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Last week, 9000 Hondurans were beaten and tear-gassed in Guatemala as they tried to make their way to the U.S. border. More will be coming. The Biden administration just introduced the most comprehensive immigration bill since Ronald Reagan and also hopes to embark on a new strategy for the Northern Triangle of El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.
This is undisputedly good news for a region ravaged by two Category 5 hurricanes in 2 weeks and an economy devastated by the Covid pandemic. But, unless that aid directly addresses the rampant corruption that has taken hold in the region, it will not stop thousands of desperate people from fleeing countries that give them little hope to survive much less flourish.
Make no mistake, it is corruption that has stolen hope from the region. Elites steal from school and hospital budgets to fund political campaigns and line pockets. Politicians give family members and supporters coveted government positions that should go to those most qualified. Police are bribed and threatened to look away while drug traffickers and gangs shatter communities.
Until this staggering systemic corruption is dismantled and the education, health and security institutions strengthened, Central Americans have little reason to hope for a future in their own countries.
During his presidential campaign, Joe Biden issued just one policy position for the Western Hemisphere and it was on Central America. In it he proposed a number of worthy initiatives, but one merits special consideration-- a Central American anti-corruption commission that operates outside the control of the elites who are most threatened by its existence.
To be successful, this commission must learn from past experiences in Guatemala (CICIG), Honduras (MACCIH) and El Salvador (CICIES). While the first two enjoyed significant success, as soon as U.S. and local political pressure waned even a little, the local elites joined together to expel them.
Any new commission should not require the approval of the political and economic elites who are most threatened by its existence, and will shut it down at their first opportunity. Instead, it should be led by brave and experienced Central American anti-corruption organizations, supported by US and international donors and technical experts and it should derive its strength and moral authority from the quality of its corruption investigations and bravery in making them public.
The commission should not only investigate and report on emblematic cases of corruption, it should also investigate and report on the failings of the authorities--prosecutors, judges, and independent comptrollers--tasked with fighting corruption in each country. In addition, the commission should monitor and audit in real time legal compliance with processes most susceptible to corruption, such as big-ticket purchases, infrastructure projects, and government payrolls.
By completing these three tasks, this commission can achieve what past efforts have failed to accomplish—make it much more difficult for the corrupt to get away with it.
Finally, this commission should create a monthly scorecard of the number of successful investigations and prosecutions carried out by the local corruption-fighting bodies and publish a scorecard on government transparency in purchasing, hiring and firing, as well as results in areas like education, health, and security.
Such an effort can create real-time tracking of proper procedures, can be used as a benchmark for future aid, and will deter corruption and improve the quality and quantity of services for the citizens who most need it.
Rampant corruption, and the poverty it leaves in its wake, is a powerful precursor to the hopelessness that leads people to abandon their country and join a caravan headed to the United States. That such a risky and dangerous option seems better than staying at home is proof positive of their hopelessness.
We believe that the Biden administration’s support for a regional anti-corruption commission like that described above, could help change that calculus.
James D. Nealon is a former U.S. Ambassador to Honduras and Assistant Secretary of Homeland Security. Eric L. Olson is a Wilson Center Global Fellow. Kurt Alan Ver Beek is Co-Founder and President of the Association for a More Just Society - Honduras