Shadow Government

It’s Time for the U.S. to Tackle Corruption in Central America

Last year the United States took an important step toward helping the region clean up its bad actors. Now it needs to follow through.


In the wake of the 2014 crisis that saw thousands of Central Americans overwhelm the U.S. southern border, the Obama administration drew up a $1 billion assistance plan to help Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador improve security conditions, as local drug and gang violence remains the primary factor pushing people to flee their homes there for the dangerous trek north.

While the administration proposal has yet to clear the congressional appropriations process, the regional security situation is worsening. Drug trafficking networks — supplying U.S. public demand for illicit substances — and violent gangs have simply overwhelmed regional governments’ efforts to contain the mayhem.

This matters to the United States, because until we can make some progress in helping our neighbors deal with problems we have had a hand in creating, then the notion of securing our southwest border from migration surges or criminals bent on doing us harm will remain a pipe dream.

Many lawmakers remain reluctant to approve any major assistance program to Central America due to justified concerns about corruption. With drug syndicates and gangs working to undermine, infiltrate, and suborn governments, especially in the judicial and law enforcement sectors, no one is going sign off on large expenditures if they cannot be confident about with whom exactly we are working.

The good news in Central America, however, is that positive things are happening on the broader anti-corruption front, largely driven by the people themselves fed-up with graft and the inability of governments to provide such essential services as safe streets.

In Guatemala, the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (known by its Spanish acronym CICIG), an independent, United Nations-created entity to strengthen rule of law and target organized crime, was instrumental in the corruption investigations that led to the resignation of now former President Otto Perez Molina in September. President-Elect Jimmy Morales, who rode to victory on an anti-corruption platform, has pledged his full support for CICIG to continue its mandate.

Next door in Honduras, authorities have agreed to an Organization of American States-sponsored “Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras.” While it lacks the investigatory and prosecutorial powers of CICIG, it is nevertheless a step in the right direction — and can be strengthened by support from regional stakeholders, namely the United States.

In fact, to its credit, the Obama administration has begun this by recently announcing the indictment of three members of a powerful Honduran family — including a former vice president — on charges of laundering drug money through U.S. accounts. Clearly, the indictments were a message to Honduran elites that high-level corruption is no longer acceptable.

In El Salvador, where the former guerrilla Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) has been in power for six years, the situation is less promising. Despite the urging of the Obama administration, it not only rejected a CICIG, but also any Organization of American States effort. It’s not hard to figure out why. They are likely too afraid of what someone might find.

Long a client a Castro’s Cuba and later Hugo Chávez’s Venezuela, the FMLN is hardly steeped in the culture of democratic governance. They may not be as ham-handed in their consolidation of power as Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela or Rafael Correa in Ecuador, but the situation is just as concerning. Moreover, criminal violence in El Salvador is skyrocketing, forcing more of its citizens to flee for the United States.

This prompts the question: If international oversight is acceptable for Guatemala and Honduras, then why isn’t it good enough for El Salvador? And, secondly, if the Obama administration is serious enough about reining in corruption in Honduras by sanctioning high-profile figures, then why can’t they act with similar purpose in El Salvador?

For example, as former Washington Post investigative journalist Doug Farah recently testified before the U.S. Senate, the FMLN conspires with Venezuela and the Colombian narco-terrorist FARC “to move hundreds of millions of dollars in untraceable ways through inter-connected state oil companies.” At the center of this conspiracy is one of the most powerful figures in the FMLN, José Luis Merino, who is known as the “FARC’s man in El Salvador.” With no official portfolio, he nevertheless reportedly manages up to $800 million in dubious funds.

Last year, Rep. Matt Salmon (R-Ariz.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, was concerned enough to write the State and Treasury Departments asking why, with all that was known about Merino, he hadn’t been sanctioned at the very least as a Specially Designated National.

Central America is at a tipping point. While official Washington’s attention has been focused elsewhere, transnational crime and its corrupting influence have become entrenched there, creating intolerable living conditions pushing people to seek better lives elsewhere. But today the momentum is on the side of anti-corruption forces. The U.S. must move even further to help populations rid their societies of the corrupt and the criminal and improve transparency, accountability, and the rule of law, either working with them or on our own. The present opportunity is too important to miss.


José R. Cárdenas was acting assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development in the George W. Bush administration.

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