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).

Lula Convicted: End of an Era?

By Anthony W. Pereira*

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Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva / Jeso Carneiro / Flickr / Creative Commons

Former Brazilian President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva’s conviction last week on corruption charges was more than a legal decision and could mark a political watershed – the beginning of the end of “Lula-ism,” a political and redistributive pact that lasted from 2003 until 2010 which Lula has been offering to revive as a candidate in the 2018 presidential elections.  On July 12, Federal Judge Sergio Moro found Lula guilty of taking a bribe and laundering money, sentenced him to nine years and six months in prison, and banned him from taking public office for seven years.  This judgment, the first to convict an ex-president in Brazil, was the result of the Carwash anti-corruption investigations begun in March 2014.

  • The decision will be appealed to the Federal court for the Fourth Region in Porto Alegre. This court will probably rule on the case before the 2018 filing deadline for presidential candidates (yet to be decided, but usually in mid-August), and is expected to uphold the conviction.  Lula would be legally barred from being a candidate at that point, although he might mount some sort of challenge to such a ruling.  Lula’s strategy for now is to press on with his campaign, to criticize his conviction as political persecution that was not based on evidence, and to portray himself as a man of the people capable of taking on the “elite.”

Lula still has great strengths.  The basis of Lula-ism has been his personal appeal – he captured twice as many voters as did his political party, the Partido dos Trabalhadores (PT), in 2002 and 2006 – boosted by economic forces and public policies that raised the living standards of the poor.  With his finely-tuned ability to communicate to ordinary people, he showed that it was possible to both grow the economy and redistribute its fruits.  His government reduced poverty significantly, offered the poor inclusion in the consumer society and the chance of social mobility, and even achieved a modest reduction in income inequality – while promoting the interests of big companies.

  • But he may not have achieved the long-term realignment his supporters claim. Lula-ism proper only lasted for eight years, the length of his two presidential terms.  His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, ruled for almost six more years, but by the last year of her first term, poverty had stopped declining.  The current government of President Michel Temer has passed a constitutional amendment freezing federal spending in real terms for 20 years; the measure does not automatically reduce spending on social programs, but in the absence of tax increases that is what it has produced.  Temer’s own bribery scandal may take him down, perhaps within the next couple of weeks, but his policies raise a more fundamental question:  whether Brazil can return to economic redistribution, diminishing the severe inequality that still marks its society, without Lula-ism.

The organs of anti-corruption investigation and control that have challenged Lula, Dilma, and Temer – the media, the Federal Police, the Public Prosecutor’s Office, and the judiciary – are neither consistently politically neutral nor free of corruption themselves.  They are not a Deus ex machina that can free the Brazilian polity of corruption all by themselves.  For that, Brazil needs political reform, further changes in at least some of the rules that regulate elections and governance, a realignment of incentives faced by elected officials, state bureaucrats, business people, trade unions, and the electorate.

  • The PT and the other two most important parties, however, seem incapable of renovation despite leaders’ awareness of the low level of legitimacy with which they are viewed by voters. The PT has few viable new leaders and is clinging to Lula’s candidacy as its only hope of a return to power.  The Brazilian Social Democratic Party (PSDB) still nominally supports Temer.  And Temer’s own party, the Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB), is torn between defending the president in an act of self-preservation, and fearing the wrath of the voters in 2018.

Brazilians face a “trilemma”: they yearn for the three long hoped-for goals of sustained and successful anti-corruption investigations, political reform, and a return to economic redistribution.  Achieving two of those goals at the same time, let alone three, seems impossible.  The 2018 elections therefore will reveal a country in which anti-corruption investigations continue to knock major figures out of the political game, while political reform and economic redistribution are postponed.  The old cliché that Brazil is the country of the future takes on a new meaning in light of this somber possibility.

July 17, 2017

*Anthony W. Pereira is a Professor and Director of the Brazil Institute at King’s College London.

Can the 2018 Election Overcome Brazil’s Crisis of Legitimacy?

By Fabio Kerche*

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The Brazilian flag. / Club Med UK / Flickr / Creative Commons

The political and economic crisis punctuated by the impeachment of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff in 2016 persists unabated under the troubled administration of Michel Temer.  Stagnation is fueling unemployment, and the government’s efforts to rein in pensions and limit public spending are reinforcing the perception that the principal objective of those who ousted Dilma is to cut back on social rights promised in the 1988 Constitution and deepened by Dilma and her predecessor, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva.  Even more ominously, the continuing cascade of corruption allegations is also undermining support for the new government.

  • Surveys show that only 10 percent of Brazilians rate the Temer government as “good” or “great,” and that its legitimacy is further undermined by whistleblowers alleging that the president and nine of his ministers are corrupt.

The notorious “Car Wash” anti-corruption campaign is hurting more than Temer and his men.  Zealous prosecutors and judges are essentially criminalizing not only politicians’ behavior but, through aggressive interpretations of the law, the practice of politics itself.  The targeting of Dilma’s leftist PT is most obvious, but the deluge of charges is now buffeting all the major political parties.  Leaders of the center-right PSDB, including former President Fernando Henrique Cardoso, have been accused of corruption as well.  Except for some miniscule political parties, virtually the entire political system now faces corruption charges.

The 2018 presidential election offers the most plausible avenue for emerging from the crisis, but even that remains highly problematic.  There is a relative consensus among the political class and political analysts that a new, legitimate, and directly elected president could reverse, or at least limit, the deterioration of the political system.  With just over a year remaining for candidates to register, the likely roster is very uncertain, in part because a basic feature of constitutional democracy – that citizens are allowed to compete for office – is increasingly in jeopardy amid the current anti-corruption fever.  Early polls place Lula as the strongest among the likely candidates, and he remains in first place even when surveys include Sérgio Moro, the most important judge in the Car Wash saga, who has not declared himself to be in the running.  But it is unclear whether the courts will let Lula stand for office.  Right-wing media are hammering Lula’s alleged corrupt practices while downplaying those of Temer and his cabinet.  Potential candidates of PSDB have been denounced for receiving bribes and having overseas bank accounts, and their numbers are shrinking in the polls.  An alternative now being floated as a potential PSDB candidate is João Dória, the newly elected mayor of São Paulo who, like U.S. President Donald Trump, is a non-mainstream politician and businessman who formerly hosted the Brazilian version of the TV show The Apprentice.)

  •  This uncertainty – even if the parties resist the continuing wave of Car Wash denunciations and take back some political space from the unelected judicial branch of government – raises the question whether, over the next 18 months, Brazil’s 32 year-old democracy proves itself to be irreversible or to have been an all too brief interlude in the country’s political history. The apparent appeal of outsiders in an environment that is criminalizing politics is a worrisome sign.

April 24, 2017

* Fabio Kerche is Research Fellow at CLALS and Researcher at Casa de Rui Barbosa Foundation, Rio de Janeiro.

MACCIH: An Early Progress Report

By Chuck Call*

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Juan Jiménez Mayor, Spokesman of the MACCIH Mission in Honduras, presented an update about MACCIH at the OAS in December 2016. / Juan Manuel Herrera, OAS / Flickr / Creative Commons

The OAS “Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH) approaches its first anniversary in April with some gains and many challenges.  Launched after months of negotiations with the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández, MACCIH was created partly in response to widespread street protests by the Indignados (the “Outraged”), angered that the president’s campaign had benefitted from $300 million embezzled by officials of the Social Security Institute (IHSS).  Hernández was widely believed to accept the mission only because his tenure in office – and a possible second term – were in danger.

  • MACCIH was inspired by Guatemala’s CICIG, the UN-backed commission supporting that country’s judicial institutions, but Hernández insisted on major differences. He consented only to a mission of the OAS, generally seen as weaker than the United Nations.  MACCIH is weaker than CICIG in that it cannot initiate its own case investigations and must channel all its investigative and prosecutorial work through Honduran authorities.  (CICIG enjoys full investigative police powers and can initiate its own wiretaps and surveillance.)  MACCIH is headed in-country by a “spokesman” for the OAS Secretary-General, who nominally leads the mission from Washington, and its $2 million first-year budget has been only about one-sixth that of CICIG’s annual budget.

As a result, MACCIH opened to skepticism that its slow start hasn’t dispelled.  Its investigations have produced virtually no corruption-related arrests or prosecutions.  Setting up the office took much of 2016.  The head of criminal investigations only arrived in the summer, and the public security office only opened this month.  In contrast, a Honduran Police Reform Commission has sacked over 3,000 police officers.  Civil society organizations complain of MACCIH’s lack of impact, and a novel “observatory” comprising academic institutions and civil society groups remains ill-defined.  MACCIH’s decision not take up the investigation of the high-profile murder of environmental rights activist Berta Cáceres has seemed to sideline the mission from a case that emblemizes impunity, even if it seems not to involve far-reaching corruption.

  • However, MACCIH has scored some wins. It has embarked on a handful of complex corruption cases, including the IHSS case that sparked its creation.  The mission helped Honduran prosecutors prepare charges of arms possession against Mario Zelaya, the highest-profile suspect in the IHSS case, which kept him in jail long enough for more serious charges to be brought.  It helped secure two laws – to regulate campaign financing and to create a nationwide anti-corruption jurisdiction with its own selected judges and prosecutors.  MACCIH’s in-country leader, former Peruvian Prime Minister Juan Jiménez Mayor, has been forward-leaning in acting on his mandate.
  • MACCIH gained support in an early test late last year. In November, its concerns about several Hernández nominees to the Tribunal Superior de Cuentas, an audit court with special powers over corruption investigations, earned the ire of Honduran senior officials who complained to Secretary General Almagro.  The appointments were not altered, laying bare the mission’s limitations.  But Almagro stood by his organization’s analysis and role, with Jiménez Mayor emerging stronger as his special representative, not just his spokesman.
  • That same month, the board chair of Transparency International, José Ugaz, visited Honduras and urged civil society organizations to help ensure MACCIH’s success. Since then, they have showed a more positive attitude toward MACCIH, and more witnesses are now cooperating with the mission.

Comparisons between MACCIH with CICIG may arguably be unfair just one year out.  Observers recall that CICIG had difficulty showing impact in its initial investigations and was criticized as ineffectual.  Delivering on its ambitious mission to help curb corruption and impunity – in a country notorious for both – will be even harder.  However, the mission has accomplished as much as CICIG did in its first year in case investigations and legal reform.  Despite its limitations and slow start, MACCIH’s performance does not preclude obtaining far-reaching corruption convictions and strengthening the Honduran judicial system in coming years.  As civil society groups seem to be getting past their disappointment that their country did not get a CICIG, their collaboration will be crucial to the mission’s success.

March 13, 2017

* Chuck Call teaches International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University.

Michel Temer’s Shrinking Presidency

By Matthew Taylor*

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Brazilian President Michel Temer. / PMDB Nacional / Flickr / Creative Commons

Self-inflicted troubles are forcing Brazilian President Michel Temer into difficult choices between his party and an angry public.  When he became president three months ago, his game plan was simple and bold: undertake legislative reforms that would put the government’s accounts back on track, enhance investor confidence, stimulate an economic recovery, and possibly set the stage for a center-right presidential bid (if not by Temer himself, at least by a close ally) in the 2018 elections.  Allies in his Brazilian Democratic Movement Party (PMDB) would ensure that he had the backing of Congress to push through reforms that might not bring immediate returns, but nonetheless might improve investor confidence.  Sotto voce, many politicians also assumed that the PMDB would be well placed to slow the pace of the bloodletting occasioned by the massive Lava Jato investigation and stabilize the political system.

Last week, the public’s worst suspicions of the PMDB-led government were confirmed by a two-bit scandal that claimed Government Secretary Geddel Vieira Lima, who was putting pressure – with Temer’s help – on a historical registry office to authorize construction of a Salvador building in which he had purchased an apartment.  Temer sought to repair the damage by holding an unusual press conference Sunday in which he promised to veto a proposed congressional amnesty of illegal campaign contributions.  But Temer now faces another important ethical fork in the road: how to respond to Chamber of Deputies approval of anti-corruption legislation yesterday that – while originally intended to boost efforts to clean up government – neuters the reforms and prevents judicial “abuses,” a move widely seen as an effort to intimidate judges and prosecutors.  The bill now heads to the Senate, which seems unlikely to repair the damage and indeed, may further distort the bill in an effort to undermine Temer’s ability to resurrect the reforms through selective vetoes.  The reform package had been a poster child for the prosecutors spearheading the Lava Jato investigation, and it was pushed by a petition drive that gathered more than two million signatures.  Prosecutors have threatened to resign if Temer signs the severely mangled measure into law.

Despite Temer’s initial successes, the outlook for the remainder of his term remains grim.  The bad news is going to continue, causing the Congress and Temer even more sleepless nights.  A deal expected soon reportedly will require the Odebrecht construction firm to pay a record-breaking penalty for its corrupt practices (perhaps surpassing even the US$1.6 billion Siemens paid to U.S. and European authorities in 2008), and plea bargains by nearly 80 company executives might implicate as many as 200 federal politicians.  It threatens to paralyze legislators and further weaken the PMDB’s already decimated crew, undermining Temer’s ability to coordinate with Congress.  Economic forecasts now show economic growth of less than 1 percent in 2017 and, with 26 state governments facing budget crises, politically influential governors are begging for federal help.  A much-needed pension reform promised by Temer has not yet been made public, much less begun the tortuous amendment process in Congress.  Temer increasingly is being forced to choose between helping his allies and achieving reform, or satisfying a public fed up with politics as usual and baying for accountability and a political cleanup.  It will take all of Temer’s considerable political skills and knowledge of backroom Brasília to revise his game plan for these challenging times.

December 1, 2016

* Matthew Taylor is Associate Professor at the School of International Service at American University and Adjunct Senior Fellow for Latin America Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.  This is adapted from this CFR blogpost.

Guatemala: Cheers for Trump?

By Ricardo Barrientos*

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Iván Velásquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). Velásquez and his team face a difficult task of bolstering Guatemalan anti-corruption efforts. / US Embassy Guatemala / Flickr / Creative Commons

Anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala have suffered serious setbacks in recent months, and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president appears likely to hurt them further.  A number of media reports have already documented that efforts by right-wing Army veterans accused of crimes against humanity during the civil war, politicians, and campaign financiers are seriously threatening anti-corruption efforts started in 2015, which swept former President Pérez Molina from office.  President Jimmy Morales, who campaigned that he was “neither corrupt, nor a thief,” has failed to fulfill voters’ mandate to fight corruption, and instead has allowed Army friends to dominate his administration.  Called la juntita, Morales’s closest advisors are former military officers who operate in the shadows, are widely suspected of crimes against humanity during the war, and are alleged to be using their influence for personal enrichment.

  • The Supreme Court and Congress are also under pressure. Numerous media reports point to members of the Supreme Court, including its President, being tainted.  One magistrate, whose son has already been convicted of illicit use of public funds, is widely suspected as well.  In the legislature, the election of a new Directive Board increased the power of members long suspected of links with the mafias.  (Some local observers speculate that the internal voting was conducted on the U.S. Election Day because U.S. Ambassador Todd Robinson, an advocate of anti-corruption initiatives, and his staff would be too busy to care about what was going on in the Guatemalan Congress.)

With the Central Square in Guatemala City empty and only memories remaining of the citizen mass demonstrations of 2015, the last line of defense against the “re-capture” of the Guatemalan State are Iván Velásquez, head of the UN International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), and Guatemalan Attorney General Thelma Aldana.  They have already started investigations and are prosecuting corrupt members of Congress, including members of the new Directive Board.  U.S. government support has been crucial.  Ambassador Robinson may have crossed the thin line between active diplomacy and intervention at times, but many observers note that – quite unusual in Latin America for a U.S. ambassador – he enjoys strong support and sympathy from Guatemalans, and he is disliked by the Army veterans and others who are part of what in Guatemala is known as the “old politics.”

Corrupt Guatemalans appear to believe that their first hope – to neutralize the U.S. Embassy – moved one step closer to reality with the election of Donald Trump last week.  Politicians and commentators opposed to U.S. support for CICIG celebrated.  One proclaimed that “Democrats shriek; Republicans vote,” while another interpreted the message of Trump’s victory for Ambassador Robinson: “You’re fired!”  The mafias would not expect a Trump Administration to support them, but rather – interpreting the President-elect’s campaign statements – simply adopt a policy of indifference toward Guatemala and its internal affairs.  The corruption networks of the “old politics” in Guatemala hope that Trump will stay focused on nothing in Latin America except stopping migration.  Analysts who say that everyone in Latin America is regretting Trump’s victory are wrong.  Trump’s election may help the corrupt win a battle or two, but the war against corruption in Guatemala is far from over.

November 18, 2016

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

A Nicaraguan Model for the Drug War?

Daniel Ortega | Photo by: Presidencia de la República del Ecuador | Flickr | Creative Commons

Bilateral tensions going back to the Cold War have obscured the value of counternarcotics cooperation between the United States and one of its least-favorite governments in Latin America – that of former Sandinista guerrilla and three-term Nicaraguan President Daniel Ortega.  The man who battled U.S.-funded proxies, the Contras, in the 1980s is now the most effective soldier against the drug trade in Central America, although Washington appears loathe to admit it and to imbue the cooperation with political good will.  However, while closer U.S. allies such as Honduras and El Salvador have seen levels of violence climb, Nicaragua remains relatively safe.  According to U.S. government estimates, Honduras (with vastly greater assistance) interdicted more cocaine than did Nicaragua in 2011 (22 v. 9 metric tons), seized one-tenth as much heroin (8 v. 86 kilograms) and arrested only half as many drug-related criminals (84 v. 168) – but had a homicide rate six times greater than Nicaragua.

Managua has achieved its relative success with an approach quite different from its neighbors’ –less costly in both dollars and bloodshed.  Compared to the flow of allegations about human rights violations committed by the Mexican security forces, Nicaragua’s record appears clean and citizens feel relatively confident providing information to the police.  Its armed forces have been involved in drug interdiction, focusing on coastal seizures, often in cooperation with the U.S. Navy.  But the backbone of Nicaragua’s strategy has been a series of local initiatives such as community policing.  These programs focus on “juvenile delinquency, education, and reintegration into society by gang members and other young offenders,” scholars noted in a recent special issue of the journal Policing and Society.  Nicaragua’s geography may be a factor as well.  The cartels’ main routes to Mexico are through the northern tier of the isthmus, and Nicaragua does not have the same sort of migration patterns that shaped Salvadoran gangs, as Insight Crime noted last year.

Scaling up Nicaragua’s local solutions to fit Mexico would be an immense challenge because of the disparity between the countries’ size and history.  But elements of Managua’s approach could be tried and adapted in neighboring countries, particularly its emphasis on community policing and anticorruption efforts that help gain citizens’ confidence.  Within Nicaragua itself, some observers argue that the government should do more to integrate its Afro-descendant Creole population into these supportive measures.  Currently, these Creole coastal communities bear much of the effect of military-oriented U.S.-Nicaraguan counternarcotics cooperation, without the social assistance to deal with the underlying problems in the region.  As the costs – and limits on effectiveness – of the full-frontal assault on cartels become ever clearer, Nicaragua’s relative success stands as an important reminder that other paths are possible.