Corruption sapping faith in Latin American democracy


Guatemala is experiencing a major crisis triggered by scandals of corruption; Honduras is debating the re-election of its President, in open contradiction to its Constitution while facing indications of corruption and related scandals, according to a new analysis.

Tension is growing in El Salvador in light of legislative and municipal elections scheduled for 2018, also in the midst of scandals of corruption that exacerbates the well-known polarization of Salvadoran society. Consequently, this juncture seems to confirm the perception that the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America (TNCA, Spanish acronym) is in a constant state of crisis, says a newly released report, Corruption: Its Path and Impact on Society and an Agenda to Combat It in the Northern Triangle of Central America, produced by the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

Mexico’s heated debate about campaign finance is just one sign of growing rage in the country after a string of corruption scandals, says analyst Oliver Stuenkel. Referring to the face-off between populist Andrés Manuel López Obrador and establishment candidates, one observer sighed, “we are between the uncertainty of a messiah and the certainty of the kleptocrats,” he writes for Americas Quarterly:

This description matches, with only slight alterations, the situation in several of the 14 countries that will head to the polls in the next two years. Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Honduras, Paraguay, Mexico and Venezuela will organize presidential elections in the next 18 months; Argentina, Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Uruguay will do so 2019. In Colombia, for example, where political parties face a legitimacy crisis, there are around 30 presidential candidates, most of whom will run as independents, and even seasoned observers confess it is impossible to make any serious predictions.

Nearly 40 percent of citizens in the Americas would support a military coup to tackle high levels of crime or corruption, according to a new public opinion survey that illustrates how failure to address these issues has eroded faith in democracy in the region, according to reports:

The latest report by the Latin American Public Opinion Project (LAPOP) surveyed public attitudes toward democracy, governance, crime and corruption in 21 countries in the Americas. The report found that support for a military coup to tackle crime is highest in Jamaica, where 59.3 percent of respondents said they would back a coup. This was followed by Peru with 55.3 percent, Guatemala with 49.4 percent and Mexico with 47.5 percent, respectively, indicating support for a coup.

Insecurity is also undermining the social contract and trust in democratic institutions, The New York Times reports:

This fraying can be felt across Mexico. Polls show rising distrust in institutions and dissatisfaction with the state of democracy.

“There is something particular to security,” said Rita Abrahamsen, a political scientist who studies security’s effects on society. “It’s different from something like health care. If you don’t have security, then that cohesion cannot be maintained.”

The International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) has been key in Guatemala’s fight against corruption, says Claudia Escobar, a former magistrate of the Court of Appeals of Guatemala. The UN-backed body has, over the past 10 years, taken on complex tasks that the state recognized could not be accomplished independently: It has investigated the operation of illegal security forces and illicit economic political networks; it has collaborated with state institutions to dismantle these networks; and it has promoted the prosecution of related crimes, she writes for Americas Quarterly:

Working outside government, without attending pressures from interest groups, CICIG has exposed scandals involving presidents, ministers, congressional representatives, business executives, military officials, judges, and others close to political power. Its first commissioner, Carlos Castresana, helped hone laws that have become valuable tools in criminal prosecution. He also paved the way for his successor, Iván Velasquez, whose investigations led to the ouster of former President Otto Pérez Molina, and now threaten to topple President Jimmy Morales.

“The Guatemalans who want transparency, accountability and rule of law cannot fight alone against powerful networks of criminals,” says Escobar (left), a former Reagan-Fascell fellow at the National Endowment for Democracy. “CICIG is necessary so that, one day, local institutions will be able to succeed by themselves, and the country can start walking independently on the road to freedom, development, and prosperity.”

After renouncing her re-election to the court in 2014, Escobar blew the whistle on a corruption case involving central figures in the Guatemalan government. She left the country with her family in 2015, following a series of threats she received after continuing to speak out against corruption in Guatemala’s judiciary.

Join a discussion of the newly released report, Corruption: Its Path and Impact on Society and an Agenda to Combat It in the Northern Triangle of Central America, produced by the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI), a National Endowment for Democracy grantee.

The report is a comparative study of the relationship between corruption and democracy in the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. While the twin challenges of corruption and impunity are widely understood to undermine confidence in public institutions, the rule of law, and democratic governance, ICEFI’s new report moves beyond generalities and highlights the main paths of corruption within each state.  The report quantifies the social costs of corruption – for example, highlighting the percentage of different Ministries’ budgets lost to specific corruption cases or schemes, and its impact on public goods and services.

Most importantly, the report offers an eight-point agenda of priority objectives to combat corruption.

Corruption in Central America 

An Agenda Forward 

Ricardo Barrientos

Senior Economist, Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI)

Commentary by

Juan Pablo Guerrero

Network Director, Global Initiative for Fiscal Transparency

moderated by

moderated by

Janelle Nodhturft Williams

Program Officer, National Endowment for Democracy

Thursday, October 12, 2017


Lunch will be served

1025 F St. NW, Suite 800

Washington, DC 20004


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