Why you should care
A threatened elite is fighting back against anti-corruption gains. But the people have seen better, and they’re ready for a fight.
When Iván Velásquez, head of the U.N.-backed anti-corruption body in Guatemala, traveled to the U.S. in September, he didn’t know he wouldn’t be returning to the Central American country. While away, he learned he would be denied re-entry by the government of President Jimmy Morales. But if Morales had hoped for a simple walkover with the ban, he was mistaken. Protests erupted on the streets, and within days, a constitutional court ordered Morales to allow Velásquez to return.
Morales’ government has so far refused to accept the court’s verdict, but the chain of events is the latest example of a new pattern emerging across Central America. Faced with growing anti-corruption prosecutions against political leaders, led by anti-graft bodies and proactive attorney generals, corrupt elites in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador are closing ranks. They’re shutting down or limiting the work of these bodies and individuals who were challenging their rule. But many in these countries now have a taste for what prosecution against corrupt leaders can look like — and they’re unwilling to give up without a fight.
The protests in Guatemala against Morales’ decision are in keeping with a Vanderbilt University and Wichita State University study from March that shows the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), led by Velásquez, is the country’s most trusted institution, with 70 percent support. Velásquez and his team were — alongside Guatemala’s own justice institutions — investigating Morales for accepting illicit financing during his 2015 presidential campaign. While the future of that probe is now unclear, CICIG — which was founded in 2007 — has helped unseat and prosecute a sitting president, Otto Pérez Molina, and vice president, Roxana Baldetti. The protesters have made clear they want more, and they have the courts on their side.
There are so many [powerful] people involved.
Jaime López, director, Probidad
Honduras got its own version of the CICIG in 2016 — the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), backed by the Organization of American States. In February, the first head of the anti-corruption body resigned, claiming a lack of support from the government. And in June, a court struck down a government body that was working with the MACCIH against financial crimes. But like in Guatemala, these setbacks have been met with protests demanding President Juan Orlando Hernández’s resignation, and the country’s human rights ombudsman has called for parliament to enact a law to protect whistleblowers.
And in El Salvador, where under current Attorney General Douglas Meléndez the country has prosecuted and sentenced former presidents, recent surveys show an increasingly demanding population wants much more from him. When his term ends soon, the country’s anti-corruption activists will watch carefully to see if he is given another term, and if not, then who replaces him.
“There are so many [powerful] people involved,” says Jaime López, director of El Salvador–based anti-corruption nonprofit Probidad. “All of these people, although they don’t say it publicly, in practice they do what they can to detain investigations.”
As in the rest of Latin America, corruption plagues the Northern Triangle — Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador — where collusion between big businesses, political leaders and criminal groups is rampant. El Salvador and Honduras have the world’s top two homicide rates, according to World Bank data, though Honduras has halved murders since 2012. Brutal street gangs such as the Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio 18 are present in all three nations, which also serve as important transit countries for drug traffickers targeting the U.S.
Still, organizations like CICIG and MACCIH, and attorney generals like Meléndez have made remarkable dents, challenging sitting and past leaders in a manner that the region hasn’t seen before.
The MACCIH was created following civilian protests over President Hernández’s use of money stolen from the country’s Social Security Institute in his presidential campaign. In El Salvador, Meléndez has accused former Salvadoran president Mauricio Funes of embezzling hundreds of millions of dollars during his 2009–14 term. In September, another former president, Antonio Saca, was sentenced to 10 years in prison after pleading guilty to embezzlement and money laundering charges involving more than $300 million of public funds. These efforts at battling corruption had a powerful ally: the U.S., where until recently there was a consensus among Republicans and Democrats on fighting corruption and building democratic governance in Central America, says Eric Olson, a security expert at the Wilson Center’s Latin America Program.
Unsurprisingly, these gains against corruption have spooked the political establishments in these countries, fuelling the backlash that’s playing out. In Guatemala, Morales has made clear CICIG’s mandate will not be renewed in 2019. And the 33 candidates shortlisted as potential replacements for Meléndez in El Salvador include several who are themselves currently under investigation.
For now, the dice appear loaded against the anti-corruption efforts. In Honduras, “many of the most important advances were blunted or reversed by the president, his surrogates or other elites,” said Charles Call, an associate professor and conflict resolution expert at American University’s School of International Service, in a July 2018 report on the MACCIH.
Another Central American country, Nicaragua, which is in a crisis of political legitimacy itself, is harboring some of the Northern Triangle elites who are on the run, including former El Salvador President Funes, who was granted asylum in 2016. And the U.S. has refused to criticize President Morales’ decision to oust the CICIG from Guatemala, which many have interpreted as a de facto endorsement for the move. That willingness by the Trump administration to overlook corruption in Central America, potentially in search of partnerships with governments over migration, is a mistaken approach, suggests Olson, because migration itself is often a consequence of bad governance and criminality. “I think they’re missing the point by making migration the sole indicator of success,” says Olson. “What is in the U.S.’ long-term interests are stable, democratic prosperous countries.”
But the pushback from the elites is meeting resistance — in different forms — across the Northern Triangle. In Guatemala, for instance, the courts are stepping up. After its initial rebuke, the constitutional court followed up in late November, demanding an explanation from the Morales government for why it had not yet let Velásquez back into the country. And even without Velásquez, the courts in October sentenced former vice president Baldetti along with nine others to more than 15 years in prison for illicit association, fraud and influence peddling.
In Honduras, the country’s human rights ombudsman Luis Santos has demanded that parliament urgently pass a bill protecting whistleblowers. Despite its setbacks, the MACCIH — working jointly with the attorney general’s office — filed a new indictment in November against Ramón Lobo Sosa, the brother of former president Porfirio Lobo Sosa, alleging corruption and the diversion of public funds. And even the U.S. has shown willingness to embarrass Hernández — even if not over corruption. The brother of the Honduran president was arrested in Miami on charges of drug trafficking in November.
And in El Salvador, a recent survey showed that people expected more even from Meléndez — with a majority arguing he wasn’t tough enough on ARENA, the party that ruled the country previously, even though Saca was from the party. A compromised attorney general won’t sit comfortably with an increasingly demanding public, observers say.
If the U.S. Congress restores focus on the “democratic governance” Central America needs to succeed, instead of going along with the Trump administration’s “reductive, narrow approach,” that would help, says Olson.
But the emerging resistance to the elite pushback on corruption may also offer a different solution. In the face of a “grim”-looking future for the fight against corruption, any hope may lie closer home to Central America, suggests Call. “It will depend more than ever on pressure from the people,” he says.