Sun, Nov 12, 2017 - Page 7 News List

Outsiders cannot clean up Latin America’s corrupt politics

By Mac Margolis  /  Bloomberg View

Just a couple of years ago, Latin America’s fight against political corruption began to break new ground. Perhaps nowhere has the renovation been more dramatic — and successful — than in Guatemala, where popular outrage, fearless auditors and, most notably, a team of crack foreign anti-graft investigators with a sweeping brief have pursued criminals in the highest offices.

And yet, as Guatemalans have learned, in a region where governing institutions have been clay in the hands of powerful elites, keeping up the good fight is much more difficult — even when a key part of your justice system is farmed out to outsiders.

Driving Guatemala’s anti-graft campaign is the UN-sponsored International Commission Against Impunity (CICIG), which was set up in 2007 to bolster wobbly national institutions and ensure that human-rights violators were brought to justice for acts during the country’s 36-year civil war.

The body’s task has since broadened to tackle another scourge — impunity in cases of political graft and procurement fraud. This was not mission drift: Many of the same elites charged with human-rights crimes segued into skimming from the public trough when the shooting stopped.

The commission hit gold in 2015, when it found that then-Guatemalan president Otto Perez Molina, a retired general who rose to national prominence during the civil war, was behind a scheme to defraud the national customs service. The findings stoked huge street demonstrations and helped Guatemalan prosecutors bring down Perez Molina and his Cabinet.

The UN crime busters did not let up. Two years later, they charged Perez Molina’s successor, comic-turned-politician Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, with potentially graver offenses and pressed the Guatemalan Congress to strip him of presidential immunity. (The lawmakers demurred.)

Morales parried, declaring CICIG’s chief investigator, Colombian-born prosecutor Ivan Velasquez, persona non grata and trying unsuccessfully to expel him. Now the public backlash is threatening to end Morales’ presidency and turn his clever campaign pitch — “Not corrupt, not a thief” — into a punch line.

Guatemala’s anti-corruption offensive caught the eye of enthusiasts across the hemisphere. Washington, which foots half the UN body’s US$12 million to US$15 million annual bill, started talking up the Guatemalan model of fighting graft. Honduras set up a similar investigative body, under the wing of the Organization of American States. El Salvador and Panama have flirted with the idea, and one former CICIG commissioner went so far as to suggest a region-wide anti-corruption authority.

After all, in nations accustomed to the fiat of strongmen and the failings of feeble institutions, why not fly in the experts? Just as the IMF has acted as a surrogate central bank for financially challenged poor nations, CICIG has been the prosthetic arm of Guatemalan law.

There might be good reason to follow Guatemala’s lead. The UN crime busters have won ample accolades and “street cred.” On their watch, convictions for homicides soared and the homicide rate plunged. A dozen tainted judges and about 2,500 crooked bad police have been sacked.

These measures have strengthened the embattled attorney-general’s office and emboldened national auditors and prosecutors.

“When you move from virtual total impunity to a number of prosecutions, there’s a fundamental shift in expectations,” Human Rights Watch Americas managing director Daniel Wilkinson told me. “Everyone begins to believe in justice and that it’s worth taking the risk to speak out.”

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