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

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

Five Things Washington Should Do to Help Latin America Curb Corruption

The following is based on a March 24 talk I gave at the Washington office of the Council on Foreign Relations.  It is posted in a slightly different form on “Latin America’s Moment,” the Council’s blog on Latin America.

One of the most promising developments in U.S. foreign relations is the all out war on corruption being waged across Latin America.  From “Operation Car Wash” in Brazil to investigations of presidential wrongdoing in Bolivia, El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Panama, across the region independent, tenacious prosecutors and investigators are out to end the massive theft of state resources that for so long has hobbled political development and throttled economic growth.  Americans should be cheering for these corruption warriors, for we have much to gain if they succeed.  Less corruption translates into more stable, reliable political allies; it means faster, more equitable growth and that means shared prosperity and less northward migration.  Finally, less corruption in government will offer American firms new opportunities. Think what the end of corruption in Brazilian public works would mean for U.S. engineering and construction companies.

But given the stakes in Latin America’s corruption war, America should be doing more than cheering from the sidelines.  It should be doing everything it can – without infringing the sovereignty or sensibilities of Latin neighbors – to see its corruption warriors succeed.  Here are five things to start with: 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

Bitcoin, Blockchain, and Land Reform: Can an “Incorruptible” Technology Cure Corruption?

Since its inception in 2009, Bitcoin—a digital currency secured by encryption—has attracted attention, interest, and controversy. Less attention (at least until recently) has been paid to other applications of the underlying technology, “blockchain,” that makes Bitcoin possible. And while the anonymity associated with Bitcoin is, if anything, often associated with illicit transactions in the “dark web,” other applications of the blockchain technology might be used to enhance transparency and promote integrity. Some of the early proposals along these lines are indeed encouraging; at the same time, blockchain is not a technological panacea, and recognizing its limitations can identify areas that may require particular attention in anticorruption efforts.

First, a bit more (non-technical) information on the technology. Blockchain functions as an online, public digital ledger. In the Bitcoin context, the technology makes it possible to track and record Bitcoin transactions in the ledger and distribute that information in real-time to all computers connected to the Bitcoin network. Because of this distribution, the ledger is updated independent of any central authority. Moreover, because each chronological “block” in the chain contains both unique information about each transaction and also a unique identifier of the previous block, which is then distributed to all computers on the network, it is very difficult (perhaps impossible) to tamper with or alter the transaction records.

While the blockchain technology made Bitcoin possible, its public and tamper-proof data storage function could assist with efforts to promote transparency and fight corruption. For example, in the context of land reform, Austin-based start-up Factom has reached an agreement with the Honduran government to transfer its land registry onto a blockchain-enforced digital database. The objective is to create a reliable land title-keeping system in a country where, as USAID notes, “only 14% of Hondurans legally occupy properties and, of the properties held legally, only 30% are registered.” In addition to a lack of registration, government officials currently can alter titles to those properties that are registered, allocating properties to themselves (or to others in exchange for bribes). Moreover, citizens often lack access to records, which may provide conflicting information, and are thus unable to defend themselves against infringement of property, use, or mineral rights. By recording land title in an immutable public registry (relying, according to reports, on the Bitcoin blockchain’s data-embedding function), the partnership between Factom and the Honduran government seeks to secure for the public a clear, trustworthy record of ownership in order to improve protection of land rights, and to incentivize registration.

This seems like a worthwhile initiative, and one that transparency and anticorruption advocates should watch closely. At the same time, it’s worth noting several reasons we should be careful not to lose sight of important corruption challenges amidst the excitement surrounding the digitized ledger: 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

Guest Post: A “Guatemalan Spring”? — Not Yet.

Alicia Robinson, a student at Harvard Law School, contributes the following guest post:

Guatemala has long been beset by persistent poverty, corruption, and a culture of impunity – an Unholy Trinity that has afflicted much of Central and South America. Moreover, Guatemala has the misfortune of being geographically located at the center of major drug trafficking routes to the North American and European markets, where the unrelenting demand has allowed organized crime to strengthen its hold over the country’s institutions of governance. Yet as Mathieu Tromme’s recent post on this blog highlighted, there are some encouraging signs of change. Most notably, the recent uncovering of a massive tax fraud orechestrated at the highest levels of the executive branch triggered protests that forced the resignation of the vice president – a major victory against impunity in the country.

However, despite this success, and the broad popular support for more action against corruption and impunity, Mr. Tromme may be overly optimistic when he characterizes this this event and the surrounding protests as the inception of a “Guatemalan Spring” that will bring an end to the era of impunity in Guatemala. Corruption still very much riddles every corner of Guatemalan society and the toughest part of the battle lies ahead. Continue reading