Demonstrators demand the impeachment of President Dilma Rousseff of Brazil during a March 2016 rally in Brasilia. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

An anti-corruption wave is sweeping Latin America. Last week, former Panamanian president Ricardo Martinelli stopped fighting extradition from the United States back to Panama, where he faces several criminal charges, including corruption. But that’s just the most recent example.

This anti-corruption wave is new in the region. It comes after more than a decade and a half — 2000-2016 — in which Latin American corruption was widespread and steady. My research finds that the reason is clear: Executives weren’t being checked by the legislative and judicial branches. In the past months, those branches have stepped up and begun to do their jobs, after citizens commenced to demand accountability in face of major corruption scandals. That could change the region.

Here’s what happened in 2018 alone

Let’s start in Central America, particularly Guatemala, where the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) formed, in conjunction with the country’s former attorney general Thelma Aldana, an impressive anti-corruption task force. Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales is in open conflict with CICIG. Former Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina and his vice president, Roxana Baldetti, are being tried for a multimillionaire corruption case. Pérez Molina resigned from the presidency in 2015, just after the legislature took away his presidential immunity.

Meanwhile, in Guatemala’s eastern neighbor El Salvador, former president Elías Antonio Saca is also being tried for corruption and money laundering.

Next, let’s look at South America. In Brazil, former president Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva last month went to jail on corruption charges. Lula is the most prominent of many Brazilian politicians jailed as a result of the Lava Jato (“car wash”) corruption investigation. Some of these politicians were previously punished by the legislative branch.

In Peru, former president Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned after corruption allegations and serious pressures from Congress. Former president Ollanta Humala and his wife, Nadine Heredia, are being investigated for corruption.

In Argentina, formerly powerful Minister of Federal Planning, Public Infrastructure, and Services Julio de Vido is now in jail, also facing corruption charges.

Here’s how I did my research 

Varieties of Democracy is a data set charting more than 450 indicators of democracy. The indicator ratings are based on surveys that are sent to and filled out by 3,000 country experts, primarily academics. According to this data, between 2000 and 2016 the region saw almost no changes in corruption charges. The Political Corruption Index showed a flat line from the beginning of the century until recently.

Why was the control of corruption stuck in Latin America? Usually, it is very difficult to explain an outcome that remains stable. However, although corruption did not vary in the region as a whole, it did vary from year to year within the countries. I developed linear models to explain these country-level changes, testing four possible explanations: economic liberalization; electoral democratization; legislative constraints on the executive; and judicial constraints on the executive.

Of these, only legislative and judicial constraints on the executive had a significant effect on curbing corruption. In the analyses, the weakness of the legislative constraints on the executive was the most significant variable for explaining the region’s levels of corruption, followed by the judicial constraints.

By “legislative constraints on the executive,” we mean the degree to which the legislature and other supervision agencies (such as the comptroller general and prosecutors) “are capable of questioning, investigating, and exercising oversight over the executive.” The judicial constraints on the executive index specifies “to what extent does the executive respect the constitution and comply with court rulings, and to what extent is the judiciary able to act in an independent fashion.”

In brief, Latin America was stuck because legislatures and courts were not overseeing executives properly, particularly about corruption.

What didn’t increase or reduce Latin American corruption? Economic liberalization and electoral democratization, which according to abundant research usually contribute to the control of corruption. It could be that after the political and economic reforms in the region during the 1980s and 1990s, liberalization and electoral democratization have exhausted their anti-corruption potential.

Here’s what changed

As we saw above, legislatures and courts have begun to crack down hard on corruption. What changed? Here’s what: Citizens stepped up and demanded accountability. Brazil and Guatemala have seen massive popular demonstrations against corruption — bringing out crowds of tens of thousands — pressuring institutions to deliver. In Argentina, corruption was one of the most critical issues in the 2015 presidential election — and the incumbent candidate, Daniel Scioli, lost. In Honduras, citizens also went to the streets, which led to the creation of the Organization of American States-backed Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), which continues working in the country.

Citizens have gone to the streets in reaction to corruption scandals — in the public oil company Petrobras in Brazil, the customs services in Guatemala, public-works contracting in Argentina, and the social-security system in Honduras. Exposure and discussion of these scandals can take place only when news organizations are more open and vibrant. Traditional and social media are propelling the speed and intensity with which scandals gain traction among the public, increasing the pressure for accountability.

In short, citizens seem to be transforming their countries, ratcheting up the constraints on their chief executives. The failures of legislative and judicial institutions were what kept Latin America trapped in corruption from 2000 to 2016; their recent successes could help the region to, finally, put corruption under control.

German Petersen (@GermanPetersenC) is a PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin.