Latin America: The Perils of Judicial Reform

by Aníbal Pérez-Liñán and Andrea Castagnola*

Former President of Chile and current head of the United Nations OHCHR Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015

Former President of Chile and current UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet addresses the Chilean Supreme Court in 2015/ Gobierno de Chile/ Flickr/ Creative Commons/ https://www.flickr.com/photos/gobiernodechile/22180910394

Conventional wisdom that institutional reforms always strengthen the judiciary is not supported by the facts. A constitutionally fixed number of justices is widely thought to make “court packing” more difficult, and longer terms in office supposedly protect judges from partisan trends. Nomination processes that involve multiple actors should produce moderate justices; high requirements for impeachment should protect judges from legislative threats; and explicit powers of judicial review should assure politicians’ compliance with judicial decisions. Our research, however, shows that institutional reforms often undermine judicial independence, even when they appear to improve constitutional design along these crucial dimensions.

  • Countries with longer democratic traditions such as the United States, Chile, Costa Rica, and Uruguay display low turnover: few justices leave office in any given year, and their exits appear to follow a random pattern. But countries like Bolivia, Honduras, Guatemala, El Salvador, and Paraguay – all of which nominally protect judges from political pressures – display abrupt patterns of judicial turnover. On repeated occasions, a majority of the court has left in the same year, allowing for a complete reshuffle. About half of all exits in our sample took place in years when more than 50 percent of a court left at once, mostly due to political pressures.
  • Some constitutions create turnover by design. Until 2001, for example, Honduran justices served for four years, concurrent with the presidential term. However, less than 30 percent of court reshuffles can be explained by constitutional rules. In Argentina, even though the Constitution grants Supreme Court justices life tenure, presidents forced a majority of justices out of office in 1947, 1955, 1958, 1966, 1973, 1976, and 1983.

Our project analyzed the tenure of almost 3,500 justices serving in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals in the Western Hemisphere since 1900. We found – against our expectations – that several constitutional reforms increased the likelihood of turnover in the high courts. Because major reforms produce turnover in Supreme Courts and Constitutional Tribunals, they create new opportunities for parties to appoint loyal judges and politicize the courts.

  • Constitutional reforms that involve more actors in the nomination of justices (i.e., “multilateralize” the process) also increase turnover in the high courts. Reforms that constrain the removal of justices (for example, requiring supermajorities for their impeachment) paradoxically have prompted the exit of justices in democracies. Constitutional reforms that granted courts explicit powers of judicial review of government actions increased judicial instability, and reforms that grant life tenure to justices on average created turnover in the high courts, particularly when adopted under dictatorships.
  • Two basic reasons seem to explain these paradoxes. In the short run, reformers exercise (and abuse) “constituent” power, restructuring the courts in ways that force the resignation of incumbent justices or create new vacancies. In the long run, formal constitutional protections for the judiciary create a strategic trap. If parties can use informal instruments, such as threats and bribes, to induce the resignation of judges, their incentives to deploy those blunt instruments are greater when justices are completely isolated from other forms of political influence.

Some features of constitutional design – including life terms and supermajority requirements to impeach judges – do explicitly protect justices against purges. Other constitutional features, however, create incentives for the political capture of high courts. Greater powers of judicial review, for example, make courts politically relevant and, therefore, more important targets. A constitutionally fixed number of seats prevents court “packing” but encourages purging as an alternative. Appointment procedures controlled by the President and Congress make purges profitable for them. Irrespective of their stated goals, constitutional amendments and replacements offer a window of opportunity to reorganize the composition of the judiciary.

  • Judicial purges occasionally pursue desirable goals, like the removal of judges who have been corrupt or obstructed transitions to democracy, but a recurrent pattern of politicized replacements inevitably produces a weak judiciary, creating an unstable interpretation of the laws and the Constitution.

July 9, 2019

* Aníbal Pérez-Liñán teaches political science and global affairs at the University of Notre Dame, and Andrea Castagnola teaches judicial politics at the Universidad Torcuato Di Tella, in Buenos Aires. Their project was supported by the National Science Foundation. Conclusions expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views of the NSF.

Guatemala: Mortal Doubt and Transnational Gangs

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite

Family members of slain gang member at his gravesite (Guatemala, 2005) / Wikimedia Commons / Creative Commons

Central America’s maras, or transnational gangs, are symptoms of societies suffering from legacies of Cold War-fueled atrocities and authoritarian rule, misguided law enforcement policies, and long-term entanglement with U.S. culture and foreign policy. Feuds between Mara Salvatrucha and Barrio18, the region’s most powerful gangs, have helped make the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) the deadliest non-combat zone in the world. My fieldwork in prisons, police precincts, and urban slums in Guatemala City and other cities since 2010 for Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City has mapped their dystopian evolution. The gangs are not the problem, and the problem does not begin or end with them. But they are important symbolic figures for societies struggling with out-of-control insecurity that have obscured the complex structural factors driving the countries’ extreme peacetime violence.

When they first took root in Central America in the 1990s, the maras were little more than disorganized groups of kids imitating Latino gangs in Los Angeles, vying for turf in cities struggling to recover from decades of authoritarian rule and extreme inequality. Over the years, they became brutal organizations engaged in extortion, contract killings, and the drug trade.

  • The gangs’ evolution was driven by histories of mass incarceration in both the United States and Central America, making them a symptom of these societies’ predilection to punish. In Guatemala, through the early 2000s, the gangs fought to survive behind bars against cadres of ex-military officers, the most powerful of which was led by Byron Lima, a U.S.-trained special forces Army captain convicted of a 1998 assassination of a Catholic bishop who had catalogued military human rights abuses in the Guatemalan armed conflict. The violence and deprivations of prison life, alongside the unprecedented coordination between gang leaders that being locked up together made possible, drove the gangs to become far more brutal and organized in their street operations.
  • Mara extortion rackets, among the most feared and despised criminal enterprises, are also emblematic of the symbiotic relationships between the state, law-abiding society, and the underworld in Guatemala. While maras are responsible for much of the extortion, they have in fact become a mask and a model for others profiting from it. Bus companies, private security corporations, corrupt police, and even Guatemala’s biggest banks play key roles in the extortion commodity chain.

Perhaps the most painful truth about the maras is that their rank and file are very young – primarily 10-18 years old – and the average age of recruitment is dropping. Youths are killing each other. A young man named Andy had killed and tortured for MS-13 since he was eight, when the gang adopted him after liquidating his family, who were members of a rival gang. In interviews, Andy struggled to make sense of the violence of which he was both victim and perpetrator by seamlessly folding fantasy and reality – swinging between made-in-Hollywood montages, mara myths circulated in newspapers, and actual acts of murder and torture. MS-13 found and executed Andy, who was in a witness protection program, less than six weeks after his last interview. Very real suffering is powerfully intertwined with bloody fantasy, and the dichotomies dividing innocent from guilty, good from evil, are often false. These are key lessons for understanding the maras and for effectively confronting the crisis of criminal violence in Central America that they have come to represent in such spectacular fashion.

May 23, 2019

* Anthony W. Fontes teaches international studies at American University. Mortal Doubt: Transnational Gangs and Social Order in Guatemala City was published by University of California Press. The book was winner of the William M. LeoGrande Award for the best scholarly book or article on Latin American or Latino Studies published by a member of the American University community in 2017–2018.

U.S.-Central America: Suspending Aid Won’t Help

By Joseph Wiltberger*

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén during a Northern Triangle meeting on January 14, 2016

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, and El Salvador President Salvador Sánchez Cerén during a Northern Triangle meeting on January 14, 2016 / https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Reuni%C3%B3n_Tri%C3%A1ngulo_Norte_con_Vicepresidente_Biden2.jpg / Creative Commons

President Trump’s recent announcement to cut off U.S. aid to Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador – intended to pressure those governments to stop migrant caravans headed for the U.S.-Mexico border – would suspend and divert an estimated $700 million dollars in funds directed mainly to regional security and economic programs with mixed impacts on migration. A comprehensive impact evaluation of recent U.S. aid to the region has not yet been conducted, so the consequences of this move are open to debate. While some of the aid may help those vulnerable to migration, other allocations to the three countries may be counterproductive to slowing migration.

The three countries have received around $2 billion in aid since 2015, when former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden initially committed Washington’s contribution to the Alliance for Prosperity Plan (A4P) in response to a surge in the migration of Central American families and unaccompanied minors. The A4P, a document drawn up by the Inter-American Development Bank and the three nations’ governments, has guided most of the U.S.’s strategic aid allocations to the region. The U.S. Congress allocated about $750 million in assistance in fiscal year 2016, $655 million in 2017, and $450 million in 2018. About a third of those funds have been aimed at improving citizen security through support for police, the judicial sector, and violence prevention programs. Roughly another third has been geared toward promoting economic development, and the remainder has been split mainly between anti-corruption efforts and support for military personnel through training and arms to fight drug trafficking and human smuggling.

  • NGOs working with communities susceptible to migration complain that the A4P was drafted by Central American leaders without their input, and that its framework – also reflected in U.S. aid priorities – favors elite business and political interests. It gives tax incentives to foreign investors and, opponents say, makes way for resource extraction, maquilas, and other transnational industries dependent on cheap labor and known to contribute to displacement. It directs hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to military and police forces notorious for human rights violations that are rarely prosecuted, a problem that human rights advocates warn endangers citizens and can force more migration.
  • Some of the programs aligned with the A4P, however, grasp the underlying causes of migration from these nations and show how aid can help if properly channeled. They aim to combat corruption and reduce violent crime by improving judicial systems and government transparency, and with community-based violence prevention programs. Many projects – such as initiatives to create economic, extracurricular, and educational opportunities for at-risk youth, and grassroots endeavors such as cooperatives of women and small farmers – are led by local organizations with a long-standing track record of effective local work on the ground in marginalized areas. One of the more rigorous impact evaluations to date found that USAID-funded community-based gang violence prevention programs were effective.

President Trump’s announcement to cut aid did not reflect an assessment of its effectiveness but instead appears to be a political maneuver to counter domestic political opponents who support aid and to punish the governments he believes have “set up” migrant caravans and should do more to stop them. Ending assistance doesn’t help. U.S. aid to Central America should be focused on proven ways to improve security and economic conditions and to combat corruption and guard against human rights violations – problems that drive the region’s emigration today. Cutting off aid will not stop caravans and runs contradictory to the A4P’s stated goal of addressing the root causes of migration. It is counterproductive to the current administration’s interests. Aid strategies would benefit from setting U.S. political and business interests aside to instead focus more on measures that effectively fight corruption, protect human rights, and provide support for trusted organizations proven to be effectively creating opportunities and safer communities for those most vulnerable to migration.

April 29, 2019

* Joseph Wiltberger is a cultural anthropologist. He holds appointments as Assistant Professor of Central American Studies at California State University, Northridge and as Visiting Scholar at the Center for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California, San Diego.

U.S. Immigration: Call for Wall Ignores Changing Migrant Profile

by Dennis Stinchcomb

Graph of southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019

Southwest border apprehensions, FY 2012-2019 / Note: FY 2019 data is through November 2018. Figures may not total 100% due to rounding. / Data source: U.S. Customs and Border Protection

As a record number of Central American families and unaccompanied children flock to the U.S.-Mexico border, the Trump administration’s demand for a $5.7 billion wall ignores changing migrant demographics and leaves largely unaddressed an asylum system buckling under unprecedented strain.  While undocumented immigration at the U.S.-Mexico border remains at historic lows, over 48,000 individuals comprising family units (parents traveling with children) were apprehended at the U.S. southwest border between October and November 2018 – a 308 percent increase over the same two months in 2017.  Such a staggering rise comes on the heels of what was already a record-setting year.  Between October 2017 and September 2018, border officials tallied the highest level of family crossings on record; the over 107,000 individuals detained by border officials dwarfed the roughly 40,000 apprehensions of unaccompanied children that prompted the Obama administration to declare a “crisis” in summer 2014.

A closer look at recent immigration trends underscores changing realities at the border:

  • Central American families and children represent an ever-growing share of migrants. Because overall undocumented immigration at the border has dropped and families and children have surged, the latter now account for 40 percent of all unauthorized migrants apprehended, up from 10 percent in 2012.  (Prior to 2012, family apprehensions were not publicly reported.)
  • Guatemalans now account for over half of all Central American family and child migrants. Though Guatemala is more populous than neighboring El Salvador and Honduras, proportional disparities in migrant flows from the three Northern Triangle countries have widened in recent years.  Guatemalan families apprehended at the border doubled between 2017 and 2018, and the number of unaccompanied Guatemalan minors increased by over 50 percent.  An increasing share of these migrants are coming from indigenous communities where poverty and malnutrition are rampant, so border officials face compounding challenges including linguistic barriers and health needs – factors that may have contributed to the recent deaths of two Guatemalan children while in Border Patrol custody.
  • Family and child migration from El Salvador has plummeted to its lowest level since 2013. The abrupt decline in Salvadoran migration to the United States has led many experts to point to the chilling effects of the Trump administration’s decision to terminate Temporary Protected Status (TPS) for nearly 200,000 Salvadorans currently residing in the U.S.  The “Trump effect” following his early 2017 executive orders, however, was short-lived, and other events, such as possible controversy over elections next month, could renew migratory pressures and further exacerbate conditions at the border.
  • The dramatic increase in migrant flows from Central America has fueled an historic surge in asylum claims. At the border, credible-fear claims – the preliminary step in soliciting asylum – continue to climb precipitously, up from 9,000 in 2010 to 79,000 in 2017.

The U.S. Government’s proposed solutions to the burgeoning humanitarian crisis do not reflect the evolving profile of migrants at the U.S.-Mexico border.  President Trump’s border wall – a hallmark promise of his 2016 campaign – appears aimed at the familiar Mexican adult migrant of the early 2000s or the mythical “bad hombre” spawned by his own nativist tendencies.  His Administration’s recent attempts to deter migrants or bar their access to asylum, either by separating families or rolling back protections for victims of domestic violence, have not stemmed the flood of arrivals.  A new “caravan” of migrants is set to depart Honduras this week.  Nor will a wall extinguish migrants’ legal right to request asylum.  The President’s most recent budget request for modest funds for hiring immigration judges and providing border infrastructure to support “vulnerable populations” is being held up by the political impasse in Washington over his greatly disproportionate spending on a wall, Border Patrol agents, and detention facilities.  Compromise between the President and Congressional Democrats remains elusive three weeks into a confrontation that has shut down much of the U.S. Government.  While Democrats have expressed willingness to beef up border security in exchange for a significant immigration win, such as legalization of the Dreamers or renewal of TPS, anything short of meaningful reform to the U.S. asylum system will do little to resolve the backup at the border.

Jan 15, 2019

Guatemala: Is CICIG Dead?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Iván Velásquez and Jimmy Morales

CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez (left) and Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales (right). / República / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and his political allies – the group of government officials, congressmen, judges, mayors, and entrepreneurs whom opponents call the Pacto de Corruptos that support his efforts to shut down corruption investigations by the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG) – may be winning the current battle, but the war is not yet over.  Undoubtedly, the government has achieved some hits, trumpeted by Morales in speeches and in the victory celebrations of the newly elected Congress Directive Board that supports him.  CICIG’s opponents have:

  • Prevented CICIG Commissioner, Iván Velásquez, from entering the country, even after the Constitutional Court and Attorney General, Consuelo Porras, explicitly stated that he is free to enter whenever he wants.
  • Lobbied in Washington to gain U.S. support for Morales, exploiting access and friendships with U.S. Vice President Pence and other officials close to President Trump such as UN Ambassador Nikki Haley and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio. They have used the “Bidkov affair” – involving a prosecution instigated by CICIG and the Attorney General’s investigation into the purchase of false Guatemalan identity documents by a Russian family opposed to President Putin – to feed opposition to CICIG.  (Rubio accused CICIG of doing the Russian president’s dirty work.)  Morales and his backers have also used the decision to move the Guatemalan embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and other unrelated actions to punch important buttons within the Trump administration.
  • Achieved some progress in swaying Guatemalan public opinion through an anti-CICIG social media campaign aimed at stimulating nationalistic feelings and fueling the view that CICIG Commissioner Velásquez, a foreigner, went too far. They have even raised old Cold War flags, saying that Velásquez is a Communist and that the fight against corruption is a question of “red ideology.”
  • Consolidated their control over the Guatemalan Congress, securing enough votes to reject initiatives that would remove Morales’s immunity and allow investigations against him to proceed.
  • Further strengthened opposition to CICIG among factions of the private sector.

A more careful analysis, however, reveals cracks in Morales’s victory chariot.  He and some of his ministers are not only in grave danger of being charged with disobeying the Constitutional Court ruling; the Attorney General and CICIG have continued their work, albeit with a much lower media profile, and are producing results.  U.S. support for Morales’s efforts to destroy CICIG may diminish after Democrats take over the U.S. House of Representatives and begin scrutinizing his “impressive” claims about deporting ISIS terrorists from Guatemala and seizing drug shipments.  The U.S. Congress may now uncover an ugly truth: drug trafficking and migrant flows are increasing.

  • More importantly, Morales and his Pacto do not yet appear ready for elections scheduled for June-August 2019. (The new government will take office in January 2020.)  They are floating proposals for a constitutional amendment to allow for a presidential reelection, which would ensure them continued immunity, and to dissolve the Constitutional Court, or to make it a crime to criticize members of Congress.  Measures like these take a lot of time and energy.

The ferocity of Morales’s attacks against CICIG may not be fueled by confidence of victory but rather by a deep and desperate fear of justice after January 2020 – a basic survival instinct of people who know they have crossed a line.  The final outcome of all this will be, as it should, in the hand of voters.  The real issue for Guatemala might not be the fight between Jimmy Morales and CICIG, but rather between the Pacto and the huge number of voters beyond their grasp who are sick and tired of the corruption and impunity.  U.S. policy toward Guatemala has shifted from supporting CICIG and its efforts to investigate corruption and build Guatemalan institutions committed to the rule of law, to turning a blind eye in thanks for an apparently compliant ally and for completely unrelated reasons, such as the location of the embassy in Israel.  While Washington applauds the government’s (still unfulfilled) promises to stanch the northbound flow of migrants, it allows one of the biggest causes of migration – corruption and impunity at all levels of society – to continue unabated.

November 21, 2018

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

U.S.-Guatemala: Are Donald Trump and Jimmy Morales Brothers in Arms?

By Anthony W. Fontes*

Jimmy Morales and Donald Trump

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales meets with U.S. President Donald Trump in February 2018. / Executive Office of the President of the United States / Wikimedia

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales’ announcement last month that he would not reauthorize the joint Guatemala-United Nations anti-corruption commission to remain in the country apparently was made with confidence that President Trump would approve, or at least turn a blind eye.  Morales’ gambit followed months of public threats against the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which has been investigating and prosecuting high-profile organized crime and corruption cases for over a decade.

  • His attempt to revoke CICIG’s authority and refusal to allow CICIG’s highly respected lead prosecutor, Iván Velásquez, to re-enter Guatemala after a trip to the United States are widely understood as intended to halt investigations into Morales’ own alleged illegal campaign financing during the 2015 presidential election. Even after Guatemala’s Constitutional Court – the nation’s highest judicial authority – ordered Morales to allow Velásquez entry, the president refused to budge.
  • Some U.S. politicians have joined in the international condemnation of Morales’ efforts – 23 members of the U.S. Senate and House wrote a letter to Secretary of State Pompeo asserting that he “must counter” the maneuver. But the Trump administration has remained largely silent; Pompeo in early September reiterated U.S. “support for Guatemalan sovereignty” – code for a hands-off policy – and, using words similar to those Morales has used in advocating dilution of CICIG’s mandate, announced his backing for a “reformed CICIG.”

Several explanations for Washington’s soft approach to Morales’ action have emerged.  Some pundits muse that the administration is repaying him for relocating the Guatemalan embassy in Israel to Jerusalem when the United States did.  Others opine that Trump fears pushing Guatemala into China’s arms amid reports that it will follow El Salvador’s recent decision to break relations with Taiwan.  Yet another, less strategic and more personal explanation might illuminate the equivocation – that Trump simply empathizes with Morales because they have a lot in common.

  • Both first emerged in the public eye as TV personalities. While Trump was building his brand on “reality TV,” Morales hosted a popular daytime talk show, where he became known for lowbrow comedic antics that included blackface.  In their campaigns, they fed on simmering discontent about the corruption of the political establishment, and trumpeted their lack of political experience as a prime reason to vote for them.  They both defeated the former first ladies of left-leaning presidents considered by large swaths of their electorates as corrupt.
  • More importantly, both presidents face far-reaching criminal investigations that have cast long shadows over their first years in office. Despite Trump’s vociferous denials to the contrary, the Special Counsel investigation into his campaign’s possible collusion with Russian efforts to influence the 2016 election has been a constant thorn in his side.  CICIG, whose investigations into former President Pérez Molina were pivotal to his arrest and impeachment, has represented an existential threat to the Morales administration since the day he took office in 2015.  CICIG’s work put his son and brother behind bars for fraud.  (Trump’s son and son-in-law are reportedly under investigation too.)  CICIG has doggedly pursued investigations against Morales and his supporters in Congress for illegal campaign financing, among numerous other charges.

The two presidents’ efforts to resist and deride the investigations into their activities expose perhaps the most striking (and disturbing) of their shared affinities.  To protect themselves, they appear willing to tarnish and undermine public institutions integral to democracy and law and order.  Trump attacks the free press and the FBI as “deep state” conspirators.  Morales has aligned with members of the Guatemalan Congress to give immunity from prosecution to politicians in office accused of a laundry list of crimes, contravening a fight against powerful criminal organizations embedded in government.  By violating decrees by Guatemala’s Constitutional Court, Morales has placed his administration on a collision course with the nation’s constitutional order.

  •  The potential long-term damage to democratic institutions suggests that the “democratic wave” that swept across the Americas in the second half of the 20th century has crested. Under the Trump administration, the United States now risks becoming a beacon for anti-democratic politicians like Morales across the hemisphere, giving political cover and guidance to those who would hasten democracy’s demise for the sake of power.  The rule of law in liberal democracies is predicated on transparency and accountability – and is threatened by executive intimidation of institutional checks and balances.

October 2, 2018

*Anthony W. Fontes is an Assistant Professor in the School of International Service at American University.

Guatemala: Simmering Under the Surface

By Ricardo Barrientos*

Three people stand on a dias with Guatemalan flags in the background

New U.S. Ambassador to Guatemala Luis Arreaga is officially welcomed to the country by President Jimmy Morales. / Flickr / Creative Commons

Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has survived the backlash against his efforts in August to shut down corruption investigations by the Attorney General and the Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala (CICIG), but tensions remain intense.  Two days after Attorney General Thelma Aldana filed papers to suspend the President’s immunity from prosecution on campaign finance corruption charges in late August, Morales declared CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez “persona non grata” and ordered his expulsion from the country.  (The expulsion order was blocked by the Constitutional Court.)

  • On September 13th, more than two thirds of the Congress – driven by most of Morales’s party as well as opposition members accused of corruption – voted in favor of altering the Penal Code in ways that weakened accountability for all politicians (including Morales and themselves). Two days later, after massive protests akin La Plaza, the civic movement that achieved the removal of former President Pérez Molina and most of his administration in 2015, Congress backtracked.
  • The Morales Administration tried to curtail the CICIG’s activities again in October, when the Foreign Ministry renewed the Commissioner’s visa for one year with a stern warning to “refrain from interfering in the internal affairs” of the country. The Constitutional Court again intervened, ordering the Ministry to revoke the warning.

Despite the attacks, Commissioner Velásquez and Attorney General Aldana continue their efforts.  Last week Velásquez said publicly that illicit campaign finance is “the ‘original sin’ of the system of corruption that has captured the Guatemalan state … and the distortion of the democratic model.”  He and Aldana keep scoring points: former President Pérez Molina, his vice president, Roxanna Baldetti, and two dozen others were sent to trial last week on corruption charges originally brought to light by CICIG – the now-famous Customs corruption scheme called La Línea. 

  • They’ve also presented a new corruption case, nicknamed Pandora’s Box, which links Guatemala City Mayor and former President Álvaro Arzú Irigoyen with an illicit campaign financing network, speculation, misuse of public funds, and dirty business with former “King” of the Guatemalan prison system, Byron Lima Oliva. This news re-opened old wounds over issues such as the assassination of Bishop Juan Gerardi Conedera in 1998, when Arzú was President and Lima a member of the Presidential General Staff.  Arzú has been one of Morales’s most fierce defenders, so his travails hurt the President – even if it is uncertain that the Guatemalan justice system will withstand Arzú’s counteroffensive against CICIG, the Attorney General and La Plaza.

The arrival of a new U.S. Ambassador may be contributing to a momentary drop in open political warfare between reformers and corrupt politicians.  Compared to former Ambassador Robinson, incoming Ambassador Luis Arreaga has kept a low profile on the issue.  During his confirmation hearing last July, he restated “a commitment by both governments to fight corruption and build upon the successful efforts by President Morales, CICIG, and the Attorney General to end impunity.”  Since presenting his credentials in Guatemala last month, he has held familiarization meetings with a broad array of Guatemalan leaders in the executive, legislative and judicial branches, emphasizing the themes of friendship and partnership.  Meeting with Velásquez and Aldana together, he confirmed the “U.S. commitment to their efforts to fight corruption and impunity,” according to the Embassy’s website.  Arreaga’s honeymoon – during which he has the luxury of being friends to both reformers and their corrupt targets – will endure only until CICIG uncovers more blockbuster evidence of corruption or Morales, sensing his political support sinking with his credibility, tries to capture the hearts of other vulnerable politicians to further hem in the meddlesome reformers.

November 9, 2017

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

The Anticorruption Imperative for Latin America

By Matthew Taylor*

Bar graph showing accountability in Latin America

Graphic courtesy of author. For a larger version, please click here.

Latin America’s reactions to the massive transnational scandals involving the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht and its subsidiary Braskem are an important sign of progress in anticorruption efforts.  But across the region, courts’ reluctance to challenge elites remains a major obstacle to deeper accountability.  Brazilian, Swiss, and U.S. authorities’ announcement in December 2016 of a multibillion dollar global corruption settlement with the Brazilian firms – valued at $3.5 to 4.5 billion – was remarkable for being the largest in history.  It was also shocking for its revelations: Odebrecht admitted using a variety of elaborate subterfuges to launder bribe payments and corrupt proceeds, including by setting up a bribe department and buying an offshore bank.  Graft allowed executives to rewrite laws in their own favor, and guaranteed that the right officials were in the right place when public contracts were up for bidding.  The firms netted $3.60 for every $1 they spent on bribes in Brazil, and admitted to paying $788 million in bribes across twelve countries, including ten in Latin America.

The political salience of the charges is roughly similar in all ten Latin countries, muddying the reputations of presidents or former presidents in Argentina, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Peru, Panama, Venezuela and, of course, Brazil.  Ministers and high-level officials have been implicated in the remaining countries: Ecuador, Guatemala, and Mexico.  Nearly one year after the settlement, it is time to ask how well law enforcement and judicial processes are resolving the allegations against these high-powered public and private sector elites.

  • In a paper forthcoming in Daedalus, I argue that accountability can be thought of as the outcome of a basic equation – A = (T + O + S) * (E – D) – combining transparency (T), defined in its most essential sense as public access to information about the government’s work; oversight (O), meaning that government functions are susceptible to surveillance that gives public or private agents the right to intensively evaluate the government’s performance; and sanction (S), effectively punishing wrongdoing and establishing societal norms to their rightful place. These are tempered by institutional effectiveness (E) – understood as the outcome of state capacity, relevant laws and procedures, and citizen engagement – and political dominance (D), which diminishes the incentives for active oversight or energetic sanction.  The graph above uses a combination of data points from the World Justice Project to measure each of the five variables.
  • The comparison yields mixed findings. On average, the nations implicated in the Odebrecht settlement do quite well on transparency, effectiveness, and political dominance – the outcome of a generation of democratic rule (with Venezuela being the obvious outlier).  But all ten countries perform comparatively poorly when it comes to oversight, and abysmally when the criterion is sanction.  This does not bode well for accountability, especially if we consider that among the Odebrecht Latin Ten, the highest-scoring country on the sanction criteria is Argentina, whose score is still below the middle-income country average.  In Brazil, where trial courts have led the way in imposing sanctions on business elites, political leaders are nonetheless protected against meaningful sanctions by an arcane system of privileged standing in the high courts.

Latin American judicial systems – long rigged to protect local economic and political elites – remain the principal obstacle to accountability.  The Odebrecht settlement signaled that a new day has arrived: new international norms and law enforcement across multiple jurisdictions are likely to continue to upset the cozy arrangements that have protected the region’s elites from corruption revelations for decades.  But true accountability will only come when local courts and prosecutors are empowered to effectively punish corrupt elites.  That implies changes in legal procedure, new laws, and most importantly, political will.  Perhaps the Odebrecht case will galvanize domestic public opinion and mobilize policymakers about the need to improve local justice systems.  The enormous costs of corruption revealed by the Odebrecht settlement suggest that change cannot come soon enough.

November 6, 2017

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University.  His forthcoming article in Daedalus is entitled “Getting to Accountability: A Framework for Planning and Implementing Anticorruption Strategies.”

Guatemala: Anti-Corruption Still Losing Momentum

By Ricardo Barrientos*

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala looks upward

President Jimmy Morales of Guatemala. / OECD / Andrew Wheeler / Flickr / Creative Commons

Although the International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), Attorney General, and civil society remain bulwarks in efforts to combat corruption and impunity in Guatemala – and occasionally score big hits – the Administration of President Jimmy Morales is slowly grinding them down and generating opposition to much-needed reforms.  In a speech at the signing of the National Development Agenda last month, the President attacked provisions in the law requiring transparency in public procurement and budgeting as counterproductive, while also lashing out at the judges, congressmen, general comptroller, and civil society leaders who support such measures.  He claimed on that occasion and others that anti-corruption measures have hindered his ability to govern.

  • The Morales Administration has not just complained; it has tried to remove anti-corruption controls. On July 14, CICIG and the Ministerio Público (MP) made the first of dozens arrests of persons involved in a corruption network run by former Communications, Infrastructure and Housing Minister (CIV) and potential presidential candidate in the 2015 elections, Alejandro Sinibaldi.  Three days later, the government responded to the case, known as “Corruption and Construction,” with a Presidential Decree declaring a “State of Emergency” on conditions of the nation’s roadways.  The order would allow the government for 30 days to sign new contracts and modify existing ones with companies involved in the scandal, including Brazilian contractor Odebrecht, free of all anti-corruption controls.  Congress not only rejected the Decree, but also impeached current CIV Minister, Aldo García, and forced him to take the blame for decrepit road conditions.

Despite such high-profile cases, Guatemalan anti-corruption advocates are concerned the MP and CICIG could still lose the war against corruption.  In addition, CICIG Commissioner Iván Velásquez has publicly lamented that structural reform – the Commission’s other mandate – has been too slow.  Last month, he said that “with current [circumstances] it is very difficult to defeat corruption and impunity.”  Some local observers believe that Velásquez’s focus on constitutional reforms to enhance the Attorney General’s powers is overly ambitions, and that other important initiatives are more attainable, but they acknowledge the generally hostile political environment he faces.  Advocates also believe that the Morales Administration is waiting out the term of fiscal general (attorney general) and head of the MP Thelma Aldana, who steps down next year.  The President even excluded her from his delegation attending a summit in June with U.S. Vice President Pence and Central American counterparts.

The strident complaints of some Guatemalans about U.S. support to CICIG and other anti-corruption initiatives has fueled perceptions that external support for clean government is more important than local demands for good governance – and coincided with a decline in the civic engagement that helped bring down the corrupt government of President Pérez Molina in 2015.  Much attention in Guatemala City has focused on outgoing U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson and is now naturally shifting to the man confirmed by the U.S. Senate on August 3 to replace him:  Luis Arreaga – most recently a deputy assistant secretary of state for narcotics and law enforcement – is a Guatemala-born naturalized U.S. citizen who, nominated to the post by President Trump in June, is expected to distance himself from the Obama Administration’s strong commitment to anti-corruption programs.  Even though Attorney General Aldana was bumped from President Morales’s delegation at the June summit, Pence publicly praised Morales’s “personal dedication” to fighting corruption.

August 21, 2017

*Ricardo Barrientos is a senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies (ICEFI).

Guatemala: Are Governments Missing the Story on Homicides?

By Steven Dudley*

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The special forces of the Guatemalan National Civilian Police (PNC). / Danilojramirez / Wikimedia Commons

A study of hundreds of homicides in Guatemala revealed major problems with authorities’ contention that “gang-related” and “drug trafficking-related” murders are at the center of the violence in that country, findings that complicate violence reduction programs in that country and elsewhere.  InSight Crime analyzed the murders in two areas: Zona 18 in Guatemala City, where 300,000 inhabitants live in what authorities designate a “gang area,” and the municipality of Chiquimula, a community of some 100,000, or what authorities call a “trafficking corridor.”  We also studied how police, forensic doctors, and government prosecutors gather and use information they gather during homicide investigations to clear cases or not.  It is less CSI and more creaky, antiquated 20th century bureaucracy.

Key findings from the report include:

  • The confidence with which Guatemalan authorities attribute homicides to traffickers is not warranted by the available facts. In the trafficking corridor, we could reasonably attribute only 28 percent of the homicides to what we termed “organized crime-related” activities – significantly less than authorities normally publicly attribute to organized crime.  Drug trafficking, we believe, is an incorrect way of describing the dynamics behind this violence.  Another 38 percent of the cases lacked information to make a determination.
  • In the gang area, where Barrio 18 and Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) operate, we could reasonably attribute 41 percent of the homicides to gang-related activities – an estimate in line with what authorities say in Guatemala. Another 35 percent of the cases did not have enough information to make a determination.
  • Regardless of area, the widespread availability of firearms is a clear factor in the murder rate. An estimated 75 percent of all homicides occur at the end of a gun in Guatemala.  At 15.8 guns per 100 inhabitants, the country has the highest number of guns per capita in the region, according to World Bank data.  (El Salvador has 7.0 per 100, and Honduras, 6.2.).
  • Another theory to explain the level of homicides – that the more “indigenous” western highlands are less prone to violence than the more “ladino” eastern states – is in its infancy and beyond the scope of our study.

In both areas, the information from authorities was fragmented, disorganized, and sometimes missing altogether.  Reports are filled out by hand or typed into computers, but they are quickly buried in massive piles of data and are most likely erased or lost by the next person in that job.  Multiple, clashing bureaucracies operating on the different platforms and with different formats also have differing criteria for classifying data.  The low priority given to collecting and analyzing information, and poor training, seriously undermine authorities’ ability to understand the homicide phenomenon as well as resolve the homicide cases themselves.  Indeed, our observation is that the resources used to gather what are considered more politically salient statistics – such as the overall number of criminal acts in any one area – hurts efforts to resolve cases or give authorities the ability to analyze criminal dynamics.

The confusion between the sources of violence has a palpable impact on how money is allocated over the years.  The U.S. Congressional Research Service has estimated that 66 percent of the $1.2 billion that Washington disbursed under its Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) was “hard-side” assistance – aimed at attacking drug traffickers whose role in the murder rate we have assessed to be lower than previously thought.  Only 31 percent of U.S. aid was “soft assistance” – violence prevention, social and economic programs – that would address the more serious problem of gang violence.  The allocation of Guatemala’s own funding is harder to discern, but the Mano Dura tactics adopted by the Northern Triangle countries over the years have more resembled the militarized strategy against the drug traffickers, implementing various states of siege in affected locales (Guatemala), enacting “emergency measures” inside jails and in particularly troublesome states (El Salvador), and using the military police in numerous places (Honduras).  Aggressive police sweeps have, moreover, overcrowded prisons bursting with inmates in horrifying conditions.  While some of these programs may have helped slow the increase in homicides, our report clearly indicates that a deeper understanding of the problem – based on more rigorous collection and analysis of information on homicide cases – is necessary to evaluate and improve international and local strategies.  Especially if Washington cuts Northern Triangle funding, as it is widely reported to be intending, a smarter approach will require becoming smarter about the problem.

 May 4, 2017

*Steven Dudley is co-Director of InSight Crime, which is co-sponsored by CLALS.  The full report “Homicides in Guatemala,” funded by USAID and prepared with administrative support from Democracy International, is available here.