WASHINGTON, D.C. — A panel of Guatemalans in exile, organized by faith-based organizations in the U.S., expressed worries about the stifling of democracy and rule of law in Central America and said that failure on the part of the U.S. to battle corruption there would continue to drive mass migration from the region.

As the June 6 panel met via Zoom, a large group of migrants — 6,000 by some accounts — from Latin America was reportedly heading to the U.S.-Mexico border.

Organizers said they were attempting to reach the region to call attention to the reasons driving migration en masse — corruption, violence, economic instability — by the time the Summit of the Americas gathering in Los Angeles ended June 10.

“A small group of families, of people, have managed the country like a plantation, as if the national territory were their personal property,” said Guatemala’s former anti-corruption investigator Juan Francisco Sandoval in the panel organized by the Hope Border Institute and Faith in Action.

“And that’s why,” he continued, “the country is in the condition that it’s in … few people with education, little investment in society, because at the end of the day, that same unequal system permits cheap labor and allows control of the strings of the political (system) and the destiny of the country.”

The Hope Border Institute and Faith in Action organizations are part of the “Root Causes Initiative” led by faith groups seeking to influence U.S. policy and how it affects factors driving migration.

The panel was part of an effort calling for the imposition of financial sanctions on Guatemalan “high-level officials and oligarchs who have conspired to force more than two dozen independent judges, prosecutors and civil society leaders,” including the panelists, into exile.

Sandoval, fearing for this life, fled his native Guatemala in July 2021 after being fired from the Guatemalan Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity, which had initially been created by a U.N.-backed commission to fight corruption. The lawyer, who investigated high-profile graft cases, now has a warrant out for his arrest in Guatemala.

A second panelist, Thelma Aldana, former head of the Supreme Court of Guatemala and the country’s former attorney general, was granted asylum in the U.S. after she was forced to leave in 2021, following threats of arrest for her anti-corruption efforts.

It’s that kind of politically motivated retribution stifling democracy and rule of law that the Summit of the Americas, a meeting of leaders from the Americas — north, central and south — says it seeks to eradicate. The panel was organized as a preview to the regional summit.

On a website about the event, the U.S. Department of State, which is hosting the event, said it sought to engage “the region’s stakeholders toward securing leader-level commitments and concrete actions that dramatically improve pandemic response and resilience, promote a green and equitable recovery, build strong and inclusive democracies, and address the root causes of irregular migration.”

Yet some of the region’s heads of state failed to show up to the summit and show little will to cooperate with the U.S. vision.

Mexican President Andres Lopez Obrador announced June 6, the day the summit opened, that he would not be present because the U.S. excluded Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela from the gathering. He accused the Biden administration of playing “politics of old, of interventionism, of a lack of respect for the nations and their people.”

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre said the reason they were left out of the event was that “we do not believe that dictators should be invited.”

Protesters outside the convention center where the gathering was held in Los Angeles agreed with the decision. Some gathered at the start of the summit to protest against Nicaragua’s president, Daniel Ortega, but also against Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, who has jailed 36,000 Salvadorans since late April and suspended some personal freedoms following a wave of violence.

Like his counterparts in Guatemala and Honduras, Bukele did not attend, but sent a representative.

Migrants from those three countries make up the largest bulk of Latin American immigrants to the U.S.

Some criticized the Biden administration for focusing too much on the guest list, but they also criticized the Mexican president for being an obstructionist.

Benjamin Gedan, deputy director of the Wilson Center’s Latin American Program, told CNN June 9 that the days before the summit had been “absolutely chaotic.”

“The region is in desperate need of U.S. support and all kinds of international aid, and instead we spent months thinking about who would be invited to the summit who would attend rather than the agenda for the gathering,” he said.

With China making economic inroads in many countries in Latin America, but particularly in Central America, Biden administration officials sought to assure the region of its economic commitment, including plans to bring in investments, and of its interest in seeing Latin America thrive, particularly when it comes to democracy.

Panelist Ursula Roldán Andrade said that the U.S. “is the only one who can help” as Guatemala, as well as its neighbors, enter a “dark epoch, an epoch that signals the loss of institutional democracy,” one that finds the rule of law, which took 25 years to build, being torn.

The government’s failure to provide a safe environment for its citizens, programs to educate them and to advocate for their health, have created a social crisis that’s left Guatemalans no choice but to leave, she said.

Thousands of Guatemalans, like many of their regional neighbors, see undocumented migration as the only way out of dealing with problems that their governments won’t fix, Roldán said, and that will continue if the region’s problems are not solved. There’s little hope of organizing as a people to elect leaders that will respect even the minimum of democratic rules, she said.

Some of the exiles on the panel previously met with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris during her June 2021 trip to Guatemala, in which she was to address the administration’s economic commitments to help Central American countries stem immigration.

Sandoval said that when the meeting took place, Harris spoke of giving priority to topics related to corruption.

“It gave us hope,” he said, but as the months passed, “the truth is that, I lament to say, I haven’t noticed a concrete result related to efforts to fight corruption” that Harris mentioned.

In an answer to a question from those who listened to the panel, Sandoval said he hoped the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops would offer a strong statement against some of the injustices taking place.

“Historically, the Catholic Church has had a prominent role” denouncing injustices, he said, if only to let others know what is happening in the country.

Guatemalan Cardinal Álvaro Ramazzini of Huehuetenango was present via Zoom to listen to the panel but could not speak because of laryngitis, organizers said.

However, in a written note shared via Zoom he said, “I think the (U.S. bishops conference) is so big, with divergent positions that I don’t know if they could reach (one opinion) when it comes to saying a word about injustice and poverty in Guatemala. I know bishops in the U.S. who are committed in the social struggle from the standpoint of the Gospel, but I don’t perceive that to be a unanimous position.”