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Sunset of the Central American Spring

Former Guatemala president Otto Pérez Molina in custody. All rights reserved.

How much of the outrage is left that brought hundreds of thousands of
Guatemalans into the streets to protest violence in 2015, and the corruption of
then-president
Otto Pérez Molina? What momentum
remains from the
demonstrations in Honduras that demanded a
strengthening of its judicial system and investigations into allegations of
corruption against President Juan Orlando Hernández and his National Party that
same year? And how much of that wave washed across El Salvador? The
answer, at least in 2016, was very little.

But judicial reforms and criminal investigations in those three countries,
known collectively as the Northern Triangle, continue to etch away at organized
crime in the region, one of the world's most violent, corrupt and crime-ridden.
To be sure, criminal prosecutions against money laundering, contraband, drug
trafficking, and homicides, especially in Guatemala and El Salvador, are
beginning to bear fruit in the courtrooms.

At the same time, local elites — both emerging and traditional — have not
resigned nor stopped undermining efforts to prosecute them. Even the most
lauded of supranational efforts in this field came under heavy pressure: the
International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG),
a United Nations-backed appendage of the Guatemalan Attorney General's Office,
saw attempts from traditional business and political elites to influence
its investigations and
destroy its reputation.

Nonetheless, CICIG remains central to these efforts. It is a model that
combines internationally funded resources (provided mostly by the United States
and the European Union) and international investigators who assist the local
Attorney General's Office in Guatemala. The two
work together on investigations and develop proposals for legal reforms.

Established in 2007, it wasn't until 2015 that the CICIG really hit the
bulls eye. Working together, CICIG's Colombian Commissioner Iván Velásquez and
Attorney General Thelma Aldana, developed a case against then President Pérez
Molina and his Vice President Roxana Baldetti that exposed a
decades-old system of state corruption in Guatemala.

To be sure, the CICIG had its
battles with elites, that used their charm and their muscle to try to influence what and who the celebrated commission would investigate. However, Guatemala is still
the best example of how to fight against corruption in the region. And
investigations by the CICIG and Guatemala's
Attorney General's Office of Pérez Molina's inner circle are laying bare how
deeply organized crime networks have penetrated Guatemala's
political system.

One of the cases that best illustrates this penetration is that of Manuel
López Bonilla, a retired Lt. Colonel with a close relationship to Pérez Molina.
As interior minister during the Pérez Molina administration, López Bonilla
enriched himself and his allies, and allegedly struck side deals with drug
traffickers to protect them. 

The case of López Bonilla, who was arrested in Guatemala City in
July and faces corruption charges in Guatemala, is also
an example of how the so-called Illegal Clandestine Security Apparatuses (CIACS), embedded
themselves in the state and morphed
into something with a wider variety of
partners and greater reach, which often included political parties and
businessmen.

The CICIG and its last two attorneys general — Thelma Aldana and her
predecessor, Claudia Paz y Paz — have kept up the spirit of the Guatemalan
spring. They didn't just investigate and prosecute major criminal actors most
closely connected to political power and the business elite, but also began to
reshape the Attorney General's Office, which is now capable of launching its
own complex investigations.

Despite the impact that the CICIG has had since 2007 (and, above all, in
the last two years), the experiment is still fragile. Analysts and activists of
the anti-corruption campaign all say that corruption
and crime continue to be embedded
in the very heart of the Guatemalan state.

"They have stripped away the visible faces, but shady characters, which
are the ones working behind the scenes, are still operating. This gray zone
makes it difficult to completely purge the corrupt state," said activist
Helen Mack in a November interview.

The CICIG is also, by definition, temporary. The renewal of its mandate
depends on political pressure, as does the designation of a trustworthy attorney
general and, for that matter, honest
high court judges. As long as
political power remains at the service of criminal interests, the spring
continues to rely on pressure from citizens, foreign governments and
multilaterals. The good news is that Guatemala has
already witnessed what this pressure can achieve.

 In fact, CICIG's success, and US support of this model, has
intensified efforts to go after organized crime and corruption in El Salvador and Honduras. In the
Salvadoran case, change came in late 2015, when attempts by the country's
political elite to re-elect Luis Martínez as attorney general failed. In his
place, congress selected Douglas
Meléndez, who quickly accepted political and technical
assistance from the United States. And with money and counsel from
Washington DC, Meléndez launched
the Special Group against Impunity (GECI), a
smaller-scale, wholly national CICIG.

"The issue of impunity has been around [in El Salvador] and it
will continue to exist. You can't block out the sun with one finger,"
Meléndez said during a presentation of GECI in a teleconference transmitted
from El Salvador to
Washington, DC.

The Meléndez era has led to El Salvador's own
kind of spring — chilly, but still hopeful. Meléndez has investigated the last
three presidents (two from Republican Nationalist Alliance (ARENA) and one from
the Farabundo Martí National Liberation Front (FMLN) for embezzlement and corruption, and filed charges against former presidents Mauricio
Funes and Antonio Saca (the latter is
in custody awaiting trial) in these cases. He has also targeted Enrique
Rais, a businessman who is also being investigated
by the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), and Martínez, his predecessor
and the attorney general that the political parties wanted to re-elect.

But the wind is still blowing hard against Meléndez.In El Salvador,
President Salvador Sánchez Cerén has opposed the presence of a supranational
body since his administration began in 2014. Members of his FMLN party have
even called such a model "interventionist." Officials from both the
FMLN and the right-wing opposition, ARENA, have also fought to maintain a weak
Attorney General's Office and continue to underfund it.

From the beginning, Meléndez has also received
threats and pressure from political
actors and people related to organized crime. "I should mention another
concern of mine, which is the intention of groups outside the institution to
interfere in cases involving corruption and probity, in ongoing investigations
or future investigations," Meléndez wrote to six US Congress members last
April.

Despite these constraints, Meléndez– who has two years left in his term —
has begun a process that could lead to more effective ways of combating
corruption and organized crime in El Salvador. But, as
it is in Guatemala, the old
criminal practices are so entrenched that this promises to be, at the very
least, an uphill struggle.

For its part, Honduras decided on a
model similar to Guatemala's: the
Support Mission against Corruption in Honduras (MACCIH), part of the Organization of American States (OEA). It began operating in
early April. Its creation was prompted by the government's inability to take
effective measures against corruption in cases such as that of the Honduran
Social Security Institute ( IHSS), in which an estimated $330 million was
embezzled. Authorities are still investigating if some of this money went into
the coffers of the governing party and possibly the political campaign of
President Juan Orlando Hernández.

Currently, MACCIH is focusing on legal reforms that give greater power to
the judicial system and the prosecutors' office. However, since the beginning
of its mandate, the mission has faced a number of significant political
obstacles that have limited its effectiveness, and is being lobbied by the presidential
palace and parts of the security forces to tone down its efforts. What's more,
the systematic blockade of the mission's legislative proposals exposed the
inability of Honduran institutions to confront corruption, even with the assistance of the MACCIH.

One of MACCIH's most visible efforts has been to support a special
commission on police reform. Honduras police are
known for corruption and close ties to organized crime and street gangs. The
commission, which began in April, aims to purge the police, whose highest
officials have been linked to criminal cases.

The effort has had success, but it has also been plagued by controversy,
threats and, most recently, violence. On December 15, after the commission took
the decision to remove more than 400 police officers, pastor Jorge Machado, one of the commission
members, was attacked by gunmen.
Although he survived the shooting, one of his government-assigned bodyguards
died.

Other cases have also unsettled reform efforts in Honduras, most notably
the murder
of environmental activist Berta Cáceres earlier
this year. The case has been linked to officials from a company that is
building a hydroelectric dam, since Cáceres and others had been trying to block
the project. 

Cáceres' killing provoked international outrage, and led the US Congress to
pass the Berta
Cáceres Act, which aims to block $18 million that Honduras could receive
in security assistance until the case is resolved. The European Investment Bank
also withdrew its funding of about $39 million for an electrical project in
western Honduras.

However, while authorities have captured the alleged perpetrators
of the murder — which includes active and retired military
personnel — the intellectual authors of her murder remain at large. Evidence
indicates that they could belong to one of the most powerful families in the
country, but there is little
to suggest that a prosecution of any suspected
intellectual authors will happen soon. 

Last November, the country was also rocked by the capture
of drug lord Wilter Blanco in Costa Rica. Blanco
is the alleged leader of the Atlantic
Cartel, a little-known group that works with military,
police and corrupt officials. He has had an indictment against him in the
United States since 1999. The capture of Blanco, who faces extradition to the
United States, promises to open a Pandora's Box that may reach Hernández and his
family.

Other ambitious reform efforts remain on stand-by. The MACCIH has tried to
modify the law to make corruption an extraditable crime. The attorney general
agrees with the proposal, but, not surprisingly, congress does not.

The arrival of the MACCIH and increased coordination between the attorney
general and the US government is a big step towards changing Honduras' balance of
power. The role of the US embassy had been crucial throughout this process.
MACCIH has also exerted pressure on the presidential palace regarding some
high-level cases. It remains to be seen, however, whether other state
institutions will join the fight against corruption and impunity in Honduras.

Despite the setbacks, these anti-corruption efforts in the Northern
Triangle were game changers in 2016. The US government agrees. A group of US
congressmen recently qualified the progress in the region as
"excellent." 

In the coming year, the region promises to remain one of the most violent
in the world but hope springs eternal as it relates to impunity. The protests
that flooded plazas and streets in Guatemala and Honduras in 2015 have
faded, but the outrage they expressed has brought changes to the way local
prosecutors pursue complex crimes and their ability to connect organized crime
with local political elites.

There was less public protest in El Salvador, where a
politically polarized populace steered clear of marches. But cries for an
independent press and a justice system that dares to pursue corruption at the highest
levels by going after the country's last three former presidents has breathed
life into that nation as well.

It is still too early to know what will happen in Central America. The
public attacks by politicians and businessmen on the CICIG in Guatemala and the
Salvadoran attorney general, as well as attempts by Honduran elites to preserve
the status quo and minimize MACCIH, show that the elites will not give up their
power easily.

But jailing high level officials, exposing corrupt networks, and targeting
big businessmen give hope that the cold winter of impunity and rampant
corruption is turning the region towards a warm breeze of spring.

This article was originally published by InsightCrime.

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