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Anti-corruption: Central America becoming ‘the next Afghanistan’

Ruth Green, IBA Multimedia JournalistTuesday 21 September 2021

USA Vice President Kamala Harris met Guatemala's President and community leaders to discuss migration and corruption control, 06 July 2021. Daniel Hernandez-Salazar C / Shutterstock.com

Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Nicaragua all marked 200 years of independence from Spain in September. The bicentennial celebrations were muted in many of the countries, and not only due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Endemic corruption, poor governance and democratic backsliding have plagued much of Central America for decades. Since 2014, more than two million people, many of them undocumented, are estimated to have fled the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador across the US border to escape corruption, violence, organised crime and poverty.

The Biden administration has identified corruption as the root cause of this mass migration. Since assuming office in January, President Biden has vowed to confront the problem head on. However, as corruption continues to mar the region’s progress, there are growing concerns that Central America may follow in Afghanistan’s footsteps if the US fails to deliver on its pledges to tackle graft in the region once and for all.

‘Today you don't have institutions in Afghanistan because the country is destroyed,’ says Claudia Escobar, a former magistrate of the Court of Appeals in Guatemala. ‘We are walking the same path now in Central America.’

Like Afghanistan, she says rampant corruption, executive overreach and regional instability have severely impaired state institutions in many Central American nations. She has experienced this type of grand corruption first-hand in her native Guatemala, having blown the whistle on illegal interference in the judiciary by the country’s high-ranking public officials.

Today Escobar is a visiting professor at the Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center at George Mason University. She’s concerned the US strategy for Central America is misguided and will fail to address the crux of the region’s corruption crisis. ‘People are leaving their countries because the people in charge of the government steal everything in their countries that there is to administrate,’ she says. ‘The right approach would be to strengthen the institutions, because if the institutions don't work, the country is not going to be able to stand by itself. I'm very worried that Central America is going to be the next Afghanistan because the United States is prioritising migration, not strengthening institutions.’

Today you don't have institutions in Afghanistan because the country is destroyed. We are walking the same path now in Central America

Claudia Escobar
Former magistrate, Court of Appeals, Guatemala

Democratic and judicial backsliding have raised numerous red flags for anti-corruption efforts in the region. For more than a decade the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) investigated and prosecuted serious crimes, indicted Guatemala’s former president and vice president, prosecuted prominent public officials and ousted more than a dozen corrupt judges. However, in September 2019 CICIG became a victim of its own success: former president Jimmy Morales refused to renew its mandate after the Commission investigated him over allegations of campaign financing violations. He denies any wrongdoing.

Escobar says disbanding the CICIG has been ‘devastating’ for the region, where the separation of powers and the independence of the judiciary are increasingly under threat. In El Salvador, recent moves by the government to replace the Attorney General, several Supreme Court justices and introduce a mandatory retirement age for most judges and prosecutors have raised grave concerns for judicial independence. These fears were underlined in June when President Nayib Bukele pulled out of the International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) – a cooperation agreement with the Organization of American States that he helped established in 2019 to fight impunity in the country.

Although institutional corruption continues to be a huge challenge for Central America, Costa Rica provides a small glimmer of progress. The recent handling of the Cochinilla scandal – an investigation into a widespread bribery scandal in the infrastructure sector – demonstrates the strength of the country’s institutions and political will to tackle corruption, says Adriana Castro, Young Lawyers' Initiatives Officer of the IBA Latin American Regional Forum and a partner at BLP Abogados in San José. ‘Costa Rica is one of the least corrupt nations in Latin America and its strong institutions are relevant for that along with free public education,’ she says. ‘The Cochinilla case demonstrates the country’s capacity to undertake complex investigations where different governmental officials are involved. Other important cases in the past have paved precedent.’

Despite some reservations about the US strategy in Central America, Biden’s moves to address the migration problem mark an encouraging departure from his predecessor, says Jonathan Menkos, Executive Director at the Central American Institute of Fiscal Studies (ICEFI) in Guatemala City. ‘The change of administration in the United States changes the relationship and one could say the standard of relations between our countries,’ he says. ‘The fight against corruption, which is an important issue on the US agenda, will now be accompanied by resources.’

The US has earmarked $4bn over four years to combat corruption, drive private sector investment, reduce poverty, improve security and promote the rule of law across Central America. Vice-President Kamala Harris will oversee the regional strategy, while veteran diplomat Ricardo Zúñiga has been appointed as a special envoy to the Northern Triangle countries. Samantha Power, Administrator for the US Agency for International Development (USAID), has also set up a dedicated taskforce to fight corruption specifically in the Northern Triangle.

In July, the US authorities published a list of 56 ‘corrupt and undemocratic’ officials that it alleged had ‘knowingly engaged in acts that undermine democratic processes or institutions, engaged in significant corruption, or obstructed investigations’ in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. A further seven officials were added to the list in September. Ten days later, the US separately imposed visa restrictions on 100 members of Nicaragua's National Assembly and judicial system, accusing them of enabling 'the Ortega-Murillo regime’s attacks on democracy and human rights.’

Although the task ahead is immense, Menkos believes the US is now on the right track. ‘$4bn is what the administration is going to invest,’ he says. ‘It's very little for everything that needs to be done, but I believe the simple fact of having a relationship based on the fight against corruption and on rebuilding the justice systems can open up the perspective that not everything is lost in Central America.’

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