Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Biden’s Top Priority in Central America Is Fighting Corruption. That’s an Uphill Battle.

In the last few years, as politicians, judges, and other campaigners were stymied, the political will to fight graft has eroded.

By , a freelance journalist based in San Salvador covering immigration, human rights and security in Central America.
A man wrapped in a Guatemalan flag takes part in a march.
A man wrapped in a Guatemalan flag takes part in a march called by university students to demand the resignation of then-Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and the renewal of the U.N. International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in Guatemala City on Sept. 20, 2018. JOHAN ORDONEZ/AFP via Getty Images

Last week, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris laid out the Biden administration’s key challenge in Central America in a few words. “We will not make significant progress,” she said, “if corruption in the region persists.” Harris, who is in charge of managing the Biden administration’s diplomatic relations with Central America, was speaking at the 51st annual Washington Conference on the Americas. Having recently passed the 100-day benchmark in office, U.S. President Joe Biden has already been confronted with several developments that illustrate just how daunting rooting out corruption will be.

Recent backsliding on judicial independence in El Salvador and Guatemala has already challenged the Biden administration to prove its willingness to make tough decisions and commit political capital to backing anti-corruption measures. In El Salvador, newly elected legislators moved on May 1—their first day in office—to replace five members of the country’s constitutional court and its attorney general, neutralizing two important checks on power as they replaced these officials with allies. In Guatemala in mid-April, lawmakers refused to swear in constitutional court judge Gloria Porras. Porras, who has a history of fighting against graft, is viewed in Washington as a key ally against corruption.

It is no surprise that democracy is on the run in the region. Corrupt officials and others there may have been emboldened by what they saw as a weakening of international scrutiny under the Trump administration, said Adriana Beltrán, director of citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America. Now facing diminished political will among Central American politicians and elites to fight corruption, the Biden administration cannot just pick up where the Obama administration left off. Instead, it faces an uphill battle when it comes to reconstructing support within the region. Nevertheless, various Central American experts consulted for this article said the United States should still act now.

Last week, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris laid out the Biden administration’s key challenge in Central America in a few words. “We will not make significant progress,” she said, “if corruption in the region persists.” Harris, who is in charge of managing the Biden administration’s diplomatic relations with Central America, was speaking at the 51st annual Washington Conference on the Americas. Having recently passed the 100-day benchmark in office, U.S. President Joe Biden has already been confronted with several developments that illustrate just how daunting rooting out corruption will be.

Recent backsliding on judicial independence in El Salvador and Guatemala has already challenged the Biden administration to prove its willingness to make tough decisions and commit political capital to backing anti-corruption measures. In El Salvador, newly elected legislators moved on May 1—their first day in office—to replace five members of the country’s constitutional court and its attorney general, neutralizing two important checks on power as they replaced these officials with allies. In Guatemala in mid-April, lawmakers refused to swear in constitutional court judge Gloria Porras. Porras, who has a history of fighting against graft, is viewed in Washington as a key ally against corruption.

It is no surprise that democracy is on the run in the region. Corrupt officials and others there may have been emboldened by what they saw as a weakening of international scrutiny under the Trump administration, said Adriana Beltrán, director of citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America. Now facing diminished political will among Central American politicians and elites to fight corruption, the Biden administration cannot just pick up where the Obama administration left off. Instead, it faces an uphill battle when it comes to reconstructing support within the region. Nevertheless, various Central American experts consulted for this article said the United States should still act now.

“Despite the Biden administration’s messages, [corrupt elites] are still—to varying degrees—pushing to see how far they can get,” Beltrán said. “That’s why—while we welcome the messages—it’s important that they be accompanied by swift and clear actions.”

“Despite the Biden administration’s messages, [corrupt elites] are still—to varying degrees—pushing to see how far they can get.”

Referring to Salvadoran lawmakers’ removal of judges and the attorney general specifically, Carlos Hernández, executive director of Honduran nonprofit Association for a More Just Society, which has received U.S. Agency for International Development funding, said inaction may simply embolden such leaders, leading to “a cascade effect for our countries in this region.” He cited a lack of action by the United States and the international community when the Honduran Congress removed constitutional court judges from their position in 2012 as an example. Democratic institutions continued to deteriorate in Honduras thereafter, leading to a Supreme Court decision in 2015 to remove a single-term limit and allow the reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2017 presidential elections, which were mired with fraud allegations.

Similarly, when former Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales refused to renew the mandate of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in 2018 (he had faced an investigation himself with support from the CICIG), the Trump administration refrained from significant pushback. The anti-corruption body was forced to close up shop in 2019. Since then, corrupt elites have attacked the progress the CICIG made in the last decade. Lawsuits against judges and prosecutors investigating corruption have increased, corrupt actors have sought to co-opt the process of selecting key judges, and legislators have moved to push through laws that would reduce corruption sentences and revoke anti-corruption laws.

Considering the state of affairs in Central America, it might be tempting to consider returning to Obama-era policies. And, indeed, the later years of the Obama administration marked a new era of U.S. engagement in Central America after a period when the United States focused its foreign-policy efforts on other priorities. In response to the 2014 migrant crisis, for example, the Obama administration pledged a $1 billion aid package to the region known as the Alliance for Prosperity. Meanwhile, anti-corruption efforts and respect for the rule of law became key priorities, and the end of former U.S. President Barack Obama’s years saw some advances in Central America. El Salvador launched some ambitious corruption investigations into past presidents. Honduras approved the creation of an international corruption body—the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras—supported by the Obama administration. Most notably, former Guatemala President Otto Pérez Molina resigned to face prosecution in 2015 after an investigation by the CICIG revealed a corruption scandal, sending tens of thousands of people to the streets in protest. Most signs in the region pointed towards continued progress in the anti-corruption fight if this support continued.

“When we achieved these advances, there were many factors. There was the presence in the streets, the CICIG, an international community beyond just the U.S. in support of the idea of strengthening the justice system, and honorable officials and courageous judges,” said Claudia Paz y Paz, former attorney general of Guatemala and current director of the Center for Justice and International Law, an organization defending human rights across Latin America. But four years of the Trump administration reversed that momentum. “This wave of setbacks that we are living in the region began in that moment when they stopped supporting these efforts,” she said.

For Biden, this recent backlash presents a dilemma. The decisions his administration makes now will set the tone for its engagement in the region for the next four to eight years, but building political will in the region to support a renewed crackdown on corruption cannot be done quickly.

The administration has made some initial moves. A long-awaited list of corrupt officials in Central America, who may be subject to U.S. sanctions, is scheduled to be published in June, Biden’s special envoy for the Northern Triangle Ricardo Zúñiga announced last week. In a trip to San Salvador this week, Zúñiga met with Bukele and expressed his opposition to the removal of the judges and attorney general. ‘“For us it would be best to return to the situation that existed until April 30,” he said in a TV interview in El Salvador. Any further actions will be discussed by the Biden administration and in Congress, Zúñiga said.

Visa sanctions are one way to target corruption without harming the average citizen through broader sanctions, according to experts. Independent investigations in the United States into drug trafficking, such as the case that led to the conviction of the Honduran president’s brother, are another. In Honduras, allegations of links to drug cartels against the president and his close circle have escalated since Biden took office, revealing the depths of entrenched corruption.

When diplomatic and judicial channels fail, the United States can also turn to other forms of leverage—for example, when dealing with Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele’s recent moves to replace judges. “The biggest commercial partner of El Salvador is the U.S., and the economy is very dependent on the U.S., more than anything because of the millions of Salvadorans who are in the U.S.,” said Saúl Baños, executive director of the San Salvador-based nonprofit Foundation for Studies on the Application of Law. Conditions on multilateral loans, such as a $1 billion International Monetary Fund loan currently being negotiated with the Salvadoran government, could pressure Bukele to respect the rule of law. “The U.S. has weight in the multilateral banks, and they could put conditions based on the risk in the country and the judicial insecurity that has been created in recent days in the decision to give the loan or not,” Baños said. Stymying the flow of remittances to El Salvador, which make up about 20 percent of the country’s GDP, is another more drastic action the Biden administration could take, although Baños cautioned against it for its disproportionate impact on already struggling Salvadoran citizens.

Conditioning aid to the region is another way the United States could show its disapproval of recent actions there. “The U.S. has to define indicators about the institutional progress of these countries—for example, impunity and human rights,” Hernández said. But the types of structural changes Biden and Harris are looking for require sustained support, he said. “What’s needed is transformation in the long term. We can’t just have one-year projects,” he said. Looking forward, the creation of a regional anti-corruption body modeled on the successes of the CICIG could help the United States achieve its long-term goals, said Aldo Bonilla, professor of international relations at Guatemala’s University of San Carlos. The political will for this kind of regional CICIG may not yet exist in the region, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be built, Beltrán said.

The United States has long been criticized for its intervention in Central America. But many experts say they see a role for U.S. involvement in the fight against corruption—particularly when the United States respects the expertise of civil society and citizens on the ground and takes a supportive role. When internal checks and balances are debilitated, international mechanisms can help establish more democratic norms, they said.

Fighting corruption in Central America is a priority citizens have shown is important to them through protests and casting ballots for candidates running on anti-corruption platforms. Supporting these citizens’ demands and the work of local institutions are the keys to success for the Biden administration’s fight against corruption in Central America, experts agreed. When the Biden administration finds ways to work with Central American citizens and civil society to support their calls for democracy and ending corruption is when it will have the most impact in the region.

Anna-Catherine Brigida is a freelance journalist based in San Salvador covering immigration, human rights and security in Central America. Twitter: @AnnaCat_Brigida

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