HomeNewsAnalysisGameChangers 2019: Northern Triangle Countries to Fight Corruption Alone, if at All
GameChangers 2019: Northern Triangle Countries to Fight Corruption Alone, if at All

GameChangers 2019: Northern Triangle Countries to Fight Corruption Alone, if at All


The year 2019 saw the end of a brief golden era when local and international forces came together to fight state and private corruption in the Northern Triangle.

Guatemala’s historic corruption commission came to an end in 2019 -- not with a bang but a whimper. For more than a decade, the United Nations-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) strengthened local prosecutors’ investigative abilities and helped send powerful businessmen, organized crime figures and politicians to jail. The CICIG investigated three of Guatemala’s last four presidents, including outgoing President Jimmy Morales who largely engineered the CICIG’s demise.

The end of the CICIG set the tone for similar bodies in a region beset by graft. Honduras’ Organization of American States-backed judicial mission slid into a kind of permanent limbo, and has now been discontinued. El Salvador’s nascent commission, put in place this year by new President Nayib Bukele, faces possible restrictions to its scope and powers.

Ironically, it was many of the same forces that helped bring these judicial bodies together that in the end hastened their demise. Political and business elites in Honduras and Guatemala backed the first efforts, in part to cripple their enemies. But when these same bodies turned their resources on them, they launched a systematic campaign to weaken and expel these foreign prosecutors.

At the same time, the United States’ commitment to combating corruption in the Northern Triangle evaporated under the administration of President Donald Trump. Relations with these countries currently hinge on their ability to stop migrants from reaching the US border, the administration’s top priority.

Corruption’s long shadow still looms over all these countries. And without the light of CICIG-like bodies, it’s largely back to business as usual. Their death knoll also paves the way for new waves of drug trafficking -- which InSight Crime has documented in recent field investigations -- and for organized crime to further destabilize and threaten security in the region.

The Beginning of the End

In the dozen years it was in operation, the CICIG was heralded -- along with its last commissioner, the veteran Colombian judge Iván Velasquez -- for leading one the most successful drives against high-level corruption in the Americas.

CICIG investigators helped the Attorney General’s Office send a former Guatemalan president and vice president to jail; and it prosecuted nearly 700 people, including ministers, legislators, judges and businessmen at the highest levels. It dismantled 70 criminal networks, including the Mendozas, a powerful drug trafficking family with a private army and ties to officials. And the CICIG brought modern investigative techniques, such as mapping organized crime networks and using wiretaps.

"CiCIG's most important impact was to show average citizens that the rule of law applies to even the most powerful," said Charles T. Call, a professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at DC-based American University, who recently published a white paper that dissects the CICIG's tenure in Guatemala.

Juan Francisco Sandoval, director of a special anti-corruption unit of the Attorney General’s Office, worked closely with CICIG to prosecute its highest-profile case: “La Linea,” or “the Line,” a customs fraud scheme that involved former President Otto Pérez Molina and former Vice President Roxana Baldetti.

“What the CICIG did was to show the phenomenon [of corruption], to attack that phenomenon,” he told InSight Crime in his office in Guatemala City.

In 2015, the La Linea case sparked mass street protests and the resignation of Pérez Molina, who was arrested and jailed on bribery charges. Four years later, he is still awaiting trial from jail. Meanwhile, Baldetti -- who directed La Linea -- also is awaiting trial but was ultimately convicted of separate corruption charges in 2018.

The indictment of a sitting president by CICIG and Attorney General’s Office prosecutors displayed the power of the anti-graft body and brought hope that corruption would no longer go unpunished, even if it meant taking on the highest levels of power.

Other major cases followed, including the “Construction and Corruption," which accused construction firms of paying kickbacks and bribes to politicians for preferential treatment in winning state contracts to build major infrastructure projects. Similarly, dozens of officials and business elites were indicted in the "Co-optation of the State" case, which revealed that 450 state contracts were awarded through a criminal structure that illegally financed political campaigns.

What made the CICIG so powerful was the independence prosecutors had to pursue cases anywhere they might lead. La Linea began with a wiretapped call, on which a Puerto Quetzal customs agent is heard speaking about a scheme to avoid import taxes. It ended with the country’s president.

That was a lesson for President Jimmy Morales, who targeted the CICIG after it charged his son and brother with corruption and then began to investigate him for illegally funding his 2015 presidential campaign. His offensive included barring Velasquez from entering the country, revoking the visas of CICIG investigators, and then announcing publicly and to UN officials that he was shutting down the CICIG months ahead of schedule.

A protester in Guatemala holds up a sign protesting outgoing President Jimmy Morales' attacks on the CICIG: AP photo.

Other business and political elites under investigation by the CICIG did the same, attacking the commission and filing complaints against Sandoval and his investigators. This included members of the powerful Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial, and Financial Associations (Comité de Asociaciones Agrícolas, Comerciales, Industriales y Financieras – CACIF), some of whom admitted they might have illegally financed Morales’ presidential campaign.

“Thank God we got rid of them,” Morales told supporters in September, shortly after the CICIG closed its doors.

And now Congressmen allied with Morales have created a cynically named “truth commission" to investigate the commission for what they call abuses of power. Though the commission was declared unconstitutional, the congress went ahead with it anyway in another form. They are also pushing measures that would make it more difficult to investigate acts of corruption, such as invalidating testimony from witnesses involved in graft schemes who later cooperate with prosecutors and restricting phone wiretaps. Congress also altered the penal code to allow for reduced sentences for people convicted on corruption charges.

Sandoval, who currently faces 20 complaints against him, said that that Guatemala’s government has made it impossible for his investigators to continue their work.

“We are witnessing the total dismantling of all the anti-corruption forces,” he said.

Dwindling Hopes

In Honduras, the foreign anti-corruption body -- the Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) -- continues its often groundbreaking work, but it has been neutered in some respects and its future is in doubt.

The MACCIH has gone after high-level corruption, most recently in the conviction of former President Porfirio Lobo’s wife on graft charges. Rosa Elena Bonilla was sentenced in September to 58 years in jail for pilfering state funds, including money designated for shoes for poor children. It was the most important conviction for prosecutors with the MACCIH to date.

But other cases have lingered. To cite just one example, the so-called Pandora case -- in which more than three dozen government officials allegedly diverted millions of dollars of public money to political efforts, including funding President Hernández’s 2013 campaign -- stalled after officials publicly declared its scope in June 2018.

With MACCIH’s mandate coming to an end on January 19, its future was never certain. The Honduran government and the Organization of American States (OAS), which backed the MACCIH, had been negotiating on whether to extend the mission beyond its end date. Any change to the mandate would have required approval by Honduras' congress, which in a December vote recommended that the mission be discontinued. A diplomatic source told InSight Crime that Honduras faced international pressure to continue with the MACCIH.

That pressure seems to have mattered little.

On January 2, the MACCIH's interim leader, Ana Maria Calderon, announced her resignation -- a worrying sign for the mission's future. Negotiations between the OAS and the Honduran government ended Jan. 17 without a new agreement to continue with the anti-corruption mission, according to an OAS news release.

Though Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has not attacked the MACCIH openly the way his Guatemalan counterpart attacked the CICIG, members of Honduras’ congress have sought to undermine the body since its creation.

Before the year's end, congress had reduced potential jail sentences for acts of corruption, reactivated immunity for legislators, and passed legislation that requires corruption investigations to go through a special accounting body before being passed to prosecutors -- an administrative process that could slow important prosecutions to a crawl.

In response to pressure from from civil society and thought leaders, congress has delayed the implementation of these measures, part of a justice reform package.

An investigator with the Attorney General’s anti-corruption unit, which works closely with the MACCIH, told InSight Crime that if the reforms are enacted, “They will have practically killed what we’re doing.”

El Salvador President Nayib Bukele: AP photo

In neighboring El Salvador, recently elected President Nayib Bukele campaigned on bringing a CICIG-style international anti-graft commission to the country, even borrowing the name. But, in the end, the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en El Salvador -- CICIES) will not have the investigative or prosecutorial powers of the CICIG, or even the MACCIH. Attorney General  Raúl Melara has declared that his office “is the only entity that can investigate and prosecute crimes in the country.”

“It’s a different animal and it’s not clear how much power it’s going to have,” said Call, who has also written on the CICIES and the MACCIH.

The commission currently proposed by Bukele is severely limited in power. Indeed, the CICIES is under the executive branch, reducing its scope. And its source of funding is opaque. Whether the CICIES is just for show or will have real bite likely resides with Bukele, who has a penchant for declaring his own truth via social media and is already facing allegations of corruption.

For now, the only trace of the CICIES' existence is in the form of a small office on the 17th floor of a building in the capital San Salvador.

The Washington Factor

The CICIG’s fate was sealed when the United States withdrew support for the commission.

Morales, with the help of lobbyists and allies in Washington, curried favor with the Trump administration by working with it to try and stem the flow of Central American migrants to the United States and announcing the opening of its embassy in Jerusalem, two days after the administration had moved the US embassy to the contested city. Behind closed doors, the lobbyists, which also included members of the business community, undermined the CICIG. A public smear campaign aimed at the CICIG also ensued, and a network of bots spread false information about the CICIG on social media.

The CICIG also made some missteps, including overreaching in its efforts for constitutional reform; not transitioning to a new director once it became clear that the government’s relationship with Iván Velasquez had soured; and possibly going after too many powerful targets at once, said Call.

But it could have survived with support from the United States, its most important financial and political backer.

“When the Trump administration backed away from that unqualified support,” he said, “it sent a signal to the elites of Guatemala that it was open season on attacking that wounded animal.”

Despite the divorce between the CICIG and the US government, US federal prosecutors have continued efforts to take on high-level drug trafficking in Central America, notably with the trial and conviction of Tony Hernández, the brother of the Honduran president.

President Hernández has long been held up as a poster child for US allies willing to fight drug trafficking in Central America. Yet the trial revealed the extent that drug trafficking organizations had penetrated Honduras’ state institutions, including the presidency.

Prosecutors even labeled Juan Orlando Hernández a co-conspirator and alleged that he protected his drug-trafficking brother and received drug proceeds to fund his campaigns. Hernández has not been charged with any crime, and he has denied the allegations on more than one occasion.

The fallout from the trial, however, hasn’t altered the Trump administration’s view of Hernández. The administration, which has shown itself to be more transactional than political, has praised Hernández of late for his own willingness to stem the flow of migrants. “The United States is one of the president’s main supporters here,” a diplomat who asked to remain anonymous for lacking authority to speak publicly on the matter, told InSight Crime after Tony Hernández’s conviction.

President Hernández was clearly rankled by his brother’s drug trafficking trial, lashing out in a tweet that this “is less serious than Alice in Wonderland.”

Now that the allegations against him have been made public, he may not be as committed to the extradition of drug traffickers, many of whom ended up cooperating with US officials. The first test may be whether he extradites Mauricio Hernández Pineda, his cousin and a former high-ranking national police commander who was indicted on drugs and weapons charges in the United States.

Criminals Back in Business

What the CICIG showed is that power of a corruption commission stems largely from broad-based domestic and international support, giving investigators wide latitude to go after sectors considered untouchable.

With investigators under siege in Guatemala, weakened in Honduras, and seemingly restrained in El Salvador, traffickers and criminals may see an opening. Nine of every ten tons of cocaine that makes it to the United States passes through Central America, traversing lawless, remote regions where authorities and local politicians are easily corrupted by drug money.

And Sandoval, the prosecutor who worked with the CICIG, said that the attacks on the anti-corruption body only helped to strengthen organized crime in the country.

“The perception out there,” he said, “is that the door is now wide open for drug activity.”

During recent field investigations, authorities told InSight Crime that traffickers in Central American were returning to land routes to move drugs and that the dismantling of the large drug trafficking clans -- particularly in Honduras and Guatemala -- has provided an opportunity for others to get in the game, creating a more diffuse and complicated organized crime landscape.

Editor's Note: The article has been updated to include new information about the MACCIH. 

Top Image: AP photo of men burning a paper figure of Ivan Velasquez in celebration of the end of the CICIG.

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