We should all be in mourning for Central America. Not only because a new caravan of migrants decided to abandon their homeland in search of safety and a better life, but because Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez has killed off the innovative national anti-corruption mechanism that brought at least some hope that things might change.
Just a few years ago, Central America was in the global vanguard of anti-corruption efforts. Getting to that place was not easy. The region had world-class corruption; it infiltrated the state and inhibited national development. But they also had amazing political and civil society leaders, supported by the international community, who took on this seemingly insurmountable problem.
Guatemala was first. In the early 2000s civil society leaders, who had concluded that organized crimes’ infiltration of the state had paralyzed the justice system, began exploring models to support a functioning justice system. They concluded that they needed not just the support of, but also the intervention of, the international community – a decision not taken lightly.
Over the next few years, civil society developed concrete proposals for new mechanisms. This pressure combined with a political moment created by a series of horrendous murders that were linked to the state, created a moment for change. In 2006, the United Nations and the Guatemala government signed an agreement creating the International Commission to Investigate Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG). The CICIG accompanied the Guatemalan justice system in the investigation and prosecution of cases where organized crime had infiltrated the state. While an uphill battle, laws were changed; complex investigations and legal cases were constructed and successfully prosecuted; and criminals, elected and otherwise, started being held accountable.
In 2016, Honduras, in response to domestic pressure created by blatant corruption that included the ransacking of the country’s social security fund, set up its own internationally supported anti-corruption body, this one connected to the Organization of American States and called the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).
The creation of these institutions in Guatemala and Honduras required the stars to align in such a way that entrenched and corrupt political interests saw in their creation the only way to maintain a semblance of credibility. While these institutions were hard to create, they were easy to kill. They existed because of an agreement between the government and an international body. All any president had to do was to let the anti-corruption body’s mandate expire. Intense domestic, as well as international political support was required to keep the CICIG and MACCIH alive.
Support for the CICIG and the MACCIH was widely bi-partisan in the United States. Congress approved money to support these efforts and a great deal of political pressure was exerted by US ambassadors to keep them from being decimated by the powers they were built to confront. Even during the most favorable environments, these two institutions were always hanging by a thread. That’s what happens when corruption goes straight to the heart of the government. In Guatemala, the CICIG helped take down President Otto Perez Molina. Honduran President Juan Orlando has been plagued by corruption accusations as well, and his brother has been convicted on drug charges here in the United States.
Under the Trump Administration, that political support disappeared. US ambassadors in Honduras and Guatemala stepped back, no longer playing a vocal role in support of these critical anti-corruption bodies. In fact, US officials challenged the CICIG in Guatemala in relation to a case involving Russia, and in Honduras, rather than lifting a finger to keep MACCIH alive, the Administration sent constant messages of support for President Hernandez, making clear that he would suffer no consequences from it’s demise.
Now we see another caravan of Hondurans headed toward the United States and once again ask why they flee. The answer is a lack of hope. The majority of Hondurans live in poverty. They experience violence and extortion. Now they see their own government close down the MACCIH – a mechanism that could have confronted the corruption that keeps their country stuck. What do you expect?
I’m reminded of a phrase my father would use when we children would do something obviously stupid. “Hang crepe on your nose your brain must be dead.”