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June 29, 2022

Expert Working Group Report: Promoting Anti-Corruption Activities in Central America

Genocide Trial in Guatemala City: A Maya Ixil woman testifies.

Genocide Trial in Guatemala City: A Maya Ixil woman testifies.

Photo Credit: Elena Hermosa. All photos are modified and credited accordingly to a CC.

Executive Summary

To address the threat of kleptocratic governance in the region, the American Bar Association Center for Human Rights (CHR) and the Rule of Law Initiative (ROLI) established a diverse, inter-disciplinary Expert Working Group to examine lessons learned from past efforts and recommend a course of action. Drawing on the experience of anti-corruption initiatives around the world, the Working Group identified short, medium, and long-term strategies to challenge kleptocratic governance in the region and begin the process of establishing the rule of law.

The Working Group found that, in all three countries, to varying degrees, State institutions had been captured by corrupt networks. These corrupt networks include monopolistic business enterprises with a record of engaging in coercion and collusion, illegal armed groups with a past record of engaging in serious human rights abuses, organized criminal structures engaged in narcotics trafficking and smuggling operations, and past and current government officials. To address these powerful and resilient entities, the international community—in collaboration with local justice sector personnel and civil society leaders—needs to support investigations and prosecutions of those who are demonstrably committed to the corrupt system, while also providing incentives to those with a stated commitment to reform and encouraging the emergence of new actors in the private sector to challenge monopolistic and corrupt practices.

The members of the Working Group agreed that there is an urgent need for the international community to focus attention on the protection of at-risk justice sector personnel and anti-corruption advocates. Given recent attempts by corrupt actors in all three countries to consolidate control, undermine the independence of the justice sector, and restrict the operations of civil society, there is an imminent risk that judges, prosecutors, advocates, and journalists who have successfully investigated corruption will be forced into exile or to cease their activities as a result of direct physical threats or manufactured criminal prosecution.

The Working Group recommends the use of targeted financial sanctions, restrictions on support from international financial institutions, and enhanced due diligence requirements for foreign direct investments to incentivize rule of law reforms and protect pockets of independence in the justice sector. In addition, it is essential that the international community support reform of existing procedures to appoint high court judges and justice sector personnel to ensure that such positions are filled on the basis of merit.

With regards to the need for technical assistance, the Working Group concluded that such assistance was effective to the extent that it helped create pockets of independence within the justice sector. The Working Group recommended that any assistance should be informed by a realistic political economy assessment that takes into account the capture of the justice sector by illicit networks.

With regards to the need for ongoing international investigative capacity, the Working Group concluded that technical assistance alone would not be sufficient to overcome the consolidation of control by illicit networks and the asymmetry in power between these networks and civil society. It therefore concluded that continued international investigative capacity was still needed.

In conclusion, the Working Group found that there is a limited window of opportunity to reverse the steep backsliding that is currently underway in most of the region, but it will take concerted action by the international community. The international community must work in a coordinated manner to adjust the incentive structure for private actors that have captured State institutions, through both accountability measures and economic incentives and disincentives. Those with a demonstrated record of repeated and egregious misconduct should be investigated, prosecuted, and/or sanctioned. For those expressing a willingness to reform, access to financial markets and loans should be conditioned on a demonstrated record of reform. Emerging small and medium business enterprises with a record of ethical conduct should be rewarded. While investigations of corrupt networks and support from the international community may not alone be sufficient to address State capture, it may help preserve pockets of independence in the justice sector that could, in the long term and in combination with broader efforts, create political space for deeper reforms. The new “U.S. Strategy to Counter Corruption” reflects the welcome priority given anti-corruption by the Biden Administration and contributes to a series of new specific actions proposed to implement that strategy both domestically and internationally. Whether they will significantly affect the dangerous anti-democratic trend in the Northern Triangle remains the critical question.


The Working Group therefore makes the following recommendations to the international community:

  • Prioritize preventing further state capture, especially in Guatemala and Honduras, as well as democratic backsliding and direct politization of the justice sector in all three Northern Central American countries.
  • Coordinate among donor governments, including in multilateral bodies and international financial institutions, to shift incentive structures to persuade local elites and powerbrokers to accept reforms.
  • Enhance efforts to create an enabling environment for good governance in the region by providing sustained economic and political support for local civil society and other key players that promote the rule of law.
    • Mandate due diligence for multi-national business enterprises conducting commercial operations in the region to incentivize local suppliers to comply with the law.
    • Revise trade agreements to include anti-corruption measures and rule of law conditionality.
    • Examine means to encourage competition and break up the control of monopolistic business enterprises with a record of corrupt practices.
    • Employ a targeted sanctions strategy that prioritizes state and non-state actors who are involved in corrupt, collusive, or coercive activities.
    • Work with foreign counterparts to freeze proceeds of illicit activities identified in their jurisdictions.
    • Establish an advisory body for transnational law enforcement efforts.
  • Directly support anti-corruption advocates in the region and efforts to build their capacity.
    • Establish a group of friends to consistently support local partners.
    • Support south-south diplomatic and technical engagement.
    • Expand programs to protect civil society and justice sector personnel in the region.
    • Support international supervision of procedures to select justice sector personnel.
  • Continue to support and contribute financing for an internationalized anti-corruption mechanism for the region.

View the Full Report (English)

View the Full Report (Spanish)

Working Group Members

The Working Group was composed of the following individuals:

  • Ana María Calderón Boy (former Special Representative of the OAS to MACCIH)
  • Sarah Chayes (former senior fellow at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Democracy, Conflict, and Governance).
  • Martha Doggett (former director of the Americas Division of the UN Department of Political Affairs)
  • Debra LaPrevotte (former FBI agent with the FBI Kleptocracy Initiative)
  • Helen Mack (President, Myrna Mack Foundation)
  • Joaquín Mejía (professor of law at the Honduras National University)
  • Douglas Arquímides Meléndez Ruíz (former Prosecutor General of El Salvador)
  • Claudia Paz y Paz (former Prosecutor General of Guatemala)
  • Mark Schneider (former Assistant Administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development for Latin America and the Caribbean)
  • Matthew Stephenson (Professor of Law at Harvard Law School)
  • Iván Velásquez (former Commissioner, CICIG)
  • Amb. Clint Williamson (former Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues)

This report was prepared by project director, Alfredo Ortega, with the assistance of the Associate Director of the ABA Center for Human Rights, Brittany Benowitz. The views expressed herein represent the views opinions of the Expert Working Group. They have not been reviewed or approved by the House of Delegates or the Board of Governors of the American Bar Association and, accordingly, should not be construed as representing the position or policy of the Association or any of its entities. The ABA President has repeatedly expressed concern about threats against judicial independence in El Salvador and Guatemala. Furthermore, nothing in this report should be considered legal advice for specific cases.