The CPI map shows little joy for Latin America

The annual release of the global Corruption Perceptions Index is rarely good news for Latin America. Except for a handful of standout nations, the region consistently performs poorly, with all but six mainland Latin American countries appearing in the bottom half of the table this year. But what do the 18 years of the index tell us about the state of corruption in Latin America?

Published every year since 1995 by NGO Transparency International, the Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) compiles results from independent surveys by NGOs to estimate how corrupt the public sectors of different countries are. Over the years the CPI has grown in scope, originally ranking 41 nations but in 2013 including 177.

In a 2012 independent assessment of Transparency International's methodology (pdf download), the European Commission concluded the CPI was "appealing for reasons of transparency and replicability, it is also conceptually and statistically coherent and with a balanced structure," as well as saying, "the CPI can efficiently differentiate the level of corruption between countries, unlike some sources where a large number of countries is assessed at the same level of corruption."

corruptionWhile the concept of assessing perceptions comes with its own pitfalls, according to Transparency International's Regional Coordinator for the Americas Max Heywood it's the best method available, given the difficulty of assessing corruption itself.

"Methodologically it's practically impossible to measure actual cases of corruption," explains Heywood. "You could do things that look at judicial cases… but then what it possibly could just mean is that you have an effective justice system that's being very active against corruption."

According to Heywood, the accuracy of the CPI is outlined by the fact many of the trends match patterns seen in other studies, such as those of the Global Corruption Barometer, a study of citizen's corruption perceptions produced every two years by Transparency International.

Since 1995, Latin America's inclusion has risen from six nations to all mainland countries except Belize, as well as the most populated and some smaller Caribbean nations.  For the purpose of this regional overview, InSight Crime compiled the historical results of all countries in North, South and Central America, as well as all Caribbean nations and territories with a population exceeding one million (see table). For comparison, the rating system used up to 2011 -- with a maximum score of ten -- has been converted to the current system, with a maximum score of 100.

Overall the table highlights remarkable continuity throughout the region, which -- given the low scores -- essentially marks a failure to effectively address corruption over almost two decades.

One of the most notable changes is the rise of Uruguay from the middle of the region's pack when it first appeared in 1997, to Latin America's best performer, now on par with the United States. The country's rating leapt up in 2006 -- the year after the left-leaning Frente Amplio coalition swept to power -- and has continued to rise almost every year since. The Frente Amplio is generally seen as a transparent political machine, gaining the trust of the people to the point that it has recently managed to push through policies and legislation the majority of citizens are opposed to, yet still remain the front runner for elections next year.

A similar, albeit less profound, shift is notable in Ecuador, which has registered year-on-year improvements since 2008 -- the year after incumbent President Rafael Correa came to power. While its current score of 35 still points to endemic corruption, Correa brought an end to a period of flux which saw seven presidents lead the country in just ten years.

When analyzing what sets apart the Latin American countries that have consistently sat atop the regional chart -- namely Uruguay, Chile and Costa Rica -- a notable pattern is the relative absence of organized crime compared to elsewhere in the region. While there have been signs that dynamic is changing, particularly in Chile and Costa Rica, none of them have traditionally been drug producing or exporting nations and only Costa Rica -- almost always the lowest of the three -- has historically witnessed significant drug transiting, as product passes through from South America on its way towards the United States.

The relationship between organized crime and corruption is impossible to overstate and goes some way towards explaining why Latin America's corruption ratings have largely remained static. Without corrupt officials facilitating its activities, organized crime would not be able to survive.

Due to its geographical location, Central America, home to some of the CPI's worst performers in the region, is a hub of drug trafficking and beset by criminal groups. In the face of weak economies and state institutions, drug trafficking organizations have historically acted with impunity to transport contraband through the isthmus, buying the loyalty of underpaid officials along the way.

Even access to significant funding seemingly offers no remedy to corruption, as demonstrated by the cases of Mexico and Colombia -- mainland Latin America's major beneficiaries of US aid. Despite receiving billions of dollars in assistance since the turn of the century, neither has seen a significant change in its corruption rating since the CPI began. With much of that aid directed at combatting the groups responsible for the drug flow, the failure to see a marked change in corruption is perhaps an illustration of what many commentators have begun to call the "failure of the 'war on drugs.'"

However, while organized crime undoubtedly plays a significant part, it would be naïve to ignore the role of history in the region's corruption landscape. Built on political systems skewed towards the needs of powerful oligarchies, which in many places continue to wield significant economic and political power today, corruption has permeated the region far longer than the drugs trade and would likely persist even in the face of organized crime's demise.  

Investigations

  • 1
  • 2
  • 3
  • 4
  • 5
  • 6
  • 7
  • 8
  • 9
  • 10
Prev Next

'Chepe Luna,' the Police and the Art of Escape

'Chepe Luna,' the Police and the Art of Escape

The United States -- which through its antinarcotics, judicial and police attaches was very familiar with the routes used for smuggling, and especially those used for people trafficking and understood that those traffickers are often one and the same -- greeted the new government of Elias Antonio...

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

The FARC 1964-2002: From Ragged Rebellion to Military Machine

On May 27, 1964 up to one thousand Colombian soldiers, backed by fighter planes and helicopters, launched an assault against less than fifty guerrillas in the tiny community of Marquetalia. The aim of the operation was to stamp out once and for all the communist threat in...

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 Leader 'Viejo Lin' on El Salvador Gang Truce

Barrio 18 leader Carlos Lechuga Mojica, alias "El Viejo Lin," is one of the most prominent spokesmen for El Salvador's gang truce. InSight Crime co-director Steven Dudley spoke with Mojica in Cojutepeque prison in October 2012 about how the maras view the controversial peace process, which has...

The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador's Police

The Infiltrators: Corruption in El Salvador's Police

Ricardo Mauricio Menesses Orellana liked horses, and the Pasaquina rodeo was a great opportunity to enjoy a party. He was joined at the event -- which was taking place in the heart of territory controlled by El Salvador's most powerful drug transport group, the Perrones -- by the...

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

Criminalization of FARC Elements Inevitable

While there is no doubt that the FARC have only a tenuous control over some of their more remote fronts, there is no evidence of any overt dissident faction within the movement at the moment.

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

Ivan Rios Bloc: the FARC's Most Vulnerable Fighting Division

When considering the possibilities that the FARC may break apart, the Ivan Rios Bloc is a helpful case study because it is perhaps the weakest of the FARC's divisions in terms of command and control, and therefore runs the highest risk of fragmentation and criminalization.

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC and the Drug Trade: Siamese Twins?

The FARC have always had a love-hate relationship with drugs. They love the money it brings, funds which have allowed them to survive and even threaten to topple the state at the end of the 1990s. They hate the corruption and stigma narcotics have also brought to...

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

MS-13's 'El Barney': A Trend or an Isolated Case?

In October 2012, the US Treasury Department designated the Mara Salvatrucha (MS-13) as a transnational criminal organization (TCO). While this assertion seems unfounded, there is one case that illustrates just why the US government is worried about the future.

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

The Reality of the FARC Peace Talks in Havana

If we are to believe the Colombian government, the question is not if, but rather when, an end to 50 years of civil conflict will be reached. Yet the promise of President Juan Manuel Santos that peace can be achieved before the end of 2014 is simply...

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

The FARC 2002-Present: Decapitation and Rebirth

In August 2002, the guerrillas of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) greeted Colombia's new president with a mortar attack that killed 14 people during his inauguration. The attack was intended as a warning to the fiercely anti-FARC newcomer. But it became the opening salvo of...