US Congress Approves Continued Monitoring of Central America Graft

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On May 24, the US House of Representatives approved an amendment to strengthen anti-graft measures in Central America, the latest in a string of political messages to officials investigated for corruption and illicit enrichment in Central America’s Northern Triangle region.

The unanimously approved amendment was included in the annual National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) and requires the US Defense Secretary to create a list of the government officials in the Northern Triangle nations of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador who have been involved in “grand corruption” or who have received election campaign funds from drug traffickers or other criminal groups.

Rep. Norma Torres (D-Calif.), who was born in Guatemala, penned the legislation. In an interview with InSight Crime at the end of April 2018, she said she thought it was necessary to push the reform package because “there are people who are hindering the anti-corruption agenda.”

“Let’s see who these [corrupt] people are. Let’s see why they’re doing it. Let’s see if they have connections to drug or human trafficking … I’m trying to prevent [reductions in aid] and saying, let’s not punish all those countries because there are people who are working to improve the conditions,” Torres told InSight Crime.

According to the congresswoman, there are more and more voices in Washington on both sides of the aisle in favor of reducing or eliminating aid to countries like those in the Northern Triangle because they do not see “a real intention [to fight corruption], or the progress they expected.”

The bill requires the Pentagon and the Director of National Intelligence to give the list of officials who are corrupt or have ties to organized crime to several congressional committees no later than 180 days after the bill’s approval, which will be before the end of 2018.

According to Torres’ amendment, the list must include “the names of senior government officials in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador who are known to have committed or facilitated acts of grand corruption or narcotics trafficking” as well as elected officials in the same countries “who are known to have received campaign funds that are the proceeds of narco-trafficking or other illicit activities in the last 2 years.”

It is not clear what type of sanctions the officials named on the list would be subject to. Torres said that the decision is in “the power of Congress, but we should at least know who [the corrupt ones] are.”

The amendment is the latest in a series of messages from US political powers in recent months to the Northern Triangle’s heads of state who have faced accusations or even formal investigations for acts of corruption and illicit enrichment. However, it is also very likely that such messages will get lost in the often erratic and inconsistent communication from Washington since President Donald Trump took office.

InSight Crime Analysis

The political crises generated in the Northern Triangle by the severe corruption attributed to presidents and other government officials has only worsened in recent months, especially in Guatemala and Honduras.

In Guatemala, President Jimmy Morales has been confronting the country’s Attorney General’s Office and its United Nations-backed appendage, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG). In 2017, both entities accused him of receiving illicit electoral financing during his electoral campaign in 2015.

The confrontation, which has marked Guatemalan politics in recent years, took a dramatic turn when Morales demanded the departure of CICIG head Iván Velásquez, and more recently Swedish Ambassador Anders Kompass. Sweden is one of the main financiers of the international commission.

In addition, the so-called Bitkov case has brought the clash to Washington, DC. The complicated plot involves a Russian family detained in Guatemala for purchasing false passports, a tycoon who accuses the Attorney General’s Office and CICIG of persecuting that family by order of Russian President Vladimir Putin, and two Republican senators — Marco Rubio and Chris Smith — who have questioned Guatemala’s anti-corruption fight.

In a May 4 letter to President Morales, Sen. Rubio even announced that he was temporarily halting the release of $6 million in funding that US Congress had approved for the CICIG.

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The hostile exchanges have led to rebuttals from Rep. Torres and Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT). Both legislators understand that mechanisms such as international investigative commissions and cooperation to strengthen prosecutors in the region have helped to set up legal cases practically unheard of in Central America in the past. And evidence to support their positions is growing as these investigations have now reached several former presidents and powerful politicians in the region.

After the approval of the new measures in her amendment, Torres said in a press release that she sees it as a way of supporting the region’s prosecutors.

The situation in Honduras, however, is shaping up to be even more convoluted than that of Guatemala. It has to do with control mechanisms that US Congress has already approved, including certifications in the Alliance for Prosperity plan created during the administration of former US President Barack Obama. The plan puts conditions on aid disbursement for the advancement of anti-corruption and anti-crime efforts.

In 2017, however, the effectiveness of these certifications came into question. The US State Department approved the release of aid to Honduras, certifying that its government had been “fighting corruption and supporting human rights” in the aftermath of a severely contested election marred by fraud allegations that saw President Juan Orlando Hernández assume office for a second term.

Although legislative measures such as those recently approved have given a voice to nascent efforts to tie the hands of corrupt officials, Washington’s contradictory messages raise doubts about their real effectiveness.

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