Countries in Latin America and the Caribbean are stagnating in their struggle with corruption, with most unable or unwilling to challenge robust criminal networks that profit from longstanding graft, a major new report has shown.
Transparency International's Corruption Perceptions Index 2022 (CPI), which ranks 180 countries based on perceptions of corruption within their public institutions, showed a generally static landscape in Latin America. Uruguay remained the runaway best performer, ranked above plenty of developed economies. The Dominican Republic's anti-corruption drive showed some positive results, but Haiti, Venezuela, and Nicaragua remained dark spots.
Latin America's overall "corruption score" was unchanged from 2021, but 163 places in the ranking separate the best, Uruguay, from the worst, Venezuela.
According to Transparency International, stagnation is a recurring theme in this year's report.
"In the Americas, 27 out of 32 countries have been at a standstill in the fight against corruption for several years. It is necessary to make better use of technology, strengthen collaboration between regional prosecutors, and implement more forceful measures to stop illicit financial flows," Transparency International's regional advisor for the Americas, Luciana Torchiaro, told InSight Crime.
InSight Crime investigates some of the most important takeaways from CPI's findings in terms of criminal dynamics.
Haiti – Corruption Rampant Amid Security Collapse
Haiti, which has been mired in political unrest and institutional collapse following the assassination of its president in 2021, fell six places this year, putting it at position 171 of 180 nations assessed worldwide.
Corruption was the country's primary source of illicit proceeds, ahead of crimes such as drug trafficking, human trafficking, and human smuggling, according to the 2021 report published by Global Financial Integrity, a US-based think tank focused on financial crime.
Haiti's politicians and police have long maintained close connections to armed gangs, including financing them to repress political opposition. But international sanctions targeting some of Haiti's best-known leaders provided more details about such networks in 2022. Former president Michel Martelly was the most prominent figure to be sanctioned by Canada for allegedly financing the gangs. Others targeted by the United States and Canada included two former prime ministers and senior figures in both houses of Haiti's National Assembly.
"These people directly benefit from the work of the gangs and are associated with a corrupt system," said Canadian Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly last November.
While much of Haiti's traditional political leadership has left office, there are continuing attempts to profit from the current deterioration. Haiti's richest person, Gilbert Bigio, is under suspicion of financing gang operations and allowing the illegal imports of heavy weapons for armed groups.
Rampant corruption in Haiti has contributed greatly to its current predicament, with tens of thousands seeking to flee the country.
Perception of the country, internally and worldwide, may be at an all-time low, making it all the more concerning it was not the worst-performing country on the list from Latin America and the Caribbean.
SEE ALSO: What are the Most Corrupt Countries in Latin America?
Venezuela - Criminal Fiefdoms Aid Spread of Corruption
Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro has reinvented himself. He has overcome attempts to overthrow him, disproved allegations of political weakness, and survived international sanctions. He now stands as Venezuela's "criminal kingmaker," as InSight Crime named him in 2022.
Maduro has made a show of persistently going after corrupt officials, military and police officers, and members of the judiciary through his mano de hierro (iron fist) operations. But these have been very select operations avoiding his loyalists, conducted even as he has offered government and military postings to political allies and opponents to better secure his power.
Gold mining and the cocaine trade in particular have been useful for Maduro to buy loyalty, allowing the military to take a cut from these criminal economies to supplement their poor salaries, or allowing state governors to receive pay-offs to keep shipments moving. At a smaller scale, these governors act like Maduro in their regions, monitoring and cashing in on lucrative criminal economies. Such criminal fiefdoms have doubtless worsened Venezuelans' perception of corruption in their country.
And now, Venezuela is becoming a growing cocaine producer, a trend that may give Maduro and his cronies even more corruption opportunities. Venezuela's economy is also beginning to improve. Oil production is purring back to life, while diplomatic relations and trade have been restored with Colombia. While the kleptocracy that once marked the regime under Hugo Chávez has largely gone amid a bankrupt state, new opportunities may present themselves as oil earnings increase.
Costa Rica - Central America's Once-Star Pupil Stumbles
Costa Rica, which received its second-lowest rating ever, saw the most significant drop of any country in the region. It fell four points, and nine places, compared with 2021. It is now deemed to have "serious corruption issues."
Torchiaro explained that allegations of illegal political financing influenced the drop during President Rodrigo Chaves' election campaign and the exposure of corruption scandals like the Cochinilla case, which involved the alleged misappropriation of $125 million of public funds, as well as a bribery scheme involving government officials and construction executives.
"The CPI score should be considered by the authorities as a warning. The country needs to redouble its anti-corruption efforts, especially to prevent the possible penetration of drug trafficking in politics," Torchiaro told InSight Crime.
There are concerns about criminal penetration in the police force as well. Officers have been linked to cocaine robberies, which are growing more frequent as greater quantities of the drug flow through Costa Rica. In an unusual move, the government announced in October that it would begin using polygraph tests to weed out dishonest cops.
The ranking also confirmed other news that showed Costa Rica had a lousy year in 2022, during which it saw a record level of homicides, which the government blamed on score-settling between drug gangs.
Costa Rica remains among the least corrupt countries in Latin America, but a decline in the strength and transparency of its public institutions is a worrying sign.
SEE ALSO: GameChangers 2022: Maduro Seeks to Be Venezuela’s Criminal Kingmaker
Uruguay - Improvement Despite Corruption Scandals
Uruguay tested its position at the top of Latin American rankings on the CPI list in 2022. President Luis Lacalle Pou has faced a firestorm of criticism due to the case against the former head of his personal guard, Alejandro Astesiano. The latter was initially arrested for selling counterfeit Uruguayan passports to foreigners, mostly Russians. But investigations against him have grown, including a serious allegation that he sold government software to business leaders, who used it to keep tabs on political opponents.
In parallel, Lacalle Pou has battled claims that officials within the foreign and interior ministries helped Uruguay's most notorious drug trafficker, Sebastián Marset, get a new passport when he was arrested overseas.
Despite these cases, Uruguay maintained its regional leadership position in the ranking and even improved its performance. Ranked as the fourteenth least-corrupt country globally, it is now on par with the likes of Canada, Iceland, and Japan.
The reason for its performance likely lies in the fact that its security and judicial institutions appear to have responded strongly to these challenges. The case against Astesiano has developed rapidly and publicly, with a parliamentary committee set up to investigate if any further misdoings happened within the presidential palace. Opposition senators also proposed a bill that would see corrupt politicians face a ten-year prison sentence if caught.
However, its lofty position comes with a caveat, as the index only ranks countries according to levels of perceived perception within the public sector and does not include an analysis of issues such as organized crime activities, tax evasion, or money laundering.
The future of these cases may heavily affect Uruguay's place at the head of the pack.
*Gavin Voss contributed to reporting for this article.