Former Guatemala president Otto Pérez Molina in custody

As the year closed, the successes and failures of the fight against corruption, impunity and organized crime in the Northern Triangle combine to leave a bitter-sweet taste.

How much of the outrage is left that brought hundreds of thousands of Guatemalans into the streets to protest violence in 2015, and the corruption of then-president Otto Pérez Molina? What momentum remains from the demonstrations in Honduras that demanded a strengthening of its judicial system and investigations into allegations of corruption against President Juan Orlando Hernández and his National Party that same year? And how much of that wave washed across El Salvador? The answer, at least in 2016, was very little.

But judicial reforms and criminal investigations in those three countries, known collectively as the Northern Triangle, continue to etch away at organized crime in the region, one of the world's most violent, corrupt and crime-ridden. To be sure, criminal prosecutions against money laundering, contraband, drug trafficking, and homicides, especially in Guatemala and El Salvador, are beginning to bear fruit in the courtrooms.

At the same time, local elites -- both emerging and traditional -- have not resigned nor stopped undermining efforts to prosecute them. Even the most lauded of supranational efforts in this field came under heavy pressure: the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG), a United Nations-backed appendage of the Guatemalan Attorney General's Office, saw attempts from traditional business and political elites to influence its investigations and destroy its reputation.

Nonetheless, CICIG remains central to these efforts. It is a model that combines internationally funded resources (provided mostly by the United States and the European Union) and international investigators who assist the local Attorney General's Office in Guatemala. The two work together on investigations and develop proposals for legal reforms.

Established in 2007, it wasn't until 2015 that the CICIG really hit the bullseye. Working together, CICIG's Colombian Commissioner Iván Velásquez and Attorney General Thelma Aldana, developed a case against then President Pérez Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti that exposed a decades-old system of state corruption in Guatemala.

To be sure, the CICIG had its battles with elites, that used their charm and their muscle to try to influence what and who the celebrated commission would investigate. However, Guatemala is still the best example of how to fight against corruption in the region. And investigations by the CICIG and Guatemala's Attorney General's Office of Pérez Molina's inner circle are laying bare how deeply organized crime networks have penetrated Guatemala's political system.

One of the cases that best illustrates this penetration is that of Manuel López Bonilla, a retired Lt. Colonel with a close relationship to Pérez Molina. As interior minister during the Pérez Molina administration, López Bonilla enriched himself and his allies, and allegedly struck side deals with drug traffickers to protect them. 

The case of López Bonilla, who was arrested in Guatemala City in July and faces corruption charges in Guatemala, is also an example of how the so-called Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (Cuerpos Ilegales y Aparatos Clandestinos de Seguridad - CIACS), embedded themselves in the state and morphed into something with a wider variety of partners and greater reach, which often included political parties and businessmen.

"They have stripped away the visible faces, but shady characters, which are the ones working behind the scenes, are still operating. This gray zone makes it difficult to completely purge the corrupt state," said activist Helen Mack in a November interview.

The CICIG and its last two attorneys general -- Thelma Aldana and her predecessor, Claudia Paz y Paz -- have kept up the spirit of the Guatemalan spring. They didn't just investigate and prosecute major criminal actors most closely connected to political power and the business elite, but also began to reshape the Attorney General's Office, which is now capable of launching its own complex investigations.

Despite the impact that the CICIG has had since 2007 (and above all in the last two years), the experiment is still fragile. Analysts and activists of the anti-corruption campaign all say that corruption and crime continue to be embedded in the very heart of the Guatemalan state.

"They have stripped away the visible faces, but shady characters, which are the ones working behind the scenes, are still operating. This gray zone makes it difficult to completely purge the corrupt state," said activist Helen Mack in a November interview.

The CICIG is also, by definition, temporary. The renewal of its mandate depends on political pressure, as does the designation of a trustworthy attorney general and, for that matter, honest high court judges. As long as political power remains at the service of criminal interests, the spring continues to rely on pressure from citizens, foreign governments and multilaterals. The good news is that Guatemala has already witnessed what this pressure can achieve.

 

IMAGE-DOWNLOAD-GAMECHANGERS

 

In fact, CICIG's success, and US support of this model, has intensified efforts to go after organized crime and corruption in El Salvador and Honduras. In the Salvadoran case, change came in late 2015, when attempts by the country's political elite to re-elect Luis Martínez as attorney general failed. In his place, congress selected Douglas Meléndez, who quickly accepted political and technical assistance from the United States. And with money and counsel from Washington DC, Meléndez launched the Special Group against Impunity (GECI), a smaller-scale, wholly national CICIG.

"The issue of impunity has been around [in El Salvador] and it will continue to exist. You can't block out the sun with one finger," Meléndez said during a presentation of GECI in a teleconference transmitted from El Salvador to Washington, DC.

The Meléndez era has led to El Salvador's own kind of spring -- chilly, but still hopeful. Meléndez has investigated the last three presidents (two from ARENA and one from the FMLN) for embezzlement and corruption, and filed charges against former presidents Mauricio Funes and Antonio Saca (the latter is in custody awaiting trial) in these cases. He has also targeted Enrique Rais, a businessman who is also being investigated by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Martínez, his predecessor and the attorney general that the political parties wanted to re-elect.

But the wind is still blowing hard against Meléndez.In El Salvador, President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has opposed the presence of a supranational body since his administration began in 2014. Members of his Farabundo Martí Front for National Liberation (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional - FMLN) party have even called such a model "interventionist." Officials from both the FMLN and the right-wing opposition, the Republican Nationalist Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista - ARENA), have also fought to maintain a weak Attorney General's Office and continue to underfund it.

From the beginning, Meléndez has also received threats and pressure from political actors and people related to organized crime. "I should mention another concern of mine, which is the intention of groups outside the institution to interfere in cases involving corruption and probity, in ongoing investigations or future investigations," Meléndez wrote to six US Congress members last April.

Despite these constraints, Meléndez-- who has two years left in his term -- has begun a process that could lead to more effective ways of combating corruption and organized crime in El Salvador. But, as it is in Guatemala, the old criminal practices are so entrenched that this promises to be, at the very least, an uphill struggle.

For its part, Honduras decided on a model similar to Guatemala's: the Support Mission against Corruption in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción en Honduras - MACCIH), part of the Organization of American States (OEA). It began operating in early April. Its creation was prompted by the government's inability to take effective measures against corruption in cases such as that of the Honduran Social Security Institute (Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social - IHSS), in which an estimated $330 million was embezzled. Authorities are still investigating if some of this money went into the coffers of the governing party and possibly the political campaign of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

Currently, MACCIH is focusing on legal reforms that give greater power to the judicial system and the prosecutors' office. However, since the beginning of its mandate, the mission has faced a number of significant political obstacles that have limited its effectiveness, and is being lobbied by the presidential palace and parts of the security forces to tone down its efforts. What's more, the systematic blockade of the mission's legislative proposals exposed the inability of Honduran institutions to confront corruption, even with the assistance of the MACCIH.

One of MACCIH's most visible efforts has been to support a special commission on police reform. Honduras police are known for corruption and close ties to organized crime and street gangs. The commission, which began in April, aims to purge the police, whose highest officials have been linked to criminal cases.

The effort has had success, but it has also been plagued by controversy, threats and, most recently, violence. On December 15, after the commission took the decision to remove more than 400 police officers, pastor Jorge Machado, one of the commission members, was attacked by gunmen. Although he survived the shooting, one of his government-assigned bodyguards died.

Other cases have also unsettled reform efforts in Honduras, most notably the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres earlier this year. The case has been linked to officials from a company that is building a hydroelectric dam, since Cáceres and others had been trying to block the project. 

Cáceres' killing provoked international outrage, and led the US Congress to pass the Berta Cáceres Act, which aims to block $18 million that Honduras could receive in security assistance until the case is resolved. The European Investment Bank also withdrew its funding of about $39 million for an electrical project in western Honduras.

However, while authorities have captured the alleged perpetrators of the murder -- which includes active and retired military personnel -- the intellectual authors of her murder remain at large. Evidence indicates that they could belong to one of the most powerful families in the country, but there is little to suggest that a prosecution of any suspected intellectual authors will happen soon. 

"The issue of impunity has been around [in El Salvador] and it will continue to exist. You can't block out the sun with one finger," said El Salvador Attorney General Douglas Meléndez.

In November of this year, the country was also rocked by the capture of drug lord Wilter Blanco in Costa Rica. Blanco is the alleged leader of the Atlantic Cartel, a little-known group that works with military, police and corrupt officials. He has had an indictment against him in the United States since 1999. The capture of Blanco, who faces extradition to the United States, promises to open a Pandora's Box that may reach Hernández and his family.

Other ambitious reform efforts remain on stand-by. The MACCIH has tried to modify the law to make corruption an extraditable crime. The attorney general agrees with the proposal, but, not surprisingly, congress does not.

The arrival of the MACCIH and increased coordination between the attorney general and the US government is a big step towards changing Honduras' balance of power. The role of the US embassy had been crucial throughout this process. MACCIH has also exerted pressure on the presidential palace regarding some high-level cases. It remains to be seen, however, whether other state institutions will join the fight against corruption and impunity in Honduras.

Despite the setbacks, these anti-corruption efforts in the Northern Triangle were GameChangers in 2016. The US government agrees. A group of US congressmen recently qualified the progress in the region as "excellent." 

In the coming year, the region promises to remain one of the most violent in the world but hope springs eternal as it relates to impunity. The protests that flooded plazas and streets in Guatemala and Honduras in 2015 have faded, but the outrage they expressed has brought changes to the way local prosecutors pursue complex crimes and their ability to connect organized crime with local political elites.

There was less public protest in El Salvador, where a politically polarized populace steered clear of marches. But cries for an independent press and a justice system that dares to pursue corruption at the highest levels by going after the country's last three former presidents has breathed life into that nation as well.

It's still too early to know what will happen in Central America. The public attacks by politicians and businessmen on the CICIG in Guatemala and the Salvadoran attorney general, as well as attempts by Honduran elites to preserve the status quo and minimize MACCIH, show that the elites will not give up their power easily.

But jailing high level officials, exposing corrupt networks, and targeting big businessmen give hope that the cold winter of impunity and rampant corruption is turning the region towards a warm breeze of spring.

Investigations

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