In Brief

Why Can’t Central America Curb Corruption?

Pervasive corruption has long stymied development and fueled emigration from some of Central America’s poorest countries. The recent disbanding of antigraft commissions makes their prospects for reform gloomier.

What role does corruption play in the region?

It’s a major drain on Central America’s economies, costing some $13 billion annually. Combined with widespread tax evasion, corruption curtails funding for development, and the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have some of the lowest spending on social services in the hemisphere. Guatemala invests just over 8 percent of its gross domestic product in health care, education, social security, and social assistance.

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White-collar crimes are only part of the equation, with low-level corruption taking an immediate toll on citizens. Last year, upwards of 20 percent of Guatemalans and Hondurans admitted to paying bribes in exchange for social services, and extortion costs Hondurans roughly $200 million per year.

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The exodus of Central Americans fleeing corruption, weak institutions, and indiscriminate violence also fuels illicit economies in Central America and Mexico, as human traffickers, cartels, and public officials alike prey on vulnerable and desperate migrants.

What are these anticorruption commissions?

The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) had different operating mandates, durations, and consequently, results.

Demonstrators wave their arms and make noise during a protest against the disbanding of the CICIG in Guatemala City.
Demonstrators protest Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales's decision to disband the CICIG. Luis Echevarria/Reuters

Founded in 2007, the CICIG supported judges and prosecutors on more than four hundred convictions, improved Guatemalan authorities’ investigative methods, and helped the country cut its homicide rate by more than half between 2009 and 2019. The widely popular CICIG, which was empowered to launch its own investigations, also exposed the extent of criminal penetration into Guatemala’s political establishment. Backing from the United Nations emboldened Guatemala’s courts to open corruption investigations into four presidents, which prompted the resignation of sitting President Otto Perez Molina and his vice president in 2015, and the arrest and extradition of former President Alfonso Portillo to the United States in 2013. But Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, himself under investigation for corruption, disbanded the CICIG in September 2019 for violating national sovereignty.

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By contrast, the MACCIH, which emerged out of a 2015 government embezzlement scandal that saw more than $300 million siphoned out of the Honduran social security budget, has little to show for its four years in operation. Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez successfully rebuffed demands to replicate the CICIG, and instead settled for an advisory, not investigative, model sponsored by the Organization of American States (OAS). As a result, the MACCIH was not authorized to open its own investigations without the government’s consent. In January 2020, Hernandez failed to renew its mandate.

The third Northern Triangle country, El Salvador, created its own anticorruption commission with the OAS in 2019. Called the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES), the body aims to embolden the justice sector to take on major corruption cases.

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How big of a setback is the failure to renew the commissions in Guatemala and Honduras?

Although the CICIG was never intended to be permanent, many of the institutional reforms it championed are now at risk of being rolled back. Newly elected Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei, also a skeptic of CICIG, launched a presidential commission to monitor and combat corruption. However, it remains to be seen whether he will be able to ensure a transparent and fair Supreme Court selection process in 2020 or prevent legislators from passing laws that weaken CICIG-era criminal code reforms. 

In Honduras, the most significant reforms proposed by the commission, including the establishment of anticorruption courts, failed to pass in Congress. And although the MACCIH’s staff has uncovered major scandals involving the president’s family and close associates, the body’s disbanding has disrupted ongoing investigations and raised questions about the future of the attorney general’s anticorruption unit.

How can the United States and other countries improve accountability in the region?

The CICIG’s relative success in taking on monumental cases against powerful figures and securing landmark convictions demonstrates the importance of international actors in providing training and protection for Central America’s justice officials. Furthermore, as the Panama Papers revealed in 2016, international cooperation and intelligence sharing are critical for addressing cross-border financial crimes.

The OAS and the United States can reinvigorate regional anticorruption efforts by redoubling their support for CICIES. Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s support for CICIES signals his commitment to the task. Still, it remains unclear how strong CICIES’s mandate to investigate corruption will be.

Despite strong bipartisan support in Congress for the CICIG and the MACCIH during Barack Obama’s presidency, Donald J. Trump’s administration has been reticent to endorse such efforts. Senior administration officials publicly defended Morales’s prerogative to disband the CICIG, and Trump has ignored major corruption allegations against Central American presidents in exchange for cooperation on preventing migration to the United States. Additionally, the administration’s decision to freeze $450 million worth of aid to the Northern Triangle hurt civil society’s capacity to uncover and prosecute corruption.

Ultimately, as dramatic anticorruption sagas in Brazil, Peru, and elsewhere have demonstrated, successfully addressing corruption will require not only transparent political leadership at the top, but also civic activism from below.

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