WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

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18 Nov 2021 | Commentary

Central America Monitor reveals challenges and opportunities for rule of law, citizen security, and protection of human rights in the Northern Triangle

The deeply rooted dynamics of violence and corruption in the countries of the Northern Triangle of Central America continue to represent one of the greatest challenges to ensuring the implementation of effective policies focused on human rights, the rule of law, and citizen security, and enabling an adequate and comprehensive approach to the structural causes that continue to generate unprecedented levels of migration of persons fleeing Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador. 

With the latest installment of an extensive research and analysis project, WOLA and our counterparts in the region provide additional data on progress and trends in key areas related to the rule of law and security in the Northern Triangle countries. It highlights some concerning developments such as setbacks in judicial independence, high level of attacks against human rights defenders, and the persistence of gender inequality within these countries’ judicial systems. By assessing, through data, the impact of policies and strategies, the Monitor seeks to provide tools to identify opportunities for improving the living conditions of these countries’ residents by strengthening institutions and the fight for justice. 

About the Central America Monitor

Employing a series of quantitative and qualitative indicators in eight key areas directly relevant to the rule of law and security, providing critical information to inform policies and strategic investments in El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala, the Central America Monitor (CAM) aims to measure the degree of progress or setbacks and identify trends over time in each of these areas. Learn more about the indicators and why we chose them here.

To capture a base indicator of the institutions in these Central American countries during that time, we compiled data from the period 2014-2017 that shed light on the region’s challenges in confronting insecurity and strengthening judicial institutions and the rule of law. The Monitor will update its database regularly, and currently, much of the data is available through 2019.

The Monitor is a regional initiative developed by the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), Myrna Mack Foundation of Guatemala, the University Institute for Public Opinion (Iudop) of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) of El Salvador, and the University Institute for Democracy, Peace, and Security (IUDPAS) of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (UNAH).

 As the region continues to confront high levels of violence and insecurity within a context of systemic corruption and generalized impunity, it is essential to find ways of evaluating how the policies and strategies implemented in the Northern Triangle contribute to strengthening the rule of law, improving transparency and accountability, and reducing violence and insecurity.

The near impossibility of accessing basic public services such as health, education, and security, forces millions of Central Americans to migrate north every year, where they face mortal risks as they make their way to the United States or Mexico through a toxic mix of criminal groups and militarized migration policies.

The Monitor’s indicators include a combination of quantitative and qualitative data for gaining a deeper understanding of the changing conditions in each country. The sources of the data include official documents and statistics, surveys, interviews, and reviews of existing laws and regulations compiled systematically. This evaluation also provides an assessment of how committed the Central American governments are to the struggle against corruption, as a way to identify challenges and prioritize opportunities in these areas.

Below we present some of the principal findings of the project. A productive approach centered on just policies that are respectful of human rights could result in progress made in the indicators presented, as well as in the quality of life of the region’s inhabitants:

1) Prioritizing militarization and security spending above justice has generated a hostile environment for institutional strengthening and the struggle against corruption.

The Monitor contains a series of indicators designed to measure progress made by the three governments in combating corruption, including the presence of specialized prosecutorial units and their funding. The departure of anti-corruption commissions from the Northern Triangle countries due to pressure from economic, political, and criminal interest groups in recent years has once again highlighted the severe impact of the region’s generalized corruption. Under the Biden administration the United States has recognized corruption as one of the “structural causes” of migration, due to its terrible effects on institutions, the rule of law, and residents’ living conditions.

Despite the fact that the budgets of the Public Prosecutor’s Offices and judicial institutions increased in the three countries, these institutions’ capacity continues to be very limited. (In regards to the Public Prosecutor’s Offices, the budgets increased 97% in Honduras between 2014 and 2019; 137% in Guatemala between 2014 and 2019; and 55% in El Salvador between 2014 and 2017). For example, the number of prosecutors, medical examiners, judges, and public servants in the three countries is much lower than the worldwide average, which normally results in workloads exceeding their capacity. The civil servants in these institutions contend with significant workloads that frequently result in slow processes and poor-quality service provided to defendants who do not have the financial resources to pay for a lawyer. There were an average of 160 cases per public defender in Guatemala and El Salvador between 2014 and 2017. Overall Guatemala has the lowest number of public defenders in the Northern Triangle—an average of 162 public defenders, despite having the largest population of 16 million inhabitants. In comparison, Honduras had 269 public defenders with a population of nearly 10 million and El Salvador had 259 defenders for a population of 6.5 million. 

Budgets for Public Prosecutor’s Offices:

Prioritizing security expenses above strengthening institutional capacity appears to be the rule in the region, despite the incalculable human suffering caused by the militaristic policies promoted in part by the United States. Between 2014 and 2017, the three countries dedicated more than 3% of their overall national budgets to their Ministries of Defense and between 2% and 5% to their police forces. From 2014 to 2019, in Guatemala, the armed forces received 32% more of the budget than did the Public Prosecutor’s Office and the Honduran armed forces received 328% more of the budget than did the Public Prosecutor’s Office during this same period.

In El Salvador, the ratio of the budget earmarked for the National Civilian Police as part of the Ministry of Justice and Public Security is very high, representing more than 60% of that Ministry’s budget between 2014 and 2017. The budget for the Armed Forces also saw a   marked increase in 2017 and its role in public security has continued with little to no interruption. The prevalent punitive culture is one of the factors that might explain why, even though El Salvador is the least populated country of the Northern Triangle, it has the highest number of criminal cases admitted, with a latent inability to solve crimes by alternative means other than criminal prosecution.

Despite recent reforms in the Honduran and Guatemalan security forces, the persistent strong-arm policies in these countries and in El Salvador have not generated significant improvements in citizen security. On the contrary, the punitive and militaristic policies continue to represent a factor that encourages tens of thousands of people to migrate annually.

This hostile, heavily security-oriented context is one of the reasons that anti-corruption commissions were originally established in these three countries. It also explains many of the obstacles they faced in their valiant efforts to prosecute emblematic cases of human rights violations, corruption in public works, illegal electoral financing, and organized crime, among other crimes entailing high-level civil servants and members of the military, economic, and political elites.  

The Central American populace has not been oblivious to these dynamics: the three countries experienced a profound loss of public trust in the armed forces between 2014 and 2017, with reductions of between 5% and 9%. Meanwhile, trust in the judicial branch increased in all of the countries between 4% and 6%.

Dismantling mechanisms to combat corruption and impunity are part of broader efforts that threaten the rule of law in the region 

With the announcement in June 2021, by the Public Prosecutor’s Office that it would terminate the agreement with the International Commission against Corruption and Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES) a little less than a year after the start of its mandate, the country became the last of the Northern Triangle countries to expel its respective international commission that sought to advance the countries’ fight against corruption and strengthen their justice and institutional capacity so as to fully guarantee the rule of law.

The departure of the CICIES permitted the Bukele government, with help of the Attorney General’s Office and Congress (both of which had been co-opted by the executive) to unleash an onslaught of arrests of several former civil servants from the opposition who were critical of their government. These arrests raised alarms about the politicization of the fight against corruption on the part of the increasingly authoritarian government. More recently, Bukele also ensured a questionable reform of the Constitution that will permit him to be reelected. This happened just a week after legislators from his political party coopted the country’s judiciary through unconstitutional reforms that effectively purged the judiciary.

Guatemala, unlike the other countries, had the well-established International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), which over the course of more than a decade worked with support from the international community to tackle cases of high-level corruption, human rights violations, and organized crime, as well as help strengthen the country’s justice system and institutions, until the government refused to renew its mandate in September 2019.

The departure of Juan Francisco Sandoval as head of the Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity (FECI) who worked hand-in-hand with the CICIG during its time, his forced exile to the United States, and his subsequent replacement by a prosecutor that has been signaled out for favoring interests investigated by the CICIG, is merely the most recent chapter in a saga of ongoing attacks on the part of the government, coopted by political-criminal interests, against public officials and members of civil society that have continued CICIG’s fight against corruption.  

With Sandoval’s departure, there are now six high-level prosecutors and judges who have been forced into exile. The recent attacks against independent administrators of justice that violate their work and securityas has been the case with judges Erika Aifan and Pablo Xitumul and Human Rights Ombudsman Jordán Rodas, among othersdemonstrate that actions against them are a part of a much broader strategy that seeks to put an end to civil servants in the justice sphere who threaten the interests of Guatemala’s corrupt networks.

For its part, the International Mission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) confronted a series of obstacles imposed by the President and Congress that diminished the scope of its mandate from the moment it was implemented in 2016. As was the case in Guatemala, the investigative capacity of the Public Prosecutor’s Office was strengthened with the creation of the Technical Criminal Investigation Agency (ATIC) as part of the agreement establishing the MACCIH. Nonetheless, the majority of the important corruption cases it investigated did not result in convictions. Between 2014 and 2019, out of a total of 13,355 complaints received regarding the principal crimes of corruption, only 4.8% were later brought before a judge as bills of indictment.

The National Anti-Corruption Council (CNA) is another agency of oversight and control in Honduras. It is an independent civil society organization created by legislative decree in 2005 to satisfy the UN Convention against Corruption. While the CNA cannot initiate criminal proceedings, it can share findings of its investigations with the Public Prosecutor’s Office and accompany trials. Out of a total of 120 cases presented by the CNA since its creation, only 17 have been judicialized and 103 remain in impunity. The lines of investigation presented by the CNA total USD$190 million diverted from public funds in Honduras.

2) Violence against human rights defenders has increased in the midst of growing governmental repression against civil society 

In addition to the high number of homicides and attacks against human rights and environmental defenders and leaders of civil society organizations in the Northern Triangle, the stigmatization of these individualsfrightened by legislation that seeks to muzzle themby security forces and other state institutions that should in fact be protecting them, has resulted in some of the world’s most lethal security conditions for these individuals.

Of concern are laws or reforms that have been passed in the Northern Triangle that seek to decrease the scope of the work of civil society and disincentivize the formation of new citizen alliances. Many of these alliances, which bring together human rights defenders and indigenous leaders who promote the fight against corruption in the region, had already been operating within a climate of insecurity and now find themselves criminalized. Furthermore, some laws that have been passed in recent years in these countries favor impunity in cases of corruption and/or crimes against humanity for members of the military, business, and political elite. These laws represent a direct violation of the rights of victims and relatives to obtain truth and justice.

In Guatemala, for example, despite the fact that it has institutions to investigate and punish human rights violations, there is a persistently high level of impunity in criminal proceedings for violations committed against human rights defenders and journalists.  Between 2014 and 2019, the civil society organization Protection Unit for Human Rights Defenders in Guatemala (UDEFEGUA) recorded a total of 2,903 attacks against defenders, including 633 cases of intimidation and 185 threats (in person, written, and telephonic). Furthermore, between 2014 and 2019, the organization recorded a total of 164 assassinations of defenders. The majority of the homicides were a product of the continuous violence meted out against defenders and have not been adequately addressed by state institutions.

In addition to criminalization, the attempts to discourage and delegitimize human rights defense take the form of social media campaigns of persecution, harassment, threats, and hate speech against human rights defenders. Between 2014 and 2018, UDEFEGUA recorded 573 cases of criminalization of defenders, including 102 illegal detentions, 111 arbitrary detentions, and 277 cases of defamation. Also alarming is the fact that between January and 15 December 2020, 1,004 cases of attacks against defenders were recorded, exceeding 2014, a year that had been considered the most violent for the country’s human right defenders. Moreover, the mid-year figures for 2021 suggest that the number of attacks against human rights defenders in 2021 will be the highest since the signing of the Guatemalan Peace Accords in 1996.

The harassment and stigmatization by the security forces and other state institutions represents a structural challenge for human rights organizations and defenders in the Northern Triangle. This situation most gravely impacts indigenous peoples who frequently confront violence, discrimination, and criminalization for defending their rights at the hands of environmentally exploitative economic groups. Likewise, the defenders of the rights of the LGBTI community have been the victims of violence on the part of state agents, criminal groups, and the general public.

The complete lack of records and infrastructure for addressing these crimes, as is the case in Honduras, extremely low budgets of institutions such as the Attorney General’s Office in El Salvador, and ineffectiveness of many institutions that have the capacity to prosecute and prevent these crimes in Guatemala, reveal the disinterest of the region’s governments in generating structural changes to alleviate the critical situation faced by these individuals and the communities they represent.

In El Salvador, the Bukele government does not appear to have plans to improve this situation, and in fact has announced its intention to implement reforms to the Law on Non-Profit Organizations and Foundations. These reforms would muzzle NGOs’ actions by seeking to centralize in the executive branch the international funds destined for these organizations seeking to enter the country.  In addition, in May 2021 they announced the creation of a special unit for investigating these funds.

In the case of Guatemala, in June of this year a series of reforms of the law governing NGOsknown as the “NGO Law”came into force, granting the government the legal authority to cancel NGOs’ registrations without the need to involve a court or have a defense mechanism.  It also gives the government control of the funds provided by international aid agencies. More than 200 civil society organizations took a stance against the measures, which were also criticized by international organizations, out of fear that they would become an instrument for attacking and penalizing specific groups and leaders not aligned with the current government’s goals and priorities.

In Honduras, the approval of a new criminal code in 2020 also was repudiated by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights (OHCHR) and Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) due to its implications for the freedoms of expression and the press and the classification of calumny and slander as crimes at the discretion of the court. The reforms lend themselves to silencing and putting an end to critical debate – in particular with regard to corruption and abuse of power. Moreover, the new Honduran code decreases the punishment for civil servants and businesspersons involved in crimes of corruption and public embezzlement.

Despite the high levels of violence against and abuse of human rights defenders, there is a complete absence of official data in Honduras on the attacks and threats against these defenders, which in most cases represent the interests of marginalized communities, including LGBTI+, indigenous peoples, Afro-descendants, and others. Data compiled by the Monitor based on information from several primary and secondary sources show that between 2014 and 2020, a total of 200 human rights defenders were assassinated in Honduras, 15 of whom had received precautionary measures from the IACHR.

Registered Attacks against Human Rights Defenders in Honduras:

The existence of a specialized prosecutor’s office in Honduras to address human rights violations is an important step. Notwithstanding, it was found that the authority of the Special Prosecutor’s Office for Human Rights (FEDDHH) over crimes is limited and it lacks specialized human rights protocols as well as the necessary human and financial resources. For example, by the end of 2019, this office only had 18 prosecutors. Moreover, in 2018, a new prosecutor’s office was opened that is dedicated to the protection of human rights defenders, journalists, social communicators, and justice administrators; however, in 2019 it had only five prosecutors.

Within this context, although the recent sentencing of the coauthor of the assassination of Berta Cáceres is a step in the right direction for justice in the country, Honduran institutions must still demonstrate their independence in many other emblematic cases of corruption, human rights violations, and organized crime in order to prove that this successful case does not represent an exception but rather, the rule.

The Central American justice systems should adopt internal mechanisms and measures for monitoring, identifying, and preventing cases in which human rights defenders are criminalized based on spurious, baseless charges. In the current context, defending human rights  entails clear harm for defenders vis-à-vis their security, dignity, freedom, integrity, and unfortunately, also their lives.

3) As with gender-based violence, gender inequality in the justice and security systems persists 

The difficulty faced in finding detailed records on women’s participation in key institutions, particularly in El Salvador, points to the first challenge these countries must confront in order to make urgent progress in generating structural solutions to gender equity. This has particular relevance in institutions related to the security forces, which in the three countries denied information regarding their personnel to WOLA and our counterparts. The little information available demonstrates that there continues to be little participation by women in the police, Public Prosecutor's Office, and justice system, and there appear to have been deliberate attempts made to ensure women do not advance in their careers.

The Monitor’s investigation also reveals that although the institutional coverage for addressing gender-based violence has increased in recent years, the gaps appear to be particularly acute between women in cities and those in rural areas in many of these countries, where levels of poverty tend to be higher. This can often re-victimize indigenous women who tend to live more in rural areas. Meanwhile, the risks of migrationincluding violence, sexual exploitation, and lethal abuse—have a greater impact on women. 

In addition, the percentage of women in key institutions continues to be very low. By 2019, female police officers represented barely 15% of the force in Guatemala and 20% in Honduras. In 2017, women represented 15% of the Salvadoran Police force.

Percent of Women in the Police:

In El Salvador, the already-high levels of femicide according to international standards increased from 3.25 femicides per 100,000 residents in 2014 to 5.83 in 2017. Between 2014 and 2019, femicides in Honduras dropped from 6.24 per 100,000 residents to 4.38, while in Guatemala they dropped from 4.12 to 3.28. The number of complaints filed for rape dropped in all three countries (by 10.9% in El Salvador between 2014 and 2017 and 20.9% and 24.6% in Guatemala and Honduras, respectively, between 2014 and 2019). It is important to highlight that these types of crimes tend to be under-recorded and rendered invisible, both by society as well as the government.  Likewise, updating these indicators will be important in light of the alarming uptick in violence against women that occured in the region during the lockdowns in the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Despite the countries’ attempts to implement criteria for suitability, gender parity, and transparency, the processes for selecting judges for the high courts of the justice system and Public Prosecutor’s Office have been characterized by a lack of transparency and accountability and have been highly politicized and vulnerable to external influence and manipulation. This has frequently resulted in the election of unsuitable officials who appear to be more committed to the interest groups that installed them than in exhaustively fulfilling their duties and serving the public .

No information exists in any of the countries for measuring the participation of women prosecutors in criminal matters. Although femicide courts and tribunals can be found in 50% of El Salvador’s departments, many of them are entirely composed of male judges. In Honduras, there has been a greater participation of women as prosecutors (16%), judges (53%), and public defenders (68%) in 2017. In Guatemala, although the Public Prosecutor’s Office is currently led by a woman, women accounted for only 40.5% of the criminal court judges in 2017, while making up 47.2% of the public defenders. Moreover, the current prosecutor’s efforts to undermine the anti-corruption fight and protect human rights demonstrate that she has focused her efforts on favoring specific interest groups that were behind her nomination, and her position has not represented any real progress in the rights of the country’s women.

This situation is compounded with the blocking of the swearing in of anti-corruption judge Gloria Porras in the Constitutional Court by the same interest groups that are protected by the current prosecutor and who played a part in the questionable persecution of former Guatemalan attorney generals Thelma Aldana and Claudia Paz y Paz, who worked closely with the CICIG and were forced to go into exile outside the country.

4) Having precise data is important in decision-making regarding public policies.

In order to address the Northern Triangle countries’ persistent challenges of insecurity and to strengthen their judicial systems with an eye to better combating corruption and impunity and protecting human rights, it is essential to have extensive information on current shortcomings, the degree of progress being made, and existing opportunities for improvement in these key areas. The Central American governments, as well as the international community, must know which institutions need strengthening and what the requirements are for creating capable supervisory bodies, independent justice systems, and effective public security forces people can trust. 

As this investigation demonstrates, the prioritization of the security sector above justice has meant that state capacity to combat corruption is weakened. Furthermore, high levels of impunity, as well as laws and reforms that seek to close civic space, have created an ever more violent environment for human rights defenders, journalists, and civil society in general, which has diminished the role of oversight and advocacy exercised by these groups over the government.

The data compiled and analyzed by the Central America Monitor, which will be regularly updated, comprise a large database providing comprehensive information that sheds light on why there have been setbacks in the areas of security, justice, and human rights in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and to evaluate trends over time both within and between these countries. It is designed to be an instrument to be used by policymakers and donors to contribute to the creation of effective and comprehensive policies and strategies and as a tool for civil society organizations to advocate for change to strengthen the rule of law and citizen security in these countries.