Central American anticorruption bodies set to expire, but foundations laid for legacies, former prosecutor says

17 Jul 2019 12:00 am by Robert Thomason

Although internationally backed commissions that pursue corruption cases in Guatemala and Honduras are set to disband in coming months, their successes in prosecuting officials will leave a legacy that the countries can build upon, a former Guatemalan prosecutor said.

For decades Guatemalans observed the impunity with which venal public officials acted, said Arturo Aguilar, who worked in Guatemala's Office of the Attorney General. The establishment in 2007 of the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) helped pass antibribery laws and enforce them by jailing corrupt public officials, said Aguilar, who also had worked with CICIG.

There is a "new conscience of being put before a court or being put before a prosecutor" and "that consequences can happen and will happen if you don't obey the law," said Aguilar, now executive director of the Seattle International Foundation, a group focusing on rule of law in Central America, on a panel* in Washington, DC.

"That is the legacy, I think that CICIG and MACCIH [Mission in Support of the Fight Against Corruption in Honduras] and all of these efforts can leave in my country or in other countries in Central America," Aguilar said.

CICIG has helped the Guatemalan attorney general's office obtain more than 300 convictions, according to an American University study. CICIG also participated in the indictment of former President Otto Perez Molina on bribery charges; Molina is in custody awaiting trial. MACCIH, established in 2016, has been credited with assisting in dozens of convictions. Both commissions assist national authorities who try the cases in national courts.

— Ex-attorney general agrees —

Thelma Aldana, the former Guatemalan attorney general who while in office obtained the indictment against Molina and others associated with his case, agreed with Aguilar that anticorruption cultural changes are following the institutional changes brought by CICIG and other anti-graft efforts.

"We are in a stage of retreat now, but we have laws on the books and capacity that no one can take away and a mentality in the hearts and minds of the people that no one can reverse," Aldana told the audience through a translator.

Aldana herself was charged with embezzlement in March the same week she registered to run for president of Guatemala; she denies the charges. The Guatemalan Constitutional Court in June disqualified her candidacy, a decision denounced by a group of US senators who called it "politically motivated."

— Mandates ending —

Outgoing Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales has said he will not renew the mandate of CICIG when it ends in September. Morales has been investigated by CICIG and Aldana for misuse of campaign funds.

Presidential elections in Guatemala are set for Aug. 11, and none of the leading candidates has indicated they will renew CICIG, said Charles T. Call, an American University fellow who has been studying anticorruption commissions in Central America.

The mandate of the Honduran anticorruption commission MACCIH will expire in January 2020. MACCIH is backed by the Organization of American States.

— FCPA a legal concern —

The weakness of the rule of law is a key contributor to migration from Central America and an obstacle to economic progress, said Mark L. Schneider, a senior adviser at the Center for Strategic & International Studies.

"US business, and other international business, are leery about expansion into a region without the certainty of the rule of law and guarantees of a level playing field so that firms are not faced with unfair competition unless they violate the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act," Schneider said.

"Just last week the State Department issued its investment climate statement for Guatemala, noting that foreign direct investment flows fell 11 percent last year, and it noted complex and confusing laws and regulations, inconsistent judicial decisions, bureaucratic impediments and corruption continue to constitute practical barriers to investment," Schneider said.

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