To watch a video of the event, click here.
“He stole, but just a bit.”
“Corruption is just something we live with.”
Declarations such as these were once a common refrain in Latin America. But from Brazil to Guatemala, a historic crackdown on corruption is making the old tropes obsolete.
Leading this dramatic shift is a generation of courageous prosecutors and activists for whom a better catchphrase might be, “No one is above the law.” Four of these inspiring “corruption busters” were on hand on February 9 to celebrate the launch of Americas Quarterly’s first issue of 2016, and take part in an unprecedented panel discussion on the region-wide fight against corruption.
Guatemalan attorney general Thelma Aldana, Colombian prosecutor Iván Velásquez, Peruvian jurist José Ugaz and Brazilian prosecutor Antonio Carlos Welter joined AQ and a packed audience to reflect on the trends that have enabled their work and discuss what more should be done to make sure the crackdown continues.
Policymakers and activists in the region took note as well, tuning in to a live webcast as Aldana and Velásquez shared how their investigations into institutional corruption in Guatemala led them to the highest levels of government – and to the resignation of the country’s former president.
In an echo of the public support that enabled Aldana’s and Velásquez’s work, the #corruptionbusters hashtag was trending on Twitter in Guatemala during the event.
The focus of the discussion, though, was on how anticorruption drives in one part of the hemisphere affect – and indeed resemble – those taking place in another.
The panelists offered important lessons for anyone in the region hoping to replicate their success. Ugaz referred to another significant corruption busting moment in recent history – the case of Vladimiro Montesinos, the head of the National Intelligence Service in Peru who fled the country following a corruption scandal, which also prompted the resignation of then-President Fujimori.
The panelists also emphasized that their work is far from over. What has happened in the emblematic cases of Guatemala and Brazil is just one step. Corruption is systemic in many state institutions in Latin America, and there is a real risk of returning to their roots after the departure of an incriminated official. The four corruption busters were conscious of the need to push for a transformation in state institutions, as opposed to state leadership.
The key, according to the panelists, is to strengthen the autonomy of state institutions. Criminal investigators and justice officials must be free to operate independently, regardless of who is being examined, said Velásquez. And it’s not just the justice sector. Aldana spoke to the need to shake up public ministries, national forensic institutes, national police forces, and any institution that could be affected.
Not only must we change institutions, but we must also change beliefs, said Welter, referring to the view of some Brazilian elites that they should not be subject to the rule of law. The best way to change beliefs is to show consequences – prison, the loss of assets, removal from office, he said.
For people wishing to bring this historic movement to their own country, the panelists encouraged citizens to get involved. The ball is already rolling – as Ugaz joked, the CICIG is “trending” at the moment. But prosecutors and other members of the justice sector need citizens to demand justice and accountability from their governments.
If the public response to corruption investigations in Guatemala and Brazil is any indication, they can count on that happening. Change is afoot.
Bons is an editor for Americas Quarterly.
Tags: Anticorruption, corruption busters, Lava Jato