Six years ago, the world was celebrating one of the most innovative and promising investigative commissions to curb grand corruption: Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, or CICIG). CICIG was a domestic-international hybrid organization that exposed sixty criminal networks, charged nearly 700 people, and took down high-level officials, including Guatemala’s sitting president, vice president, and head of the public prosecutor’s office (see here, here, here, and here). CICIG was so successful that it inspired two of Guatemala’s neighbors, El Salvador and Honduras, to create commissions on a similar model: MACCIH in Honduras (created in 2016) and CICIES in El Salvador (created in 2019). The key element setting these commissions apart from traditional anticorruption agencies was their hybrid domestic-international setup. In all three cases, the commissioners were supported by an international body (the UN for CICIG and Office of American States (OAS) for MACCIH and CICIES), and the commissions were led by foreigners. The commissions had ambitious mandates, but also limited powers: They could not prosecute on their own, but rather had to work with the national prosecutor’s office. Initially, MACCIH and CICIES scored a few remarkable victories, taking down a handful of government officials. This fueled optimism that these institutions, together with CICIG, would prove to be a powerful and sustainable anticorruption innovation.
Now, several years later, the bloom is off the rose. None of these commissions are still operating. And the story of their demise is remarkably similar: In each country, the commission’s investigations got too close to the incumbent administration, ultimately leading the president to either terminate the commission’s mandate or let it expire (see here, here, and here). This all-too-familiar story highlights a difficult challenge in fighting corruption effectively, one that is not limited to these special hybrid commissions: The main point of creating independent anticorruption bodies is to make possible the investigation and prosecution of the politically powerful—those who might benefit from de facto impunity if investigations were left to the ordinary institutions of justice—but at the same time, these independent commissions are sustainable only as long as the politically powerful would not find it more expedient to shut them down.
It’s difficult to thread this needle, and I’m reluctant to second-guess the leaders of CICIG, MACCIH, and CICIES regarding their strategic choices. Still, the fates of these commissions suggest a few valuable lessons that might be applicable to other anticorruption agencies that find themselves facing a comparable dilemma:
- First, anticorruption commissions should choose their battles wisely, and avoid antagonizing the sitting administration or other powerful figures too soon. That is a bitter pill for many anticorruption advocates to swallow, and it may also be unwelcome advice for career prosecutors who would like to simply follow the evidence where it takes them. But in this context, the better part of valor is discretion. Realistically, one cannot expect the heads of government to expose themselves, or their family members or close associates, to a significant risk of conviction and incarceration. If they can avoid this possibility by shutting down the anticorruption commission, they will usually do so. (It’s true that CICIG was able to successfully take down then-sitting President Otto Pérez Molina and his Vice President, but this is generally not how the story goes. In fact, President Molina released a statement shortly after his arrest stating that he deeply regretted extending CICIG’s mandate and that he only did so in response to U.S. pressure.) To be clear, in urging discretion I am not suggesting that such commissions must consign themselves to irrelevance, or focus only on the pettiest forms of administrative corruption. In countries where corruption is widespread, there will be plenty of important targets, including former government officials, high-ranking (but dispensable) bureaucrats, members of the justice system (such as corrupt police chiefs, judges, and prosecutors), business elites, and others. Even if some of these figures are allied with the incumbent administration, the president and other senior politicians may be reluctant to dismantle a popular anticorruption commission to save a corrupt judge or general, even though they would shut it down to save their own skins. Refraining from targeting the most powerful actors in the system, at least initially, would allow a commission to carry out significant criminal investigations, all the while building its credibility and public support, and giving the commission time to strengthen itself politically and institutionally.
- Second, the commission should use that time to promote reforms that will enhance their powers, expand their mandates, and strengthen their independence—reforms that will make it more feasible for the commissions to withstand the inevitable political backlash when they do start pursuing investigations that directly threaten the interests or liberty of the most powerful political figures in the country. The greater the autonomy of the commissions, the more difficult it will be for current and future administrations to pull the plug when intimidated. The commissions should also advocate for legal changes to close existing loopholes that protect corrupt officials—for example, modifying bank secrecy laws to increase transparency, and withdrawing immunity laws that shield presidents from prosecution in corruption cases. To its credit, CICIG proposed over 30 important policy reforms that can serve as examples (see here, here, and here).
- Third, the commission should focus not just on conducting investigations, but on enhancing the capacity, integrity, and professionalism of the national law enforcement institutions with which it collaborates. CICIG actually did quite a good job on this front, helping Guatemalan law enforcement agencies effectively use advanced tools for investigating criminal networks, such as wiretapping, witness protection programs, and plea bargaining.
- Fourth, anticorruption commissions should prioritize educating the public about the importance of curbing corruption. Commissions can pursue this educative function in a variety of ways, such as engaging directly with civil society groups, think tanks, and academia. Such engagement not only helps further the commission’s mission of raising the public salience of anticorruption, but can also help build alliances that can provide political support for the commissions when they inevitably face political hostility from the powers that be.
Now, these recommendations could and do apply to any new anticorruption agency operating in a politically challenging environment; these suggestions are not unique to hybrid agencies like CICIG, MACCIH, and CICIES. But while a few years back one might have hoped that these hybrid commissions would not need to be quite so cautious due to their international support, the fates of all three illustrates the limitations of that protection. A change in the political priorities and philosophy of a powerful international partner can lead to the sudden withdrawal of international protection for a commission, and commissions need to keep this possibility in mind.
It’s one thing to create a new anticorruption agency; it’s another thing to sustain that agency over a prolonged period. Sustainability requires a long-term strategy, one that will enable the commission to build its credibility, increase public confidence and support, and effectively advocate for legal changes. As the commission builds its capacity, autonomy, and support, it will become less dependent on international support and protection, and eventually become strong enough to take on the most powerful members of the government.