Corruption hurts people all over the world every day. This is why more citizens who are victims or witnesses of corruption need to speak up to challenge it and be part of the solution. However, raising one’s voice, resisting paying a bribe or reporting corrupt behaviour is not easy in many countries. Mechanisms to support, protect and motivate whistleblowers are needed. When those are in place, then no one need remain silent to corruption or have to confront it alone.
In an effort to build such safeguards, Transparency International offers help and advice through our Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres. The Centres, located in over 50 countires, empower victims and witnesses of corruption to exert their rights. More than 120,000 citizens have contacted us since the first Centre opened in 2003.
Through the experience of running Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres for almost 10 years, we have found that they can make a significant contribution to increasing citizens’ awareness of corruption and helping them to take concrete measures to denounce and fight it.
But the Centres are not only a channel for citizen reporting, they are also constructive means of dialogue and collaboration with leaders in public institutions. Through the collection of complaints, they spot areas that are prone to corruption and then help institutions implement the reforms necessary to reduce corruption risks.
Despite laws against nepotism being in place in Guatemala, Juan* had reason to believe that his local mayor had hired around 10 relatives, including his wife, sons and daughters.
Juan took his concerns to his local Controller General Office as well as his local journalists’ association, but both refused to help, reportedly claiming that change was unlikely and he would be putting himself at risk.
So Juan asked Transparency International’s chapter Acción Ciudadana for support. After efforts on the local level proved fruitless, they took the case to the capital. They followed up with the Controller General Office in Guatemala City to ensure that they conducted an audit of the mayor’s office.
While this was a positive step, it brought Juan some unwanted attention. En route to the Controller General Office, he was allegedly pulled off a bus by armed men, bundled into a car and driven into the forest, where he was robbed and told to abandon the case. On another occasion, Juan reported being confronted by men with guns, who threatened to kill him if he continued to cause trouble.
But Juan bravely stood by the case. Following an investigation, the Controller General Office called for the removal of the mayor’s five closest relatives from office. To ensure that the mayor would comply, Acción Ciudadana took the story to the local media. The relatives soon stepped down.
* Names have been changed.
Working in countries where impunity too often prevails
Despite a few notable exceptions such as Chile and Uruguay, many countries in Latin America score relatively low in the latest edition of the Corruption Perceptions Index. In those countries, corruption is part of the everyday life of citizens.
Both bribery and political influence in the justice system – which includes the police, the judiciary, and the penitentiary system – lead to widespread impunity and diminished trust in some of the key pillars of democratic political systems. Weak institutions in the justice sector limit the efficacy of punishment for crimes, and at times deny citizens of basic human rights.
Everything has its price, even in prison
One Saturday in late April, Transparencia Venezuela, our chapter in the country, together with some other local NGOs, went to the gates of Tocuyito prison in order to talk to prisoners’ family members and collect corruption-related complaints. With a capacity for 1200 inmates, the jail currently houses around 4600. On that day, Transparencia Venezuela heard dozens of stories and family dramas, and collected over 20 concrete reports of corruption describing a grim world where bribery is alleged to be omnipresent and everything has a price. It is still too early to say what the results of the individual complaints will be, but as a whole they have helped raise public awareness and put pressure on the institutions in charge to take the necessary measures for the prevention and punishment of corruption.
Working towards fair elections
Democratic electoral systems are another area of focus in Latin America. With elections having taken place regularly for over a decade in most countries in the region, attention now should be given to the quality of those elections and the institutions supporting them.
2011 was a year of voting in the region – among the countries, Argentina, Guatemala, Nicaragua and Peru all went to the polls. Elections are often the moment in the political cycle when corruption risks are the highest, as access to power is at stake. This is why some of our chapters in Latin America created web-based electoral monitoring systems that allow citizens to report instances of vote-related corruption.
Long live the vote
Operating under the motto that every citizen is an election observer, Ética y Transparencia, our chapter in Nicaragua, set up an online tool to not only provide citizens with information on the electoral processes but also enable them to monitor the elections and report anomalies as well as violations of political rights. Clean and fair elections are a prerequisite for true democracy and the respect of popular will.
Identifying corruption hotspots
Our Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres not only help individuals deal with cases of corruption, they also collect and aggregate data that can lead to the identification of corruption hotspots in society at large. Our chapters use this information sourced directly from corruption victims and whistleblowers to call for policy changes, and to work with public institutions in implementing them. The in-depth knowledge and trends drawn from this information provide powerful evidence and support for targeted reforms.
Running on empty
In 2008, a surge in petrol prices pushed fuel sales onto the black market in Guatemala. Acción Ciudadana, our chapter in the country, received around 25 calls from citizens living near the border with Mexico who suspected that some truck drivers were bribing officials to smuggle cheap petrol over the border. The owners of legitimate petrol stations claimed they were losing business to these illegal suppliers.
Acción Ciudadana passed on the concerns to the National Customs Office. As a result, both the Guatemalan and Mexican authorities implemented stricter customs controls to monitor commercial vehicles crossing the border. The Guatemalan tax authorities also initiated an investigation into the alleged misconduct. Since then, Acción Ciudadana has received no further complaints about illegal petrol imports.
Watch this short video interview (in Spanish) with Mercedes de Freitas and Manfredo Marroquin discussing how Advocacy and Legal Advice Centres in Venezuela and Guatemala empower people to stand up to corruption in their country.
Find the contact details and information on how to report cases of corruption in your country here.
Read more true stories of people standing up to corruption here.
On the blog: Venezuela: At last a solution to corruption!
View Transparency International’s documentary Agents of Change here.
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