Guest Post: A Breakthrough in Guatemala’s Fight Against Judicial Corruption

GAB is honored to welcome Judge Claudia Escobar, who contributes the following guest post:

Guatemala usually does not get a lot of attention from the international media, and when it does it is usually because of widespread violence or political instability. But lately the country is gaining recognition for its serious efforts to fight corruption and impunity. Partly due to the legacy of 36 years of internal armed conflict, Guatemala has been plagued by a culture of impunity, as well as a legacy of criminal structures that infiltrated government institutions—structures that are still operating today, more than a decade after the 1996 Peace Accords. In response to this problem, the Guatemalan government to ask the United Nations for help in rebuilding the rule of law, and in response, the International Commission against impunity in Guatemala—CICIG—was created in December 2006 when the Guatemala Government and the UN signed the agreement. This new institution was conceived as an independent body to support the Public Prosecutor’s Office, the National Police, and other state law enforcement institutions. The ultimate goal of CICIG is to strengthen institutions within the judicial branch so that they will be able to confront illegal groups and organized crime.

CICIG has already been hailed as a major success and a potential model for other countries in the region to follow. Its most well-known impact to date is that its investigation into systemic corruption in the government of President General Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti ultimately forced both of them to resign. Another, more recent development has gotten much less attention in the international press, but is also a crucial step forward in Guatemala’s struggle to build the rule of law: On October 2016, as a result of a CICIG investigation that commenced two years earlier, former Congressman Godofredo Rivera and attorney Vernon Gonzalez were found guilty on corruption-related charges for attempting to influence a judge. Sentencing two white-collar defendants, with strong political connections, to lengthy prison terms for attempting to influence a judge is unprecedented in Guatemala, and a major step forward. This case was the first case of corruption to be presented against a high official in power by the office of the Attorney General Attorney and CICIG since the Commission was established. It is also the first sentence handed down under the anticorruption law approved in 2012 (which, coincidentally, Congressman Rivera signed into law when he was president of Congress).

The sentence also has a great deal of personal meaning for me, because I was the judge who Rivera and Gonzalez tried to corrupt, and I was the one who filed the case with CICIG. Continue reading

A Tale of Two Regions: Anticorruption Trends in Southeast Asia and Latin America

OK, “best of times” and “worst of times” would be a gross exaggeration. But still, when I consider recent developments in the fight against corruption in Latin American and Southeast Asia, it seems that these two regions are moving in quite different directions. And the directions are a bit surprising, at least to me.

If you’d asked me two years ago (say, in the summer of 2014) which of these two regions provoked more optimism, I would have said Southeast Asia. After all, Southeast Asia was home to two jurisdictions with “model” anticorruption agencies (ACAs)—Singapore and Hong Kong—and other countries in the regions, including Malaysia and especially Indonesia, had established their own ACAs, which had developed good reputations for independence and effectiveness. Thailand and the Philippines were more of a mixed bag, with revelations of severe high-level corruption scandals (the rice pledging fiasco in Thailand and the pork barrel scam in the Philippines), but there were signs of progress in both of those countries too. More controversially, in Thailand the 2014 military coup was welcomed by many in the anticorruption community, who thought that the military would clean up the systemic corruption associated with the populist administrations of Thaksin Shinawatra and his successor (and sister) Yingluck Shinawatra—and then turn power back over to the civilian government, as the military had done in the past. And in the Philippines, public outrage at the brazenness of the pork barrel scam, stoked by social media, and public support for the Philippines’ increasingly aggressive ACA (the Office of the Ombudsman), was cause for hope that public opinion was finally turning more decisively against the pervasive mix of patronage and corruption that had long afflicted Philippine democracy. True, the region was still home to some of the countries were corruption remained pervasive and signs of progress were scant (such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, and Myanmar), but overall, the region-wide story seemed fairly positive—especially compared to Latin America where, aside from the usual bright spots (Chile, Uruguay, and to a somewhat lesser extent Costa Rica), there seemed to be precious little for anticorruption advocates to celebrate.

But now, in the summer of 2016, things look quite a bit different. In Southeast Asia, the optimism I felt two years ago has turned to worry bordering on despair, while in Latin America, things are actually starting to look up, at least in some countries. I don’t want to over-generalize: Every country’s situation is unique, and too complicated to reduce to a simple better/worse assessment. I’m also well aware that “regional trends” are often artificial constructs with limited usefulness for serious analysis. But still, I thought it might be worthwhile to step back and compare these two regions, and explain why I’m so depressed about Southeast Asia and so cautiously optimistic about Latin America at the moment.

I’ll start with the sources of my Southeast Asian pessimism, highlighting the jurisdictions that have me most worried: Continue reading

CICIG’s Achilles Heel: Suggestions for Reforming the Guatemalan Judiciary

In 2015, an innovative institution in Guatemala—the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG)—got a lot of attention (including from me on this blog). Among CICIG’s triumphs last year were the resignations and arrests of former Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxanna Baldetti on corruption-related charges following a Guatemalan Spring of sorts. Perez was formally charged in December with illicit association, customs fraud, and bribery. He maintains his innocence, claiming to be a scapegoat and arguing that nothing has changed about corruption in Guatemala except that he is now in jail. Unfortunately, without major changes he is likely to be right on the latter point. To be sure, removals of corrupt leaders like Perez and Baldetti are victories. But while Perez’s fall from grace and the general outpouring of public anticorruption sentiment in Guatemala are cause for great optimism, there is reason for trepidation as his case moves toward trial this year.

The reason is a decade-old compromise made during CICIG’s founding based on national sovereignty concerns. A Guatemalan court ruled that CICIG would be unconstitutional if empowered to try cases outside of the Guatemalan judicial apparatus. As a result, the success of CICIG and its proposed spin-offs remains inextricably tied to the strength of domestic institutions. CICIG can investigate and support prosecutorial efforts, but must rely on the domestic judiciary to hear its cases. Unfortunately, domestic governments across Central America remain notoriously corrupt. Even after a decade of CICIG’s efforts toward capacity building, the Guatemalan government is no exception. The Guatemalan court system is largely defined in Guatemalan citizens’ political consciousness by its inability to obtain convictions in important cases. Reform of the judiciary must be a central focus of anticorruption efforts going forward. The following challenges should be prioritized: Continue reading

Will Honduras’ MACCIH Become Another CICIG?

After a several month negotiation with the Organization of American States, the ruling party, the opposition, and civil society, the Government of Honduras agreed to form a new anticorruption body that offers the Central American nation the hope that the endemic corruption blamed for making it one of the poorest, most unequal, and most violent societies in the Western Hemisphere can be brought to heel.  On January 19, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández signed an international accord with the OAS establishing the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (known as MACCIH, its initials in Spanish).  MACCIH was inspired by the success of a similar body in neighboring Guatemala, the International Commission Against Impunity (known too by its Spanish initials, CICIG), which, as readers of this blog (here, here, and here) or of a June 2015 Washington Office on Latin America report know, has made significant inroads in taming corruption in that country.

Like CICIG, MACCIH is a hybrid international-domestic agency.  Its staff will be international civil servants paid for, and accountable to, the OAS and immune from Honduran law, yet MACCIH’s staff is tasked with the same mission as Honduran law enforcement agencies, to ferret out corruption in the Honduran body politic.  As with CICIG, in creating MACCIH the hope is to establish an independent, incorruptible body of investigators, prosecutors, and judges able to pursue cases where, thanks to corruption, incompetence, or intimidation, their Honduran counterparts have not.  But important differences between the powers granted MACCIH and those CICIG enjoys make observers wonder whether, as Washington College Professor Christine Wade recently wrote,  MACCIH isn’t a “ruse designed to appease domestic and international critics” of the government.

For MACCIH to be something more than a way to buy time until the furor over the recent corruption scandals that spawned it fades from view, it must overcome three challenges. Continue reading

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: Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Not Corrupt, Not a Thief, But Not the Answer: Jimmy Morales and Corruption in Guatemala

Last month, Guatemalans went to the presidential runoff polls and elected former comedian Jimmy Morales in a landslide over former first lady Sandra Torres. Morales ran as an anticorruption candidate; his slogan, “not corrupt, not a thief,” says it all. Not being a thief might seem like a low bar for a presidential candidate, but Morales’s election shows that such qualifications are apparently and alarmingly sufficient in Guatemala. Despite never having held public office or having been involved much in politics as a private citizen (unless racism and cultural insensitivity count), Morales was a well-known and available outsider in the right place at the right time. Indeed, Morales seems to have gotten elected not despite but rather because of his lack of experience and prior political involvement—characteristics that were valuable assets against the backdrop of widespread public outcry against corruption in Guatemala over the last several months, culminating in the resignations and arrests of President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti in September.

Many hail Morales’s victory as an indication that the anticorruption movement reached a tipping point and created change in Guatemala. But there are at least three reasons to worry that far from an anticorruption success, electing Morales may be a setback or at least a non-event for anti-corruption and democracy in Guatemala. Continue reading