Central America: Hybrid Anti-Corruption Commissions Can Work

By Chuck Call*

Map of Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, with Guatemala and Honduras territory being covered by photos of well-known politicians being arrested.

Prospects for an International Commission against Impunity and Corruption in El Salvador: Lessons from Neighboring Countries in Central America logo / CLALS / https://www.american.edu/centers/latin-american-latino-studies/Prospects-for-an-International-Commission-against-Impunity-and-Corruption-in-El-Salvador-Lessons-from-Neighboring-Countries-in-Central-America.cfm

If newly inaugurated Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele pursues his campaign calls for the creation of a hybrid international commission to fight corruption and strengthen judicial institutions, he will face tough challenges from entrenched interests. However, the experiences of Guatemala’s CICIG and Honduras’s MACCIH show that a strong investigative mandate, close partnership with vetted national prosecutors, strong international backing, and transparent accountability will increase the chances of success of any such mission. (Full text of the study is here and aquí.) CICIG and MACCIH were born of political crises, but they were given different authorities, faced different expectations, and delivered different results.

  • Both missions have had historic investigative and prosecutorial achievements – bringing former and current senior officials to account as never before and putting powerful elites on notice that impunity will not be tolerated. CICIG has dismantled corrupt networks, exposing their reach into the Congress and the Cabinet, indicting hundreds. MACCIH has helped indict dozens of legislators and a former First Lady. Working with special units of prosecutors, they have also contributed to local institutional capacity to root out corruption.

Both CICIG and MACCIH have struggled against the pressure tactics of the many corrupt officials, legislators, and economic interests who most feel threatened by them. In contrast to Guatemala, where CICIG was key to the adoption of several laws that served as a foundation for effective investigation of organized crime, the Honduran Congress has refused to pass such laws. Legislatures in both countries have changed laws specifically to vitiate prosecutions (including of themselves) advanced by the missions. Corruption among judges, especially in Honduras, has made winning convictions extremely difficult. After CICIG shifted its sights beyond politicians to powerful businessmen a few years ago, Guatemalan elites launched a campaign to smear CICIG as an incursion on sovereignty and a socialist plot. Both missions have confronted constitutional challenges.

Key lessons from CICIG and MACCIH’s experience include:

  • Realistic expectations are important. The legal and diplomatic negotiations and logistics necessary to set up “hybrid” units combining domestic and international investigators slowed both entities’ starts. It took over two years for CICIG to secure its first convictions, and MACCIH’s investigations have led to only 12 cases, although these are major corrupt networks. The focus of many Hondurans on ousting President Juan Orlando Hernández has obscured some of the important cases advanced by the mission and its Honduran partners.
  • Anti-impunity missions can threaten systems of political and economic power in ways that go beyond judicial processes. Despite the technical and juridical character of both the missions, they have exposed in detail how criminal enterprises interact with political parties, elected, and appointed officials, and current and former security officials. The missions have also detailed how legislators receive illicit campaign funds and how they fraudulently spend public monies, forcing changes to these decades-old corrupt practices. In Guatemala, the prosecutions have dismantled corrupt networks involving cabinet ministers, generals, top business leaders and the former president and vice president, altering the political profile of parties and undermining the ability of prominent and corrupt elite structures of power to operate.
  • Strong partnerships with national prosecutorial units and with civil society are crucial for success and sustainability. CICIG and MACCIH could not have achieved what they did without close cooperation with carefully selected and vetted prosecutorial units. Those units, especially the UFECIC in Honduras, carried out much of the investigation and led the prosecution in both countries. The legacy of the hybrid missions rests in the future of these empowered professionals and society’s raised expectations of clean behavior from their public officials. Both missions have generated a greater sense that high-level politicians, officials and elites can be imprisoned for corruption and organized crime. Yet these missions have not heeded or informed civil society as much as they might have. Moreover, these experiences and the likely end to both missions in the coming months show that civil society is vital to educating society on the importance and possibility of accountable governance, and for demanding it from politicians and the justice system.
  • International sponsorship brings both advantages and challenges. The association with the UN (for CICIG) and the OAS (for MACCIH) has brought valuable political legitimacy, professional capacity, and needed resources. But it has also brought complications. In the case of MACCIH, slow and politicized appointments, questionable allocation of resources, and excessive day-to-day oversight from Washington, not to mention personal spats and undue interference by specific member states, have undermined performance and credibility. CICIG’s status as a non-UN body gave its commissioner the independence needed to take on tough cases and ignore political considerations. However, that lack of accountability is seen as having contributed to the alienation of many sectors in ways that left it politically vulnerable. Wavering U.S. support for CICIG since 2017 has emboldened the missions’ critics.

The experiences of CICIG and MACCIH show that, despite ups and downs, hybrid international-national missions can help a society fight corruption. In Guatemala and Honduras, these commissions achieved more than most observers originally predicted by dint of the vision and discipline of their leaders and sponsors as well as the work of courageous national officials and civil society groups often risking their livelihoods and lives. Their performance also shows that getting the mission right and sustainable takes time, communication, and strong partnership with national prosecutors. The main challenge now is that corrupt officials and businesses have become proficient at blocking investigations, prosecutions, and convictions.

  • Creating an International Commission against Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) may be harder now than before CICIG and MACCIH scored their victories. However, President Bukele may have a historic opportunity to press the country’s two main (but weakened) parties, ARENA and the FMLN, to approve a strong mandate that fits the country’s particular needs. Experts advising then-President Mauricio Funes (himself ironically now on the lam for alleged corruption) concluded in 2010 that the country’s Constitution provides the basis for an international mission with a sufficiently strong investigative powers to have impact. The Guatemalan and Honduran missions show that a strong mandate and significant national and international backing could improve help El Salvador’s justice system reduce corruption and impunity. Such efforts may also have comparable impact in exposing in dirty detail, and perhaps reforming, unaccountable and exclusionary systems of political representation.

* Chuck Call teaches International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University, where he directs a Center for Latin American & Latino Studies project analyzing MACCIH and anti-corruption efforts in Honduras.