Victims of their own Success? The Lessons of Anti-Impunity Missions in Central America

Speakers, moderator, and event image for Main Photo: Keneth Cruz / Flickr / CC BY-NC 2.0

On July 28, 2020, the Inter-American Dialogue and the Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS) at American University hosted "Victims of their own Success? The Lessons of Anti-Impunity Missions in Central America" to discuss the achievements and takeaways of anti-impunity missions in Central America. The webinar featured opening remarks from Michael Camilleri, director of the Peter D. Bell Rule of Law Program at the Inter-American Dialogue, and analysis from Charles T. Call, associate professor at the School of International Service at American University, Martha Doggett, former director of the Americas Division at the United Nations Department of Political Affairs, Juan Gonzalez, senior fellow at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and former US deputy assistant Secretary of State, and Claudia Escobar, Centennial Fellow at the Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. The event was moderated by Eric Hershberg, director at CLALS.

Call began the discussion by emphasizing the relative successes of both the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) and the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). He noted that CICIG's investigation led to the dismantling of 70 illicit networks in Guatemala, with 1450 individuals indicted and over 400 convicted. These included ex-presidents, ministers, ex-generals and economic elites. In comparison, MACCIH had a less pronounced success but investigated 15 cases that eventually brought indictments among many others that did not. Call emphasized, "the key impact of both of these bodies was to generate...awareness on the part of the population that corruption could be in fact prosecuted by national actors if given the political space and support to do so." He also outlined the mechanisms for hybrid bodies' effectiveness: 1) the political support and cover they gave officials to do their job without fear; 2) the creation of counterpart institutions inside the national bodies with carefully selected court chambers and prosecutorial units capable of bringing people to justice; and 3) the public profile and platform of these hybrid institutions to pressure government compliance. Ultimately, Call noted that the success of these missions contributed to their termination. 

The work and activism of human rights organizations in Guatemala was what led to the inception of CICIG. Doggett referenced human rights violations following the 1996 peace accords and a series of targeted attacks on the Guatemalan human rights community in 2002 that propelled human rights NGOs to act. Doggett noted, "[CICIG] was initially a civil society initiative that government then embraced and endorsed as its own." She added that the strong engagement on the part of the civil society remained a hallmark of CICIG's experience. Doggett explained the following five preliminary lessons from CICIG's work in Guatemala: 1) anti-impunity commissions will not prosper without broad popular buy-in; 2) CICIG's organizational structure should have reflected all aspects of the mandate in the form of an organogram; 3) lack of oversight mechanisms left staffers and Guatemalan citizens with nowhere to turn if they felt aggrieved; 4) a strong international engagement was key to its success; 5) CICIG should have understood its implications on social change in Guatemala. 

Gonzalez spoke to the link between US foreign policy and combatting corruption in the Northern Triangle. He posed the question, why does corruption matter to the United States? Gonzalez noted that US foreign policy towards combatting corruption in the Northern Triangle was "driven by the recognition that in many of these have a system (or an elite) that prefers the status-quo of not investing in social programs, and not having strong institutions of government." The US foreign policy circle saw any effort to promote regional integration, prosperity, and a democratic agenda eroded by corruption. Therefore, the Bush and Obama administrations actively engaged in the region to counteract this democratic erosion. He concluded his remarks by outlining how a potential Biden administration would combat corruption. While it takes a long time to re-establish anti-impunity mechanisms, a Biden administration would take immediate steps to establish a regional anti-corruption initiative. 

The importance of combatting corruption is even more urgent today, given the level of risk heightened by governments' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. Escobar described how the pandemic has undermined the justice sector in Guatemala and also explained that money and resources that should have been invested in medicines and hospitals have been misused for decades. "[E]veryone understands that corruption has a direct effect in every persons life. Corruption kills." Escobar also highlighted the significant challenges that honest judges face in Guatemala. She noted that corruption is a tool for personal enrichment and an instrument that criminal networks use to guarantee impunity by influencing and weakening the judicial system. It is especially important for international support and hybrid mechanisms such as CICIG and MACCIH to strengthen institutions where judicial independence is weak or nonexistent. 

The event ended with questions from the audience regarding the appetite for international institutions to re-engage in these anti-impunity efforts and whether mechanisms can be activated to minimize the degree to which corrupt networks take advantage during the Covid-19 crisis. To the latter question, panelists answered that since CICIG and MACCIH have left the region, considerable backsliding is taking place and leading to ever-weaker accountability and enforcement mechanisms. 

Watch the full recording of the event here:

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