Shannon K. O'Neil

Latin America's Moment

O'Neil analyzes developments in Latin America and U.S. relations in the region.

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Five Things Washington Should Do to Help Latin America Curb Corruption

by Guest Blogger for Matthew Taylor
April 6, 2016

Corruption, Latin America, Operation car Wash, U.S. Department of Justice's Office of International Affairs, antimoney laundering, Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act, International Center for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ), U.S. real estate market Paraguayan prosecutors Hernan Galeano (C), Federico Espinoza (center, R) and Chief Prosecutor Roberto Zacarias hold a news conference in Asuncion, January 8, 2016. Paraguayan state prosecutors on Thursday raided the headquarters of South American soccer confederation CONMEBOL after a request for cooperation from U.S. justice officials probing corruption inside world soccer, the prosecution office said (Jorge Adorno/Reuters).


This is a guest blog post by Dr. Richard Messick, an anticorruption specialist. It is based on a talk he gave at a CFR roundtable on March 24 hosted by Matthew M. Taylor, adjunct senior fellow for Latin America Studies.

One of the most promising developments in U.S. foreign relations is the all-out war on corruption being waged across Latin America. From “Operation Car Wash” in Brazil to investigations of presidential wrongdoing in Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama, across the region independent, tenacious prosecutors and investigators are out to end the massive theft of state resources that for so long has hobbled political development and throttled economic growth. The United States should be cheering for these corruption warriors, for we have much to gain if they succeed. Less corruption translates into more stable, reliable political allies; it means faster, more equitable growth and that means shared prosperity and less northward migration. Finally, less corruption in government will offer U.S. firms new opportunities. Think what the end of corruption in Brazilian public works would mean for U.S. engineering and construction companies.

But given the stakes in Latin America’s corruption war, the United States should be doing more than cheering from the sidelines. It should be doing everything it can—without infringing the sovereignty or sensibilities of Latin American neighbors—to see its corruption warriors succeed. Here are five things to start with:

  1. Fund the U.S. Department of Justice’s Office of International Affairs (OIA) budget request. If a Latin American investigator learns an official he or she is investigating has a bank account in the United States, the investigator can ask the OIA to obtain the account’s records to see if corrupt money is being parked there. But the office had at latest count more than 11,000 requests pending and was receiving 3,000 plus new ones each year. Unless the investigator gets lucky and the request finds its way to the top of the pile, he or she will be long retired, and the suspect long dead, before the OIA responds. For years the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) has asked Congress, without success, for funds to hire more staff to speed requests. This year it has requested $10 millionto add 97 positions, 54 attorneys, and 43 paralegals and support staff. Isn’t it time Congress said yes to this modest request?
  1. Name a single focal point to help Latin American law enforcement agencies. When looking to the United States for assistance, Latin Americans face a bewildering number of agencies, bureaus, and offices: the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the U.S. Secret Service, the Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN), the 92 U.S. Attorney’s offices, and these are just at the federal level. There are hundreds, if not thousands, at the state and local level. It takes experienced U.S. law enforcement officers years to figure out where to go for information. Why not make it easy for Latin Americans who don’t have years to decipher the complex and bewildering U.S. system? Create one office, staffed with personnel fluent in Spanish and Portuguese from across the federal and state governments who can serve as a “one-stop shop” for Latin American police, prosecutors, and judges needing information from their U.S. counterparts.
  1. Create an interagency task force to work with Latin American counterparts to target corrupt Latin American officials. Whenever a corrupt Latin American official uses the proceeds of a bribe to buy an apartment in Miami or open a bank account in Houston or Los Angeles, he or she has violated U.S. antimoney laundering laws. Depending upon whether they traveled in the United States, used U.S. mail services, or U.S. email servers, they may have also committed wire fraud or violated the laws forbidding travel across state lines in furtherance of fraud or corruption. A task force of U.S. personnel drawn from ICE’s Foreign Corruption Investigations Group, DOJ’s Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) unit, the U.S. Attorney’s offices in Miami, the FBI’s international corruption squads, DOJ’s kleptocracy unit, and other relevant agencies should be available to work with Latin American counterparts on possible violations of U.S. law committed by corrupt Latin American officials. Greater intelligence sharing and joint investigations in association with Latin American anticorruption agencies and prosecutors would enhance both regional and domestic efforts against corruption and ill-gotten gains.
  1. Enact the Incorporation Transparency and Law Enforcement Assistance Act. Introduced by Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney and colleagues in the House of Representatives and Senator Sheldon Whitehouse and colleagues in the Senate, this would end the ability of corrupt officials, as well as drug traffickers and other unsavory individuals, to keep investigators from learning how much money they have and where it came from. Under current law, a corrupt Latin American official can open a bank account in the United States in the name of a Delaware limited liability company. He or she can own the company anonymously, that is, without anyone, in Delaware or elsewhere, knowing his or her identity. If Global Witness’ expose of U.S. lawyers counseling an investigator posing as the agent of a corrupt minister weren’t enough to persuade lawmakers of the need for the legislation, the April 3 revelations of massive abuses in the use of anonymous shell companies by the International Center for Investigative Journalism (ICIJ) should lay to rest any lingering doubts about how critical this legislation is to the fight against not only corruption but terrorism and organized crime as well.
  1. End secrecy in the U.S. real estate market. Thanks to gaps in U.S. antimoney laundering regulations, corrupt officials in Latin America (and elsewhere) can use the proceeds of corruption to secretly buy property in the United States. Requiring real estate agents, title insurance companies, and others involved in the purchase and sale of condominiums, houses, and other U.S. real estate to comply with the antimoney laundering rules will expose attempts by corrupt officials to create a “safe haven” for when they leave office. The U.S. Department of the Treasury took a small, first step in this direction in January when it issued an emergency order (in response to a New York Times’ expose) requiring title insurance companies in Manhattan and Miami-Dade Country to apply antimoney laundering rules to all real estate purchases over $1 million in cash for the next six months. The rule should be made permanent and extended to all regions. Since 2002 the Treasury Department has given real estate brokers a “temporary” exemption from the antimoney laundering rules while it studies their situation. The time for study is over. The Treasury Department should follow the European Union’s lead and require brokers to comply with the antimoney laundering rules.

The burden of ridding Latin America of the corruption that infests so many of its governments remains first and foremost the responsibility of its governments. But the United States has much to gain if they succeed, and there is much it can do to help them. The steps above are a modest beginning; it should move on them expeditiously.

This piece also appeared on the Global Anticorruption Blog.

Post a Comment 2 Comments

  • Posted by Michael Skol

    First-rate analysis and recommendations. The recent Panama revelations further underscore how easy it is to create corruption- and money laundering-hiding shell companies. The U.S. is embarrassingly deficient — including in comparison to many other countries — in insisting on the disclosure of beneficial ownership of monies entering the U.S. system. I would add to the list of suggestions a strong U.S. effort to publicize the existence of a number of proven, state-of-the-art anti-corruption measures (as the ‘Independent Private Sector Inspector General’ [‘IPSIG’]), which, if seriously implemented could greatly reduce corruption worldwide.

  • Posted by Mary Klare

    The U.S. being the most dominant superpower of all countries, why would it be so important for them to help out other struggling countries? It must be benefiting from it somehow or, it is trying to quietly control countries around the globe from Burma to Uruguay through puppet governments and in ´CIA coupdétat´ like in Brazil recently.,against Dilma Rousseff ,one of the BRICS country..putting Temer (a U.S,s informant as Wikileaks declared in a document)It has always been known that possession of power leads to the want of more &more monopolistic power. This is certainly the case with the U.S.’s involvement in Latin America.

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