The United States is beginning to step up its anti-corruption efforts in Central America following the announcement of a special Task Force in June during a visit to Guatemala by Vice President Kamala Harris.
Teams of prosecutors are being embedded in the U.S. embassies in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras tasked with providing backup to local law enforcement efforts. They are also being armed with a new authority to allow the more rapid revoking of visas, within days, of suspected criminals, a senior State Department official told Univision Noticias.
The so-called ‘resident legal advisers’ are especially targeting criminals with a nexus back to the United States, such as drug trafficking, money laundering and gang activities.
While the policy is still relatively new, “we've already seen some significant impact where the actions that we're taking are causing people to reconsider whether they'd like to be more cooperative or not,” the State Department official said.
Harris’ visit to Guatemala in early June was designed to highlight a new priority of the Biden administration to address the root causes of the spike in migration to the U.S.-Mexico border, citing corruption as one of the main driving forces of an exodus from the region.
In July, Biden issued a memorandum establishing “countering corruption as a core United States national security interest.” The White House memorandum noted that the costs of corruption sap between two and five percent from global gross domestic product a year.
Corrupt political and economic elites have sought to protect themselves from accountability and undermined effective efforts to unravel their corrupt system, and pro-democracy and human rights groups in the region. They note that elites in El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala have packed the courts with their cronies, fired relatively independent Attorney Generals, and kicked out international anti-corruption bodies.
The anti-corruption initiative has been welcomed by those groups, after four years of largely ignoring the regional corruption issues under the previous administration of Donald Trump, who favored rewarding foreign leaders – no matter how corrupt – as long as they backed his ‘zero immigration’ policy.
But some observers say they have seen few results yet, as the Biden administration has faced major distractions with the latest surge of covid-19 cases, the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan and rising numbers of migrants on the southern border.
Other issues have also taken risen up in Central America, such as dealing with authoritarian moves by President Nayib Bukele in El Salvador and Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua.
“So far I haven't heard anything more ... I imagine that between migration, Bukele and Ortega it's not been easy to structure anythig sustainable,” said Carlos Hernandez, vice president of ASJ in Honduras. “I don't have a sense that anything has changed,” said Eric Olson, director of policy at the Seattle International Foundation which promotes the rule of law and good governance in the region.
Others also question if there has been any real traction due to resistance from Bukele, as well as the president of Guatemala, Alejandro Giammattei and Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez. They point out that the recent ouster of the Attorney General in El Salvador and the head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office Against Impunity (FECI) in Guatemala, is hampering efforts to engage with local law enforcement.
The anti-corruption push is also being held by the absence of key U.S. officials at the State Department, including Republicans in Congress holding up the nomination of the Assistant Secretary for the Western Hemisphere, who is in charge of Latin America, and the head of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL).
“That has created a paralysis at the State Department. Things are going much slower than they hoped,” said Douglas Farah, a president of IBI Consultants, a national security consulting firm.
Farah said the Biden administration may have underestimated the hostile response to the anti-corruption push from the governments in the region. “Their reaction has been to dig in,” said Farah, who supports the concept of the U.S. government holding corrupt officials accountable.
"Unfortunately, where we have seen momentum is in the region and in the wrong direction," added Pedro Abramovay, director for the Latin America program at the Open Society Foundation.
In July, the State Department published a black list of 55 people in the Northern Triangle countries suspected of corruption, obstructing justice, or undermining democracy, including government ministers, judges and former presidents, in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras.
Some observers in Central America questioned why the report did not include the names of certain individuals widely considered to have links to drug cartels. Farah and others say the failure to follow up with a second round of names has emboldened the leaders of the three countries. “The initial list was a good warning shot, to say ‘we know who you are.’ But the subsequent silence has created a sense that they were bluffing,” said Farah.
But the State Department official said the changes were prompting some potentially corrupt actors to “think twice” about their actions.
A ‘Kleptocracy Asset Recovery Initiative’ set up a decade ago by the Department of Justice is also being reinforced to track money laundering and to go after the ill-gotten gains of corrupt foreign leaders and their cronies. That initiative already claims to have blocked more than $3.2 billion in assets linked to foreign corruption.
The firings of judges and prosecutors had made it more difficult to implement the policy, the official conceded.
“We’ve made it clear we can't work with the current Attorney General (in El Salvador). So that does sort of a difficult position there,” he said.
But he said the U.S. continued to work with judicial officials to build up capacity “lower down the food chain,” while also working to strengthen civil society organizations working to promote justice.
The U.S. government had also reacted strongly to the firings of judges and prosecutors, including a legal reform in El Salvador approved on Thursday that seeks to fire all judges over the age of 60.
“We've been quite clear that these kind of moves have a direct impact and on the relationship and on our assistance programs,” the official said.
The U.S. criticism has had "little or no impact on how events unfolded," said Abramovay. He added that it was important that the U.S. provide legal pathways for migrants as well as support for civil society and independent journalists, "or else corrupt elites in the region will continue to believe they have the upper hand and act accordingly."