal is 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, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.


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 and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. President Biden recently asked Kamala Harris to take on a new assignment.
Joe Biden:Madam Vice President, thank you. I gave you a tough job, and you’re smiling, but there’s no one better capable of trying to organize it.
Al Letson:The U.S.–Mexico border.
Kamala Harris:Well, thank you, Mr. President for having the confidence in me. There’s no question that this is a challenging situation. As the president has said, there are many factors that lead president to leave these countries.
Al Letson:Biden promised a more human immigration policy, but his administration has struggled to handle the hundreds of Central Americans who come to the U.S. every day seeking asylum.
Audio:The Customs and Border Protection facility in Donna, Texas, I was there, is at 1556% capacity. Right now, there are kids that are sleeping on floors. Some of these children have not seen the sun in days. Is what’s happening inside acceptable to you?
Joe Biden:That’s a serious question, right? Is it acceptable to me? Come on. That’s why we’re going to be moving 1,000 of those kids out quickly. That’s why I got Fort Bliss opened up. That’s why I’ve been working [crosstalk].
Al Letson:Even though the pandemic has closed the border for over a year, and almost all asylum-seekers are expelled immediately, the U.S. government still faces the arrival of roughly 500 unaccompanied minors a day. Almost half of the migrants are coming from Guatemala.
Kamala Harris:Must address the root causes that cause people to make the trek, as the president has described, to come here.
Al Letson:Root causes like violence and poverty, plus a pandemic and two hurricanes this past year. Today on Reveal, we traveled to Guatemala to revisit a story we originally aired in September to try and understand what leads Guatemalans to risk everything to come to the U.S.
Al Letson:We begin in a remote mountain village. It’s recess outside a tiny five-room schoolhouse. On this late summer day back in 2018, children play in the dirt and grass outside the blue stucco building. Some are dressed in sweatshirts, others wearing indigenous clothing, red and white shirts with embroidered collars. Veteran reporter Maria Martin is here.
Audio:Good afternoon.
Audio:Father. Mother.
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 U.S.?” Maria asks.
Maria Martin:[Spanish].
Al Letson:Hands spring up.
Maria Martin:[Spanish]. I asked them if they also wanted to go north to the U.S. [Spanish]. Most of them said yes, and I was struck by their reasons for wanting to go. [Spanish]. It wasn’t to live a better life or to eat McDonald’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:[Mam].
Maria Martin:That’s where I met [Zoila Calmo]. 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. Her husband Gilberto, who’s here too, makes $6 a day when he can get work. But the work is sporadic. She feels completely abandoned by the government.
Zoila Calmo:[Mam].
Maria Martin:Even now, the only future that Zoila and her family see is in the U.S.
Zoila Calmo:[Mam].
Maria Martin:Zoila speaks in the Maya Mam language. Through a translator, she tells me about a dark day back in 2018. Her husband Gilberto had left the village to journey north to the U.S. He took their eight-year-old son Franklin just as Trump’s family separation policy was at its peak. [Spanish]. She tells me that, when they got to the U.S., she found out that Franklin had been separated from his father, and for months, they had no idea what happened to him.
Al Letson:Maria, when we hear about these people fleeing to the U.S., the question that often gets asked is why? Why do they leave their countries, and why should it be the responsibility of the U.S. to take them in?
Maria Martin:Well, the answer to that question is rooted in a history that goes back to the 1950s. In 1954, the CIA, under President Eisenhower, ousted Guatemala’s first democratically elected president.
Maria Martin:This was during the Cold War. The U.S. claimed that supporting military dictatorships prevented the spread of communism. These were regimes that the U.S. 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. 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 U.S. 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 U.S., 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 can support their families. 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. Before our story aired this past September, Reveal’s Anayansi Diaz-Cortes spent more than a year working with Maria to connect those dots, a story that shows how families like Zoila’s intersect with some of the world’s most powerful players. It all revolves around an alleged quid pro quo between former President Trump and the president of Guatemala. And who else was involved? Vladimir Putin and our newly elected president, Joe Biden. Anayansi begins the story in South America.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Right before lockdown began in March of last year, I flew to Bogotá, Colombia, to meet the man they call the Robert Mueller of Latin America. His name is Iván Velásquez, and he brought 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 Best Western in the heart of one of the fanciest neighborhoods in the city. When he steps out of his taxi, he stands out. [Spanish]. Sunglasses, a pressed shirt, good taste in shoes. [Spanish]. We go up the elevator and settle down for a long conversation. [Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…: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. The UN and the Guatemalan government, with backing from the U.S., 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 Colombia, where he’d investigated 139 members of Congress and brought down the president for his links to paramilitary groups. When the UN asked him to head the CICIG, he thought-
Iván Velásquez:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:… it could be an interesting experience.
Iván Velásquez:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:And he says, without a doubt, it was a very interesting experience. Not long after Velásquez started in 2014, Guatemala was at the center of an international migration crisis. 50,000 unaccompanied children arrived at the U.S.–Mexico border, and most of them came from Central America, so President Obama dispatched Joe Biden to Guatemala City, where Biden announced the U.S. 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 Vice President Kamala Harris mentioned last month. The Obama administration believed that CICIG could help prevent those by going after corruption. Velásquez’s 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. 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.
Jimmy Morales:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…: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 [Spanish], 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 spend so much time [crosstalk].
Anayansi Diaz-C…: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. Biden and Morales sit in heavy armchairs, a few feet apart, talking as the press cameras flash.
Joe Biden:I want to compliment [crosstalk].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Biden doesn’t just congratulate Morales. He announces $750 million in U.S.A. to Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras.
Joe Biden:We are all in.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:That money would go to the military, to economic development, and to CICIG to fight corruption. Just a week before Obama and Biden left office, Velásquez is photographed holding an oversized check from the U.S. 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, sit in fear amongst the corrupt.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:It was a dream team, Velásquez’s UN office, President Jimmy Morales, and the Guatemalan Supreme Court, pulling together with U.S. backing. Velásquez told me that, for the first time, Guatemalan people were seeing the powerful being held accountable. And then-
Donald Trump:I, Donald John Trump, do solemnly swear.
Audio:That I will faithfully execute.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:… Donald Trump takes office. 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 the government $11,000 for breakfasts that were never served, so Velásquez reaches out to Morales.
Iván Velásquez:And then 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’s family were implicated. It wasn’t a lot of money, but Velásquez says that’s not the point.
Iván Velásquez:What we have known and seen always in this country is 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 corruption in his own family, and Morales does.
Jimmy Morales:[Spanish].
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.
Jimmy Morales:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…: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.
Jimmy Morales:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Morales posts a video on Twitter that ends up on national television where he denounces Velásquez.
Iván Velásquez:He declares me [Spanish]. Oh, 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 work, but Morales is off-limits. Morales and Velásquez, they’re 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 CICIG 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.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. This week, we’re bringing you a story that aired last September. It’s about Guatemala and how what happens there is connected to decisions made here in the U.S. 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. 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 who’s 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-
David Landau:These are California Suncakes.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:… with vegan cookies.
David Landau: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 who’s behind this group. We have just one clue: this document we uncovered filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act. 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:Yeah, 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…: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:We ask him what his role is in this Guatemalan lobbying group.
David Landau:I agreed to become the American whatever 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?
Aaron Glantz:Yeah.
David Landau:I’m helping the funders of this activity, and then the people who are carrying it out. But it wouldn’t really be responsible for me to say who they were.
Aaron Glantz: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:Can I say this? The unfavorable way to look at this is money laundering, because there are actors who are hiring a lobbyist. And you are not those actors, but you are putting your name, 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, a post office box, whatever it was.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:I don’t understand why David, and independently wealthy gringo 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.
David Landau: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 U.S. who consider tax reform that helps the poor socialism. 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.
David Landau:CICIG began to work with the Russians. It began to work with Putin.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:You’re saying this with a straight face. Do you realize how crazy this sounds to a U.S. audience?
David Landau: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.
David Landau:A family called the Bitkovs, who had basically 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 brought against them, and the Bitkovs were thrown in prison. This is where David is trying to draw that Putin-Velásquez connection. 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-
Chris Smith:That is why we’re having this hearing. This is [crosstalk].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Lawmakers 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…:Lawmakers 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. When we were in Colombia, we asked him if he had any connections to Russia.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Are you a Russian agent? [Spanish]?
Iván Velásquez:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:He tells me he’s never been to Russia.
Iván Velásquez:[Spanish].
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]. I tell Velásquez, “It all seems like a Cold War novel.”
Iván Velásquez:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:“Yes,” he says.
Iván Velásquez:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:“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 through all this.”
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Velásquez was in trouble. His old ally Joe Biden was gone. And when Nikki Haley, Trump’s 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 Nikki Haley visits Guatemala is an explicit show of support for Morales. She has a series of complaints for me. “Stop doing press conferences. Anonymity.” 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 AIPAC convention, the largest pro-Israel lobby. Trump had recently announced that the U.S. 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:[Spanish]. Good afternoon. [Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:We start to see a budding bromance between Trump and Morales. Velásquez believes the lobbyists helped bring 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…: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 U.S., while Morales is getting cozier with Trump. About six months after Morales pledged to move the embassy to Jerusalem, Velásquez turns on the TV.
Jimmy Morales:[Spanish].
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 front of the CICIG, the machine guns manned and pointed.
Jimmy Morales:[Spanish].
Iván Velásquez:A threat with the military.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:The U.S. military had provided the Jeeps to fight trafficking. It’s a tense situation. Velásquez picks up the phone.
Iván Velásquez:I then talked to the U.S. 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. A military presence literally behind the president, it was a reminder, especially for those over 40 years old. 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 declared that I will not be allowed back into 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 Bogotá, Colombia, his home country, where we met earlier this year. 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 could not apply for asylum in the U.S. Instead, they had to ask for asylum in Guatemala.
Donald Trump:Guatemala’s been terrific.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Weeks after Joe Biden was inaugurated as president this year, his administration rescinded this policy, but it was a staple of Trump’s immigration plans. And one month before this deal was announced, the Trump administration took care of one of Morales’s biggest headaches: It cut U.S. funding to CICIG. I ask Velásquez, “Was it a quid pro quo?”
Iván Velásquez:Yes. 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 U.S. 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.
Sammy Morales:Hello?
Anayansi Diaz-C…:[Spanish].
Sammy Morales:[Spanish].
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Morales’s 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. After Velásquez was kicked out of Guatemala, Sammy was acquitted.
Anayansi Diaz-C…:Velásquez tried to run CICIG from Colombia, but the end of U.S. money made that impossible.
Al Letson:Even though Trump and Morales declared Guatemala safe back in 2019, people continued to risk everything to flee. When we come back, we head to the hills of Guatemala to investigate why. This is Reveal.
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Al Letson:From the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, this is Reveal. I’m Al Letson. Before the break, we heard how now-former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales ended a UN-backed anti-corruption commission. It had been set up to make life more equitable for people in Guatemala so they would have opportunities in their own country. Journalist Maria Martin now takes us back to a mountain village there, a place where these international deals are having real-world consequences on families, like Zoila Calmo’s, who we met earlier.
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 education and healthcare, while investment has passed them by. And even today, there’s little evidence of Guatemalan government support here, or of that U.S. 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, multistory American-style suburban homes, but for those who don’t have relatives abroad, there’s little for them here.
Maria Martin: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 Gilberto and their son Franklin had been separated by the U.S. border patrol. Gilberto tells me what happened next.
Maria Martin:After they were separated, Gilberto was taken to a jail in Florence, Arizona. He didn’t know what happened to Franklin.
Maria Martin:This was Gilberto’s second trip to the U.S. He’d also come north in the early 2000s. He worked in construction, building suburban tract 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:Gilberto says that, in his cold cell, he couldn’t take the sadness. He thought he was going to die, and he had no idea where Franklin was, so Gilberto made a difficult decision. He signed his deportation papers, leaving Franklin in the United States.
Audio:What are you doing?
Audio:Outrage across the country.
Audio:Do you agree that we need to take care of those children?
Audio:We are taking 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 Mam-to-Spanish translator about those dark days in 2018, when she didn’t know what had happened to her husband or to her son.
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 U.S. and returned without her son. She thought she would never see Franklin again.
Zoila Calmo:[Mam].
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 Gilberto, 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. Finally, Gilberto finds a lawyer in town, and with his help, they’re able to track Franklin down.
Maria Martin:Where is Franklin? He was in New York, imprisoned in a federal detention center for children separated from their parents. When they finally reach him on the phone, it’s heart-wrenching.
Maria Martin:“Why did you leave me here?” Franklin asked. “I didn’t know where you were. When am I going to go back?”
Maria Martin:Gilberto 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, Gilberto 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, Iván 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 its doors for good. 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 U.S., but he’s withdrawn. The first time I saw him, he shrank against the wall. His father Gilberto 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:[Spanish]?
Maria Martin:“I liked the Cornflakes and donuts at the shelter,” he says.
Maria Martin:Donuts?
Maria Martin:The family is happy to be back together, but at the same time, Zoila and Gilberto don’t have enough money to feed their three children one meal a day every day. For all the heartache, Gilberto says he didn’t see any other choice when he took Franklin to the U.S.
Maria Martin:“Why did I go?” he says. [Spanish]. “Because of poverty.” He was making a decision to support his family, and in these western highlands of Guatemala, Gilberto’s story is one shared by many.
Maria Martin:The only job Gilberto can find is picking potatoes or gathering wood. Gilberto makes $6 a day, but often can only find work two or three days a week.
Maria Martin:Gilberto says, even though the family is back together, they are poorer than before.
Maria Martin:To get to the States, Gilberto borrowed close to $6,000 from a bank to hire a coyote to get them across the border. He still owes the bank that money.
Maria Martin:He wants to pay off the debt, but he only makes $6 a day, so he can’t even pay the interest on his loans.
Maria Martin:When we first aired this story, coronavirus was at its peak, and the U.S. border to Mexico closed. But I checked in with Zoila, Gilberto, and Franklin.
Maria Martin:Hello. [Spanish]?
Franklin:[Spanish] Franklin.
Maria Martin:Franklin. [Spanish]?
Maria Martin:Franklin told me that, with the lockdown, they weren’t allowed to leave their village, and because of the coronavirus, there was even less work than before.
Maria Martin:[Spanish].
Maria Martin:“There’s no money,” he tells me. “There’s no food, and there’s no firewood.” [Spanish].
Maria Martin:[Spanish]. Goodbye.
Franklin:Bye. Thank you.
Maria Martin:Franklin’s father Gilberto still fantasized about going back north, but there was no way that he could secure another loan for a third trip to the U.S.
Maria Martin:He’s waiting for Franklin, who’s now 10, to reach his 18th birthday.
Maria Martin:Then, his son Franklin can try his luck going north alone.
Al Letson:The Biden administration is promising to tackle corruption in Guatemala. There’s also talk of a large aid package coming to the region, but Guatemalan-born Congresswoman Norma Torres says, “The U.S. shouldn’t send new aid until the corruption in the government is dealt with. Otherwise,” she says, “the U.S. would just be lining the pockets of politicians instead of getting the money to the people who need it.”
Al Letson:One final note. After our story first aired back in September, some of our listeners got in touch. They wanted to support Franklin and his family. One listener sent the family $5,000, enough for them to pay back their entire debt.
Al Letson:Thanks to reporter Maria Martin, author of Crossing Borders, Building Bridges: A Journalist’s Heart in Latin America. Our lead producer this week is Anayansi Diaz-Cortes. Aaron Glantz edited the 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 Willi Vergara provided voiceover for us. Thanks to the Fund for Investigative Journalism for supporting Maria Martin’s reporting in Guatemala, and a special shout-out to my friend Priska Neely for her help on the show.
Al Letson:Our production manager is Amy Mostafa. Original score and sound design by the dynamic duo, J. Breezy, Mr. Jim Briggs, and Fernando, my man, yo Arruda. They had help this week from Brett Simpson. Our digital producer is Sarah Mirk. Our CEO is Christa Scharfenberg. Sumi Aggarwal is our acting editor in chief, and our executive producer is Kevin Sullivan. Our theme music is by Camerado, Lightning. Support for Reveal is 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 Inasmuch Foundation. Reveal is a co-production of the Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX. I’m Al Letson. And remember, there is always more to the story.
Audio:From PRX.

Anayansi Diaz-Cortes is a reporter and producer for Reveal. Her work has been featured everywhere from All Things Considered to  Radio Ambulante and  This American Life. She is a recipient of the Overseas Press Club Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award, and the Third Coast/Richard H. Driehaus Foundation award. She was the creator and lead producer for KCRW’s Sonic Trace, a storytelling project that was part of AIR’s Localore initiative. Previously, she produced for Radio Diaries and has done extensive reporting in both the U.S. and Mexico. She is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Aaron Glantz was a senior reporter at Reveal. He is the author of "Homewreckers: How a Gang of Wall Street Kingpins, Hedge Fund Magnates, Crooked Banks, and Vulture Capitalists Suckered Millions Out of Their Homes and Demolished the American Dream." Glantz produces journalism with impact. His work has sparked more than a dozen congressional hearings, numerous laws and criminal probes by the Drug Enforcement Administration, FBI, Pentagon and Federal Trade Commission. A two-time Peabody Award winner, finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, multiple Emmy Award nominee and former John S. Knight journalism fellow at Stanford University, Glantz has had his work has appear in The New York Times, Chicago Tribune, NBC Nightly News, Good Morning America and PBS NewsHour. His previous books include "The War Comes Home" and "How America Lost Iraq."

Kevin Sullivan is a former executive producer of Reveal’s public radio show and podcast. He joined Reveal from the daily news magazine show “Here & Now,” where he was senior managing editor. There, he helped lead the expansion of the show as part of a unique partnership between NPR and WBUR. Prior to radio, Sullivan worked as a documentary film producer. That work took him around the world, with stories ranging from reconciliation in Northern Ireland to the refugee crisis during the war in Kosovo.

Following the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Sullivan launched an investigative unit for CBS in Baltimore, where he spearheaded investigations on bioterrorism and the U.S. government’s ability to respond to future threats. He also dug into local issues. His exposé of local judges found widespread lax sentencing of repeat-offender drunken drivers. Other investigations included sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests, and doctors who sold OxyContin for cash. Sullivan has won multiple journalism awards, including several Edward R. Murrow awards, a Third Coast / Richard H. Driehaus Foundation Competition award and an Emmy. He has an MBA from Boston University.

Najib Aminy is a producer for Reveal. Previously, he was an editor at Flipboard, a news aggregation startup, and helped guide the company’s editorial and curation practices and policies. Before that, he spent time reporting for newspapers such as Newsday and The Indianapolis Star. He is the host and producer of an independent podcast, "Some Noise," which is based out of Oakland, California, and was featured by Apple, The Guardian and The Paris Review. He is a lifelong New York Knicks fan, has a soon-to-be-named kitten and is a product of Stony Brook University’s School of Journalism. Aminy is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Amy Mostafa (she/they) was the production manager for Reveal. She is a UC Berkeley School of Journalism alum, where she focused on audio and data journalism as a Dean's Merit Fellow and an ISF Scholar. She has reported on science, health and the environment in Anchorage for Alaska Public Media and on city government in Berkeley and San Francisco for KQED. Her work also has appeared on NPR, KALW and KALX. Mostafa holds a bachelor's degree in English literature and public policy. She has most recently reported on housing and aging in the Bay Area. She is based in Reveal’s Emeryville, California, office.

Priska Neely is a former reporter and producer for Reveal. Previously, she was a senior reporter for NPR member station KPCC in Los Angeles, covering early childhood education and development. She reported and produced a series of groundbreaking stories on high death rates for black babies in L.A. and the U.S. She's received awards from the Associated Press Television and Radio Association, National Association of Black Journalists and Radio and Television News Association of Southern California. Before KPCC, Neely worked as a producer for NPR's “Weekend All Things Considered” and “Talk of the Nation.” She studied broadcast journalism and linguistic anthropology at New York University.

Claire Mullen worked at The Center for Investigative Reporting until September 2017. is an associate sound designer and audio engineer for Reveal. Before joining Reveal, she was an assistant producer at Radio Ambulante and worked with KALW, KQED, the Association of Independents in Radio and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. She studied humanities and media studies at Scripps College.

Jim Briggs III is the senior sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. He supervises post-production and composes original music for the public radio show and podcast. He also leads Reveal's efforts in composition for data sonification and live performances.

Prior to joining Reveal in 2014, Briggs mixed and recorded for clients such as WNYC Studios, NPR, the CBC and American Public Media. Credits include “Marketplace,” “Selected Shorts,” “Death, Sex & Money,” “The Longest Shortest Time,” NPR’s “Ask Me Another,” “Radiolab,” “Freakonomics Radio” and “Soundcheck.” He also was the sound re-recording mixer and sound editor for several PBS television documentaries, including “American Experience: Walt Whitman,” the 2012 Tea Party documentary "Town Hall" and “The Supreme Court” miniseries. His music credits include albums by R.E.M., Paul Simon and Kelly Clarkson.

Briggs' work with Reveal has been recognized with an Emmy Award (2016) and two Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards (2018, 2019). Previously, he was part of the team that won the Dart Award for Excellence in Coverage of Trauma for its work on WNYC’s hourlong documentary special “Living 9/11.” He has taught sound, radio and music production at The New School and Eugene Lang College and has a master's degree in media studies from The New School. Briggs is based in Reveal's Emeryville, California, office.

Fernando Arruda is a sound designer, engineer and composer for Reveal. As a multi-instrumentalist, he contributes to the original music, editing and mixing of the weekly public radio show and podcast. He has held four O-1 visas for individuals with extraordinary abilities. His work has been recognized with Peabody, duPont-Columbia, Edward R. Murrow, Gerald Loeb, Third Coast and Association of Music Producers awards, as well as Emmy and Pulitzer nominations. Prior to joining Reveal, Arruda toured as an international DJ and taught music technology at Dubspot and ESRA International Film School. He worked at Antfood, a creative audio studio for media and TV ads, and co-founded a film-scoring boutique called the Manhattan Composers Collective. He worked with clients such as Marvel, MasterClass and Samsung and ad agencies such as Framestore, Trollbäck+Company, BUCK and Vice. Arruda releases experimental music under the alias FJAZZ and has performed with many jazz, classical and pop ensembles, such as SFJAZZ Monday Night Band, Art&Sax quartet, Krychek, Dark Inc. and the New York Arabic Orchestra. His credits in the podcast and radio world include NPR’s “51 Percent,” WNYC’s “Bad Feminist Happy Hour” and its live broadcast of Orson Welles’ “The Hitchhiker,” Wondery’s “Detective Trapp,” MSNBC’s “Why Is This Happening?” and NBC’s “Born to Rule,” to name a few. Arruda also has a wide catalog of composed music for theatrical, orchestral and chamber music formats, some of which has premiered worldwide. He holds a master’s degree in film scoring and composition from NYU Steinhardt. The original music he makes with Jim Briggs for Reveal can be found on Bandcamp.

Al Letson is a playwright, performer, screenwriter, journalist, and the host of Reveal. Soul-stirring, interdisciplinary work has garnered Letson national recognition and devoted fans.