Northern Triangle Attorneys General Facing Setbacks in Fight Against Corruption

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In just under two months, the president of Guatemala will appoint a new attorney general. Before the end of the year, the congresses of El Salvador and Honduras will do the same. But as these selection processes take place, the commitment of all three governments to anti-corruption drives, led by the attorneys general, is being severely questioned.

In Guatemala, the Attorney General’s Office has taken a leading role in pursuing corruption cases involving influential business leaders, political party members and other elites. The prosecutor’s office has even requested a preliminary hearing against current president Jimmy Morales, so he can answer accusations of illicit electoral campaign financing.

Among other actions, the Attorney General’s Office, with support from the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), has also opened investigations into ex-President Álvaro Arzú, now serving as mayor of the capital and one of the most powerful politicians in the country. The investigations carried out by the Attorney General’s Office-CICIG team recently led to the successful imprisonment of former President Álvaro Colom for his alleged involvement in a corruption scheme related to public transport.

Since last February, a committee made up of university deans, members of the country’s national bar association and the president of its Supreme Court have been working together to produce a list of six finalists from which President Morales will appoint the replacement for current Attorney General Thelma Aldana, who is investigating him and others.

Analysts and diplomats in Guatemala consulted by InSight Crime agree that the candidate selection committee — which is formally known as the postulation commission — can be infiltrated by political and organized crime groups, just as it has happened in the past.

“All sectors involved in some illicit activity have an intention to prevent any sort of progress in this country,” Iván Velásquez, CICIG commissioner and an Aldana ally, told InSight Crime in February.

            SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Some see the selection of Aldana’s successor as a major breaking point in a series of anti-corruption activities that have been intensifying since 2015, following a series of mass demonstrations throughout the country demanding the resignation of Otto Pérez Molina. The former president was imprisoned as a result of the investigations conducted by the Attorney General’s Office for his involvement in a corruption scheme with the country’s customs office.

“In 2015 the country began a transformation propelled by the whole of its society … For this process to advance and not risk losing what it has already accomplished, citizens must monitor the process for the selection of the next attorney general,” states an open letter from the Citizen’s Front Against Corruption (Frente Ciudadano contra la Corrupción), presented two weeks ago in a hotel in Guatemala. This coalition is made up of millionaire businessmen, students, non-governmental organizations and some indigenous leaders.

Divided Opinions in El Salvador

In El Salvador, the newly elected Legislative Assembly, in which the right-wing opposition will have a majority, must choose the successor of current Attorney General Douglas Meléndez before the end of the year.

Meléndez came into office at the end of 2015, to replace Luis Martínez, who is currently in prison facing accusations of corruption dating back to when he held the position.

Opinion about Meléndez in El Salvador is divided, essentially along party lines: leftist government officials from the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (Frente Farabundo Martí para la Liberación Nacional – FMLN) accuse him of prioritizing investigations that harm them and of being soft with former opposition officials. Meléndez, however, has conducted illicit enrichment investigations against both Mauricio Funes, of the FMLN, and Antonio Saca, from the opposition Nationalist Republican Alliance (Alianza Republicana Nacionalista – ARENA).

Meléndez has been criticized for failing to secure firm convictions in the courts, for using anti-gang procedures to court the media, and for not using the attorney general’s muscle to effectively investigate cases of extrajudicial executions attributed to police.

According to an analysis by El Faro in El Salvador, the new right-wing majority in the legislature may be willing to re-elect Meléndez, which would give him three more years to deepen the superficial changes that began in 2016, when he assumed leadership of the prosector’s office marked by organized crime infiltration during Luis Martínez’s tenure.

In El Salvador’s case, Congress elects the attorney general with a qualified majority, i.e. two-thirds of 84 elected deputies.

The Honduras Government’s Anticipated Play

In Honduras, the government of Juan Orlando Hernández (who was sworn in for a second term in 2018 after a bitterly contested election marred by allegations of electoral fraud) seems to be behind an attempt to accelerate the election of the attorney general, scheduled for September. The current attorney general, Oscar Chinchilla, ruled out his re-election via an announcement on social media.

According to an article by La Prensa, most of the proposed candidates for Chinchilla’s replacement are close to the president.

The election of the new attorney general in Honduras will also take place in the shadow of the recent resignation of Juan Jiménez Mayor, head of the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) – an international body backed by the Organization of American States (Organización de Estados Americanos – OEA), which has supported the Attorney General’s Office on investigations into local politicians’ alleged links with drug trafficking organizations.

Complaints against Chinchilla have emerged, accusing him of not making sufficient progress on investigations directly involving the president, such as one for siphoning funds from the Honduras Social Security Institute (Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social – IHSS) into Hernández’s 2013 campaign.

Members of congress sent a letter to the United States Congress calling for transparency in the process of selection of attorneys general in the northern triangle countries.

Honduran law establishes that 30 days before the end of the attorney general’s term, the Supreme Court must call together an extra-governmental committee called a “proposal group” (“junta proponente”) to send a list of five candidates to Congress, which must elect one of them by qualified majority (85 votes). Supreme Court leaders and the majority in Congress are political allies of President Hernández.

InSight Crime Analysis

The selection of the new attorneys general in the Northern Triangle will represent a new chapter in the attempts to improve the fight against corruption and impunity by strengthening the state offices responsible for pursuing these crimes.

In all three countries, these offices have had very low profiles and have been co-opted by political and economic elites historically involved with networks of corruption and organized crime.

In Guatemala, the arrival of the CICIG in 2007 — through an agreement signed by the UN and the executive and ratified by Congress — spurred a slow transition within the Attorney General’s Office. The first fruits of its labor was the arrival of then-Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, and has continued to reach new heights during Thelma Aldana’s time in office.

In these two periods, the Attorney General’s Office has hit organized crime, drug trafficking, and corruption structures that had previously enjoyed almost complete impunity.

The arrival of Meléndez to the Salvadoran Attorney General’s Office and Chinchilla to that of Honduras have also generated, albeit more modest, advances that have made it possible to prosecute political mafias, including cases against three former presidents between the two countries, the investigation of a former first lady, and the extraditions of several members of drug trafficking organizations.

The year 2018 started out with an onslaught of political and economic elites threatened in all three Northern Triangle countries. “Anti-corruption efforts have broad popular support in the region, but reactions from elites cast some doubt about whether they can be sustained,” InSight Crime wrote in January.

The election of the three new attorneys general in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador will undoubtedly mark the future of these anti-corruption efforts: attorneys general who do not stand up to criminal elites will inevitably end up being weakened, while those who maintain their independence will be able to continue to make strides against what has become one of the most violent and corrupt regions of the world.

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