People from all over Central America and the Dominican Republic will be watching Costa Rica closely this week as representatives from government, business, media and civil society come together for the Second Central America and Dominican Republic Transparency Forum in San José. The Forum provides a unique opportunity for the main actors involved in the fight against corruption to coordinate measures to eradicate corruption, exchange experiences and discuss issues relevant for the region.
Progress made since the signing of the Guatemala Declaration for a Corruption-Free Region by the presidents of the region and a delegate from the Dominican Republic in 2006 was examined during last year’s Forum in El Salvador. As a result, the Declaration’s transparency initiatives were updated and the commitment to implement it as well as other anti-corruption conventions was confirmed and strengthened by bringing together actors from all sectors involved in the fight against corruption.
This year’s Forum will focus on reviewing the effects that corruption has on key concerns and priorities for the region and how these can be curbed.
Democratisation as a regional priority
Corruption has severely hampered the democratisation processes in several Central American countries over the past two decades. Citizens are able to participate in elections, which for the most part are free and fair in the region. But governments have struggled to achieve any meaningful change in making democracy a reality for their citizens beyond electoral periods. The democratic institutions that need to be in place to represent citizens and to govern are still imperfect. More widespread participation, accountability, transparency and other key features of democratic regimes are urgently needed.
In many cases this has led to people having low levels of confidence in their governments and political parties. Public institutions co-opted by corrupt practices not only threaten to derail the consolidation of democracy throughout the region but also undermine efforts to overcome poverty and inequality, and to establish dynamic economies. Corruption also opens the door to organised crime.
Corruption keeps organised crime in business
Crime and violence are currently at unacceptable and worrying levels in some Central American countries. The Inter-American Development Bank estimates the cost of violence generated by organised crime at US$168 billion in Latin America as a whole. One of the most extreme cases is El Salvador, where the societal cost of violence is calculated to be the equivalent of 25 per cent of the country's GDP for 2007.
According to a recent study by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), El Salvador is also the most violent country in the world, with more than 60 violent deaths for every 100,000 residents. Other Central American countries with high rates of murder include Guatemala and Honduras.
Crime and violence levels in the region’s other three countries (namely, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama) are considerably lower, but an increase in recent years has raised serious concerns, with 71 per cent of Central Americans identifying crime as the main threat to their well-being. The relationship between organised crime and corruption is simple: criminal networks use corruption to carry out their illegal activities as well as to avoid investigation and prosecution.
Security forces and public trust
Corruption in security forces and institutions, mainly the police, hinders the implementation of effective responses to crime. Some countries in the Central American region struggle to tackle organised crime because the very institutions tasked with fighting it are themselves weakened by corruption.
Transparency International’s 2010 Global Corruption Barometer reveals that almost a fifth of all people questioned in Latin America paid a bribe to the police in the past year. Moreover, 70 per cent of respondents of a survey conducted in the Dominican Republic in 2008 by the Latin American Public Opinion Project declared that the police were directly related to the criminal groups.
This creates a climate of fear and lack of trust in security institutions. Organised crime has been skilful in taking advantage of the institutional weaknesses of the police. In the region, police forces frequently operate under processes and doctrines that are anachronistic, and are often institutionally and financially weak, making it easier for organised crime to manoeuvre around the law.
Impunity prevails when the justice system is weak
Weak judicial institutions are among the main factors to blame for the region’s violence, according to a recent World Bank report. This weakness not only limits the efficacy of crime punishment, but also poses a major threat to democratic stability.
Corruption undermines judicial systems, denying citizens access to justice and the basic human right to a fair and impartial trial. This, in turn, damages economic growth by diminishing the trust of the investment community, and impedes efforts to reduce poverty in Central America. Both petty bribery and political influence in the judiciary erode social cohesion, and ruin the capacity of the justice system to fight against corruption.
A weak justice system also translates into limited citizen trust in institutions. It comes as no surprise that whistleblowers and corruption victims lack confidence to report crime when one quarter of Latin Americans report having paid a bribe to the judicial system in the space of twelve months.
What can be done?
Corruption continues to affect the daily lives of millions of people throughout Central America and the Dominican Republic in many different ways, from petty bribery to the loss of trust in public institutions to fear of violent crime.
However, not all efforts to curb corruption in the region have failed. There is now greater anti-corruption awareness and activism among citizens in Central America, and the media is playing an important role as watchdog.
Transparency in public administration is largely recognised as a precondition for fighting corruption in the region. Meanwhile, the ratification of international anti-corruption legal frameworks such as the Inter-American Convention against Corruption and the UN Convention against Corruption is a significant step forward. Still, much more is left to be done.
Key issues for the anti-corruption agenda that will be addressed at the Second Central America and Dominican Republic Transparency Forum include:
- Implementation of international anti-corruption conventions
- Role of the private sector in the fight against corruption
- Protection mechanisms for whistleblowers, victims and witnesses of corruption
- Media as watchdog of the public and private sectors
- The links between corruption and citizen security
- Judicial transparency
- Combating corruption within the security forces
- Threat of organised crime for the financing of political parties and campaigns
At the end of the Forum a final declaration and recommendations identifying key points of action essential for progress in the regional fight against corruption focusing on those areas will be published.
Final Declaration of the Second Forum (in Spanish)
Background documents for the Forum:
- Evolucion reciente de compromisos internacionales anticorrupción en Centroamérica y la República Dominicana
- Medidas para la mejora de los sistemas de protección a los denunciantes y testigos de actos de corrupción
- Presentation: Transparency International's Defence and Security Programme
Blog post: Fighting corruption in Central America (includes video)
Corruption allows 'business as usual' for organized crime
Fox News Latino (column by Transparency International's Alejandro Salas)
Please note: Several papers resulting from the Forum will be published here soon.
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