5 Ways To Fight Corruption in Latin America

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Corruption has solidified its place at the top of the agenda for policymakers and citizens across Latin America and the Caribbean. Below, InSight Crime explores five proposals that could boost the ability of countries to achieve lasting advances in the fight against graft.

1. Increase Judicial Independence

Achieving judicial independence is crucial for governments in the region that are working to tackle corruption. And the issue has come to the fore recently in Central America, where Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are all set to choose new attorneys general this year.

In Guatemala, as a recent InSight Crime investigation showed, the process of selecting the country’s next top prosecutor was fraught with political manipulation. Corrupt elites maneuvered to advance candidates who seemed unlikely to pursue prosecutions against those who put them in power.

In cases like this, experts say, the process for choosing top judicial officials needs to be reformed to eliminate undue influence from powerful interests.

Crooked elites usually have little incentive to advocate for more judicial independence, since unleashing prosecutors from political constraints could upend graft schemes from which they benefit. In situations like these, one potentially effective workaround is to establish internationally-supported, independent judicial support missions.

Two prominent examples include the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) and the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), supported by the Organization of American States (OAS).

Both of these bodies have achieved important advances by supporting investigations and prosecutions of powerful figures. However, this has generated strong backlash from broad swaths of the elite class. And as CICIG head Iván Velásquez has repeatedly pointed out, such commissions are not a substitute for enacting structural reforms aimed at improving judicial impartiality and efficiency.

2. Emphasize Multilateral Cooperation

Many corruption schemes in Latin America and the Caribbean occur at the local level. But some of the biggest, like the scandal involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, have an international scope. In such cases, it is important for countries to share evidence and coordinate their investigative and prosecutorial efforts.

One of the most dramatic examples of the power of this type of cooperation came earlier this year, when Peru’s then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned under pressure stemming from evidence of ties to the Odebrecht scandal. The South American nation is also seeking the arrest of another former president, Alejandro Toledo, on similar charges.

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Beyond cooperating on specific cases, authorities can benefit from exchanging information about best practices for tackling corruption. Many graft schemes in Latin America and the Caribbean share similar features and confront similar obstacles. Rather than working from scratch, investigators, prosecutors, judges and other officials can share tips on what works.

There has been some movement on this front. In April, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched a “Global Judicial Integrity Network” that aims to “provide a platform for judges to share good practices and lessons learned, and to support each other and join forces in developing new tools and guidelines for strengthening integrity and preventing corruption in the judicial system.”

3. Bring Transparency to Public Contracting

Public contracting is a common vehicle for corruption in Latin America and the Caribbean, in part due to the lack of transparency surrounding bidding processes and the disbursement of public funds. Opening these aspects of government to public scrutiny could help identify and discourage malfeasance.

The principle of openness was included in the anti-corruption framework adopted at this year’s Summit of the Americas. The so-called Lima Commitment calls for “the establishment of an Inter-American Open Data Program … in order to strengthen open information policies and increase the capacity of governments and citizens to prevent and fight corruption.”

But, according to Georg Neumann of the Open Contracting Partnership, increased transparency alone is not a silver bullet.

“Open contracting is not only about publishing the open data and putting it out there, but really finding ways of engaging with citizens and engaging with businesses in how to use this data,” Neumann said at an April event hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue.

To complicate things further, many elites in the region are working to ensure that details about public contracting stay in the shadows. For example, a reform passed earlier this year in Honduras essentially stripped the MACCIH of its ability to investigate the management of public funds.

Still, there are many civil society members and political leaders who believe in the importance of opening the books. At the Inter-American Dialogue event, Paraguayan Finance Minister Lea Giménez said one key way “to improve the management of public finances in the fiscal sense of a country is looking into transparency.”

4. Get Dirty Money Out of Politics

Campaign financing has been at the center of some of the most explosive corruption scandals the region has seen in recent years. And in countries like Mexico, where most political contributions are never reported, it’s virtually certain that equally alarming graft schemes have yet to come to light.

Sometimes dirty campaign cash comes from crime groups seeking to curry favor with decision-makers. Other times it serves as a down payment from elite interests who want public money to flow into their pockets. But in every case, illicit campaign financing undermines democracy and the rule of law.

As with other proposals that could help root out corruption, implementing tighter scrutiny of campaign funding is not something most politicians are likely to favor. Last year in Paraguay, lawmakers even tried to tear down what little regulation existed before public outcry forced them to drop the proposal.

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Neighboring Brazil, on the other hand, has taken some initial steps to try to clean up its electoral process. In 2016, the top court banned corporations from funding any campaigns, in the wake of revelations that some of the country’s biggest companies had for years used political contributions to systematically buy off officials at home and abroad.

There are loopholes that could allow corrupt interests to skirt the ban, since candidates can still receive money from individuals. But the move is a step in the right direction and could serve as a building block for further reforms down the road.

5. Reform Parliamentary and Presidential Immunity

Many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean offer legal protections for government officials accused of crimes. Although these laws are intended to prevent politically motivated witch hunts, in practice they have often helped shield political figures from legitimate investigations and prosecutions.

In Brazil, for example, Congress voted twice to spare President Michel Temer from prosecution on charges that he led a network of corrupt politicians who took bribes in exchange for helping funnel public contracts to a cartel of companies.

Similarly, in Guatemala, congressional allies of President Jimmy Morales blocked the advancement of a probe into allegations that his 2015 campaign took half a million dollars from a drug dealer.

Presidential and parliamentary immunity are not ironclad. In 2015, for example, former Guatemala President Otto Pérez Molina had his immunity stripped, forcing him to resign before he was arrested and put on trial for allegedly leading a massive, mafia-like corruption scheme. However, the other cases mentioned above show how the privilege can stop justice from running its course.

An April vote by Mexico’s Congress to reform the country’s political immunity laws shows that progress is possible, even in countries with deep-seated corruption. But in a sign of how slow-paced further progress will be, the new law says the president can only be tried after a vote in Congress.

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