Dissolving Congress to Combat Corruption: Why a Short-Term Anticorruption Victory in Peru Isn’t Worth the Long-Term Cost

The “Car Wash” corruption scandal that started in Brazil has extended into surrounding Latin American countries, including Peru. All of Peru’s living presidents have been implicated in the scandal, with two currently awaiting trial on corruption charges, one in California fighting extradition, and one who ended his own life just as police entered his home to arrest him. The corruption scandal has also implicated members of Congress, including the head of Peru’s largest opposition party, Keiko Fujimori (daughter of the infamous former president Alberto Fujimori). To make matters worse, investigators have also uncovered an unrelated bribes-for-verdicts corruption scandal in the judiciary.

Peru’s current president, former Vice President Martin Vizcarra, assumed the presidency after his predecessor resigned over corruption allegations. Backed by overwhelming popular support in a national anticorruption referendum, President Vizcarra spent most of 2019 pushing an ambitious anticorruption agenda. His proposed reforms included a new law that bars members of Congress from seeking immediate reelection after one five-year term, transferring the power to lift a Member of Congress’s legislative immunity from Congress to the Supreme Court, and changing the system for appointing judges and prosecutors. On all of these proposals, Congress (controlled by an opposition party) has dragged its feet, likely for self-serving reasons. While Congress eventually passed some of these reforms, including the ban on re-election, the judicial anticorruption bill stalled. After several attempts to pass the bill, on September 30, 2019, Vizcarra took the drastic step of dissolving Congress—a move supported by 84% of Peruvians. Vizcarra issued a decree for a snap legislative election, which took place on January 26, 2020, and in which Peruvians elected a new Congress to finish the current constitutional term ending in 2021. Given the ongoing pandemic, this new Congress has, understandably, yet to fully address Vizcarra’s remaining anticorruption agenda.

It is often said that fighting entrenched corruption involves disrupting the political status quo. President Vizcarra’s decision to dissolve Congress was certainly disruptive—but not in a way that anticorruption advocates should celebrate. Whatever its short-term payoffs, this decision threatens to undermine Peru’s institutional checks and balances, leaving the country more vulnerable to corrupt actors in the long term.

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New Podcast, Featuring Roberto de Michele and Francesco De Simone

A new episode of KickBack: The Global Anticorruption Podcast is now available. This episode features my interview with Roberto de Michele and Francesco De Simone, who work as work in the state modernization specialists at the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB). In our conversation, we discuss the work that the IDB does on anticorruption, transparency, and related issues, and also how the IDB (or any other entity working in this area) can assess the impact of its projects. We further discuss the relationship between grand and petty corruption, and closely associated questions concerning incremental versus disruptive anticorruption reform strategies. (This discussion includes some discussions of the recommendations of the report prepared by an outside expert advisory group commissioned by the IDB, which Rick discussed shortly after it came out.) Toward the end of the interview, we talk about the impact that scholarly research has had on Roberto and Francesco’s thinking on anticorruption-related topics, and we conclude the interview with a discussion of the current state of corruption in the Americas–considering both the optimistic and pessimistic views of where things are going in the region.

You can find this episode, along with links to previous podcast 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.

Guest Post: Mercosur’s New Framework Agreement Is an Asset Recovery Landmark, But Significant Flaws Remain

GAB is delighted to welcome back Mat Tromme, Director of the Sustainable Development & Rule of Law Programme at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, who contributes the following guest post:

In asset recovery, international collaboration is key. In December 2018, four Mercosur countries—Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay—adopted a new kind of landmark framework agreement to collaborate in investigations and sharing of forfeited assets resulting from transnational organized crime, corruption, and illicit drug trafficking. The agreement’s provisions on law enforcement collaboration are important but not groundbreaking, as many countries collaborate in investigations, including through Mutual Legal Assistance (MLA) agreements. This framework agreement can be seen as a direct application of Article 57(5) of the UN Convention Against Corruption, which calls on state parties to “give consideration to concluding agreements or mutually acceptable arrangements, on a case-by-case basis, for the final disposal of confiscated property.”

Where the new framework agreement is particularly novel and innovative is in its provisions on asset return. While there are a number of technical details, the big picture is that any of the four countries may lay claim to a portion of the assets, so long as that country played a role in its forfeiture, irrespective of where the assets are located. The framework agreement provides (in Articles 7 and 8 in particular), that the asset shares will be negotiated on a case-by-case basis, with each country’s share to be based principally on that country’s role in the investigation, prosecution, and forfeiture of the assets. Other factors that may be considered include the nature of the forfeited assets, the complexity and significance of international cooperation, and the extent to which cooperation led to the forfeiture.

To the best of my knowledge, this sort of framework agreement is rare, the only other recent example is the “Framework for Return of Assets from Corruption and Crime in Kenya (FRACCK)”, a multilateral non-binding initiative for the return of assets between the Governments of Kenya, Jersey, Switzerland and the UK. There had been calls to establish a similar initiative in Latin America going back several years (see here and here). The framework agreement has the potential to set a precedent by institutionalizing the return of assets across borders, not only improving the asset recovery and return process in Latin America, but also serving as an example for other regional collaboration agreements in Africa, Latin America, or Asia. Indeed, the 3rd African Anti-Corruption Day (held last week, on July 11th) was organized on the theme of finding a “Common African Position on Asset Recovery.” According to the African Union, the purpose of this is to advocate for Africa’s unity in demanding the recovery and return of stolen assets, and making the return process transparent and accountable.

While the approach and ambition of the agreement is laudable, the framework agreement has three important shortcomings: Continue reading

Guest Post: Expert Interviews on Corruption Control in Latin America

Today’s guest post is from Columbia University Professor Paul Lagunes, who this year is also a Visiting Fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy:

Elections in Latin America are freer and fairer than they used to be, and, with rare exceptions, political power in the region is no longer monopolized by a single individual, junta, or party. From Chile to Mexico, legal reforms have promoted higher levels of government transparency and citizen participation. But in spite of these improvements, the region continues to grapple with systemic corruption. Not only are individuals asked to pay bribes by lower-level government officials, but scandals such as Lava Jato (“Car Wash”) in Brazil, La Estafa Maestra (“The Master Fraud”) in Mexico, and La Línea (“The Line”) in Guatemala have revealed grand corruption at the most senior levels, making the fight against corruption a top priority for the region.

Prompted by these concerns, I contributed to organizing a conference at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy on corruption control in Latin America, which has already been featured (with links to the conference videos) on this blog. Some of the conference panelists stayed long enough that we were able to interview them about their important work. Tony Payan, my colleague at the Baker Institute and an expert on U.S.-Mexico border issues, agreed to conduct the interviews.

The videos of these interviews are now publicly available, and are well worth viewing for those interested in hearing a diverse range of perspectives on the corruption challenges currently facing Latin America. In this post I will provide links to the interviews as well as a brief summary of their content. (There’s also an online website, where you can find all the interviews, here.) Continue reading

The Dark Side of Righteous Anger: Talking about Corruption After Alan García’s Suicide

Two weeks ago, former Peruvian President Alan García shot himself when authorities came to arrest him on corruption charges. Garcia’s suicide provoked a diverse range of reactions. Among these, one of the most disturbing was a vulgar tweet from Major Olimpio, a right-wing Brazilian politician who tweeted: “The ex-President of Peru committed suicide upon being arrested. Hopefully this trend catches on here in Brazil. It would big a big savings for the country.” Olimpio, of course, is referring to the dozens of politicians in Brazil implicated in the Car Wash (Lava Jato) scandal.

Olimpio’s tweet taps into the white-hot anger and resentment that continues to sweep across Latin America in response to the revelations of high-level corruption throughout the region. That anger is understandable. Investigations growing out of the Lava Jato operation—particularly those involving the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which has admitted to paying more than $800 million in bribes across 11 countries in Latin America—have exposed pervasive corruption reaching the highest levels of government. Ten former Latin American presidents (including García) have been or are currently being investigated for corruption, along with dozens of other high level officials in multiple countries, and possibly hundreds of rank-and-file officers who were a part of these schemes. But while popular fury over corruption is justified, it should never be okay to mock suicide or make implicit death threats. And while Olimpio’s tweet about García is a particularly extreme case, this sort of hostile, callous, violent rhetoric is becoming disturbingly common in the public dialogue about corruption and its perpetrators in Latin America. For example, the current President of Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro, and his son both tweeted menacing threats to Bolsonaro’s opponent, Fernando Haddad, during the campaign saying that he was “nursing on the teat of corrupt politicians in jail” because he had visited a jailed politician, and that it was “good that he already knew what it was like to go to prison.” Since Brazil is still a country where you are innocent until proven guilty, and Haddad himself had not even been accused with corruption offenses (though several of his political allies had been), these comments were deeply disturbing.

This needs to stop. The anger over corruption is understandable, and to a certain degree a healthy development, given that for so long grudging or cynical resignation was the norm. But rather than channel this anger into violent threats, everyone—especially those in positions of power—needs to temper their anger with more civility. There is a wrong way and a right way to talk about corruption. Crude violent rhetoric is the wrong way.

So what’s the right way? Let me suggest two more appropriate ways to harness the fury over corruption and channel it in a more productive direction.

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Reasons for Optimism About Latin America’s Wave of Anticorruption Prosecutions: A Response to Professor Balan

What are we to make of the ongoing wave of corruption prosecutions sweeping Latin America in the wake of the Odebrecht scandal? Many are optimistic that these prosecutions, several of which have implicated very senior political figures, including current and former presidents, signal a turning point for the region. But in a guest post last September, Professor Manuel Balan suggested that this optimism may be misplaced, for three reasons. First, he argued that the enforcement patterns suggest that anticorruption prosecutions are becoming a weaponized—that these prosecutions are being used as a political tool used to bring down opponents, and consequently they lack credibility with much of the public. Second, Professor Balan questioned whether these prosecutions would ultimately be successful in holding powerful, popular wrongdoers accountable, and he argued that these prosecutions will just take down leaders whose positions have weakened for other reasons (such as Dilma Rousseff in Brazil). Third, Professor Balan worried that these prosecutions show that judicial power is increasing at the expense of citizens’ power—that they represent an erosion of “vertical accountability.”

I remain one of the optimists. Indeed, I think that Professor Balan is far too pessimistic about the role that the current anticorruption prosecutions in Latin American can play—and to some extent have already played—in addressing the region’s longstanding corruption and impunity problems. Yet his three objections are worth taking seriously and deserve a direct response. Here’s why I don’t find any of them sufficiently persuasive to share his pessimism:

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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