Close But No CICIGar… Yet: Replicating Guatemala’s Anticorruption Success

Guatemala’s international commission against impunity (known by its Spanish acronym, CICIG) played a pivotal role in answering widespread public demand this year for accountability for corruption in the government. CICIG’s investigations led to the resignations and arrests of top government officials—including the former president and vice president—following their involvement in a large-scale customs scandal. CICIG’s perceived success has let to calls in other countries for adopting (or adapting) the CICIG model elsewhere. For example, public outcry in Honduras over a healthcare scandal culminated in a proposal for a Honduran version of CICIG, to be led by the Organization of American States and formally titled the “Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras.” (Like CICIG, this body will also be known by its acronym in Spanish, MACCIH). There have also been calls to replicate CICIG in El Salvador (which thus far have led only to the continuation of a USAID-sponsored anticorruption initiative rather than creation of a full-fledged CICIG clone), most recently, in Venezuela.

These other governments, however, are resisting calls for full-fledged CICIG clones, and the existing or proposed institutions, like MACCIH in Honduras or the USAID initiative in El Salvador–have been met with skepticism. For example, many Honduran critics point to MACCIH’s limited mission as evidence of its limited effect. Indeed, many suspect that the Honduran government agreed to MACCIH precisely because its work is likely to be duplicative and ineffective, mainly focused on study and recommending improvements; the call for further study is seen, probably accurately, as a delaying tactic until the next election rather than a practical step forward. Anticorruption activists in Honduras have therefore introduced a bill that rejects MACCIH, calling it a governmental ploy to placate demand and avoid accountability, and requests a more CICIG-like body in its place.

To a certain extent, this skepticism is justified: both MACCIH and the Salvadoran USAID initiative are watered-down substitutes for CICIG at best. Nonetheless, the outlook may not be as bleak as it seems. CICIG may seem exemplary now, especially in comparison to MACCIH and the USAID initiative, but it was not always perceived this way. Many of the preconditions for CICIG’s recent success developed with its work over time. This is a cause for some optimism regarding the prospects for the “CICIG-lite” initiatives in El Salvador and Honduras, despite their limited mandate and powers. Nonetheless, certain structural problems–mainly related to funding and independence–are more worrisome.

As noted above, one of the reasons that many critics are skeptical that MACCIH, or several of the other institutions touted as analogues of CICIG, will be effective is the fact that these organizations have very limited mandates. MACCIH, for example, is supposed to focus on study and recommendations. Nevertheless, MACCIH would not necessarily be bound by the proposed objectives appearing in its charter. Indeed, although corruption is the center of CICIG’s work today, the word “corruption” does not appear anywhere in CICIG’s original mandate. The focus of CICIG’s commissioners, rather than the stated mission in the charter, was the principal factor that guided CICIG’s work over time. (Though bureaucratic “mission creep” is often depicted as undesirable, CICIG shows that it can sometimes be essential to an organization’s success.) Once created, MACCIH might follow a similar path, and its ultimate focus may not correlate perfectly with its stated objectives—which in this case would likely be a good thing. So the limited (initial) mandate, while problematic, is not necessarily an insurmountable obstacle.

Another reason that some critics believe that these new initiatives will not be able to replicate CICIG’s success is that these supposed CICIG clones will be less robust, making progress against corruption more dependent on domestic political will. (This is a frequent criticism of the USAID initiative in El Salvador, for example.) This criticism is misplaced, however, since the effectiveness of any anti-corruption initiative—CICIG included—depends largely on support from the domestic government. Backing from the Honduran and Salvadoran governments seems weak—especially given Honduras’s recent boycott of hearings on public institutional corruption, and the Salvadoran government’s insistence that corruption in El Salvador is not enough of a problem to require a CICIG-like intervention. But even though the Guatemalan government requested CICIG, the government has not always provided much domestic support. Indeed, CICIG’s first commissioner, Carlos Castresana, resigned out of frustration with ineffective cooperation from his domestic government counterpart. More recently, former Guatemalan President Otto Perez initially refused to extend CICIG’s mandate. As CICIG’s work gathered steam, however, pressure from constituents and the international community motivated domestic leaders to at least take actions in CICIG’s interest, regardless of personal feelings. Senior political leaders are unlikely ever to enthusiastically embrace an institution with the power to investigate the leaders themselves, but the level of cooperation required for effectiveness can still be achieved.

Thus, the fact that CICIG-like institutions in countries like Honduras and El Salvador may have narrowly circumscribed initial missions, and lack robust domestic political support, are not necessarily fatal–after all, CICIG itself faced similar constraints, at least initially. A more serious concern about the effectiveness of these new institutions, however, is the resources at their disposal. Neither MACCIH nor the USAID initiative in El Salvador is likely to have capacity comparable to CICIG. CICIG’s costs are about $12 million per year (with some estimates as high as $20 million per year). MACCIH will have to run on $2 million per year despite a broader scope and mission than CICIG; USAID has devoted just $25 million over five years to the Salvadoran project, less than half of CICIG’s budget. Perhaps even more importantly, MACCIH and the USAID initiative lack the characteristic that may have been most crucial to CICIG’s success—independence. While the MACCIH (touted by the government as a “Honduran solution”) may be attractive for national sovereignty reasons, it will also likely reinforce problematic power dynamics such as executive control and may not be strong enough to stand up to political pressures within the country. The funding and independence issues are less likely than other deficiencies to organically change with time. These challenges must be addressed at the institutional level if MACCIH is to have the type of success that will defeat with time the other barriers it faces.

For replication of Guatemala’s anticorruption progress in other Central American nations, the corresponding anticorruption bodies need not perfectly mirror what CICIG is today. The driving factor behind CICIG’s success was not any institutional feature, but just the effectiveness and commitment of the people in positions to control its work. As planning and development proceed before the CICIG counterparts become operational in 2016, it will be important to focus on recruiting strong leaders, establishing institutional independence, and increasing funding if these entities are to be instrumental in the fight against corruption as CICIG has been.

4 thoughts on “Close But No CICIGar… Yet: Replicating Guatemala’s Anticorruption Success

  1. Thank you for this great post Rathna. The point you are making on the issue of independence of MACCIH and the USAID initiative is particularly interesting. I wonder if involving civil society in the implementation these initiatives would help counterbalance their lack of independence.

    Civil society oversight could play an important role in MACCIH and USAID initiative success. Civil society could monitor and report on their activities. Such monitoring could be undertaken either independently or in an institutionalized way, which would consist in creating a body within these MACCIH and the USAID initiative made of civil society organizations to monitor from the inside.

    The obvious limit to institutionalized monitoring would be, as you pointed out, the lack of resources at their disposal…

    • Civil society monitoring could certainly play a role. But, the independence concern I raise is not so much about oversight as about making sure that these entities are equipped to do meaningful work. Civil society could function effectively as a watchdog against overreach, but may or may not be as helpful in helping the organization stand up to governmental pressures.

  2. I had a similar thought to Sarah about the potential role for civil society organizations in bolstering MACCIH and the El Salvadoran initiative, but in a different context. I got stuck on you point about the lack of funding. I agree that, sadly, without sufficient resources, even a structurally sound entity run by committed staff with sufficient independence is unlikely to have the success CICIG has recently had. So perhaps civil society groups might foot part of the bill to make initiatives in Honduras and El Salvador pay off.

    There are a few concerns with using civil society funding, of course. First, would this be the best use of civil society’s own limited resources. Where there are so many problems—many rooted in government—it seems odd to ask civil society to put funding in to a quasi-governmental entity. Second, there might be sovereignty concerns for governments related to civil society paying for part of these initiatives.

    Moving past funding for a moment, in the past you have noted the role of individual efforts to make CICIG effective in Guatemala as a key to its success in the Perez investigation. Are you aware of individuals or groups in Honduras and El Salvador that might be well situated to be a driving force in making MACCIH and the USAID initiative effective despite the obstacles you outlined in your post? I wonder, which Hondurans and El Salvadorans will anticorruption blogs like this one be celebrating five or ten years from now for turning the tide against corruption in their home countries?

    • Civil society strikes me as a problematic source of funding, for the reasons you mention and also because of concerns about stability or continuity. On the second point, identifying such effective individuals requires a good working knowledge of what is “really happening” on the ground in El Salvador and Honduras, which I don’t have. But, I do think the success of these initiatives will turn on personnel, so I hope there are individuals for us to celebrate in the future!

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