Fighting Corruption in Central America: Suggestions for Improving the CICIG Model

There has been a great deal of optimism surrounding Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG) in recent months. This UN-sponsored body, in existence since 2006, played a key role in exposing a massive customs fraud scheme that implicated the nation’s president and vice president. Both leaders are currently awaiting trial in Guatemala following their resignations and arrests. Following talk, including on this blog, about the merits of instituting CICIG-like bodies in other Central American nations, a Honduran version of CICIG is now set to become operational in 2016. As I discussed in a previous post, CICIG’s counterparts in Honduras and El Salvador are less robust (as currently formulated) than CICIG, though ultimately their effectiveness will depend on the strength of their leadership.

Yet notwithstanding CICIG’s recent high-profile successes, there are some important weaknesses in the CICIG model–weaknesses that reformers should consider and address before CICIG-like structures can be fully embraced as the solution to corruption and impunity in Central America. Key areas for improvement include the following:

  • Funding: Since there was no provision for a permanent funding source in its charter, CICIG must spend (read: waste) much of its time looking for money from donors every year. Even though CICIG is meant to be a UN-backed organization with broad international support, most of its funding comes from a few countries, principally the United States. The essentially unilateral nature of CICIG’s financing is a concern not only from the perspective of financial stability, but also from perspective of national sovereignty. If CICIG was truly funded by the international community rather than almost entirely by one nation—and one with a thorny history of intervention in Central America at that—its form of international interference in domestic governance might be less worrisome. Of course, it is impossible to compel nations to fund CICIG-like entities, but efforts to gain wider and more stable financial support would still be worthwhile.
  • Accountability: CICIG is supposed to act as a watchdog, but raises the age-old question: Who will guard the guard? Though it is easy (and justifiable) to dismiss the complaints about CICIG lodged by Guatemala’s disgraced former president Otto Perez Molina (who now maintains that the United States used CICIG to seize power in Guatemala, and expressed regret about his decision to renew CICIG’s mandate), he nonetheless has a point that CICIG is accountable to no one, at least no one within Guatemala (except through the need for a domestic decision to extend CICIG’s mandate, discussed below). The organization and its leadership act without constraint, beyond the need to maintain sufficient popularity to ensure extension of its mandate, and sufficient favorability in the eyes of its foreign funders (especially the United States). That CICIG conducts traditional governmental functions without the checks and balances that usually make citizens of a democracy comfortable is problematic, even if CICIG has yet to use its power in a way that the general public finds troubling. Accountability mechanisms of some sort for CICIG’s leadership are especially important given its stated mission to fight impunity and corruption. CICIG can hardly seek reform within domestic governments without itself practicing the accountability that it preaches.
  • Extension: The only check on CICIG from within Guatemala is the required periodic extension of CICIG’s mandate, a responsibility that falls to Guatemala’s president. As a result, every presidential election brings questions about whether the winning candidate will be sympathetic to CICIG or else try to block anticorruption progress by refusing to extend its mandate. Re-assigning the power of extension to the legislature rather than the executive could promote stability and more accurately represent the views of the public since the commission’s continued existence would no longer depend on one person. Doing so might also remove a conflict of interest. As the Guatemalan example shows, executive leaders are prime subject matter for CICIG-led investigations. Even if an individual legislator were the target of an investigation, the rest of the legislative body could still counteract any effort he or she makes to derail the organization for personal salvage, a safeguard that does not exist with executive responsibility for this function.

CICIG’s recent success in Guatemala is undeniable, and replicating the structure in other Central American nations is a strategy that certainly holds promise. The attention to anticorruption in the region provides an opportunity not just to continue CICIG’s success but also to implement the above reforms to strengthen the institution itself, so that it can be even more effective and efficient going forward.

2 thoughts on “Fighting Corruption in Central America: Suggestions for Improving the CICIG Model

  1. I am told by a reliable source that as CICIG gained credibility with wealthy Guatemalans, they approached the senior staff offering funds. CICIG was helping to curb the criminals running the drug trade which were threatening the wealthy’s property. The response was the best help you could offer was to pay your taxes, advice I am also told was not followed.

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