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: