The anti-anti-corruption wave in Central America - September 2020
One year after the elimination of CICIG, corruption networks in the Northern Triangle work to make sure effective anti-corruption institutions cannot be restored.
It’s been a year of setbacks for anti-corruption efforts in the Northern Triangle. One year ago, the UN-backed CICIG came to an end in Guatemala. A few months later, the OAS-backed MACCIH met a similar fate in Honduras. Meanwhile, the CICIES created by El Salvador last year has such a limited mandate that it exists more on paper than in reality.
The experiences of the CICIG and MACCIH brought useful lessons for understanding anti-corruption efforts in Central America. The post-CICIG environment has its own lessons. The region has seen a retrenchment of corruption amid creeping authoritarianism as criminal networks consolidate their gains and prevent a return of effective anti-corruption institutions.
Placeholder anti-corruption institutions designed to fail
As they were not intended to be permanent, both the CICIG and MACCIH were designed to build sovereign capacity to investigate and prosecute corruption. Both worked to strengthen local prosecutors. Those institutions should have helped maintain anti-corruption gains when the international organizations were forced out. Instead, the influence of corruption networks can be seen in how rapidly the domestic gains were rolled back once the international anti-corruption units left the country.
As part of that effort, all three countries of the Northern Triangle have seen the creation of placeholder anti-corruption organizations.
President Giammattei launched the Presidential Commission Against Corruption, described as follows by InSight Crime in July:
The new anti-corruption entity in Guatemala is likely to serve as a smokescreen, one that will only tie up and siphon resources away from prosecutors and judges already battered after years of fighting high-level graft.
Once MACCIH was forced out, Honduras’s Special Prosecution Unit Against Corruption and Impunity (UFECIC) was rebranded without impunity in the title and has yet to bring significant corruption cases to trial.
In El Salvador, Nayib Bukele rose to power due to the population’s disgust with the corruption of the traditional political parties. He moved early to create the CICIES as a way to demonstrate his commitment to prosecuting corruption, but he specifically dodged opportunities to make it neutral and effective. I have yet to meet an analyst who believes that the CICIES will become a credible anti-corruption organization that will have the impact of CICIG or MACCIH.
By creating Potemkin anti-corruption institutions, the governments of the Northern Triangle have created a bureaucracy that checks some anti-corruption boxes but creates red tape that holds back real investigations and prosecutions.
Opportunities for dirty money in next year’s elections
Next year’s elections should have been a test for Central America’s anti-corruption institutions. Instead, the lack of effective anti-corruption institutions means that political candidates and criminal networks have little to fear from prosecutors. A climate of impunity will be an additional opportunity for corruption networks in the region.
Last month, I published a newsletter on how all of Honduras’s presidential candidates next year will have links to corruption. The Wilson Center recently published a report by Daniel Sabet outlining four types of corruption in Honduras. Among the conclusions of the paper is the fact that corruption networks view political campaigns as an opportunity to engage in state capture. Also worth reading on the subject is Sarah Chayes 2017 report in which she calls corruption the “operating system” in Honduras and says those corruption networks “help propel climate change, persistent inequality, and spiraling conflict.”
As I wrote yesterday, Bukele’s covert negotiations with the MS-13 appear linked to his desire to win El Salvador’s legislative elections next year. Bukele is far from the only guilty party. Both the FMLN and ARENA have also negotiated with gangs in the past to mobilize support for elections. Without an independent investigative capacity, it is possible for Bukele to use anti-corruption efforts to punish his political opponents while his negotiations with gangs for political gains remain in impunity.
Repression to prevent a renewed anti-corruption wave
It took years of domestic and international pressure to implement the CICIG in Guatemala and additional years of building up capacity and political capital before the organization began to make a dent in the country’s corruption. The MACCIH was a result of a large domestic protest movement that forced the Hernandez government to agree to a bold proposal that it would have otherwise attempted to dodge.
As President Morales worked to dismantle the CICIG, he used the Guatemalan military to hold back and intimidate protesters. Giammattei, who was a candidate at the time, did not denounce the moves. Hernandez has used security forces to repress both rural and urban protest movements and that repression has increased during the pandemic under the guise of public health restrictions. All three presidents in the Northern Triangle have targeted media outlets in some way to restrict journalists.
Street protests and independent journalism are a threat to state capture by corrupt actors. To consolidate their gains, there is likely to be increased repression of civil society in the coming year to prevent pressure that would potentially hasten a return of institutions like the CICIG and MACCIH.
Thanks for reading
I have two related notes to today’s newsletter.
First, I attended the Central America Donors Forum last week and there was an excellent panel of former Attorneys General on the topic of corruption and impunity in Central America. It definitely shaped my thoughts above.
Second, I recommend this recent article from the Center for Investigative Reporting on how corruption networks in Central America took advantage of Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy to have the CICIG eliminated. A similar process took place in Honduras.
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