An index looking at the ability of Latin American countries to combat corruption has highlighted that signs of progress are still few and far between, and the region as a whole is backsliding.
The 2020 Capacity to Combat Corruption (CCC) Index found that, in 2019, many countries in the region have moved away from anti-corruption measures. And the timing could not be worse, since corruption and graft have held back Latin America’s pandemic response in myriad ways.
To measure the degree of impunity in each country, the report -- put together annually by the Americas Society and Council of the Americas' (AS/COA) Anti-Corruption Working Group and Control Risks -- examined legal capacity, political institutions and civil society responses. Below, InSight Crime takes a look at how the countries compare -- from above average to worryingly poor.
1. Above Average: Uruguay, Chile, Costa Rica
Uruguay outperformed all 15 other countries in the region, thanks to the efficiency and independence of its courts, law enforcement agencies and anti-corruption bodies. Since 2018, the country’s congress has also taken on money laundering, a key remaining cause for concern.
Chile, which is often one of the top performers in the index, came in second despite seeing political unrest in 2019. Still, the country’s demonstrations delivered the biggest hit to Chile’s score, as anti-corruption priorities gave way to issues of healthcare and gender equality. Chile’s plans to draft a new constitution will determine how the country deals with corruption going forward, the report said.
2. Progress Needed: Brazil, Peru, Argentina, Colombia
This group contains both the biggest year-over-year loser and winner: Brazil and Peru, respectively. Colombia and Argentina, meanwhile, saw almost no changes in their scores during 2019.
Although Brazil ranks fourth on the index overall, its score dropped 10 percent from last year, and the country “displays one of the most concerning trajectories in the region,” the report stated. The index points to President Jair Bolsonaro’s interference with law enforcement agencies and questions raised in the landmark Lava Jato case, a wide-reaching corruption investigation that uncovered companies -- chief among them the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht -- had laundered money to pay bribes and kickbacks for inflated public works contracts. The investigation has led to charges against lawmakers, business tycoons and even presidents.
Chats leaked to The Intercept, however, showed a high-profile Brazilian judge in the case, Sergio Moro, provided tips to prosecutors on investigative lines, a collaboration which is legally prohibited and a serious ethical violation. The report also highlights investigations into Bolsonaro’s sons – one for corruption and ties to militia groups in Rio de Janeiro, and another for being a key member of a criminal fake news racket.
On the other hand, the Index calls Peru its most positive story of 2020, citing the country’s clear improvements in law enforcement capacity and court system, and the prominence of anti-corruption efforts in President Martín Vizcarra’s agenda. InSight Crime reported on Vizcarra’s rough start with anti-corruption reform in early 2019, but the creation of a new, powerful agency that targets judges and public officials accused of corruption (National Justice Junta – JNJ), progress on the Lava Jato investigation and improvements in campaign financing have paid off, according to the report. Reforms to parliamentary immunity and campaigning are the events to watch.
3. Below Average: Mexico, Ecuador, Panama
This group is characterized by countries with strong anti-corruption rhetoric but questionable action on the ground. Panama’s new administration, for instance, came to power on the back of public demand for anti-corruption reform. But once President Laurentino Cortizo took office, his agenda struggled to find traction in congress, even from members of his own party, the report found. Panama continues to be a country of concern for money laundering and financial secrecy.
In Mexico, civil society has been calling for reform for years and President Andrés Manuel López Obrador came to power in 2018 with a promise of ending corruption. Yet in practice, Mexico has stagnated as shown by the never-ending list of allegations against its former police, political class and even sports teams. The index criticizes the president's focus on his personal ability to find and stop corruption, rather than empower institutions such as the National Anti-corruption System (Sistema Nacional Anticorrupción - SNA) and the Financial Intelligence Agency (Unidad de Inteligencia Financiera - UIF). It also cites concerns that the UIF isn’t truly independent from the president.
4. Poor Performers: Guatemala, Paraguay, Dominican Republic and Bolivia
Civil society has attempted to compensate for weak legal and institutional capacity in this group. The dismantling of the United Nations-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) -- which had strengthened local prosecutors’ investigative abilities and helped send powerful businessmen, organized crime figures and politicians to jail -- was a major blow to anti-corruption efforts in the country. But Guatemalan non-governmental and civil society organizations have kept attention on the issue.
In the Dominican Republic, the public understands the importance of anti-corruption reform. According to Transparency International polls, the topic is a top priority for Dominicans across the board and they have even taken to the streets to demand change in recent Plaza de la Bandera protests. This does not make up, however, for the country’s weak anti-corruption and investigative bodies, which have yet to resolve Odebrecht’s alleged $92 million bribes scheme.
Paraguay ranks 12th on the Index due to its large illicit economies, including money laundering, contraband and drug trafficking, which exacerbate the problems of weak institutions. According to the report, the infiltration of drug cartels into every sphere of government makes the prospect of improvement unlikely in the foreseeable future. The index highlights the expansion of Brazilian gangs, most notably the First Capital Command (PCC), into the country as another serious concern.
5. The Outlier: Venezuela
Venezuela’s last place on the Index comes as no surprise. The authors note that the country’s score has dropped another 11 percent from last year, as President Nicolás Maduro has further eroded government institutions to the point that there are no truly independent bodies left. In one flagrant example, a May ruling by the Supreme Court of Justice officially made deputy Luis Parra, an ally of President Maduro, the new president of the National Assembly. He replaced opposition leader Juan Guaidó who was ousted after a disputed vote in January that the opposition called illegitimate. The congressional body had previously lost most of its powers in 2017, when Maduro created a parallel legislature.
In this context of institutional decay, Venezuelan civil society scored exceptionally well by comparison, thanks to the “work of independent investigative journalists and NGOs that still operate in the country.” Yet with no democratic and judicial institutions backing them, civil society has little recourse.