Corruption and Human Rights in the Northern Triangle

Inter-American Dialogue / Elizabeth Belair

On June 27, the Inter-American Dialogue partnered with the Due Process of Law Foundation (DPLF) and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) to hold an expert discussion on “Corruption and Human Rights in the Northern Triangle.” The discussion featured panelists Jordán Rodas Andrade, Human Rights Ombudsman in Guatemala; Sarah Chayes, Senior Fellow for the Democracy and Rule of Law Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace; and Héctor Silva Ávalos, Investigator at Insight Crime and Co-director of Revista Factum. The conversation that followed gave insight as to how anti-corruption efforts in the Northern Triangle can benefit from the inclusion of human rights discourse and the work of international bodies, such as the CICIG in Guatemala and MACCIH in Honduras. The discussion was moderated by Adriana Beltrán, Director for Citizen Security at WOLA and Úrsula Indacochea, Senior Program Officer at DPLF.

The panelists provided analysis of the different realities faced by Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador as well as the cross-border struggles they share in tackling corruption. Chayes emphasized that while the technicalities might be different with each country, corruption is never an isolated or nation-specific phenomenon.  She compared her work in Honduras with her time in Azerbaijan, Afghanistan, and the US to conclude it became integrated networks made up of corrupt government officials, private sector moguls, and criminals are a global scourge. In Honduras, these cross-sector connections grant resilience and a broad spectrum of capabilities to the local kleptocratic network. Chayes was also quick to note that international communities have sometimes propped up local corruption networks, as seen by FinnFund’s work in Honduras, and that international intervention can be harmful if foreign actors are not familiar with the environment and national particularities they will work in.  

Meanwhile, Rodas Andrade emphasized the positive effects the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) and the CICIG have had against corruption in the country, which has benefited all branches of government in terms of mitigating corruption. That being said, he noted that the current Guatemalan government has deliberately tried to undermine the CICIG, making the IACHR’s support of his office all the more important.

El Salvador’s corruption is similarly systemic, said Silva Avalos, explaining how the government, police forces, and criminal groups collaborate to concentrate wealth in their inner circles. As their leaders spend public funds on their own personal ventures, the people of El Salvador aren’t provided with adequate public services, making corruption a clear human rights violation. The Salvadorian government uses pandillas (criminal gangs) as scapegoats to distract the nation from its own incriminating actions. Silva Avalos also commended the work the CICIG has done in Guatemala, lauding its successful investigation of crimes that are notoriously difficult and dangerous to probe.  

The panel concluded with a Q&A session where attendees asked about whether El Salvador could handle the issue on its own, or whether it also needed an external help. Silva Avalos responded by saying that El Salvador would benefit immensely from an external agency, given that there is presently little will from officials and citizens alike to seriously tackle corruption. When asked about the legalization of corruption, Chayes noted that in Honduras and the United States alike, the most important ability a kleptocratic network holds is the ability to grant itself impunity. By bending and repurposing laws to serve their specific aims, these networks hollow out the local mechanisms for justice. Once again, the weight of a well-informed international community combined with genuine work at the ground level can help restore respect for human rights in these countries.

Watch the full recording of this event here