The Legacy of Guatemala’s Commission Against Impunity

The most innovative experiment in the fight against corruption in memory ended last week with the closing down of Guatemala’s impunity commission.  Known as CICIG after its Spanish initials, the commission enjoyed tremendous success over its ten plus year life, securing the conviction of dozens of senior military and political leaders, forcing a sitting president and vice president to resign over corruption charges, and most importantly, showing Guatemalans their leaders were not beyond the law’s reach. The commission ceased operating Wednesday after outgoing President Jimmy Morales, whom the commission was investigating for campaign finance violations, refused to renew its mandate.

Although Guatemala’s corrupt elite finally succeeded in killing the commission, the innovation behind the commission’s success is very much alive.  Prompted by CICIG’s success, neighboring Honduras created its own CICIG-like commission, and last Friday, less than 48 hours after CICIG shut down, El Salvador’s newly-elected president established a Salvadorian version of CICIG.  Across the Atlantic, independent of developments in Central America, Ukraine is pioneering a similar ground-breaking approach to fighting corruption which Moldovans are considering copying.

What all four countries have in common is a corrupt ruling class able to stymie the enforcement of the anticorruption laws. CICIG’s creators were the first to recognize that outside pressure alone was never going to change this dynamic.  No matter how much diplomatic and economic pressure the international community brought to bear, Guatemalan investigators, prosecutors, and judges were never going to tame grand corruption by themselves.  Some were themselves corrupt or corruptible; others were honest but unwilling to cross corrupt friends and relatives, and still others feared for their life or the lives of their families if they opened a case.   The CICIG solution?

Enlist foreigner in the fight: experts of unquestioned integrity with no ties to Guatemala.  Carlos Castrasana, CICIG’s first head, was a respected career Spanish prosecutor who had no Guatemalan friends, relatives, or former classmates who might be implicated in corruption and whose wrongs he might overlook because of a relationship with them. That his family lived in Spain eliminated the danger they would be threatened.

Castrasana recruited other Spanish-speaking prosecutors and investigators to staff CICIG, individuals who could pass a rigorous integrity check and were also strangers to Guatemala.  (Castrasana’s own account of his tenure is here.) Only later, as CICIG learned whom they could trust, were Guatemalans recruited. Like CICIG, the Honduran and Salvadoran copies will rely at first on foreigners to investigate and in some cases help prosecute high-level corruption cases.

Ukraine has found a different way to capitalize on the integrity and expertise of foreign corruption fighters.  Rather than having them bring corruption cases, Ukraine is using them to vet the Ukrainians who will lead the agencies that do.  Ukraine differs in important ways from the smaller, poorer countries of Central America. It has many young career investigators, prosecutors, and judges with both the technical skill and the willingness to tackle elite corruption.  The problem is with the leadership of the agencies where they work.

Under Ukrainian law, the leaders are selected by senior career staff, at present those who joined during the communist era or shortly thereafter and climbed the ranks thanks to a willingness to tolerate if not participate in the rampant corruption that now infects the state.  The selection panels choose people like themselves, individuals with ties to political blocks or powerful politicians who can be counted on to protect those who are part of Ukraine’s web of corruption.

As Ukrainian corruption fighter extraordinaire Daria Kaleniuk explained in a recent Kickback podcast, Ukrainian reformers hit on the idea of injecting foreigners into the selection process to overcome this hurdle. Non-Ukrainian judges, police and prosecutors expert on corruption and the law who would review those nominated for leadership positions for honesty and technical qualifications.  After a false start, when a selection committee of career officials ignored foreign experts’ recommendations on the choice of a prosecutor general, the law was changed.  The foreign experts participating in the selection of judges for the new anticorruption court were given the power to nix a candidate if four of the six members opposed the nominee.  The judges were selected last summer and the court only began operations in September.  It is thus too early to know whether the foreign experts made a difference, but the concept is sound and preliminary reports positive (here and here).

In all four countries, the insertion, or in Salvador the planned insertion, of foreigners was instigated by civil society. Civil society first broached the idea for CICIG; it was Honduran citizens who demanded their government follow Guatemala’s lead after a massive corruption scandal involving social security; and it was Salvadorian voters who pressed candidates during the presidential election to agree to create a commission if elected.  A 2015 poll found CICIG ranked ahead of all other public institutions and even the Catholic and evangelical churches in public confidence. Daria reports similar results for Ukraine where citizens are so fed up with corruption they are willing to accept foreign involvement in selection of judges and prosecutors if it will help rid the country of the curse.

The most important consequence of a citizen-led movement to bring in foreigners is it puts to rest the hoary question of national sovereignty. Foreign involvement in the domestic fight against corruption in all four countries has been opposed on grounds it compromises the nation’s sovereignty. Guatemalans, Hondurans, Salvadorians and Ukrainians have shown that if the price of maintaining the nation’s sovereignty is allowing rulers to rob them blind, it is a price they are not willing to pay.

In all four countries, citizens have made common cause with officials in partner governments and international agencies.  CICIG was formally a part of the U.N. Secretary General’s office and it was the continued support and pressure from the U.N. and the United States that succeeded in thwarting earlier assassination attempts. Indeed, only after the Trump Administration’s shameful wavering of support for CICIG did Guatemala’s elites dare shut it down.  Mindful of relying on U.S. support, at least so long as Trump remains in office, El Salvadorians and Hondurans have been careful to keep their distance from the U.S., finding allies in other nations in the Hemisphere and in Europe and turning to the Organization of American States for administrative support for their versions of CICIG.

CICIG might have survived had it been more judicious in tackling the widespread campaign finance violations that are a feature of Guatemalan elections. Or it might have anticipated that the Trump Administration would scrap America’s bipartisan support of CICIG in the face of a lobbying cum public relations campaign by Guatemalan elites.

That is only one of the many lessons of experience reformers in other nations looking to import foreign experts can take from the Guatemalan experience, and the Honduran, Ukrainian, now Salvadorian experiments with foreign involvement are sure to offer more as they unfold. Indeed, American University Professor Charles Call has already distilled important lessons from Guatemala and Honduras for El Salvador, and Moldovans are studying early results from Ukraine.

Drafting foreigners to help fight domestic corruption will not by itself win the war, but it is surely an option that civil society organizations and partners both in their governments and the international community should entertain when devising a plan to bring corruption to heel.

3 thoughts on “The Legacy of Guatemala’s Commission Against Impunity

  1. Thank you for this post, I found it really thought-provoking to consider how inviting foreign actors into a local context might be a feasible way of checking corruption. This solution definitely has the potential to check the influence of internal corrupt actors, and it makes sense that a neutral third party might be able to garner more domestic trust.
    I wonder how different political contexts might impact the feasibility of utilizing foreign anti-corruption monitors. One concern is the ability of (corrupt) domestic governments to turn populations against the anticorruption movement on the basis of the monitor’s identity. If there is any perceived irregularity in the anti-corruption effort, it may be easy for domestic politicians to blame this on “foreign meddling,” particularly if there is any history of public suspicion of, or tension with, the foreign government. Conversely, changes in the relationship of the corrupt government with the monitoring state, even if totally separate from anticorruption issues, could be used to cast doubt on the anticorruption campaign. I do not mean to suggest this approach cannot work, only to suggest some possibly unavoidable challenges.
    In addition, I wonder if this approach’s effectiveness may be reduced when applied to wealthier countries. The ability of the Guatemala initiative to succeed depended in part on the unreachability of the Spanish monitor. However, living in a foreign country is no guarantee of untouchability, as Russia’s various overseas assassinations can attest (see here, here). For wealthier countries, it may be very possible to influence monitors by threats or bribes. It will be interesting to see how Ukraine’s experience on this front differs from Guatemala’s.

  2. Thanks for this post. I agree with Maura that it was really interesting to read about how foreign actors could check the internal corruption of the system designed to prosecute it in the first place.
    The approach of CICIG, as you describe it, where an actor is completely foreign with no ties to the country, seems to run into a potential issue where that individual may not be familiar enough with local customs and methods. The lack of context could impede a prosecutor attempting to investigate a case of corruption or being able to spot the local methods of corruption that someone more familiar with the culture could. In this respect, Ukraine’s approach seems to make more sense. As Maura pointed out, however, prosecutors under Ukraine’s approach could be more susceptible to influence. This is a tricky balancing act, and it will be interesting to see the differing results.

  3. Thanks for such an interesting post. It seems to me that enlisting foreign experts could also be very helpful in avoiding accusations of political bias (and also in avoiding real political bias) by judges and prosecutors involved in the investigations, which are so common in large anti-corruption campaigns. I am also curious to learn more about the legislative or constitutional reforms that Central American countries had to go through to make it possible to have a new court of judgment made by foreigners. As a suggestion, I would be very interested in reading another post describing the political disputes that led to the extinction of the court, since apparently Latin America is experiencing a time in which anti-corruption institutions are being undermined by political leaders in various countries, using the most different excuses as a justification.

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