For most U.S. diplomats or intelligence and law enforcement officers who have worked in Mexico, the testimony this week by a major drug trafficker that former President Enrique Peña Nieto took a $100 million bribe from El Chapo Guzman did not come entirely as a surprise. That in itself is a sad admission. Yet the truth is that corruption routinely reaches into presidential offices across the Americas, even those with whom we cooperate.
- To be sure, we don’t know for certain that Peña Nieto pocketed the money. What we do know is that both his and the region’s track records are not encouraging. Just in the last few years the list is shocking;
- In Guatemala, former president Otto Pérez Molina, his vice president and dozens of other government officials were removed from office in 2015 and are on trial for skimming customs fees.
- In Honduras, a former president’s son and the current president’s brother were busted by the DEA for allegedly cooperating with drug traffickers to ship dope to the United States.
- In Peru, one former president just got out of jail for accepting illegal campaign financing, another is fighting his extradition from the United States, and third is charged in connection with the region’s biggest corruption scandal, the Odebrecht affair, which resulted in Brazil’s Dilma Rouseff being removed from office.
- Former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli is accused of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars in contract kickbacks and then fled to live a life of Kardashian excess in Miami; that was, until we extradited him to Panama after a three-year legal struggle, where he is currently on trial.
- In the Dominican Republic, Argentina, Ecuador and other countries, numerous senior government officials have been charged with and proven guilty of corrupt dealings while in office.
The United States has traditionally taken the leadership role in the region in the fight for transparency and good governance. Disappointingly the Trump administration is absent on this front, viewing the region through the outdated lens of an anti-communist ideology. But on the corruption account they can still make a positive difference. There is a clear and convenient nexus between the Trump administration's reviled "troika of terror" - the phrase coined by National Security Advisor, John Bolton in referring to the dictatorial regimes of Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua - and the imperfect democracies of the rest of the hemisphere: the U.S. visa.
With Salvadoran elections coming up on February 3, Panamanian elections in May and a host of former Latin American presidents living and working in the United States, the time is well past due for the U.S. government to conduct a systematic, all source review of information on leaders and their senior colleagues before they leave office to determine if their presence in the United States is in our national interest.
This is more complicated than it might sound, but with White House leadership and political will, it can be done.
For openers, there already exist provisions in immigration law and executive orders that make visa applicants ineligible based on acts, proven or suspected, of public sector corruption. But all presidents and most senior officials, family members and cronies have diplomatic passports while in office. Many keep them long after their public service, and the rules regarding the issuance of those visas are less restrictive. However, diplomatic passport or not, a visa is not a right, nor is the decision subject to judicial review. Denial cannot be predicted on a whim, however, a preponderance of less than judicial evidence information is sufficient to keep an individual out. And that is exactly as it should be.
Unfortunately, past administrations had no requirement to perform an all agency, due diligence exercise to determine if a former leader or minister with whom we once had to work is now someone whose presence in the United States is beneficial to the nation. Information is almost always stove-piped. The Justice Department and the CIA are loath to share files, so discretion and informed deliberation would be essential.
Additionally, many corrupt leaders and officials were good counter narcotics or counter terrorism partners – but stole from their nation’s public coffers. Many supported U.S. positions at the United Nations – but took money meant for food programs, schools, hospitals and roads and stuck it in their offshore accounts. Panama’s Martinelli even went so far as to detail in a public letter how he had been such a good friend to the CIA and Department of Homeland Security, doing their bidding on certain cases, as a means to justify his continued presence in South Florida.
On occasion, senior officials are on an intelligence service’s payroll, or serve as unpaid sources. Many become close personal friends of ambassadors, congress persons or other senior American officials, and benefit from those relationships when it comes time to renew tourist visas for them and their family members after they have left office.
But let’s be clear. Visas are not intended to be based on politics or friendships or even operational loyalties. They are meant to be adjudicated with a clear and collective view as to the potential damage or benefit to national interests. Admittedly that is a vague and loosely defined concept, but visa law and regulations provide sufficient guidelines. And guess what: corrupt former officials – proven or reasonably suspected – fall short of the mark. The very least we can do, both to protect our financial system from ill-gotten gains and send a clear signal that we will not be complicit in the deliberate impoverishment of foreign populations, is subject to comprehensive scrutiny the visa decisions for retiring officials.
Any casual observer knows that Venezuela’s Maduro or Nicaragua’s Daniel and Rosario Ortega, or virtually all of Cuba’s government won’t be getting visas to shop at Dadeland Mall or go to Disney. And that’s the right call. Yet there are plenty of nominally democratic but corrupt ex-leaders who have, and do. Their kids go to elite U.S. universities, often paid for with what they stole.
Instead of kicking out Dreamers and building a wall to keep out future honest construction workers, sous chefs and janitors, Trump’s government should train its sights on those who got rich while their citizens wallowed in underdevelopment, exacerbated by greed and corruption. A good place to start would be with Mexico’s Enrique Peña Nieto.