Latin America Advisor

A Daily Publication of The Dialogue

Are Countries Making Progress in Fighting Corruption?

Rigostar-Flickr / CC-BY-SA-3.0

Q: Former Guatemalan President Alfonso Portillo pleaded guilty March 18 in New York to conspiring to launder $2.5 million of public money through a U.S. bank. He entered the guilty plea hoping to avoid a maximum 20-year prison sentence. Is Portillo's plea deal a turning point for anti-corruption efforts? Are other efforts at combatting corruption making progress, or is corruption going to get worse in Guatemala and other Central American countries? Which countries in the region are making strides in fighting corruption, and which are falling short? What specific anti-corruption policies have succeeded in the region and why?

A: Salvador Paiz, president of FUNSEPA and vice president of FUNDESA in Guatemala City: "Alfonso Portillo made a smart move with his guilty plea. Nevertheless, the $2.5 million is far inferior to the original charge of over $100 million, which included sums allegedly stolen from Guatemala's Ministry of Defense. While a guilty plea is a step in the right direction, it is a timid one given the resources that went into extraditing Portillo. Ostensibly, the prosecution couldn't build a solid case based on a superficial investigation by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. This inability to build cases against corruption is part of the unfortunate reality in Guatemala. There is little data to help us gauge the progress against corruption. Countries point to a couple of cases, but there is little in terms of eradication efforts. It is also important to highlight that the situation is different in every country; each has its own political matters. Mexico, for example, seems to be undertaking encouraging reforms. In Guatemala's case, there are more than 400 corruption cases pending processing due to a lack of political will, also affected by the inefficacy of the judicial system. Civil society is putting forth some proposals to help build capabilities. For example, the usage of 'Big Data' analytics has been suggested to counteract contraband. The Alertos platform is helping to reduce the potential for police officers to take bribes in certain situations. Guatemala Visible is trying to use meritocracy to raise the quality of the leadership of judicial institutions. The elephant in the room, not just in Guatemala, is the need to process the backlog of corruption cases. One could 'call the bluff' of political will by providing external experts to structure those cases appropriately and the existing prosecutors could learn in the process. Reducing corruption has never been easy and probably never will be. Citizen involvement and calling the bluff could resolve this scourge."

A: Miguel Schloss, president of Surinvest Ltd. in Chile and former executive director of Transparency International: "It is tempting to see isolated events (such as former Guatemalan President Portillo's guilty plea to laundering public money) as hallmarks of change and in the process ignore underlying complexities that need to be addressed. This is particularly true in corruption, which is the epitome of a crime of opportunity that flourishes in environments where citizens don't have the vehicles of contestation and power to hold their authorities to account. In Guatemala's case, which had authoritarian regimes up to 1986, and where opposition and social pressures have been suppressed by force and personalized public administrations, the country was left with an almost total absence of the basic scaffoldings of modern governance. Since then, the country started the long and arduous pacification and democratization process and, while progress has been made in a number of fronts, the ebbs and flows of reforms have hardly consolidated into a solid governance structure. With a rule of law rated in the lowest 10th percentile of world rankings and government effectiveness in the 20-30 percent lowest ranking, it is hardly surprising that Guatemala remains mired in that same level of corruption, with periodic scandals of missing resources. While there are wide variations within Latin America regarding these issues, few countries in the region have had the commitment and consistency in undertaking reforms to achieve tangible improvements and associated increases in their international rankings. Among them is Peru in opening up to enhanced accountability, Colombia in government effectiveness and Uruguay in control of corruption."

A: Donald J. Planty, president of Planty & Associates LLC and former U.S. ambassador to Guatemala: "I very much doubt that Portillo's plea bargain represents a turning point for anti-corruption efforts in Guatemala and Central America. Neither Guatemala nor its neighbors are making headway against this insidious practice. Reducing corruption in the public sector requires fundamental socio-cultural-political change in Central America. First, governments need to consider themselves stewards of the public trust and guarantors of democratic transparency and not view governing as an opportunity for personal enrichment. With few exceptions (Álvaro Arzú's 1996-2000 presidency is one), public officials in the region see graft as a normal part of governing and eschew the role of honest public servant. This practice is so ingrained that much of the body politic sees it as a normal political condition. The rise of Alfonso Portillo is a case in point-his presidency reached new corruption heights, even for Guatemala. The prevalence of narco-trafficking and organized crime contributes to the problem. The region needs a new generation of political leaders who make anti-corruption and transparency in government primary political objectives. They must campaign on anti-corruption platforms and take office with a commitment to change the prevailing norms. When in power, they must set an example and work to change personal and institutional behavior, including in the legislative and judicial branches of government. Without this kind of courage, dedication and action at the top, the prevailing climate of corruption is unlikely to change any time soon."

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