U.S. Anti-Corruption Drive Faces Bleak Prospects in Central America

Visiting Guatemala on her first foreign trip as vice president, Kamala Harris pledged to tackle corruption as a root cause of U.S.-bound migration.

Vice President Kamala Harris waves with Guatemala's Minister of Foreign Affairs Pedro Brolo on arrival in Guatemala City, on June 6, 2021, at Guatemalan Air Force Central Command.
U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris with Guatemala’s minister of foreign affairs, Pedro Brolo, on arrival in Guatemala City on June 6, 2021. Photo: Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Aníbal Argüello was not due in court until next year. During his time working on high-profile corruption cases with the now-defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, he analyzed wiretap and email evidence at the heart of a major graft case that brought down a sitting president and much of his administration in 2015. The trial has finally been set for January, and Argüello is expected to be a key expert witness for the prosecution.

Instead, Argüello was arrested last month. So was Juan Francisco Solórzano Foppa, a former tax chief and prominent anti-corruption advocate who previously worked in criminal analysis in the prosecutor’s office. Together with several others, they face charges related to alleged irregularities in a notarial act concerning the formation of a new political party. The case is widely seen as an example of the increasing use of lawfare against key figures and institutions in the fight against corruption in Guatemala.

After more than two weeks in custody, Argüello appeared in court for a preliminary hearing last week. “What is the goal of attacking me in this case, using the charges the prosecutor’s office is using against me? It is to undermine my participation as an expert witness,” Argüello told the judge. He was back in court for a continuation of the hearing Monday morning, while U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris was meeting with Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei just over a mile away in the national palace.

Joe Biden’s administration has pledged to tackle corruption in northern Central America as one of the root causes of U.S.-bound migration, and Harris highlighted the issue during her visit to Guatemala. Anti-corruption “has been one of our highest priorities here,” Harris told reporters at a joint press conference following the bilateral meeting. “The United States will create an anti-corruption task force, the first of its kind. Our Justice Department, our Treasury Department, and our State Department will work together to conduct investigations and train local law enforcement to conduct their own.” In Guatemala, the task force will provide capacity-building and mentorship for local prosecutors, according to the White House. The news was not altogether a surprise. Ricardo Zúñiga, special envoy for the region, had floated the idea in an April press briefing.

With backsliding on the rule of law and judicial independence in Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, however, the prospects for success are not promising. U.S. concerns over setbacks in the region have largely been met with indifference and even defiance, and individual sanctions against local officials do not appear to be deterring others. The Guatemalan government is officially on board with the new U.S. task force, but what anti-corruption efforts remain in the country are under perpetual siege.


“Corruption Generates Migration,” reads a sign held by retired X-ray technician José García at a protest on June 6, 2021, in Guatemala City.

Photo: Sandra Cuffe

Consolidating Power

José García was not very optimistic about Harris’s visit. “It is not going to change anything much,” García, a retired X-ray technician, told The Intercept at an anti-corruption rally Saturday in Guatemala City’s central plaza. Organized crime and corruption have already captured the Guatemalan state, he said. “When politicians take office, they almost all get there to steal. They do not concern themselves with the well-being of citizens. They only worry about themselves.”

García has been attending anti-corruption rallies for years, and he always brings a sign. During mass protests in 2015, they were handwritten on cardboard, but he recently found a supportive print shop that will print his designs on vinyl at low cost. “Corruption Generates Migration” was the message on his latest sign. “Corruption sets off a big chain of consequences for the country,” García said. It exacerbates inequality, he added, and siphons funding away from job creation, basic services, and development, contributing to people leaving.


How an Army of Trolls Protects Guatemala’s Corrupt Elite

The most populous country in Central America, with close to 18 million inhabitants, Guatemala has seen the departure of more migrants and asylum-seekers to the U.S. southern border in recent years than any other country in the region. After Mexico, it is the most important transit country and home to increasing border externalization as the U.S. continues to push governments to stop northbound migrants and asylum-seekers en route. But its position as the key U.S. partner in northern Central America is by default, due to the political landscape in Honduras and El Salvador.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was an unindicted co-conspirator in a U.S. federal court case against his brother, who was sentenced to life in prison in March for drug trafficking and weapons charges. The U.S. continues to work with Hernández despite the Justice Department’s evidence against him but has stepped back from publicly highlighting joint anti-narcotics efforts. Hernández will not be on the ballot this November and his term ends next January.

In El Salvador, there is massive popular support for President Nayib Bukele despite his increasingly authoritarian tendencies. The ruling party now controls the legislative assembly, which ousted the attorney general and the Constitutional Court’s judges in its first session on May 1 and ushered in politically aligned replacements. Bukele has responded to U.S. rebukes with open defiance and opted instead to strengthen relations with China.

“A primary concern is the use of the state apparatus for financial gain.”

“A primary concern [in El Salvador] is the use of the state apparatus for financial gain,” said Hazel Contreras, the El Salvador-based regional coordinator for Central America of Alianza Americas, a transnational network of 50 migrant-led organizations. “We also see efforts in all three countries to conceal information and restrict access to information, and to dismantle civil society,” Contreras told The Intercept over the weekend in Guatemala, where she has been participating in a delegation in light of Harris’s visit.

In Honduras and El Salvador, as well as in Nicaragua, ruling parties now effectively control all three branches of government. Politics in Guatemala are more fractured and less partisan. A de facto alliance of political actors with a shared interest in mutual protection from prosecution for corruption now dominates the judiciary and Congress rather than the ruling party itself.

Concentration of power and anti-democratic moves in Guatemala are “caused by the permanent networks of corruption and crime, and the members of certain predatory oligarchy, who are shaping the system to impose their president like a mafia operator,” Guatemalan human rights ombudsperson Jordán Rodas wrote Sunday in an open letter to Harris. There is also a growing climate of persecution against human rights defenders, journalists, social leaders, and independent judges and prosecutors, he noted.

“Under these conditions,” Rodas wrote, “it is impossible to expect real progress in the fight against corruption and to remove the roots that cause irregular migration.”

A Fierce Backlash

Guatemala’s fight against corruption was heralded a rousing success at the peak of CICIG, the U.N.-backed anti-impunity commission that operated in the country from 2007 to 2019. CICIG and a Special Anti-Impunity Prosecutor’s Bureau, known as FECI, brought forward more than 120 cases, obtained more than 400 convictions, and uncovered more than 70 complex criminal networks. High-profile cases implicated presidents, lawmakers, judges, and business leaders, and successful reforms early on strengthened judicial independence and prosecutors’ capabilities.

When CICIG began investigating the sitting president, Jimmy Morales, in 2017, along with his relatives and party officials, the backlash was fierce. The president, lawmakers, and other actors implicated in corruption launched a campaign against CICIG. Morales announced he would not renew CICIG’s mandate and declared the head commissioner a threat to national security, banning him from the country. The U.S. had been a strong supporter of the anti-corruption body and its top funder during previous administrations, but that support dissipated under Donald Trump. CICIG was ultimately shut down in 2019, but FECI and other Guatemalan institutions involved in the anti-impunity efforts have remained a target.

FECI and its head prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, the Constitutional Court, and human rights ombudsperson Rodas have been protagonists in fighting corruption, upholding rule of law, and maintaining checks on abuse of power. The Constitutional Court is unlikely to continue playing that role, as new magistrates have been sworn in over the past two months despite controversies over irregularities and ongoing investigations into high-level corruption related to stacking the country’s top courts. Lawyers tied to defendants in corruption cases recently filed a legal action with the new Constitutional Court challenging the legality of FECI’s existence. For months, the U.S. has publicly championed FECI, and Secretary of State Antony Blinken called the Guatemalan minister of foreign affairs on Friday to reiterate the country’s stance, following comments by Giammattei indirectly disparaging Sandoval. Plans for the new U.S. anti-corruption task force explicitly mention FECI as an intended recipient of assistance.

“The crisis Guatemala is currently experiencing is the result of the lack of political will from powerful sectors.”

“The situation in the country is dire,” said José Santos Sapón, a Maya K’iche former president of the traditional Indigenous governance structure in Totonicapán who now works as a lawyer for Maya Ixil traditional authorities. Erosion of judicial independence, particularly when it comes to the Constitutional Court, can have very concrete impacts in cases over Indigenous rights and extractive and energy sector projects. Over the years, Santos Sapón and other Indigenous authorities have coordinated mass mobilizations and filed legal actions related to corruption. “The crisis Guatemala is currently experiencing is the result of the lack of political will from powerful sectors in Guatemala,” he told The Intercept earlier this year outside the Constitutional Court. Those sectors and the criminal networks in which many are engaged have deep roots, Santos Sapón said.

In Guatemala, these networks are termed “illegal groups and clandestine security apparatuses,” more commonly referred to as CIACS, their Spanish acronym. Spawned by military and intelligence forces during decades of armed conflict, they have had lasting power, surviving changes in administrations and the transition to peace. The 2015 case that brought down an administration concerned a corruption ring with direct roots in a network established under military rule.

A U.S.-backed coup in 1954 ended a decade of democratic “spring” in Guatemala, ushering in authoritarian military rule and setting the stage for a 36-year civil war between leftist guerrilla forces and the military. Between 1960 and 1996, the conflict left an estimated 200,000 people dead, 45,000 disappeared, and 1 million displaced. More than 80 percent of victims were Indigenous civilians, and military forces were responsible for more than 90 percent of massacres and other atrocities, according to a U.N.-backed truth commission. The commission concluded that state actors committed acts of genocide, and domestic courts have since concurred.

In the 1996 Peace Accords that ended the conflict, the government committed to dismantling CIACS, and that unfulfilled commitment was at the heart of CICIG’s mandate. The commission made ground-breaking advances, but its work was far from over. “CIACS have embedded themselves into nearly all state entities,” CICIG noted in its final report, “Guatemala: A captured state,” six days before it officially shut down in September 2019.

“The roots of the conflict are what remain, including exclusion, discrimination, corruption, nepotism, a lack of democratic spaces, repression, and human rights violations,” said Santos Sapón.

Anti-corruption initiatives resulting from conditions on foreign aid are generally destined to fail.

International anti-impunity bodies were also set up in Honduras in 2016 and El Salvador in 2019 due to grassroots and U.S. pressure in the wake of CICIG’s success. Both quickly fell victim to political interference. Honduras’s anti-corruption initiative, MACCIH, was shut down in 2020, and El Salvador’s commission, CICIES, ended on Friday, when Bukele confirmed that the country was pulling out of the agreement.

Popular support for CICIG in Guatemala polled at 70 percent and higher, and many people in the region understandably want the commission or something like it reinstated. But proposals by U.S.-based analysts for the return of CICIG or the establishment of a regional CICIG-like body often fail to reflect the reality on the ground.

CICIG, MACCIH, and CICIES were all novel hybrid models designed to strengthen weak institutions and provide some protection from political interference, but they were not immune to basic determinants of success and failure academic researchers have identified in studying more traditional anti-corruption agencies. Political will — currently nonexistent in the region — is imperative, and anti-corruption initiatives resulting from conditions on foreign aid are generally destined to fail. Changes in conditions on the ground in Central American countries will likely need to come from within.

In Guatemala, many people have more immediate concerns, the most urgent of which is FECI’s fate, which could soon be determined by the Constitutional Court. “They want to destroy that bureau in order to have total control,” said García, while protest chants continued in the background in Guatemala City’s central plaza.

García said he will continue to protest corruption as long as he can. But the way things have been going, he’s worried the situation might devolve into broader crackdowns on dissent. The criminalization of high-profile anti-corruption figures like Argüello and Solórzano Foppa has been a disturbing development. “It is political vengeance,” García said.

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