WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Alan Diaz)

1 Mar 2018 | Commentary

A Critical Year for Strengthening Rule of Law in Central America


El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras will all appoint new attorneys general this year, at a time when efforts to combat corruption and impunity across Central America is at a critical juncture. This article is an introduction to a four part series analyzing the selection process for top justice officials in the Northern Triangle nations.

The Northern Triangle countries of Central America — Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras — continue to face many challenges. Endemic corruption, widespread impunity, and the infiltration of organized crime have greatly hindered efforts to address the insecurity and high levels of violence impacting many communities. To varying degrees, the region’s criminal justice institutions remain weak, unaccountable, and marred by problems of corruption and abuse. Throughout the Northern Triangle, as many as 95 percent of homicides go unpunished in many places, and the public has lost trust in the state institutions.

In the face of this harsh reality, important advances have been made to strengthen the region’s justice systems. Currently, all three Northern Triangle countries have attorneys general who have shown some willingness to advance high-level corruption cases and improve the investigative capabilities of their institutions.

In El Salvador, the attorney general has created an anti-impunity unit, arrested a well-known criminal leader with deep political ties, gone after the finances of local gangs, and indicted three former presidents and the former attorney general on corruption-related charges.

The Honduran Attorney General’s Office has investigated several top criminal leaders, created a special investigative unit better trained in scientific and technical techniques, and has begun working closely with the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) in the investigation of corruption.

In Guatemala, where the most significant gains have been made, the Attorney General’s Office has collaborated with the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) in leading the charge against corruption and impunity. Under the leadership of the past and current attorneys general, important measures have been taken to transform the way criminal investigations are conducted, improve inter-institutional coordination between the police and Public Prosecutor’s Office and strengthen transitional justice mechanisms. These efforts have resulted in the successful prosecution of powerful organized criminal groups, and a 10-year steady decline of the national murder rate.

The sustainability of these advances and continued commitment to combating corruption and impunity will be put to the test this year. All three countries will appoint new attorneys general: Guatemala must do so by May; Honduras by September, and El Salvador must appoint someone by the end of this year. El Salvador will also appoint new magistrates to its Supreme Court in July.

It is critical that capable, committed individuals who are free from conflicts of interests be selected for these key positions. Thus, it is essential that the election processes for these positions be conducted in a transparent and objective manner, and in accordance with international standards. The election processes must ensure that candidates are impartially evaluated and selected based on merit, their strong legal and professional qualifications, and their commitment to the rule of law. At the same time, the processes should allow also for the active participation of civil society.

Judicial independence is what allows for progress against corruption and impunity. It is also what sustains this progress beyond political shifts. Given the threats that lie within the political landscapes of the Northern Triangle, a great deal is at stake, and ensuring full transparency and due diligence are paramount. In light of this, WOLA will publish a series that will analyze the selection processes for attorneys general and magistrates across Northern Triangle. The series will examine some of the challenges inherent within current election procedures, as well as the relevance of this process to successfully sustaining the fight against corruption and impunity in the Northern Triangle.

Read the first part of the series on the upcoming selection of Supreme Court magistrates in El Salvador here.