The United States, under the Biden administration, was supposed to help curb corruption, but for corrupt officials in Central America, life has rarely looked better.
This past year, the justice systems of both El Salvador and Guatemala have been hollowed out.
El Salvador President Nayib Bukele used his party's control of congress to replace top judges and prosecutors with others friendly to his administration. As a result, investigations into alleged malfeasance by his government were scrapped. When questioned, Bukele publicly trolled his critics in Washington on Twitter.
Guatemala President Alejandro Giammattei, meanwhile, has stayed quiet, while his attorney general puts the final nail in the coffin of the country's anti-graft unit by bringing charges against its former lead prosecutor, who fled into exile after being fired by Giammattei’s attorney general.
In Honduras, outrage over corruption and drug trafficking has buried President Juan Orlando Hernández and his National Party, which lost elections in November. And in Nicaragua, President Ortega has continued to wield the justice system as a cudgel to silence the opposition, giving criminal groups and elites room to operate amid enfeebled state institutions.
Washington's response to Central America's corruption has been mainly to name and shame. Legislators have released two lists of high-level corruption suspects this past year but evident omissions and a lack of coherency have weakened the blacklists’ impact.
Outright assaults on justice systems have also been met time and again by statements from State Department officials with few tangible repercussions. The Biden administration now risks appearing toothless – and even emboldening corrupt actors in the region.
El Salvador Attacks Rule of Law, Set Up for Corruption
During the past year, President Bukele burnished his strongman bona fides with an assault on the country's justice system. The attack has had consequences, both intended and unintended, for rule of law and organized crime cases.
Legislators aligned with Bukele ousted Attorney General Raúl Melara during the first session of congress in May. The reason for Melara's removal became clear three months later: He had empowered a special prosecutor's unit to investigate alleged crimes by the Bukele administration.
News media El Faro first reported on the unit and its two unfinished investigations, one of which discovered a trove of evidence that the Bukele administration had secretly negotiated with three of the country's deadly street gangs. The other investigation alleged that high-level officials in the administration orchestrated the theft of some $1.6 million of food products destined for poor people during the coronavirus pandemic.
Legislators also crippled investigations into alleged profiteering by passing a retroactive law protecting health sector officials and contractors from criminal and administrative charges related to the purchase of medical supplies during the pandemic.
Congress did not spare the judiciary either, removing five constitutional court judges, including the court’s president, who was replaced by a judge with a history of influence peddling. Two of the new high court judges also formerly worked for the president. A legislative reform was later passed to fire all judges and prosecutors who are over the age of 60.
Whether they intended to or not, El Salvador courts made decisions favoring the country's criminals. Money laundering charges were dropped against alleged Texis Cartel boss José Adán Salazar Umaña, alias "Chepe Diablo."
New judges on the constitutional court also halted the extradition of top MS13 leaders to the US to face terrorism charges. US and El Salvador officials told InSight Crime that the secret gang pact with the government might have influenced the court's decision to slow-walk the extraditions. Among those accused in a historic indictment were Borromeo Enrique Henríquez, alias "Diablo de Hollywood," who had taken part in gang negotiations with Bukele administration officials.
Guatemala Appears Two-Faced on Anti-Corruption Efforts
The administration of President Alejandro Giammattei presented a tale of two faces when it came to acting on corruption. It was all smiles for US Vice President Kamala Harris when she visited Guatemala in June, and the fight against corruption was high on her agenda. But with his own government linked to alleged graft, Giammattei stayed on the sidelines. Meanwhile, his attorney general dismantled the last vestiges of the country's anti-impunity unit, and political elites undermined the country's top courts.
In one of the more egregious attacks on the justice system, heralded anti-graft prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval was dismissed by Attorney General Consuelo Porras at the end of July. Sandoval is currently exiled in the United States after a court issued a warrant for his arrest for alleged breach of duties and obstruction of justice.
But Sandoval has not gone quietly. Since his dismissal, he has claimed that Porras, his former boss, obstructed investigations, especially those concerning the president's inner circle and allegations the president received a bribe from Russian nationals connected to a mining company seeking to operate in a Guatemalan port. Documents published in August by the newspaper elPeriódico appeared to corroborate Sandoval's account. A memo sent by Porras' office told his investigators with the Special Prosecutor's Office Against Impunity (Fiscalía Especial contra la Impunidad – FECI) to act "respectfully and cordially" when dealing with presidential matters.
Following his dismissal, the former FECI head told InSight Crime that there are "solid elements" to suggest that Giammattei pressured Attorney General Porras to fire him.
Other investigators who worked with Sandoval on high-profile graft probes have had charges brought against them by the Attorney General's Office. In May, authorities arrested two investigators on charges related to a case involving allegedly forged official documents. One of the investigators helped build a landmark corruption case against Guatemala's jailed former president, Otto Pérez Molina, while the other is a key witness in that case.
The US response to Guatemala's actions has centered on sanctioning current and former officials linked to corruption. But with the bulk of sanctions focused on influence-peddling networks targeting the country's high courts, a host of current ministers and sitting top-level officials have emerged unscathed.
Sandoval's firing caused the US State Department to say it was pausing some aid and halting cooperation with the Attorney General's Office. It's not clear whether that continues to be the case. In recent months, Guatemala has tried to reset the table, reiterating its willingness to work with the United States on anti-corruption efforts.
Honduras Says Goodbye to JOH, Hello to Xiomara
There is no love lost between Washington and outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández, whom US prosecutors have repeatedly accused of being involved in drug trafficking and corruption.
In September, Hernández addressed the allegations in a bizarre speech to the UN General Assembly. He said that he hoped that US authorities would not reward perjury – a reference to the parade of witnesses in US drug trials that claimed the president took bribes to protect traffickers and aided his brother's cocaine smuggling ring. Hernández also warned US prosecutors that by placing faith in the testimony of traffickers, they were putting at risk Honduras' anti-narcotics cooperation with the United States.
Prosecutors – usually loath to name sitting presidents in criminal cases – have left no room for doubt that they trust the witnesses. The Honduran president was named 58 times in a sentencing document filed in the case of his brother – Anthony, or Tony, as he is more commonly known – who was convicted of drug charges in 2019. President Hernández "played a leadership role in a violent, state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy," prosecutors alleged in that case.
Voters in Honduras apparently had had enough of Hernandez and his ruling right-wing National Party, which has controlled the country since 2010, often relying on financial support from criminals. In November’s national elections, leftist candidate Xiomara Castro rode a wave of public outrage to win the presidency, promising to end the narco-state.
It wasn't hard for Castro to set herself apart from the National Party, which misused public funds, dismantled anti-graft efforts and instituted reforms that preserved widespread impunity.
But she does not represent a clean break from the past, either. Castro is married to Manuel Zelaya, a leftist former president deposed in a 2009 coup that opened the door National Party rule. According to State Department cables published by Wikileaks, then US ambassador Charles A. Ford claimed Zelaya was closely associated “with persons believed to be involved with international organized crime.”
Castro, of the Libre Party, has promised to clean house. During her final campaign rally in Tegucigalpa, Castro told supporters that a woman president was needed to “manage funds with transparency and to say 'out with the corruption' in Honduras.”
But Honduras is a country where dirty politics is the norm. Mayors have run trafficking rings. High-level officials have siphoned off public funds with impunity. Drug money has infiltrated every level of government.
Castro has pledged to reestablish an anti-corruption commission disbanded during the former government. The Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras - MACCIH) came to a predictable end after making enemies of several legislators when it began to investigate them.
This past year, Honduras' congress has even passed laws favoring corrupt actors. Penal code reforms have left prosecutors hamstrung when pursuing money laundering cases. Sentences for drug and graft crimes have been lowered.
Hondurans want to see change but it won’t be easy, said Maureen Meyer, the vice president for programs at the DC-based Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA).
“How do you rein in this expansion of organized crime since the coup?” she said, referring to the difficult decade following the overthrow of Zelaya.
Nicaragua Uses Justice System to Attack Opposition
Nicaragua President Daniel Ortega secured a fourth consecutive term by weaponizing the justice system to quash his competition. Before elections on November 7, several opposition candidates were arrested on vague charges, including terrorism and money laundering.
Many of the arrested were "held incommunicado" at El Chipote prison, according to an August 3 editorial by Tamara Taraciuk Broner of Human Rights Watch. Other opposition leaders were forced to flee the country.
During the past decade, Ortega has tightened his grip on Nicaragua by bringing the police and the courts under his thumb. This has given him the ability to informally investigate and charge anyone he deems a threat.
The parallel justice system means that top officials and elites can neutralize inconvenient investigations, such as the probe into a cocaine trafficking ring run by nightclub impresario Henry Fariñas. Fariñas' network appeared to reach the highest levels of the police, judiciary and electoral authorities. But any time their complicity became public, officials dismissed the allegations.
Nicaragua's ineffective and partisan justice system has not only threatened the country’s political opposition but has provided a space for organized crime to flourish blindly.
US Anti-corruption Campaign Hits Snags
Before taking office, President Biden promised to take on the "root causes" of corruption in Central America. He has come up against a hard truth: Those roots are deep.
The administration's most visible action was the release of a corruption blacklist for the Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. The list named 55 people, including former presidents, current lawmakers, top judges and business elites, whom the US State Department accuses of corruption, obstructing justice or undermining democracy.
While the list was a shot across the bow, it lacked coherence. Former Honduras President Porfirio "Pepe" Lobo was named for taking bribes from drug traffickers. President Hernández was not, despite US senators having earlier proposed a sanctions bill aimed at Hernández for engaging in a pattern of criminal activities. Members of El Salvador President Nayib Bukele's inner circle appeared, including a chief of staff accused of misusing funds and a legal advisor for undermining democratic processes. However, longtime corrupt political operators such as José Luis Merino and Herbert Saca were absent.
Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat from California, was one of the list's biggest champions, and argued that it has served its purpose. Officials were “very concerned about ending up on the list,” Torres told InSight Crime. Besides ensuring that those on the list have their visas stripped, Torres said, she has been working with the Treasury Department to have assets frozen.
"The biggest failure," Torres said, "is simply not paying attention and allowing the backsliding of democracy and the rule of law."
Torres, the lone member from Central America in Congress, was one of the few US officials to call out the presidents of Northern Triangle countries for malfeasance. Torres drew headlines when she traded barbs on Twitter with President Bukele, who urged Latinos in Torres’ district to not vote for her.
“It doesn’t bother me that they would attack me, but if they are willing to attack an American member of congress, imagine how they would treat their own,” she said.
Torres said that reform in the region would not come just from hardline measures but by engaging in high-level diplomacy on the ground to get these presidents to pay attention.
"I think success for the region looks like re-engaging, where we can bring the three leaders back to the table," Torres said. "It might look like a small step forward, but it's not easy."
Just before the end of the year, Washington took its boldest actions against the Bukele administration. The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on two officials with close ties to the president, accusing them of corruption and having secretly negotiated with the country’s deadly street gangs. Treasury also accused his chief of staff of directing a multi-million dollar corruption scheme involving irregular contracts for the purchase of medical supplies amid the pandemic.
The Biden administration’s plan for Central America suggests creating a regional body modeled on Guatemala’s defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), the anti-graft unit that mounted one of the most successful drives against corruption in the Americas before being shut down in 2019.
Todd Robinson, U.S. Assistant Secretary for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told InSight Crime that President Biden remains committed to such a task force and highlighted recent collaborations in Guatemala. Other successes, Robinson said in an email exchange, were the creation of a corruption tip line, the use of a host of sanctions on corrupt actors, and the training of Honduran prosecutors who ultimately secured the conviction of two high-level officials accused of embezzling from the country’s social security system.
Robinson nonetheless acknowledged that he was concerned with “the justice sector writ large in the region.”
“Our strong preference is to work with governments,” he said. “But to make real inroads, we can’t want this more than them.”
Washington must also contend with continued mass migration to the US southwestern border. The surge in migrants in the past year from Northern Triangle countries and South America poses a challenge for the administration, which would like these governments’ cooperation in policing their borders and blocking migrants heading north.
When Vice President Harris wound up her trip to Guatemala, she aimed her final comments at those would-be migrants thinking about making that dangerous trek to the US-Mexico border.
"Do not come," she said. "Do not come."