Social Distancing Reduces Corruption Too

Together with a trio of Chinese scholars, Boston University Professor Raymond Fisman offers the latest evidence on the value of social distancing. Their research, in the July issue of the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics (here, prepublication version here), is the first rigorous, quantitative test of a result suggested by case studies of small countries (Guatemala), small towns (Fall River, Massachusetts), and small professional circles (Chicago judges). The greater the distance between those who enforce the anticorruption laws and those likely to violate them, the more likely it is the laws will be enforced.

“Social distance” to public health authorities means the actual physical space that individuals should maintain between on another (six feet for Americans, two meters for everyone else) to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Applied to the findings of Fisman and colleagues and the case studies, it means more than how far apart investigators, prosecutors, auditors, and others responsible for enforcing anticorruption laws stand physically from those whom they police. It means too the absence of school and neighborhood ties, different circles of friends, and the lack of other relationships that would make an individual hesitant to question another’s conduct let alone investigate or arrest them. In short, when evaluating social distance in the anticorruption world, “social” comes with a capital S.

Consider what Professors Fisman and his colleagues Professors Chu, Tan, and Wang found in their study of Chinese auditors.

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Guest Post: Adverse Selection – Civil Society Support for Honest Judges and Prosecutors in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador

Corruption in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador continues unabated. Proof can be found at the U.S.-Mexican border. Guatemalans, Hondurans, and Salvadorians remain willing to risk the treacherous journey to the border and the uncertainties of a U.S. asylum application to escape corruption’s daily hardships.

Critical to taming that corruption, and the flow of refugees it produces, are honest, courageous prosecutors and judges willing to pursue corruption cases no matter who is implicated. In all three countries, a new generation of professionals is coming forward to take on this challenge, but corrupt elites are at work blocking their appointment.  Fortunately, civil society organizations across the region are engaged in countering these efforts, pushing their governments and citizens to see that honourable men and women take the bench or join the public prosecutor’s office and that those who aren’t don’t.

In this guest post, Kristen Sample reviews what civil society in the three nations has accomplished, what more it can do, and how the international community can help.  Now Governance Director at the National Democratic Institute, Kristen has worked on political integrity and civil society strengthening programs in Guatemala, Peru, and Bolivia for more than 15 years. The research behind the post was conducted for Open Society Foundations and the Washington Office on Latin America with support from the National Democratic Institute and the Due Process of Law Foundation.

On January 26, Mynor Moto was elected by the Guatemalan Congress to fill a vacancy on the Constitutional Court despite being under investigation by an elite unit in the public prosecutor’s office.  Civil society was emphatic in its criticism of Moto and the selection process. The new U.S. Administration weighed in as well, asserting that Moto’s presence on the court “threatens the rule of law…and debilitates the integrity of the court.” 

Moto’s swearing in was blocked and is now on hold indefinitely thanks to a February 1 arrest warrant prosecutors issued. He has chosen to flee rather than contest the charges.

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The Trump Administration and Corruption: A Preliminary Retrospective

As of yesterday at 12 noon, U.S. East Coast Time, Donald Trump is no longer the President of the United States of America.

First, let’s all breathe a collective sigh of relief.

OK, now we can start thinking about what we’ve learned from this traumatic experience. There is no shortage of political and cultural commentary on the Trump era and its implications, and I have little of substance to add to that general discussion. But, given that this is a blog specifically focused on corruption, let me offer a few reflections on the implications of the last four years for corruption and anticorruption in the United States.

At the risk of self-indulgence, I’ll frame this preliminary discussion in terms of my own guesses, as of four years ago, about how the Trump Administration would affect U.S. corruption and anticorruption policy. Immediately after Trump’s election, I wrote a despondent post about why I thought that Trump’s election would be a disaster for the fight against corruption on many different dimensions. Roughly a year later, I did a follow-up post assessing my own predictions, concluding that on some issues my pessimistic forecasts proved inaccurate (for reasons I did my best to assess), while on other dimensions the Trump administration was as bad or worse than I had feared. Now that Trump is finally out of office, it’s a good time for another retrospective assessment—both to understand where things stand now with respect to U.S. policy and leadership on anticorruption issues, and also to see what lessons we might be able to draw from the experience of the past four years. Continue reading

Guest Post: Making the Most of “Windows of Opportunity” for Anticorruption Reform

Today’s guest post is from Florencia Guerzovich, María Soledad Gattoni, and Dave Algoso, a team of independent consultants who jointly authored the Open Society Foundation report on Seeing New Opportunities: How Global Actors Can Better Support Anti-Corruption Reformers.

Ukraine after the Maidan Revolution. Malaysia after the 1MDB Scandal. Brazil after Lava Jato.

In each of these countries—and in many other examples—something triggered a shift in the possibilities for anticorruption reform. Pick your favorite metaphor: the stars align, the winds shift, there’s a fork in the road. We use the term “window of opportunity”: a period when heightened attention to an issue like corruption makes anticorruption reforms more likely. When those windows open, reformers both inside and outside of government try to seize the opportunity to make progress, while contending with forces that aim to maintain the status quo or advance an authoritarian or populist response.

Reformers’ approaches shift in these moments, as do their needs. Though success is not guaranteed, the possibility of reform can increase when global support organizations—including foundations, multilaterals, and NGOs—are better able to meet those needs (while also doing no harm). What do reformers most need during these windows of opportunity? And what can global support organizations do to help meet those needs? With the Open Society Foundations (OSF), we undertook research into those questions, with a primary focus on three case studies:

  • In Guatemala, the “Guatemalan spring” that opened following the announcement of corruption investigations into President Otto Pérez Molina and others in 2015, and the subsequent election of Jimmy Morales;
  • In Slovakia, the mobilizations under the “For a Decent Slovakia” banner and reform efforts that followed the murder of investigative journalist Ján Kuciak and his fiancée Martina Kušnírová in 2018;
  • In South Africa, the fight against state capture, which ended Jacob Zuma’s presidency and led to the administration of Cyril Ramaphosa in 2018.

Our findings, presented in a recent OSF report entitled Seeing New Opportunities: How Global Actors Can Better Support Anti-Corruption Reformers, were not always what we’d expected when we started the research. Collectively, our analysis of these case studies and other examples suggests some rethinking in terms of how to best support anticorruption reformers so that they can take maximum advantage of windows of opportunity when they arise. Continue reading

New Podcast Episode, Featuring Claudia Escobar

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. In this week’s episode, I interview Claudia Escobar, a former Magistrate Judge on the Court of Appeals in Guatemala. Judge Escobar resigned her position in 2014 after exposing corruption in the judicial selection process. Judge Escobar secretly recorded a meeting with representatives of the then-ruling party, who indicated that she would be promoted if she ruled in favor of the government in an important upcoming case. Judge Escobar subsequently released the recordings, and fled Guatemala for fear of reprisals. Since then, she has been working in the United States as a researcher, consultant, and advocate, with a focus on fighting judicial corruption in Guatemala and elsewhere in the Americas.

Our interview begins with a discussion of how Guatemala’s history, including more than 36 years of civil war, has created a culture of impunity and insecurity, and how the challenges this legacy poses to the creation of a genuinely impartial and honest judicial system. Judge Escobar describes many of the problems with Guatemala’s current judicial appointment system, and the associated corruption risks. Our conversation then turned to the impact and legacy of the UN-backed anti-impunity commission, known by its Spanish acronym CICIG. Judge Escobar offers her perspective on the fight against corruption under former President Jimmy Morales and new President Alejandro Giammattei, as well as a more general discussion of the politics of anticorruption in Guatemala and the prospects for future progress on this issue.

You can find this episode here. You can also find both this episode and an archive of prior episodes at the following locations:

KickBack is a collaborative effort between GAB and the ICRN. If you like it, please subscribe/follow, and tell all your friends! And if you have suggestions for voices you’d like to hear on the podcast, just send me a message and let me know.

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? Continue reading

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

Video: Baker Center Conference on Controlling Corruption in Latin America

A few weeks back I was lucky enough to attend a mini-conference hosted by Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy entitled “A Worthy Mission: Controlling Corruption in Latin America.” The conference featured an opening keynote address by Yale Professor Susan Rose-Ackerman, with a brief response by BYU Professor Daniel Nielson, followed by two panels. The first of these panels (which I moderated) focused on anticorruption prosecutions in Latin America generally, and featured Thelma Aldana (who served as Attorney General of Guatemala from 2014-2018, and is rumored to be a likely presidential candidate), Paolo Roberto Galvao de Carvalho (a Brazilian Federal Prosecutor and member of the “Car Wash” anticorruption Task Force), and George Mason University Professor Louise Shelley. The second panel, moderated by Columbia Professor Paul Lagunes, focused more specifically on corruption control in Mexico, and featured Professor Jacqueline Peschard (former chair of Mexico’s National Anticorruption System), Claudio X. Gonzalez (the president of the civil society organization Mexicanos Contra la Corrupcion y la Impunidad (MCCI)), and Mariana Campos (the Program Director at another Mexican civil society organization, Mexico Evalua).

Video recordings of the conference are publicly available, so I’m going to follow my past practice of sharing the links, along with a very brief guide (with time stamps) in case anyone is particularly interested in one or more particular speakers or subjects but doesn’t have time to watch the whole thing. Here goes: 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