Ana María Méndez-Dardón, Central America Director at WOLA, says the region’s democracies are facing one of the most fragile moments in recent decades. She finds common traits among the authoritarian governments that are taking hold in several Central American countries with the assault on the separation of powers and the attacks against representatives of civil society, including justice advocates and independent journalists. She also warns that the risk to the region is growing even greater at a time when democracy is in crisis on a global level, including in the United States.
In this conversation, Méndez-Dardón highlights key elements to understand the current dynamics and challenges in the region. She emphasizes issues such as failed justice systems, lack of judicial independence, endemic corruption and the capture of the state by illicit networks and organized crime.
Migration is one of the main issues on the U.S. agenda for Central America. Despite having a strategy to address the root causes of migration and another for collaborative migration management, the Biden administration still faces many challenges in the region. What is your reading of this?
Ana María Méndez-Dardón (AMD): It has been a step forward that the Biden administration changed its strategy and focused on the structural causes of migration: unemployment and economic inequality, violence, including gender-based violence, climate change and corruption. However, this agenda is viable in the long term only if it is accompanied by other measures that address the immediate migration crisis, and has the political will of the Central American countries. The challenge is to achieve real political commitments with governments that do not seem interested in strengthening the rule of law and democracy, as in the cases of Guatemala and El Salvador.
As long as governments fail to commit themselves to conditions and mechanisms to promote democratic institutions and governance, there will be no solutions. The current context demands rescuing democracies that have had such a hard time laying foundations in the region. They were never perfect democracies, but even with their fragility, they provided a level of protection to the citizenry. In recent years, the vast majority of those hard-won achievements in countries that experienced some of the cruelest wars in Latin America have been annulled. The setback has been immense, as have the political and social costs.
U.S. cooperation with Central America can help address the structural causes of migration, but should be conditioned, as has been the case in recent years, on respect for judicial independence, freedom of the press, and the implementation of measures to combat endemic corruption and organized crime.
At this point it is clear that the Biden administration wants to have a different approach to Central America than the one Trump had, which was more transactional and allowed authoritarianism to grow. Are there not, however, confusing signals from this White House, which for example sanctions Guatemala’s attorney general for acts of corruption but also holds high-level meetings with President Giammattei?
AMD: It is troubling that, even though there’s good will, there is no coherent message. It seems to me that the Biden administration has designed valuable legal and policy tools to promote the rule of law, but they have not been able to stem the authoritarian tide. So far the impact has not been as expected. This is the case, for instance, with the sanctions imposed by the State Department under the Engel list or the Anti-Corruption Task Force. The Task Force has not yet produced a visible result, although its work continues and its creation has been positive. We have seen a defiant attitude on the part of several Central American governments. In reality, this seems to be a form of political manipulation, on the one hand, because of possible economic alliances with other countries, such as China, and on the other hand, with the implementation of migration policies such as the Migrant Attention Centers, in the case of Guatemala. The point is that the United States needs these governments to address issues that are a U.S. priority, such as migration, the fight against drug trafficking and organized crime.
Honduran President Xiomara Castro’s relationship with the United States seems, for now, less conflictive than that of Nayib Bukele or Alejandro Giammattei. Why is this the case?
AMD: It is no longer possible to make a generalized analysis of what we used to call the “Northern Triangle” (Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador). Each country has nuances that are important to differentiate. With the election of Xiomara Castro, Honduras finds itself in a different place on the ideological political spectrum than the one to which the region had historically been accustomed, with a tendency towards the left more distant from the center. Let us remember that Castro belongs to a vertical political party – led by her husband and former president Manuel Zelaya – in which certain ideological principles must be respected, among them the alliance it may have with Venezuela, Cuba or Nicaragua (and perhaps this is why Castro made a public recognition of Daniel Ortega’s “support for democracy”). The challenge facing the president – who seems to have a strong will to initiate real changes – is how to respond to the lines of a hard political party, of which her husband is the main leader. The president’s main political problems may derive from this duality. For now, the whole government is on the side of Castro and what she is trying to do, but the political influence and power of Zelaya and his close circles must also be taken into account.
One of the main alliances with the U.S. government is the installation of an international commission against impunity. President Castro has shown great openness to cooperation with several countries, especially the United States. There is an open channel of good will for cooperation on corruption issues, but we have to wait to see. It has been several months since this commission was announced and there is still not anything we can call real and concrete progress.
Do you think a CICIG can work in Honduras?
AMD: There are basic issues that are necessary for an anti-corruption mechanism to work and lessons learned from other experiences, including with the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, CICIG). One is to remove any obstacles that prevent deep and relevant criminal investigations. There are legal and political obstacles. To begin with, several laws must be repealed that did not allow the Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, (Misión Anticorrupción y Contra la Impunidad en Honduras, MACCIH, which was eliminated by then President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2020) and the Honduran Public Ministry to have good results in complex cases of corruption of politicians and businessmen. Units within the administration of justice must also be strengthened with human and financial resources. For example, UFERCO (the special prosecutor’s office against organized crime) needs to be provided with human, technical and financial resources.
The expectation has to be clear in Honduras. The government has just changed, corruption is endemic and its penetration in the judiciary is immense. There is still no confidence in a judiciary that has been bent to the interests of political parties linked to drug trafficking or organized crime. A perfect scenario is not needed for this commission to be installed, but there are conditions required for it to be able to generate changes in the Honduran judicial system.
Let’s look at the case of the CICIG. There were three important stages. First was to create the legal tools: the highest risk courts, the law against organized crime, the FECI (Special Prosecutor’s Office against Impunity), which started with a different name. Then it was necessary to identify certain patterns of criminal structures and illicit networks that most affected the country’s democracy. And it was in the third period, with Commissioner Iván Velásquez, that there were criminal investigations and judicial processes that involved big corruption schemes and brought them to light. In Honduras it is something similar. As long as national institutions are not strengthened, no international commission is going to have an impact.
Carolina Jiménez Sandoval, the president of WOLA, has spoken of a democratic regression in Latin America. How is this illustrated in Central America?
AMD: The lack of judicial independence, the non-separation of powers and the attacks on the press are among the most serious. These regimes, under the guise of legality, commit abuses of power. We have talked about differences and nuances: in El Salvador, Nayib Bukele called himself a dictator, something that has not happened in the case of Guatemala. In the end, these are authoritarian governments that are silencing voices that challenge them and that is a common denominator. In Nicaragua, we see a more critical situation, worse, at least for now.
Persecution and the attempt to close civic spaces are also common. This includes the harassment of civil society organizations in the broad sense. We are talking about independent journalists, human rights and environmental rights defenders, independent justice advocates.
In the cases of Nicaragua, El Salvador and Guatemala, it seems that annulling the separation of powers has been fundamental in cementing authoritarianism…
AMD: Yes, but there are nuances in how authoritarianism manifests itself. In the Guatemalan case, it is a process of re-coopting institutions and re-concentration of power by elites and illicit networks through criminalization, persecution and attacks. In El Salvador, it is different because Bukele plays the central role of power, of leadership with a lot of social support; the weight of economic power and other elites in El Salvador is less pronounced in decision-making. In Nicaragua, the situation is more critical because there is a complete erosion of participatory democracy, of the full and free exercise of citizens’ rights, and a repressive wave against voices critical of the Ortega-Murillo regime.
The former president of Honduras is awaiting trial for drug trafficking in New York, the attorney general of Guatemala has been accused of corruption. How much power does organized crime still have in these states?
AMD: What these criminal networks have created is a perverse dynamic in the political and legal spheres, turning governments into their main allies. The case of Juan Orlando Hernandez in Honduras demonstrated that drug traffickers have different ways of co-opting and penetrating institutions. For example, they use the public forces, including the army, as private security for protection. They also use public funds to benefit their companies by negotiating contracts, either to launder money or to make more profit. This case also involved illicit electoral financing and the payment of bribes to act with impunity. This is very common in Honduras and Guatemala. I believe that because of the weight that drug trafficking has in those two countries, organized crime has penetrated to the highest spheres of power intertwined with the elites.
What challenges does U.S. foreign policy face in supporting democracy and human rights in Central America in this context?
AMD: The analysis of democracies has to be more global because democratic ideals are also global and should not be taken for granted; the United States and Latin America share common challenges and also the responsibility to defend these ideals together. In the end, authoritarian regimes have and reproduce similar practices. We are not talking about the Latin American regimes of military juntas in the 1970s, but they utilize certain measures that have been used in the past, such as states of exception as a mechanism of political control and repression. In Guatemala, Rios Montt exercised power under a state of exception, today Bukele governs the same way.