Headlines ripped through Brazilian news outlets last week on how President Michel Temer received millions of dollars in illicit payments and sought to obstruct an anticorruption campaign. This has shaken Brazilian markets and reignited fears of political turmoil in the country. Executives at JBS SA, the world’s largest meatpacking company, implicated Mr. Temer of accepting USD $4.6 million in illegal campaign contributions, in addition to the payments made to his predecessors, Dilma Rousseff and Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva. As scandalous as these stories may seem, they are merely another plot twist in the seemingly endless tragedy related to Brazil’s Operation Car Wash, a corruption investigation by the national police that has uncovered a vast network of illicit behavior and associations between government and business. Every new revelation reveals just how far the network of corruption spans across borders and industries, and permeates all levels of society.
The Operation Car Wash investigation has brought international focus to the rampant corruption not just in Brazil, but in many Latin American countries, stunting socioeconomic advancement throughout the region. Examples are numerous. The cancerous Odebrecht scandal involving the widespread bribery of public officials continues to metastasize in governments from Chile to Panama, while Venezuela’s national guard actively traffics narcotics. The rash of journalist killings and the associated impunity in Mexico was recently castigated in a report by Amnesty International, and the International Institute for Strategic Studies dubbed Mexico the second most violent country in the world. The US Congress recently passed a bill specifying that combating corruption in the Northern Triangle (Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador) must remain a top policy priority for the United States in Central America. Latin American countries routinely place very low on Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index. It is lamentably clear that Latin America needs help in solving its corruption problems.
However, there may be a model emerging that could help countries deal with corruption. In 2016, the Organization of American States (OAS) installed a mission to combat corruption in Honduras in the wake of a series of high-profile incidents involving human rights abuses, institutionalized drug trafficking, and deep-rooted public graft by politicians and the country’s oligarchic class. Following the revelation that the ruling Partido Nacional (PN) diverted USD $300 million of the National Health Fund in order to fund the election campaigns of party candidates, including the reelection campaign of President Juan Orlando Hernandez, widespread protests erupted in the streets of Tegucigalpa and other towns across the country, with calls for an anti-corruption commission.
In early 2016, the Honduran government agreed to host the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), which, according to the OAS, “aims at improving the quality of services delivered by the justice system of Honduras in the prevention and fight against corruption and impunity in the country, through active cooperation, technical advice, supervision, and oversight of the State institutions responsible for preventing, investigating, and punishing acts of corruption.” Modeled after a similar mission in Guatemala, MACCIH is an independent entity comprised of international legal professionals that works with Honduran government and civil society organizations to implement a 10-point plan to promote legislative and institutional reforms that are needed to address the problem of corruption in Honduras. It claims to have realized significant successes in its first year, including the indictment of the head of the Institute of Social Security for his role in the National Health Fund embezzlement scandal. The criminal convictions of high-level government officials would have been unthinkable prior to the MACCIH’s work, considering the prevalence of impunity for officials of that stature. It continues to work with the Office of the Attorney General to investigate the crimes of public officials and working to change the process for sentencing for organized crime in order to infiltrate trafficking and gang organizations. Additionally, MACCIH has given technical assistance and institutional strengthening for government departments, including litigation skills for federal attorneys, helping the civil servants to improve the execution of their duties.
While MACCIH faces a number of challenges and will require an objective evaluation when its work is done, it is clear that the OAS mission to combat corruption is leading Honduras in the right direction. The OAS framework for judicial reform and strengthening institutions appears that it could serve as a viable pan-Latino model to be implemented in other countries dealing with similar corruption problems. Most countries in the region (save for Venezuela) have taken the first critical first step at dealing with corruption: admitting there is a corruption problem. The next step in dealing with the corruption epidemic is receiving buy-in from citizens and governments for international expertise that will responsibly implement a framework for combating corruption. Taking this crucial step will go a long way in helping Latin America to give itself a chance to advance its social, economic, and political systems in step with the rest of the developed world.