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Guatemala case reveals how corruption perpetuates itself in Central America

Events unfolding now in Guatemala's Supreme Court are a colorful illustration of how systemic corruption is baked into the system and cripples efforts to strengthen the rule of law, ensure accountability in government, and fight corruption.
Eric L. Olson is Director of Policy in Washington D.C. for the Seattle International Foundation and a Wilson Center Global Fellow on Mexico and Central America.
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The Presidential Palace in Guatemala City. Crédito: David Adams / Univision

Central America’s Northern Triangle Countries of Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras have become notorious for chronic corruption. This has been especially true during the coronavirus pandemic where reports of price gauging for ventilators and protective equipment, and millions spent on non-existent emergency portable hospitals have filled the front pages.

And these examples are simply in addition to a long history of corruption scandals where millions are stollen from healthcare systems, two former presidents are in detention, another fled, and a sitting president is a unindicted co-conspirator in a drug trafficking investigation in New York’s Southern District.

This level of corrupt has directly resulted in the deaths of hundreds of Central Americans even before the pandemic. People feel desperate because they cannot get the help they need in times of crisis, they have no hope their government is looking out for their health, economic, and security needs believing with ample justification that corruption has made their government part of the problem not a solution.

This is not a small versus large government argument. This is about public trust in the government and their capacity to respond in times of crisis.

How does this keep happening? Why is this a recurring saga or nightmare in Central America? The events unfolding now in Guatemala are a colorful illustration of how systemic corruption is baked into the system and cripples efforts to strengthen the rule of law, ensure accountability in government, and fight corruption.

Guatemala has been trying to fill vacancies on its Supreme Court of Justice (SCJ) since 2019. The process has been interrupted on several occasions because of allegations of manipulation and corruption. The latest crisis emerged when the Constitutional Court (a parallel court that rules on Constitutional issues) was asked to intervene because of serious anomalies in the selection process.

The Constitutional Court directed the Guatemalan Congress (who confirms appointments) to delay the selection process while the Attorney General investigated the irregularities. The Attorney General's lead prosecutor on corruption conducted the review and reported to Congress that over 22 candidates to the Supreme Court, and 109 candidates to the appellate court had inappropriate interaction with Gustavo Alejos, a former presidential chief of staff and political power-broker who is in pre-trial detention accused in five cases of grand corruption.

U.S. Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo publicly designated Alejos for “his involvement in extensive corruption” on June 8, 2020.

According to the anti-corruption prosecutor, Alejos met with numerous candidates for the Supreme Court, some current appellate court justices, as well as members of the nominating committee, and other government officials while he was out of prison on a “medical leave.” He met with dozens of officials in a rented house across the street from the hospital. Alejos is said to have conspired with congressional leadership, including members of President Alejandro Giammattei’s party, to ensure favored (and likely corrupt) candidates won appointments to the Supreme Court.

The Constitutional Court's ruling ordered the Congress to take the Attorney General's report into consideration and disqualify those candidates tainted by the Alejos contacts. They further instructed Congress to take up the approval of qualified candidates immediately. Not surprisingly, those in Congress allied with forces of corruption refused to accept the Constitutional Court’s ruling and, in fact, attacked both the Attorney General's report and the Constitutional Court for its ruling.

Some Members of Congress and those in the private sector joined a legal maneuver to ask the Supreme Court to lift the immunity of four Constitutional Court magistrates and begin impeachment proceedings against them. The goal was to discredit the Constitutional Court, weaken them politically, and potentially replace the four justices with sympathetic appointees, thus overturning the Constitutional Court’s earlier ruling requesting the Attorney General's report on Alejos.

As legal sagas go, this one is full of twists and turns, accusations and counter-accusations that serve more to confuse than to strengthen the rule of law and guarantee the integrity of the courts. But there is no doubt that what is unfolding in Guatemala today is an attempt to weaken the judiciary and ensure that corruption is not only protected but prospers directly from the country’s legal institutions.

This is how corruption persists in Central America (the story is not limited to Guatemala) and how, despite efforts to hold individuals accountable, corruption becomes systemic holding back these countries and undermining citizen’s hope for the future.

There are exceptions, of course. Not everyone in government is corrupt. Some elements of government, especially those that are politically independent, can and have worked better. There are some brave officials, often in the justice system, that fight corruption at considerable personal peril. Independent journalist and civil society leaders have been in the vanguard of reporting on and demanding accountability for malfeasance in government.

Likewise, some in the private sector have taken courageous stands understanding that systemic corruption makes their countries unappealing to international investors especially U.S. businesses that must comply with the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act.

Sadly, others in the private sector refuse to relinquish control of the institutions of state believing their narrow self-interests outweigh the long-term wellbeing of their country.

The U.S. role in all this has been interesting and troubling of late. For over a decade the U.S. prioritized improved governance and fighting corruption in its strategy for Central America. This strategy had strong bipartisan support in Congress. Congress invested heavily in international anti-corruption mechanisms like the UN-affiliated CICIG in Guatemala and OAS-linked MACCIH in Honduras. Both had limitations but produced impressive results along with local prosecutors and judges. But both governments resisted these mechanisms and ultimately succeeded in shutting them down in 2019 and early 2020.

The U.S. acquiesced being more interested in stopping irregular migration. U.S. Embassies, especially in Guatemala, have made efforts to support anti-corruption initiatives and protect independent prosecutors and judges currently under threat. But they often operate in a vacuum with little support or indifference from senior leadership at the State Department and White House.

Corruption is much more than individual cases of self-enrichment. It is a betrayal of the public trust and robs Central Americans of their future. Turning a blind eye to what is happening in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras ensures that these countries will remain imprisoned to political and economic powers that hold the country back.

If that happens both Central Americans and Americans can expect continued instability, violence, growing poverty and inequality, and continued irregular migration for years to come.