GUATEMALA CITY – It was chaos outside the Ministry of Health building in El Salvador. Armed with a warrant, prosecutors showed up to seize documents as part of an investigation into government corruption involving management of the coronavirus pandemic. But some were also armed with government-issue guns.
Health officials called the police, allegedly concerned about the presence of weapons. Police showed up and initially blocked the investigators from entering, and then subjected them to searches for weapons at the entrance.
Prosecutors also raided other government institutions, all in connection with suspect pandemic-related contracts to the tune of several million dollars in total.
“It was a – let’s call it irregular – procedure by the police, because it interfered with the entry of prosecutors into the ministry to be able to continue carrying out the investigations,” Raúl Melara, Attorney General of El Salvador, told reporters on November 11, following the incident.
The situation was not unusual in northern Central America, where efforts to crack down on corruption are perpetually under attack, and often generate conflict between branches of government.
Corruption is rampant. Guatemala and Honduras are particularly extreme cases, each ranking 146 out of a worst possible score of 180 in the annual Corruption Perceptions Index by Transparency International. And in all three - Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras - between 45 and 54 percent of people thought corruption was getting worse.
Graft reaches the very highest levels of power. The Honduran president is an unindicted co-conspirator in a U.S. drug trafficking case against his brother, who was convicted last year for cocaine trafficking. Former presidents from Guatemala and El Salvador have also been charged in cases of corruption.
Under President Donald Trump, longstanding bipartisan support for anti-corruption initiatives in the region have come undone, quite literally. The world-renowned International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala - known as the CICIG - shut down, as did an anti-corruption commission in Honduras.
CICIG was particularly effective. In 2015, amid mass protests against corruption, its graft investigations brought down an administration. Then President Otto Pérez Molina resigned, was arrested and currently remains in jail pending the verdicts in several corruption trials.
“There were a number of individuals [in the Trump administration] who had a certain amount of unconstrained power when it came to foreign policy,” Stephen McFarland, a retired career diplomat who was U.S. ambassador to Guatemala during the administration of George W. Bush, said. “I think they were guided, in many cases, by a desire to not only be the reverse of what President Obama did, but they were the reverse of what bipartisan policy indicated.”
But Biden’s plan for the region arguably returns to the goal of “combating corruption at the heart of U.S. policy in Central America,” according to his statement for the region. Biden vows to renew the U.S. commitment to tackling the root causes driving migration with an integrated, four-year, $4 billion regional strategy.
Corruption has a direct impact on people’s lives, and particularly on the most marginalized and impoverished. It is one of the forces contributing to the migration of so many of hundreds of thousands of Central Americas to the United States. Graft takes money away from spending on services such as public health - which is more crucial than ever during the pandemic. Graft is also present in everyday interactions: roughly a quarter of people who used government services in Honduras and Guatemala, and 14 percent in El Salvador, reported paying a bribe in the previous year, according to Transparency International.
Many aspects of Biden’s plan are similar to the U.S. foreign policy of past administrations, including funding and training for Central American security forces that are often embroiled in scandals linked to corruption and human rights abuses. Over the last several decades, the U.S. poured billions of dollars into military forces responsible for massacres during civil wars with guerrilla groups. In some cases, such as Guatemala, prosecutors have linked politicians on trial to corruption networks set up during military dictatorships.
“Corruption in our countries is historical,” said Isabella Orellana, a Honduran sociologist and former dean of the San Pedro Sula campus of the country’s public university. “It goes back decades.”
Crises like the pandemic and now Eta and Iota, two major hurricanes that have devastated Honduras and its neighbors in November, make corruption more apparent and highlight its alarming consequences, Orellana told VICE World News.
A scandal related to temporary hospitals to treat coronavirus patients in Honduras may have contributed to the extent of the pandemic. Reports suggested that officials may have pocketed some of the $48 million in contracts for seven temporary hospital facilities and there were irregularities in purchases of coronavirus tests and equipment. Months of lockdown measures have meant the majority of Hondurans, most of who make a living in the informal economy, could no longer pay rent, said Orellana.
Displaced, they moved to informal settlements or into the streets in marginalized urban areas, she said. In cities in northwestern Honduras, that often meant low-lying areas prone to flooding, so when the hurricanes hit, they were displaced again.
“This is the brutal reality of 2020,” said Orellana.
Government officials are also directly involved in organized crime. A former Honduran police chief, the current president’s brother and the previous president’s sons are all in U.S. prisons for drug trafficking. In Guatemala, a former vice president and ex-minister of the Interior are serving time for corruption, and also face drug trafficking charges in the U.S. A presidential candidate in Guatemala’s last election is behind bars in the U.S. not only for laundering drug money but also for conspiring to assassinate two other candidates.
Orellana does not have high hopes for the involvement of the U.S. under Biden, given its long history of supporting Central American military dictatorships responsible for some of the worst atrocities in Latin America. But she does think a new administration will be positive for the region, and that it could limit unbridled corruption in Honduras.
“There is hope to some extent,” she said. “There’s an expectation that with Biden, they won’t have such free reign.”
As vice president during Barack Obama's two-term presidency, Biden played an active role in the region. He was often the one to visit Central American countries in person and he made sure governments knew they had to support special commissions against corruption in order to get aid.
McFarland and Orellana both anticipate corrupt politicians and other actors in Guatemala and Honduras, respectively, will be trying to see how they can shore up impunity before Biden takes office and attempt to dismantle any remaining checks and balances on their power.
“They’re going to try to undo as much as they can,” said McFarland.
An anti-corruption commission was launched this year in El Salvador with little independence from the country's president, but there is a recent sign of progress. An investigation by the commission led to the raids this month and the ongoing investigations into corruption related to the government’s management of the pandemic.
There are indications that efforts to escape investigation are already also underway in Guatemala, where ongoing political maneuvering has marred elections of justices to the country’s top two courts. Corruption scandals break on a near-weekly basis, and there are widespread allegations of graft related to pandemic response funds.
“I am here because I want to know: where is the money?” Lisette Aguilar, a doctor, told VICE World News at a protest against corruption in Guatemala City in November, asking the question that has been the focus of countless demonstrations in both Honduras and Guatemala during the pandemic.
For 20 years, Aguilar has worked in one of the largest public hospitals in the country and conditions have always been poor but they became much worse at the same time as reported emergency pandemic spending on health, she said. Aguilar also thinks the government is scrambling in the wake of the U.S. election results.
“Maybe it will give some power back to us,” she said.
“[Those in power] don’t feel as free anymore. Trump looked the other way, but now they are afraid of Biden.”