The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Latin America was making progress fighting corruption. Now impunity is roaring back.

Anti-corruption demonstrators in Brasilia in 2017. (Eraldo Peres/AP)

Brendan O’Boyle is a senior editor of Americas Quarterly. Brian Winter is the editor in chief of Americas Quarterly.

Five years ago, everything changed in Latin America — or so it seemed.

Investigations into a money-laundering operation in Brazil beginning in 2014 revealed a massive bribery scheme involving energy and construction companies. The “Car Wash” scandal saw dozens jailed and billions of dollars in fines — and implicated politicians in Argentina, Colombia, Peru and beyond. At about the same time in Chile, an influence-peddling scandal involving the president’s son rocked the establishment there. Also in 2014, Guatemalan prosecutors began working with a U.N.-backed anti-corruption agency on a case that would spark mass protests and the resignation and imprisonment of the president.

What followed was an unprecedented crackdown on entrenched corruption that touched nearly every country in the region. Many who study Latin America saw the developments as signs of progress — the fruits of strengthening democracies and an informed middle class.

Today, however, the anti-corruption movement is losing momentum, with several recent setbacks for prosecutors and judges across the region. In Guatemala, authorities dismantled the U.N. body investigating corruption and blocked a popular former attorney general from running for president. In Brazil, leaks of private messages between prosecutors and then-federal judge Sérgio Moro have reinforced fears of political bias in corruption investigations. Polarized politics are also hampering reform efforts in Colombia, where Congress failed to approve a raft of anti-corruption reforms endorsed by almost 12 million people in a 2018 referendum.

The risk is that the region will return to a status quo where impunity is accepted as the norm. So how can corruption fighters across Latin America ensure the movement isn’t derailed? Reforms — and stronger institutions — seem to be the answer. In the latest issue of Americas Quarterly, we consulted with legal experts to analyze 10 different policies, laws and strategies, looking at where they’ve been tried and whether they effectively prevent and combat corruption.

Several of those practices have already proved their worth. A law that protects whistleblowers has been vital to the expansion of Argentina’s “notebook” case, which involves alleged corruption during the administrations of President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and her late husband, Néstor Kirchner. (Cristina Fernández de Kirchner denies wrongdoing.) New legislation expanding plea-bargain deals in Brazil was also a key reason that the Car Wash investigations were able to implicate so many executives and politicians.

Many of the most effective practices for prosecuting corruption involve coordination across international borders. An asset recovery framework adopted in December among Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay promises to be a positive step toward improved collaboration on this front. In Guatemala, cooperation between the United Nations and Guatemala’s public ministry was critical. The ensuing backlash from implicated politicians, including current President Jimmy Morales, points to both the strategy’s effectiveness and its Achilles’ heel: International collaboration often depends on buy-in from actors who may be the target of investigations themselves.

On other fronts, reliance on certain types of anti-corruption tools has increased in recent years even as their effectiveness is debated. That’s the case with pretrial detention, which Peruvian authorities, for example, have increasingly turned to while investigating top politicians. While the practice may put pressure on the accused to cooperate with investigators, questions linger about its long-term benefit. In April, former president Alan García died by suicide after police arrived at his home to detain him. The tragedy sparked a national debate about the legality of such arrests.

Committing to reforms won’t be easy. As in Colombia, reform packages in Peru have faced fierce resistance in a highly polarized legislature despite popular support among citizens. But governments have risen to the occasion in the past. In Brazil, reforms proposed or passed under then-Presidents Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and Dilma Rousseff — such as legislation on corporate liability and plea bargains — were central to later cases (like one that put Lula in jail). During Michelle Bachelet’s presidency in Chile, reforms passed through Congress with strong popular backing. Even this year, a campaign-finance reform in Argentina passed with bipartisan support in Congress thanks to a multisector coalition.

If the focus remains on reforms that work, the day could come for Latin America where corruption’s costs finally outweigh its benefits.

Read more:

Norma Torres: The U.S. must support the rule of law in Central America. Let’s start in Guatemala.

Francisco Toro: Latin America is fed up with corruption. Leaders need to face the reckoning.

Mark L. Schneider: Guatemala’s election may hold the answer to solving the migration crisis