Learning from the Collapse of CICIG, MACCIH, and CICIES: What Lessons for the Future?

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:

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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