HomeNewsAnalysisLatAm Presidents and the Law: Is Era of Impunity Nearing Its End?

LatAm Presidents and the Law: Is Era of Impunity Nearing Its End?


From kidnapping and mass murder to money laundering and misuse of public funds, contemporary Latin American leaders have been investigated for a broad range of crimes, underscoring the structural challenges the region faces in the ongoing struggle to end the impunity enjoyed by its political elite.*


Former President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner (2007-2015) has been charged in three corruption cases and is soon to be prosecuted in a fourth. In the most advanced case, Kirchner is set to face trial for her suspected involvement in the sale of artificially devalued "future dollars," a speculative state banking operation that eventually cost Argentina millions. The remaining cases all have in common accusations that Kirchner participated in or led criminal schemes that involved the illicit attribution of public contracts, generally to companies owned by a small group of businessmen, in return for kickbacks.

Current President Mauricio Macri also came under fire after his name appeared in the "Panama Papers" leak in 2016. Argentina's judiciary is investigating the president's links to the family offshore company Fleg Trading Ltd, but no charges have been filed against the president. 

Argentina has successfully convicted one of its former presidents, Carlos Menem (1989-1999), but he has never seen a day behind bars. Menem was first convicted in 2013 of having sold weapons to Croatia and Ecuador -- under international arms embargo at the time -- before being convicted separately in December 2015 for embezzlement during his tenure as president. Menem, however, enjoys immunity due to his current position as a senator.

17-08-08-Regional-LatAms Presidents


Brazil's massive corruption scandals continue to rock the country's political establishment, as investigations unearth further evidence of politicians' involvement. Less than three weeks after witnessing current President Michel Temer accused of "passive corruption" in the "Lava Jato" (Car Wash) scandal -- making him the country's first sitting president to be criminally charged -- Brazilians watched their most popular former leader sentenced to nearly a decade behind bars.

Pending a legal appeal, former President Luiz InacioLula da Silva (2003-2011) was sentenced to nine years and six months in prison for receiving bribes in exchange for helping the Brazilian construction firm OAS secure contracts from the Petrobras state oil company. But the former president is also targeted by several other corruption cases. In July 2016, Lula was ordered to stand trial for obstructing the Petrobras investigation. The former president was then charged in October 2016 for influence peddling and money laundering, accused of helping the construction company Odebrecht gain contracts in Angola in exchange for kickbacks during his tenure. By December 2016, Lula faced similar charges, this time for allegedly overseeing the improper awarding of eight Petrobras contracts while in office.


Ex-President Álvaro Uribe (2002-2010) is currently being probed on suspicion of illegal espionage of his political opponents while in office. The Supreme Court called for an investigation of the former president's direct involvement shortly after sentencing two of Uribe's advisors to prison in April 2015. A 2014 attempt to open a Senate debate about the involvement of Uribe and his Centro Democrático party with paramilitary organizations failed to gather enough votes.

Dominican Republic

Former President Leonel Fernández (1996-2000; 2004-2012) was accused by an infamous drug trafficker of having accepted drug money to illegally finance his election campaigns. However, Fernández was never officially charged for corruption.

El Salvador

Three of the last four presidents of El Salvador have faced various corruption charges

Francisco Flores (1999-2004) was put under house arrest in November 2014 on charges of embezzlement and illegal enrichment. The evidence against the former president came largely from a report put together by the US Treasury Department and made public by then-President Mauricio Funes. Flores was ordered in December 2015 to stand trial on four criminal charges, including the illicit diversion of $15 million from relief aid sent by Taiwan after the 2001 earthquake. He died in January 2016 before the case went to trial.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Flores's successor, Elías Antonio Saca (2004-2009), was ordered by the Supreme Court in February 2016 to justify his personal income in excess of $6.5 million. On top of that, his family holdings increased by nearly $13 million dollars during his presidency, more than nine million dollars of which were justified as "other activities and investments." Saca was arrested on October 30 on charges of embezzlement, illicit association and money laundering.

Mauricio Funes (2009-2014) was accused in February 2016 with illicit enrichment during his term in office. He is also under investigation in a separate money laundering case and for his possible involvement in the country's gang truce brokered in 2012. Other key figures who mediated the gang truce have been charged with a variety of related crimes.


The "La Línea" corruption scandal which broke out in Guatemala in 2015 led to the downfall of both President Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti. A joint effort by Guatemalan prosecutors and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG) has led to charges that Pérez Molina and a host of other officials in his administration cheated their way into office via an illegal campaign finance network, collected bribes for awarding government concessions, stole public funds to buy luxury goods and collected kickbacks from a customs fraud scheme. Baldetti was arrested in August 2015 and Pérez Molina resigned from office in September 2015 after having been stripped of immunity by Congress and was arrested the next day.

Before investigating the Pérez Molina administration, the CICIG mounted an unsuccessful attempt to prosecute former President Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004) on corruption charges. After having fled to El Salvador and then Mexico in 2004, Portillo was extradited back to Guatemala in 2008, where he was acquitted of the embezzlement charges in 2011. He was however extradited to the United States in 2013, where he pleaded guilty to money laundering charges and was sentenced to nearly three years in prison. Portillo was released in 2015 and returned to Guatemala that same year.


Haiti's former President Michel Martelly (2011-2016) has been accused of maintaining an administration riddled with corruption. A corruption investigation was launched by a court against his wife and son in 2014, and accusations that the ex-president misspent public money have also surfaced. Although Martelly himself has never been formally charged, the numerous convicted or investigated individuals in Martelly's inner circle as well as the many denunciations for corruption have fueled serious concerns over his activities in office.


Former President Rafael Leonardo Callejas (1990-1994) was charged with seven different counts of corruption stemming from his time in office. Callejas was acquitted of all of the charges in a 2005 trial that followed a congressional vote revoking the legal immunity all previous presidents had enjoyed. Callejas was later engulfed in the vast FIFA corruption scandal which broke in 2015 and led to the US indictment of 42 people in connection with $200 million in alleged bribes. In March 2016, Callejas pleaded guilty to racketeering conspiracy and wire fraud conspiracy, having received bribes in exchange for the awarding of media rights to broadcast and market World Cup qualifier matches, according to the US Justice Department. The former president is out on bail ahead of sentencing, which could reach 20 years of prison per admitted crime.


Former President Ricardo Martinelli (2009-2014) is under numerous investigations for alleged crimes that include embezzlement, corruption and illegal espionage. He has not yet been prosecuted, but his immunity against the charge of insider trading was revoked in 2015 by Panama's electoral tribunal. After overcoming several legal barriers the Panamanian Foreign Ministry officially requested his extradition from the United States in late September 2016. Martinelli was arrested in the United States in June 2017, and is currently attempting to block his extradition back to Panama where authorities are waiting to formally charge him for illegal espionage and corruption.


Paraguay's Attorney General's Office launched an investigation in October 2015 against former interim President Federico Franco (2012-2013) for alleged money laundering, criminal association and illicit enrichment. In April 2016, Paraguay's special attorney for money laundering said he was investigating both Franco and his wife, Senator Emilia Alfaro de Franco, for illicit enrichment and money laundering. Prosecutors told ABC Color that Franco had been tied to dubious accounts used to finance his campaign and that his wife's net worth increased by 610 percent during five years in parliament and 14 months as first lady.

Current President Horacio Cartes was convicted of wire fraud in the mid-1980s and was a fugitive for four years until a judge overturned his conviction. He was once formally charged with murder although the statute of limitations ran out. Diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks indicate that US authorities investigated Cartes for alleged money laundering as recently as 2010.


Several former Peruvian presidents have being accused of various criminal activities.

Alberto Fujimori, who held office from 1990 until 2000, is currently in jail after having been sentenced in 2009 to 25 years in prison for human rights abuses that included mass murder. He had already been sentenced to six years in 2008 for abuse of power. 

Former President Alan García (1985-90 and 2006-11) has been bogged down in the "narco-pardons" scandal, since January 2014, when a congressional commission called for his indictment for allegedly collecting bribes for awarding early release to more than 1,000 prisoners convicted of drug offenses.

Another ex-president, Alejandro Toledo (2001-2006), was indicted in March 2015 for a case of money laundering involving more than $9 million. Peru is seeking Toledo's arrest for both this and a second affair in which the former president is accused of receiving $20 million to help the Brazilian construction firm Odebrecht secure public contracts.

The Odebrecht scandal has also engulfed former President Ollanta Humala (2011 - 2016), who was placed in "preventive detention" for 18 months in July 2017 by a judge fearing that he would obstruct or escape a corruption probe. Humala has not yet been charged, but prosecutors say they have evidence the former president twice took bribes to finance electoral campaigns: first from late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez during the course of Humala's unsuccessful 2006 run, and second from Odebrecht for his 2011 victory. Brazilian authorities had already claimed in February 2016 to possess evidence of Humala receiving Odebrecht bribes.

*This article is being continuously updated from its original version, first published on August 10, 2016.

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