corruption in El Salvador

In 2018, El Salvador received a Corruption Perception Index score of 35 out of 100, with 100 being no perceived corruption. El Salvador ranked 105 out of 108 countries that the index scored. This poor rating is a reason for concern. However, with the establishment of the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador in September 2019, there is newfound hope.

Cost of Corruption

Corruption is not just morally wrong, it is also expensive, costing the world at least $2.6 trillion every year according to an estimate by the World Economic Forum. The United Nations Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, has noted that corruption often disproportionately affects the poor. That $2.6 trillion comes from schools, hospitals and other critical institutions losing resources and businesses and individuals paying bribes, creating a deteriorating effect on the society as a whole.

President Nayib Bukele of El Salvador estimates that every year the government loses $1.5 billion without a trace. Former President Tony Saca cost El Salvador $300 million because he redirected government funds into the companies and banks of family and friends. Meanwhile, his successor, Mauricio Funes, gave away another $351 million to family and associates.

Corruption in El Salvador has also largely centered around the actions of the state security forces and gang-related activities. Within the state security forces, there has been a pattern of excessive force, including reports of extrajudicial killings and threats against the LGBT community, children and those who work toward the rehabilitation of gang members by the U.N. In 2017, there were reports of a death squad engaging in killings, disappearances, robbery, sexual assault and extortion. Additionally, there are approximately 60,000 gang members throughout the country, and in many cases, they are the ones who set and enforce local rules and partner with government officials in criminal operations.

The International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador

The commission serves to act as an autonomous and neutral institution to ensure transparency within the federal government by investigating possible corruption in El Salvador and helping to enforce the laws. It is accomplishing this by establishing close relations with institutions in the country. This includes the establishment of an Anti-Corruption Unit within the National Civil Police, as well as working with the Ministry of Finance, the General Directorate of Customs and the General Directorate of Migration.

The El Salvadoran government has worked with the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States to set up the commission. The organization includes 35 countries in the Western Hemisphere and dedicates itself to the promotion of democracy, security and development. It has been working with various institutions within El Salvador, including the Attorney General’s Office, Supreme Court of Justice and various civil society organizations to ensure greater transparency and that authorities properly enforce the laws in El Salvador.

Concerns with the Commission

Firstly, Bukele’s major step of establishing the commission has come only in the past few months, meaning it is too early for there to be conclusive evidence of its impact on corruption in El Salvador.

Secondly, the commission is in conjunction with the Organization of American States, not the U.N. People have questioned the legitimacy of the commission due to the fear that the organization will not lead the commission with as serious intent, as the U.N. led the Guatemalan impunity commission. This fear stems from the belief that the organization is “underfunded, poorly managed and inadequately staffed,” according to the Foreign Policy Magazine. It is important to note that despite these concerns, the organization has played a crucial role in uncovering human rights violations in the Americas over the past several decades.

Lastly, President Bukele has stated that the commission will not require lawmaker approval to run. Jessica Estrada of the National Foundation for Development has added that the El Salvadoran “constitution does not allow the establishment of a mechanism” similar to that led by the U.N. in Guatemala. These statements call into question how much will change if there is a lack of legal enforcement available.

Reason for Hope

For one, the International Crisis Group reported in 2018 that the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala has helped lead to a 5 percent average annual decrease in the murder rate in the country since it formed in 2007, providing a precedent for success. The commission in Guatemala accomplished this by being instrumental in the passing of legislation that allows for wiretaps along with greater use of DNA and ballistic testing and with other modern investigation methods. These efforts helped to create stronger law enforcement, discouraging criminal activity.

Also, already under the newly elected President, El Salvador has seen its most peaceful month this century, averaging only 3.6 homicides per day in October 2019. At its worst, the country suffered through an average of 17.6 homicides per day throughout the entire year of 2015.

Finally, within weeks after his election, President Bukele deployed police and soldiers to areas of highly concentrated extortion efforts where the gangs in the country receive 80 percent of their income, giving some sense of how seriously he is taking the issue.

While the fight against corruption in El Salvador is far from over, there is meaningful potential for the creation of a more peaceful and transparent state.

– Scott Boyce
Photo: UN Multimedia