Colombia’s Harsh Criminal Penalties for Corruption Are an Illusion. Here’s How To Fix That.

Whenever a new corruption scandal comes to light, many politicians instinctively react with strong punitive rhetoric, and this rhetoric often translates into action, usually in the form of amendments to criminal codes that make penalties for corruption offenses harsher. Latin America supplies plenty of examples of this (see here, here, here, and here.) Yet despite this emphasis on punishment, many corrupt politicians avoid justice altogether, and in the rare cases where they are found guilty, many end up doing only short stints in comfortable detention centers. Consider, for example, Colombia, which has unusually good public data on corruption convictions and sentences thanks to the work by the Anticorruption Observatory of the Secretary for Transparency. According to this data, between 2008 and 2017, criminal courts in Colombia have convicted 2,178 individual defendants for corruption (51.2% for bribery, 23% for embezzlement, and the remainder for other corruption-related offenses), but only about one-quarter of these convicted defendants actually went to prison. Approximately half of these defendants received suspended sentences, while another quarter were sentenced to house arrest. And of those who did go to prison, the time served was only about 22 months on average, much lower than the penalties on the books for corruption offenses. No wonder many Colombians believe the criminal justice system is too lenient.

The reason that actual Colombian sentences end up being so light, despite the penalties on the books being so heavy, is that Colombian law includes a set of provisions that allow for a variety of sentence reductions if certain conditions are met. For example, a defendant who accepts guilt can receive a 50% reduction in his prison term. Inmates may also reduce their prison term through work, with very generous terms: An inmate reduces his sentence by one day for every two days of ordinary work (8 hours of work per day), or for every four hours of work as a teacher. An inmate can also reduce his sentence through in-prison education, with  six hours of study translating into one day of sentence reduction. Furthermore, once an inmate has served 60% of his sentence, he can petition for release for good behavior. 

This excessive leniency needs to be addressed, not only in corruption cases but in all cases. Specifically, Colombia should adopt the following revisions to its criminal laws: Continue reading

AMLO Cannot Put a “Final Period” in Mexico’s History of Corruption Without Addressing the Past

The trial and conviction of the notorious drug lord “El Chapo” has shed new light on the rampant corruption that exists at even the highest levels of the Mexican government. To take just a couple of the most startling examples: During the trial, a witness testified that Mexico’s former president Enrique Peña Nieto accepted a $100 million bribe from El Chapo, while another cartel member testified that he paid at least $3 million dollars to the Public Security Secretary of former president Felipe Calderon and at least $6 million dollars to President Calderon’s head of police. In other countries these accusations would have shaken citizens to their very core. But in Mexico, long perceived as one of the world’s most corrupt countries, citizens have sadly grown accustomed to allegations of this nature, and the revelations from the El Chapo trial were met with little more than a shrug.

That doesn’t mean that Mexicans don’t care about corruption. Quite the opposite. Indeed, frustration at this flagrant culture of corruption was one of the key factors that helped Mexico’s new president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), to capture his constituents’ faith and votes. AMLO has promised to eradicate corruption through a “Fourth Transformation” of Mexico (the previous three were Mexico’s independence from Spain, the liberal reforms of the 1850s, and the 1910-1917 revolution). Yet despite these sweeping promises, AMLO has decided not to investigate the allegations against his predecessors that have emerged in the El Chapo trial. In fact, AMLO’s stance has been not to prosecute any officials for corruption that took place in the past, before he took office. (AMLO has wavered on this position—though only slightly—after receiving backlash during his campaign; he has since stated he would prosecute past corruption offenses only if the administration has no choice due to “internal pressure” from citizens.) AMLO has justified his opposition to investigations and prosecutions of past corruption crimes by using the language suggesting the need for a fresh start. He speaks of a need to put a “final period” on Mexico’s history of corruption, and to “start over” by not focusing the past.

But how can one eradicate corruption by granting numerous “Get Out of Jail Free” cards? AMLO’s support of a de facto amnesty for corrupt ex-Mexican officials’ casts doubt on the seriousness of his pledge to eradicate corruption. Rather than simply saying that it’s time to turn over a new leaf, AMLO should demand accountability for grand corruption, and he should start by ordering a full independent investigation into the veracity of the corruption allegations that came to light during the El Chapo trial. Continue reading

Western Anticorruption Policy in Ukraine: Success or Failure?

A few weeks back, I came across an interesting point-counterpoint on the impact of Western-backed efforts to promote anticorruption reform in Ukraine. On one side we have an online piece in Foreign Affairs by Adrian Karatnycky (the Managing Partner of a consulting firm that “works with investors and corporations seeking entry into the complex but lucrative emerging markets of Ukraine and Eastern Europe”) and Alexander Motyl (Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University) entitled, “How Western Anticorruption Policy Is Failing Ukraine.” And then on the other side we have a response piece on the Atlantic Council blog from Daria Kaleniuk (Executive Director of the Anti-Corruption Action Centre in Kyiv) entitled “Actually, the West’s Anticorruption Policy Is Spot on.” I’m no Ukraine expert, and so I’m reluctant to take a strong position on which side has the better of the argument, but I found the debate interesting not only for its implications for Ukraine, but also because it raises a couple of more general issues that come up in many other contexts, issues that anticorruption advocates should pay attention to even if they have no particular interest in Ukraine. Those issues are, first, a question of messaging—what I’ll call the glass-half-full/glass-half-empty question—and, second, the relative importance of holding individual wrongdoers personally (and criminally) accountable for corrupt conduct.

Let me first try to give a flavor of the debate, and then say a bit about each of those two issues. Continue reading

TNI’s Gold Mine: Corruption and Military-Owned Businesses in Indonesia

The Grasberg Mine, located close to the highest mountain in West Papua, Indonesia, is the world’s largest gold mine and third-largest copper mine. The mine, owned by the corporation Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold, has been the site of strings of grave human rights abuses, linked to Indonesia’s own National Armed Forces (Tentara National Indonesia/TNI). TNI’s presence in the territory is ostensibly to protect the mine, and Freeport’s Indonesian subsidiary acknowledges having made payments of as much as US$4.7 million in 2001 and US$5.6 million in 2002 for such government-provided security. A report by Global Witness, however, revealed numerous other payments ranging from US$200 to US$60,000 that Freeport Indonesia allegedly made to individual military officers.

The TNI’s sale of security services to companies like Freeport is only one of the many business ventures conducted by the TNI and its officers. As Human Rights Watch has reported, the Indonesian military has been supplementing its income through both its formally established companies, and through informal and often illicit businesses such as black market dealing. Moreover, the military’s business activities (both lawful and unlawful) are largely shielded from public scrutiny: budgeting for military purposes is generally kept secret, and TNI members generally refuse to answer questions about institutional spending.

Military-owned business in Indonesia are problematic, not only because this private-sector activity impedes military professionalism and distorts the function of the military, but also because it also contributes to crime, human rights abuses, and especially corruption. This problem is greatly compounded by the fact that TNI officers generally enjoy immunity from corruption charges brought by civilian institutions. In fact, the Transparency International’s Defense and Security Program has deemed Indonesia one of the countries most prone to corruption in its defense and security institutions. It is therefore appalling that this issue has not been addressed more seriously by the Indonesian government. Although a 2004 law mandated the transfer of control over TNI businesses to the civilian government within five years, the law did not clearly specify which types of business activities were covered, and this legal loophole enabled the TNI to preserve many of its moneymaking ventures, including TNI’s infamous security services—to say nothing of already-illegal criminal enterprises and illicit corporations. Moreover, despite the five-year timetable in the law, the government has been notably reluctant to enforce the transfer of ownership, making repeated excuses alluding vaguely to the need for the TNI to compensate for the lack of budgeting for security purposes. As a result, despite some efforts to reform the way the TNI is allowed to handle its businesses, military-owned businesses in Indonesia continues to flourish, with the Indonesian people of Indonesia having to pay the price.

The government’s weak response towards the military’s non-compliance with the 2004 law is merely one of the many indicators of how impervious the TNI’s power and seeming impunity. There are factors that contribute to this impunity, along with the corresponding corruption and abuse of power in the operations of military-owned businesses: Continue reading

Impunity and Immunity: When (if Ever) Should We Sacrifice Accountability for Past Corruption Crimes?

I’ve been meaning to write a bit more about last month’s International Anti-Corruption Conference (other than my snarky reflections about anticorruption conferences generally). The conference theme was “Ending Impunity,” and indeed most of the panels and speeches emphasized, in one way or another, the importance of ending the culture of impunity and holding corrupt actors (criminally) accountable for their actions. I couldn’t agree more about the importance of ending the culture of impunity. Indeed, I suspect few people would dispute that objective; the controversies, such as they are, involve questions of means. And as a general matter, I’m also all for accountability. Who wouldn’t be? But here my commitment is more qualified, and I think the issue is a bit more complicated then some of the rhetoric sometimes implies. In fact, in the context of corruption offenses, there may be sometimes be good, or at least plausible, reasons for sacrificing accountability in order to advance some other interest.

I recognize that statement may be controversial, perhaps even heretical. Is it really ever OK to insist on less than full accountability for past corruption crimes? If so, when? The first panel I attended at the IACC, entitled “Breaking the Cycle of Impunity: Why Truth Telling and Accountability for Past Economic Crimes Matters,” brought these difficult questions to the fore. The four excellent panelists (Hennie Van Vuunen, Osama Diab, Gladwell Otieno and Transparency International Chair Jose Ugaz) all came out (unsurprisingly) against impunity and in favor of accountability. But as the subsequent discussion revealed, the impulse to hold the corrupt (fully) accountable sometimes conflicts with other legitimate interests. Although everyone agrees that those who commit corruption offenses should never have impunity, there are reasonable arguments for sometimes granting them (full or partial) immunity. Consider a few possible scenarios in which one might be tempted to exchange (full) accountability for something else: Continue reading

Tackling Grand Corruption: Guatemala’s Successful Experiment

As guest blogger Mathiew Tromme wrote last week, Guatemala appears to be on the cusp of a major political transformation as a result of recent revelations of high-level corruption.   Citizens once fearful of expressing discontent with their government have taken to the streets in massive numbers both in the capital and the provinces.  The Vice President and several ministers have been forced to resign, and the continued tenure of the President is now in doubt should he not consent to major changes in the way the nation is governed.

Much of the credit for the revelations sparking this transformation goes to a small agency little known outside Guatemala, an unusual hybrid domestic-international organization accountable to the U.N. Secretary General with a mission to investigate crimes committed by politically powerful Guatemalans.  Quite possibly the most innovative experiment in governance in modern times, it has the independent investigatory power of an international tribunal, but unlike other tribunals the prosecution and trial of its cases are the responsibility of the Guatemalan judiciary.  Its success in developing cases against senior military and civilian leaders, working with prosecutors to see charges are filed, and pushing the courts to decide the cases fairly has been nothing short of remarkable.  Other nations up against ingrained grand corruption would do well to consider establishing a similar entity. Continue reading