Corruption back on the rise in Guatemala

The Colom administration did not deal with embezzlement, resulting in a damning assessment in a recent report.

A local editorial recently identified corruption as Guatemalan President Alvaro Colom’s single legacy [EPA]

Scranton, Pennsylvania – Transparency International released its annual Corruption Perception Index (CPI) for 2011 last week. The CPI attempts to assess the level of corruption within a country by compiling a “poll of polls” based upon the perceptions of corruption by business people, risk analysts and non-governmental organisations in each country. The CPI asks these individuals about the bribery of public officials, kickbacks in public procurement, embezzlement of public funds and the effectiveness of public sector anti-corruption efforts – and then ranks countries from zero (most corrupt) to ten (least corrupt).

At its most basic level, political corruption involves the abuse of public power for some private benefit. This often distorts democratic procedures – because policies result not from an open clash of ideas in the marketplace, but instead from back-alley deals. Although political corruption is a serious matter in many democratic nations, it is an especially significant problem in Guatemala and much of Latin America today.

According to the most recent CPI, the perception of corruption in Guatemala increased significantly between 2010 and 2011. In 2011, Guatemala received a score of 2.7 – well below the 3.2 it earned in 2010 – and dropped from 90th to 120th place out of 183 countries. In the immediate geographic region, Costa Rica is the only country that comes in with a respectable reputation at 4.8 (50th place). Honduras and Nicaragua do even worse than Guatemala, with scores of 2.6 and 2.5, respectively.

Guatemala’s Transparency International chapter, Acción Ciudadana, said the country’s low score was partly the result of the state’s failure to develop a coherent policy of transparency and fighting corruption. Congress deserves much of the blame because it has failed to pass four key pieces of legislation: the Bank Secrecy Act, Anti-Corruption Law, Anti-Evasion Law and the Law of Illicit Enrichment.

Last week, an editorial from Guatemalan newspaper El Periodico identified corruption as President Alvaro Colom’s single legacy. The Colom administration has encouraged corruption by expanding a system in which government spending occurs through public trusts without legal regulation. State resources have been transferred to non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in order to avoid congressional oversight.

The administration also used state resources to ensure political support for President Colom and his former wife Sandra Torres de Colom. In March, Torres de Colom divorced her husband in order to run for president, circumventing a law preventing a president’s relatives from running for the office.

But once the former first lady was disqualified from running for president as a candidate for the National Unity for Hope (UNE) party, several people alleged that the government then used its resources to support Manuel Baldízon of Renewed Democratic Liberty (LIDER) in an unsuccessful runoff against the eventual victor, Otto Perez Molina of the Patriotic Party.

El Periodico also faulted Colom and his administration for what they have failed to do. They did not make significant progress in the development of the Inter-American Convention and the United Nations Conventions against corruption, especially in terms of creating corruption offences such as illicit enrichment and transnational bribery. The Colom administration failed to create stiffer penalties for corruption-related crimes such as misappropriation of funds, embezzlement, extortion, bribery and fraud. Colom also was unable to make much progress in the United Nations Convention against Transnational Organised Crime, or in reforming civil service laws.

While congress and the president deserve part of the blame, so do the courts. In May, former President Alfonso Portillo and two alleged accomplices were found not guilty on charges of embezzling several million dollars from the Ministry of Defence during Portillo’s term in office (2000-2004). According to two of the three judges that ruled on the case, the prosecution – which was supported by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) – failed to prove that Portillo and the others were directly involved in the theft. But CICIG Commissioner Francisco Dall’Anese believed that the prosecution provided more than enough evidence to convict Portillo, and was more than he had needed to convict two former Costa Rican presidents of corruption.

News reports emerged immediately following the verdict indicating that one judge in the case had had a previously undisclosed relationship with one of Portillo’s lawyers. Even if their relationship did not influence her ruling, the connection between the two undermined the perception of impartiality. Finally, even though a Guatemala court could not find Portillo guilty, it looks like he will soon be extradited to the United States to face charges of money laundering. The fact that he was not found guilty in Guatemala but will now likely go on trial in the US has not done anything to reduce perceptions of corruption in the country.

“Corruption pervades all levels of the Guatemalan judicial system.”

In another sign of impunity in Guatemala, the country’s high-risk court ordered the release of the country’s former prison director, Alejandro Giammattei. He had been accused of having participated in the murder of seven inmates during a prison uprising at Pavon Prison in 2007. He was also accused of participating in the alleged execution of three inmates who escaped from the “El Infiernito” prison in 2005. Following his July release, Giammattei competed as the presidential candidate for the Social Action Centre party.

Portillo was a former president, and Giammattei a former presidential candidate. Their arrests and Portillo’s trial raised expectations among Guatemalans and observers of the country that it might finally be turning a corner in the battle against impunity. However, by the end of May, both were free.

In October, Beatriz Ofelia de Leon, a former magistrate of the Supreme Court, was arrested on charges of corruption of justice in the case of a missing young woman, Christina Siekavizza. Authorities suspect foul play involving her husband, Roberto Barreda. Barreda and his two young children’s whereabouts are presently unknown. Beatriz Ofelia, who is being held on corruption charges, is Barreda’s mother. Corruption pervades all levels of the Guatemalan judicial system.

Finally, Guatemalan authorities raided the home of Gloria Torres last week. She is the sister of Sandra Torres, the former first lady. According to authorities, Gloria Torres and her fellow conspirators were involved in laundering at least half a million quetzales (about $64,000) through contracts for “ghost work” in Huehuetango, El Quiche, Peten, Jutiapa, and Chiquimula between 2005 and 2007. While the alleged criminal activity took place prior to 2011, the allegations have been publicly speculated for years. The same goes with allegations surrounding President Colom and his former wife, although they have tried to distance themselves from her sister in recent months.

This year, 2011, was an election year in Guatemala. As a result, we were reminded all too frequently that the sources of millions of dollars in contributions to municipal, legislative, and presidential campaigns remained unaccounted for. Organised crime and drug trafficking have infiltrated every level of government, especially municipal offices.

For many, the Guatemalan government has earned its lower score – both by what it has done, and what it has failed to do. On the other hand, it’s difficult to understand the increase in perceived corruption, when Guatemala’s scores had steadily improved in the past four years: from 2.8 in 2007 to 3.1 in 2010. CICIG began work in 2007 with a mandate to investigate crimes, help prosecute those responsible, strengthen governmental institutions and reform the criminal justice system. Yet today’s perception is that Guatemala is just as corrupt as when CICIG and Colom first started their work.

However, it’s also possible to interpret the increase in perceived corruption in Guatemala in a more positive light. CICIG Commissioner Francisco Dall’Anese, Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, and their staffs, have been more successful than their predecessors at uncovering corruption. It is their very success at bringing corrupt acts to light that has caused the increase in perceived corruption from 2010 to 2011. From this perspective, the true level of corruption – which is immeasurable – has not increased, but the perceived level of corruption – which is measurable – has.

Mike Allison is an associate professor in the political science department and a member of the Latin American and Women’s Studies Department at the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania.  He blogs on Central American Politics here.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.