Washington, D.C.—In Central America, graft is so endemic among government officials that the Biden Administration considers it a root cause of migration. However, the role of the region’s economic elite in sustaining corruption is just as central, and should be treated as such. The Biden administration has shown a commitment to tackle corruption among politicians in the Northern Triangle of Central America, but in order for any anti-corruption policy to be effective, it must also develop a strategy for addressing corruption in big business.
In a new op-ed for World Politics Review, WOLA Director for Citizen Security Adriana Beltrán and former Central America Research Fellow Will Freeman highlight the need for an anti-corruption strategy when it comes to the private sector in the Northern Triangle. They point out that while the business elite in the Northern Triangle countries are not monoliths, they have not always been supportive of anti-corruption efforts. Guatemala’s Coordinating Committee of Agricultural, Commercial, Industrial and Financial Associations (CACIF), was an early supporter of the UN-backed Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, or CICIG, but later joined forces with former military officers and then-President Jimmy Morales who opposed and fought against the CICIG’s work when the investigatory body produced evidence of illegal campaign contributions by private companies. Similarly, in El Salvador, the country’s leading business association, ANEP, initially supported creating an international anti-corruption commission, but later became central critics of the commission once it began investigating private sector corruption.
Since taking office, Biden’s efforts to tackle graft in Central America have been promising. While not exhaustive, the State Department’s recently published list of current and former officials in Northern Triangle countries who have allegedly engaged in corruption, obstruction of justice or the undermining of democratic institutions, sends an important message that the fight against corruption is at the center of U.S. policy towards the region. However, as Bukele’s downplaying of the list demonstrate, a successful anti-corruption strategy will use a broad range of deterrent and punitive measures, that extend into the private sector. As Beltrán and Freeman note, “The Biden administration is spending a considerable amount of political capital on tackling corruption in Central America. For too long, economic elites have been overlooked in that effort. Now is the time to change that.”