Few have followed the anti-graft fight in Central America’s Northern Triangle region as closely as Guatemala-born US Congresswoman Norma Torres, whose recent legislative amendment seeks to end corruption and other related illegal practices.
Rep. Torres (D-Calif.) founded and co-chairs the Central America Caucus in the US House of Representatives. And she has used that strategic position to pressure the administrations of former President Barack Obama and current President Donald Trump to more vigilantly monitor officials in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are accused of corruption and to whom US aid funding may flow.
In April, Torres proposed an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) to require the Pentagon to create a list of government officials investigated for “grand corruption,” illicit campaign financing or ties to organized crime. The amendment was approved last week and will require the Defense Secretary to submit the first list before the end of 2018.
In an exclusive interview with InSight Crime conducted in April, Torres said it is necessary to know who is involved in corruption and other crimes in order to avoid punishing entire countries by cutting their aid. She said such a fate seems to be growing more likely as some in Washington, DC interpret the issue as a failure to commit to the fight against corruption.
InSight Crime (IC): What’s new about this amendment?
Norma Torres (NT): In Guatemala we want to ensure that Congress understands who the specific individuals are, so it can take measures specifically against them instead of punishing an entire country. We want to really understand who these corrupt actors are.
IC: What kinds of measures are we talking about?
NT: That’s in the power of Congress, but at a minimum, we should clearly know which individuals are involved in corruption.
IC: What happens if a Central American official is added to the list of corrupt officials?
NT: The law requires that a report is created in which corrupt officials are named and listed. What happens afterwards would depend on Congress, on what Congress decides together with those observing our policy in the region, including the State Department.
IC: The Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle has certifications for anti-corruption efforts in all three countries. Why require more?
NT: Because I believe that here in the US Congress, the number of both Republicans and Democrats who are demanding aid reduction or elimination is growing because they don’t see a real intention or the progress we were expecting in the region, especially over the past 12 months. I’m trying to stop that, saying, let’s not punish everyone in those countries because there are people working to improve conditions.
It’s true there are people who are hindering the anti-corruption agenda, so then let’s see who these people are. Let’s see why they’re doing it. Let’s see if they have connections to drug or human trafficking. My amendment doesn’t address exactly what to do with these people, but we should be harsh with them.
IC: What do you think about the Trump administration and the Northern Triangle? For example, in the case of Honduras, the State Department certified its anti-corruption efforts precisely when Juan Orlando Hernández was reelected amid serious fraud accusations. Aren’t such messages from Washington confusing?
NT: I was very disappointed with the certification of Honduras. I believe the State Department did it at an extremely bad time. It’s my understanding that things move very slowly in this administration.
IC: Was Guatemala’s certification not approved?
NT: No. It’s still in the process. It’s behind schedule ... I hope that now the State Department will be a little more aware of the current situation in Guatemala before it approves any kind of certification.
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IC: Going back to your amendment, you reiterate that corruption is one of the Northern Triangle’s main problems. How serious does this problem continue to be?
NT: It’s one of the most important issues in the region. For me, it’s one of the main reasons why there are no opportunities for the youth, why people don’t see a future for themselves in the region. Businesses, including those from the United States, are reluctant to invest in a region where it’s difficult for them to open a business, where they have to deal with paying bribes to different officials.
IC: Your amendment talks about different approaches to US foreign policy in the region -- the Central America Regional Support Initiative (CARSI) during the Obama administration and then the Alliance for Prosperity -- where it was pretty clear that the Northern Triangle had to tackle corruption to try to decrease migration flows. It seems that clearly hasn’t happened...
NT: Yes, we saw an improvement in the region when the three countries seemed excited to have signed the Alliance for Prosperity. Former US Vice President [Joseph] Biden invested a lot of energy in the issue, traveling every three or four months to the region. [The Trump administration] arrived, and while it’s saying it’s committed to continuing those efforts because they had good results, from what I’ve heard, there is a perception that there needs to be more involvement in the region.
IC: You used the past tense when you said that Central Americans were excited with [the United States’] efforts. You just attended the Summit of the Americas. Is this something that excites a region in which accusations against corrupt presidents seem endless?
NT: It seemed to me that there was a conviction that corruption must continue to be an important priority in the Western Hemisphere, that it’s a problem that doesn’t just concern the Northern Triangle. But I have been focused on the Northern Triangle not only because we’re investing a lot of money in foreign aid there but also because the majority of refugees coming to the United States are coming from there.
IC: We spoke about Guatemala and Honduras. What’s happening with El Salvador?
NT: In El Salvador there is no process like in Guatemala or Honduras [both of which have judicial support missions that have the backing of international organizations]. I would encourage the government of El Salvador to move in the right direction in identifying and choosing people who understand that corruption must be a priority in their investigations and to have the capacity to transparently process those cases.