Just a couple of years ago, Latin America’s fight against political corruption began to break new ground. And perhaps nowhere has the renovation been more dramatic -- and successful -- than in Guatemala, where popular outrage, fearless auditors and most notably a team of crack foreign anti-graft investigators with a sweeping brief have pursued criminals in the highest offices. And yet as Guatemalans have learned, in a region where governing institutions have been clay in the hands of powerful elites, keeping up the good fight is much more difficult -- even when a key part of your justice system is farmed out to ringers.
Driving Guatemala’s anti-graft campaign is the United Nations-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity, or CICIG in its Spanish acronym, which was set up in 2007 to bolster wobbly national institutions and ensure that human rights violators were brought to justice for acts during the country’s 36-year civil war. The body’s task has since broadened to tackle another scourge -- impunity in cases of political graft and procurement fraud. This wasn’t mission drift: Many of the same elites charged with human rights crimes had segued into skimming from the public trough when the shooting stopped.
The commission hit pay dirt in 2015, when it found that then-President Otto Perez Molina, a retired general who rose to national prominence during the civil war, was behind a scheme to defraud the national customs service. The findings stoked huge street demonstrations and helped Guatemala’s prosecutors to bring down Perez Molina and his cabinet.
The UN crime busters didn’t let up. Two years later, they charged Perez Molina’s successor, the comic-turned-politician Jimmy Morales, with potentially graver offenses, and pressed Congress to strip him of presidential immunity. The lawmakers demurred. Morales parried, declaring CICIG’s chief investigator, Colombian-born prosecutor Ivan Velasquez, persona non grata and trying unsuccessfully to expel him. Now the public backlash threatens to end Morales’ presidency and turn his clever campaign pitch -- “Not corrupt, not a thief” -- into a punch line.
Guatemala’s anti-corruption offensive caught the eye of enthusiasts across the hemisphere. Washington, which foots half the UN body’s $12 million to $15 million annual bill, started talking up the Guatemalan model of fighting graft. Honduras set up a similar investigative body, under the wing of the Organization of American States. El Salvador and Panama have flirted with the idea, and one former CICIG commissioner went so far as to suggest a region-wide anticorruption authority.
After all, in nations accustomed to the fiat of strongmen and the failings of feeble institutions, why not fly in the experts? Just as the International Monetary Fund has acted as a surrogate central bank for financially challenged poor nations, the CICIG has been the prosthetic arm of Guatemalan law.
There may be good reason to follow Guatemala’s lead. The UN crime busters have won ample accolades and street cred. On their watch, convictions for homicides soared and the homicide rate plunged. A dozen tainted judges and some 2,500 crooked bad police have been sacked.
These measures have strengthened the embattled attorney general’s office and emboldened national auditors and prosecutors. “When you move from virtual total impunity to a number of prosecutions, there’s a fundamental shift in expectations,” Daniel Wilkinson of Human Rights Watch told me. “Everyone begins to believe in justice and that it’s worth taking the risk to speak out.”
But how sustainable is the Guatemalan experience, and can it be exported? A closer look at Latin America’s anti-graft crusade raises doubts. Clearly, the crusading UN prosecutors have shaken entrenched interest groups. But after a decade of operation, have they also moved the country closer to judicial independence? “If CICIG is disbanded tomorrow, the whole effort could be undermined,” said Wilkinson. “Those in jail could go free and Guatemala could return to what it was.”
Those concerns have fed fears that Guatemala has succumbed to a United Nations coup d’etat, “surrendering sovereignty” to foreigners, as the disgraced leader Perez Molina warned in a recent interview. Eric Olson, deputy director of the Latin America Program at the Wilson Center, is more sanguine. “By working closely with the attorney general and the public prosecutor’s office, the UN commission did a lot to strengthen Guatemalan institutions,” Olson told me. “Guatemalan justice was so weak and overtaken by political and criminal pressure, it needed outside support. But it never lost its authority.”
The greater obstacle to cleaning up government may lie in some more familiar Latin American dysfunctions. American University professor Matthew Taylor found that while government transparency -- a vital anti-corruption firewall -- had strengthened across the hemisphere, several countries still fell short on institutional oversight and performed “abysmally” when it came to punishing violators. The chief stumbling block: Latin American judicial systems, “long rigged to protect local economic and political elites,” Taylor concluded.
Importing avengers may be heroic, but it’s ultimately a stopgap. Curbing graft and the flow of dirty dollars to criminal hands may turn less on super sleuths parachuting in than on building a professional civil service, unbeholden to political pressures, as in Brazil, and to national authorities deploying a suite of cross-border initiatives, such as the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s anti-bribery convention and the US. Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. Consider the fall of the region’s crooked soccer bosses, who were brought down by the combined efforts of investigators in the US, Switzerland and Latin America.
“These various anticorruption tools serve to prune the most troublesome branches of governance,” Taylor said. “But each tool is good at something and not great at others.”
If Latin America’s Spring is to last, the region will need all the tools it can get -- and plenty of heroes besides.
By Mac Margolis
Mac Margolis writes about Latin America for Bloomberg View. -- Ed.