El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala face enduring challenges in addressing insecurity, impunity and corruption. Where are these countries making progress in strengthening rule of law, and where are further reforms most urgently needed? Policymakers need answers to these questions, in order to better determine how foreign aid can most strategically be invested to strengthen justice and security institutions and improve governance in this region.
The Central America Monitor is an ongoing project that involves collecting data on a series of qualitative and quantitative indicators and producing in-depth analyses in eight key areas related to security, justice and human rights. In partnership with organizations across the Northern Triangle—the Myrna Mack Foundation in Guatemala, the University Institute for Public Opinion (Iudop) of the José Simeón Cañas Central American University (UCA) of El Salvador, and the University Institute on Democracy, Peace and Security (IUDPAS) in Honduras—the Monitor reviewed a wide range of data sources in order to capture a detailed picture of how the region is faring in building more effective justice and security bodies, tackling corruption, protecting human rights, and enhancing transparency and accountability.
The Monitor website offers infographics and reports that examine the measures that each country is taking, in specific areas, to strengthen rule of law and security. The first phase of the project focuses on a four-year time period (2014-2017) and involves the publication of eight baseline reports in each country. The Monitor’s findings will continue to be updated over time, in order to build an instrument that can help evaluate broader trends and rates of progress across El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The next series of data will be published in the second half of 2020.
So far, the data we’ve collected and analyzed has revealed trends and areas of concern that include:
However, these efforts faced increasing pushback from powerful sectors. Greater efforts are needed to strengthen oversight bodies, the investigative capacity of local institutions, and existing norms in order to better meet international standards.
Strengthening the legal frameworks that discourage graft would increase the capacity to root out corruption preemptively, rather than relying on prosecutors to detect and investigate crimes after they have taken place.
With the support of international anti-corruption mechanisms, measures were taken to beef up the investigative capacities in criminal prosecution of the Guatemalan and Honduran Attorneys General to tackle corruption and to establish specialized courts to process many complex corruption cases. However, as cases advanced, there were severe setbacks and measures taken aimed at weakening anti-corruption efforts.
To varying degrees, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras have all adopted norms and regulations meant to detect and deter corruption. However, challenges remain in updating or reforming existing legislation, and in some cases, regressive laws were adopted. Strengthening the legal frameworks that discourage graft would increase the capacity to root out corruption preemptively, rather than relying on prosecutors to detect and investigate crimes after they have taken place. El Salvador’s primary anti-corruption law, for example, levies fines in colones—a currency that the country hasn’t used since 2001. In Honduras, a new penal code was approved that reduces penalties for a number of corruption-related offenses.
The ability of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador to stop corruption from flourishing is an especially urgent issue amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Many governments are ramping up spending to respond to this unprecedented public health crisis, without sufficient oversight or accountability mechanisms to ensure that misappropriation isn’t happening.
Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador all have laws requiring government bodies to respond to public information requests, uphold budgetary transparency, and respect guidelines concerning information that they are required to disclose versus information that is considered classified.
In Honduras, for example, the body responsible for reviewing financial disclosures by public officials has no way of proactively determining that the information is truthful and accurate.
However, security and defense institutions—specifically, the ministries that oversee the military and police—are falling short in terms of making important information about how they function available to the public. In El Salvador, the three institutions that most frequently moved to restrict information were the Ministry of National Defense, the police, and the Ministry of Justice and Public Security. In neighboring Honduras, the government has enacted counter-reforms in recent years that increased secrecy and make it harder for the public to access information.
Another critical tool for promoting greater government transparency is asset declarations for public officials. The systems by which these asset declarations are collected and verified are highly dysfunctional. In Honduras, for example, the body responsible for reviewing financial disclosures by public officials has no way of proactively determining that the information is truthful and accurate. In Guatemala, asset declarations by state officials aren’t available to the wider public; in El Salvador, by law any investigations concerning illicit enrichment by public officials need to be kept secret. All this is indicative of the many opportunities for strengthening transparency and accountability in the region.
Honduras and Guatemala have adopted measures aimed in principle at creating an enabling environment for the exercise of protecting human rights. However, these must be strengthened. In Honduras, for example, by the end of 2017, the units within the National Protection System charged with receiving cases and conducting risk analyses only had 10 employees to handle cases across the entire country.
In a worrying trend, in Guatemala and Honduras, criminal law is frequently abused in an attempt to prevent or halt the work of human rights defenders.
Despite the creation of special bodies and mechanisms dedicated to investigating human rights violations and protecting defenders under threat, impunity remains high. Between 2014 to 2017, only 8.5 percent of the cases involving the violation of an individual’s fundamental rights and guarantees initiated by El Salvador’s Attorney General’s Office were taken to court. In Guatemala, the vast majority of investigations opened by the special prosecutor’s office on human rights failed to result in convictions. In Honduras, where 141 human rights defenders were killed over a four-year time period, between 95 to 98 percent of crimes against defenders go unpunished.
In a worrying trend, in Guatemala and Honduras, criminal law is frequently abused in an attempt to prevent or halt the work of human rights defenders. In Guatemala, non-governmental organization UDEFEGUA has registered 104 judicial detentions involving defenders.
However, the gap between the levels of violence and insecurity and convictions remains quite large. While general homicide rates decreased, violence and insecurity remain high.
In Honduras, only 9 percent of the cases processed by the Attorney General’s Office in 2014 ended with charges filed. In El Salvador, only 8.4 percent of the cases processed by the judicial system ended with convictions in 2017; in Guatemala that same year, only 2 percent of the complaints presented to the Attorney General’s Office ended with convictions.
All three countries have made legal advances to tackle violence and organized crime, adopted modern crime fighting techniques, and created specialized prosecutorial units and courts. However, despite broad legislation adopted in El Salvador, the laws do not comprehensively account for the different forms of violence that affect the public. In the case of Honduras, in general, security regulations passed in the last several years are reactive and militaristic in nature, concentrating power in the executive branch and accompanied by legislation that restricts access to public information.
Across the region, prosecutions and convictions for various types of violent crimes remain low. In Guatemala, for example, in 2017, at least 57 out of 100,000 women were subjected to femicide or other forms of violence against women. In that same year, of the suspects indicted by the Public Prosecutor’s Office, only 3 percent were convicted at trial. In El Salvador, a high number of cases taken on by the Attorney General’s Office were later archived—for example, nine out of 10 cases involving kidnapping and deprivation were archived; for homicide cases, 8 out of every 10 were archived.
Put together, these issues compromise the ability of justice systems to investigate and prosecute crimes efficiently. In Honduras, only 9 percent of the cases processed by the Attorney General’s Office in 2014 ended with charges filed. In El Salvador, only 8.4 percent of the cases processed by the judicial system ended with convictions in 2017; in Guatemala that same year, only 2 percent of the complaints presented to the Attorney General’s Office ended with convictions.