In an unprecedented step, various countries in Latin America are moving forward with trials against high-ranking government officials as citizen movements against corruption strengthen. It’s a significant step forward to gurantee human rights in the region, as various UN agencies argue that corruption stymies development and rights protection. According to Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, a measure not exempt from criticism itself, 68% of countries in the Americas have a score below 50, where scores closer to zero indicate higher levels of corruption.
This is an old and serious problem in the region. However, why are these developments noteworthy? What is truly striking is not that there are corruption scandals, but rather that the state is prosecuting high-ranking government officials because of them. Let’s look at five cases. In Guatemala, various government officials, including an ex Vice President, are involved in a wide-reaching customs corruption scandal, while others were arrested for defrauding the Guatemalan Institute of Social Security. Nevertheless, not only is the state prosecuting government officials from the executive in this country, there are also at least three Supreme Court judges involved in various scandals. These scandals have generated a strong citizen movement, promoted through social networks using hashtags like #JusticiaYa (Justice Now!), which also organizes physical mobilizations in the streets of Guatemala.
Its neighbor Honduras faces a similar situation. Hondurans recently learned of an embezzlement in the millions against the Honduran Institute of Social Security (IHSS), for which the state has detained the Institute’s ex director. Moreover, the process ignited a debate on the judiciary’s sluggishness to such an extent that its Judicial Council is investigating delays in corruption cases. This process also led to a significant citizen mobilization, known as outraged by corruption, which marches on the streets of Honduras and demands solutions instead of speeches.
As if that was not enough, Panama has begun to prosecute its ex president Ricardo Martinelli for illegally intercepting communications. The state has also arrested several of his ex ministers on corruption charges. Additionally, Panama convicted an ex Supreme Court judge for unfair financial gain, while it prosecutes yet another for similar crimes. In this country citizens have also mobilized with some asking “prison for the corrupt.”
Colombia does not disappoint either. Not only are there several convicted government officials from both the executive and the legislature for different crimes, but also in 2015 corruption scandals blemished “the Crown’s jewel” of the judiciary: the Constitutional Court. The latter not only solicited great outrage and led to the creation of citizen movements like a cacerolazo that called for all the judges’ resignation and an #SOSPorLaJusticia (SOS for the Judiciary).
Finally, an emblematic case of this “Latin American wave” is Chile. Currently in the “Penta Case” Chile is prosecuting various congressmen and a former presidential candidate for tax fraud. As if that was not enough, Chile is also prosecuting the son of the sitting President Michelle Bachelet for using privileged information and influence peddling, which has affected the Chilean President’s popularity.
The list is long. I could mention the Petrobras corruption case in Brazil that has led to a change of this public corporation’s senior management and on-going investigations into various Brazilian politicians; or the prosecution against Nadine Heredia, the Peruvian President’s wife. Moreover, it seems that national corruption prosecutions against high-ranking government officials are occurring in other regions. However, given the similarities among Latin American countries in respect to democracy and rule of law, I focus on this region’s cases to show the elements they have in common, and as I argue, allow the prosecution of high-ranking government officials.
In the first place, the institutional and social panorama of the aforementioned cases allows the opening of prosecutions, and in certain cases, try and convict government officials. This is due to two variables. On one hand, the institutional mechanisms for investigating and trying officials were effective, which shows that when there is political will for the oversight of officials, there are results. In general, except in the Guatemala case, the standard national system has carried out the prosecutions. Sometimes, when the officials have immunity, the state has begun impeachment processes, that is to say, prosecution through Congress. For example, Panama used this procedure to sanction the Supreme Court judges.
On the other hand, the social context in which these cases have come to light has generated widespread outrage and citizen mobilization that encourage the trials. In a region as unequal as Latin America, defrauding the tax system or peddling influences for unfair financial gain by people who already earn among the highest salaries has resulted in a significant social repudiation. Even more if it implies embezzling from the health system which serves every citizen. Perhaps because of this, especially in certain countries, the use of social networks by citizens and their constant mobilization in the public sphere, has resulted in greater pressure to continue the prosecutions.
Also in the majority of the countries no branch of government is exempt from corruption scandals. It is quite striking that in various countries ex-presidents, ministers, judges, and politicians are being tried at the same time. As such, there is no state power that is too big to fail!
*Carolina Villadiego Burbano is a researcher at the Center for the Study of Law, Justice and Society (Dejusticia).