Guest Post: Memo to the U.S. — Central America Needs More Anticorruption and Rule of Law Support, Not Less

The Trump Administration recently decided to terminate foreign assistance to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador and to abandon America’ long-standing support for the United Nations/Guatemalan commission fighting corruption in Guatemala. In today’s guest post, retired U.S. Ambassador Stephen G. McFarland explains that corrupt officials and drug lords in the region are conspiring to “capture” these nations’ governments. Their citizens are already fleeing the countries in droves. How much greater will the pressures to migrate be if a coalition of corrupt politicians and narco-trafficantes takes over one of their governments? On national interest as well as humanitarian grounds, the ambassador argues that the United States should not only restore, but increase, support for anticorruption and rule of law programs.  

The April 17 arrest of Guatemalan presidential candidate Mario Estrada and accomplice Juan Pablo Gonzalez on drug trafficking charges has major implications for U.S. policy towards Guatemala and Central America’s “Northern Triangle.”  The U.S. Department of Justice (USDOJ) asserts that in January 2019, Estrada allegedly attempted to obtain Sinaloa cartel support for the assassination of rival presidential candidates in Guatemala’s upcoming June 2019 general elections and for financing his election campaign. In return, he allegedly promised that, if elected, he would give the cartel free reign to use Guatemalan ports and airports to traffic cocaine to the U.S.

If the USDOJ’s allegations are true: Continue reading

The CICIG Crisis in Guatemala: How the Trump Administration Is Undermining US Anticorruption Leadership

Back when Donald Trump was first elected, a lot of people—me included—worried about the implications of his presidency for US leadership in the global fight against corruption. Some of the dire predictions have not (yet) come to pass; for example, so far US enforcement of the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) does not seem to have abated despite Trump’s well-documented and ill-informed hostility to that statute. But even if US enforcement of the FCPA has proceeded without much discernible effect (so far), there are other, less easily measurable respects in which the Trump Administration’s foreign policy, and its own cavalier disregard for ethics, may be undermining US leadership on anticorruption issues, and consequently undermining anticorruption efforts and bolstering those who would seek to undermine such efforts.

As just noted, much of this effect is diffuse and hard to observe directly, but there are a few examples where the Trump Administration and its allies are undermining the global fight against corruption is more evident. Perhaps the most striking and disheartening is the situation unfolding in Guatemala, ably documented in a compelling piece by Colum Lynch on Foreign Policy’s FP Blog earlier this month. Long story short: The Trump Administration and its allies in Congress appear to be supporting, or at least tacitly accepting, the efforts of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to shut down Guatemala’s UN-sponsored anti-impunity commission, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG, which has proved instrumental in fighting high-level corruption in Guatemala, and forced the resignation of President Morales’s predecessor, Otto Perez Molina. President Morales campaigned on an anticorruption platform, but he now wants to shut CICIG down, apparently because it’s investigating his own family members and associates. And the US, which had supported CICIG in the past and pressured President Molina to renew its mandate when he was inclined to terminate it to protect himself, seems to be backing Morales rather than CICIG.

I won’t go into all the details here, as the story is ably laid out in Mr. Lynch’s excellent piece. I’ll just highlight some themes that emerge from the reporting that Mr. Lynch and others have done, which illustrate connections—some direct, some indirect—between the Trump Administration’s approach to government and the dissipation of US leadership on anticorruption issues, as illustrated by the CICIG debacle. Continue reading

What, Besides Creating a New Court, Could the International Community Do To Fight Grand Corruption? A Partial List

Last week, Richard Goldstone and Robert Rotberg posted a response to Professor Alex Whiting’s critique of the proposal to create an International Anti-Corruption Court (IACC). Early in their response, Goldstone and Rotberg–both advocates for an IACC–remarked, a bit snarkily, that “[n]otably absent from [Professor Whiting’s] post is a description of what the other effective responses to combating grand corruption might be.”

That struck me as a bit of a cheap shot. Professor Whiting’s post offered a careful, thoughtful argument based on his experience and knowledge of the International Criminal Court (ICC) and similar tribunals, and not every such critical commentary on a given proposal must include a full-blown discussion of alternatives. Still, Goldstone and Rotberg’s implicit challenge to IACC skeptics to articulate alternative responses to grand corruption is worth taking seriously, for two reasons:

  • First, this seems to be a common rhetorical gambit by advocates for an IACC, or for other radical measures that critics deem impractical: Rather than answering and attempting to refute the critics’ specific objections directly, the move is to say, “Well, but this is a huge problem, and there’s no other way to solve it, so poking holes in this proposal is really just an excuse for inaction. This may seem like a long shot, but it’s the only option on the table.”
  • Second, and more charitably to those who make this point, grand corruption is indeed an enormous problem that needs to be addressed. And so even though not every critical commentary on a particular proposal needs to include a full-blown discussion of alternatives, those of us who (like me) are skeptical of deus-ex-machina-style responses to the grand corruption problem ought to make a more concerted effort to lay out an alternative vision for what can be done.

In this post I want to (briefly and incompletely) take up the implicit challenge posed by Goldstone and Rotbert (and, in other writings, by other IACC proponents). If the international community is serious about fighting corruption, what else could it do, besides creating a new international court and compelling all countries to join it and submit to its jurisdiction? When people like Professor Whiting (and I) suggest that lavishing time and attention on the IACC proposal might be a distraction from other, more effective approaches, what do we have in mind? What else could international civil society mobilize behind, besides something like an IACC, to address the problem of grand corruption?

Here are a few items on that agenda: Continue reading

Brazil’s Electoral Dilemma: Which Outcome Will Be Better for Anticorruption?

My post last week expressed some dismay at the political situation in Brazil, and the role that understandable disgust at widespread corruption in the left-wing Worker’s Party (PT), which controlled the presidency from 2003 to 2016, seems to be playing in contributing to the astonishing electoral success of far-right candidate Jair Bolsonaro. Bolsonaro—whose extremist views, history of bigotry, violent rhetoric, and admiration for autocrats has led some to label him, with justification, as a quasi-fascist—was the top vote-getter in the first round of Brazilian’s two-round presidential election system, and he is favored to win the run-off against PT candidate Fernando Haddad on October 28. Though I’m no expert on Brazil or its politics, this situation—voter revulsion at the corruption of the mainstream parties leading to the rise of a tough-talking extremist—is distressingly familiar. It’s a pattern we’ve seen play out in several countries now, usually with quite unfortunate consequences. So, much as I believe that corruption is a serious problem, and tend to support aggressive anticorruption efforts—including the so-called Car Wash (Lava Jato) investigations in Brazil—I used my last post to express my dismay that anticorruption sentiments might propel someone like Bolsonaro to victory. Some things, I argued, are more important than corruption.

The post seems to have touched a nerve—I’ve gotten far more feedback on that post (some in the public comments section, some in private communications) than anything else I’ve written in the four and half years I’ve been blogging about corruption. While some of the comments have been the sort of substance-free invective one gets used to on the internet, a lot of people have provided useful, thoughtful, constructive criticism and pushback of various kinds. So I thought that perhaps it would be worth doing another post on this general topic, and connecting my thoughts about the current Brazilian political situation to some more general themes or problems that those of us who work on anticorruption need to confront, whether or not we have any particular interest in Brazil. Continue reading

Dear American Congress, Please Don’t Destroy Guatemala’s Best Hope for Combatting Corruption

Unproven, implausible allegations about Russian meddling in Guatemala’s judicial system threaten one of the most innovative and successful efforts to curb grand corruption now underway.  The Commission against Impunity in Guatemala, a hybrid UN-Guatemalan investigative agency known by its Spanish initials CICIG, has made enormous progress taming grand corruption, drug trafficking, the wholesale murder of indigenous people, and other crimes committed by an insular elite who, until the advent of CICIG, operated without fear of prosecution.  CICIG’s success rests on its independence from Guatemala’s corrupt elite, both in the investigators it hires, often from other Spanish-speaking countries with no ties to anyone in Guatemala, and its funding, a significant portion of which is provided by the U.S. Congress.  Thanks to these conditions, it has presented Guatemalan prosecutors with air-tight cases against former presidents, vice-presidents, ministers, and senior military and civil servants.

CICIG’s American funding is now in doubt thanks to a story those most in danger from CICIG sold Wall Street Journal opinion writer Mary O’ Grady.  O’Grady wrote in March that CICIG took money from Russian interests to push the prosecution of Russian dissidents who emigrated to Guatemala.  O’Grady’s story caught the attention of several in Congress who now question whether the U.S. should continue supporting CICIG.  Thankfully, the story has not gone unanswered.  A wave of stories knocking it down and noting its origin among the very elite in CICIG’s cross-hairs has appeared in, among other outlets, the Economist (here), the Washington Post (here), and the Guatemalan media (here and here [Spanish].  The American Bar Association (here) sharply questioned the premises underpinning O’Grady’s claims.

The latest support for CICIG comes from a former Guatemalan vice president and several former foreign ministers and ambassadors in a letter to the U.S. Congress.   The letter itself is a welcome sign that a new elite is rising that is not afraid to counter the old corrupt elite.  In it they write forcefully of CICIG’s critical importance to the well-being of Guatemala’s citizens:

Continue reading

Internationalizing the Fight Against Corruption: The EU Mission in Kosovo

For countries saddled with a tight-knit, corrupt leadership class, what happened last week in Guatemala is cause for celebration.  There a normally meek judiciary slapped down the president’s effort to end a corruption investigation that threatens his rule.  What made the difference was the investigation is led by a United Nations entity created under an accord an earlier government had signed with the U.N.  The agreement, and the support it enjoys both in Guatemala and abroad, gave the nation’s Constitutional Court both the legal rationale and the backbone to tell the president that even he was not above the law.

Before corruption fighters embrace internationalization as the deus ex machina in the corruption fight, however, they will want to pay heed to another, far less publicized event, that also took place last week: publication of Joschka Proksik’s analyis of the European Union’s rule of law mission in Kosovo ( (published in this volume). As with Guatemala, the government of Kosovo agreed to share with an international agency the power to enforce the nation’s criminal law.  Unlike Guatemala, however, where the U.N. can only investigate allegations of criminal misconduct and domestic prosecutors and courts must take it from there, in Kosovo the EU’s power is unlimited.  EU personnel can at any time and for any reason investigate, prosecute, and judge whether a Kosovar has violated the nation’s criminal law — without any involvement whatsoever by local authorities.  Moreover, EULEX, as the mission is known, is far larger and far better resourced than the UN’s Guatemalan mission, staffed at its peak by some 1,900 international personnel at a cost of over €100 million in administrative expense alone.

Proksik interviewed dozens of current and former EULEX staff, analyzed data on investigations, prosecutions, and convictions, and perused pervious evaluations by the European Union and independent observers to determine what the progress EULEX has made in its almost nine-year life in realizing its core objectives of helping Kosovo’s judiciary and law enforcement agencies remain “free from political interference” and adhere to “internationally recognized standards and European best practices.”  Because his careful, balanced, professional assessment merits the attention of aIl looking for ways to help countries stuck with corrupt leaders, I won’t give away the bottom line.  But safe to say it forms an important counter to the Guatemala experience.

Proksik suggests some reasons why the results of internationalizing the corruption fight in the two countries differ so: EU’s large and unwieldy bureaucracy, the lack of a shared language between Kosovars and internationals, and the short-term secondments of many international staff.  As Matthew explained earlier this year, there are pros and cons to internationalizing, or outsourcing, the fight against corruption.  Given what a successful effort can achieve, understanding why the results in Kosovo have been so different from those in Guatemala is surely a topic worthy of sustained, careful attention.

Internationalizing the Fight Against Corruption: the Guatemala Showdown

Guatemala shows how a beleaguered citizenry can fight a thoroughly corrupt leadership.  A joint United Nations/Guatemalan agency, known by its Spanish initials CICIG, has for several years been waging all out war against corruption in Guatemala (details here).  Besides winning corruption convictions against countless senior politicians and military leaders, its investigations led to the 2015 ouster of then President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti for orchestrating a massive corruption scheme in customs.  CICIG has been able to withstand the inevitable backlash that cases against the powerful generate thanks to a remarkable alliance between Guatemalans fed up with corruption and impunity and those in the international community willing to provide not only financial support but political backing too.

Fearing he is about to become the target of a CICIG investigation, Guatemala’s current president Jimmy Moralesis is testing the strength of the alliance. On August 26 he issued a decree expelling CICIG’s head, claiming the commission was compromising the country’s sovereignty.  Given Guatemala’s experience with foreign intervention, one would expect his claim to resonate, but so far outside far right circles it has gained little traction. The day after his order issued the Guatemalan Constitutional Court granted an amparo (protective order) staying the expulsion order pending a hearing on its lawfulness.  Guatemalans have taken to the streets, and commentators to the airwaves and op-ed pages, to protest Morales’ action.

International backers of CICIG have come to its defense too.  The U.N. Secretary General, the U.S. State Department, the European Union, and the Latin American Association of Ombudsmen have all denounced Morales’ order.  CICIG’s most important international ally may well be U.S. Congresswoman Norma Torres.  Guatemalan by birth, she is a leading voice on U.S. policy towards Guatemala, from shaping a responsible foreign assistance program, to devising a humane immigration policy, to supporting the fight against corruption. In an August 29 opinion piece in a Guatemalan daily (reprinted below in English) she not only strongly backed CICIG but reminded Morales his actions were putting millions of dollars of U.S. aid at risk. However much cheap demagoguery about foreign intervention and “Yankee imperialism” might undermine the credibility of CICIG’s other international supporters, the Congresswoman would seem immune.

Guatemala is a model for how a small country stuck with entrenched, powerful and corrupt leaders can mobilize international organizations, friendly governments, and key members of the diaspora to help purge the nation of corruption.  The outcome of the showdown between President Moralies and that alliance in Guatemala will be a critical test of the model’s viability.

Iván Velásquez and the Future of Guatemala
by Congresswoman Norma Torres

Like many chapines [Guatemalans] in Guatemala and abroad, I was shocked and dismayed by President Morales’s decision to declare Iván Velásquez “persona non grata.”  This decision is not only a devastating step back in the progress that has been made in anti-corruption efforts, it will delay justice in the important investigations and that are currently underway. It may also have lasting repercussions for Guatemala’s future by putting at risk millions of dollars in critical assistance. Continue reading