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Outsourcing Latin American Justice: Balancing People and their Power

December 04, 2015
In the wake of years of trouble and insecurity, oftentimes the best course of action seems to be to get some advice or help. There is no greater wisdom than someone else’s, and Latin American countries have come to realize this. Over the past two decades, with the sudden rise of the drug wars fad in the wake of the civil wars of the 1980s, increased attention has increasingly turned towards the Latin American justice system. The result is best captured in a quote from Pablo Escobar and followers: “We prefer a grave in Colombia to a prison in the United States.[1]

In trying to reduce the number of escapes and escapades resulting from arresting drug lords like Escobar (notable case in point was the recent escape of El Chapo), Latin America was faced with corruption from within, allowing the criminals to essentially run their prisons into escape-grounds.[2] To combat this, many have signed “extradition treaties” in which they essentially outsource the due process for high-profile cases to the United States or, in the case of Guatemala, the United Nations.[3] There is a critical comparison to draw between these two forms of outsourcing justice. In the case of Guatemala, long-term provisions for the sustainability of domestic justice are being instituted, but they are lacking in direction. Similarly, the extradition treaties of other nations, most notably the Mexico-United States Treaty, exhibit the same long-term myopia, leading to internal instability further down the road that requires immediate redress.

CICIG: Power to the People

Guatemala first welcomed the presence of Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala, or the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), in 2007. Since then, the country has been able to lock away a corrupt president and legislate against government branches, including tax agencies and banks.[4] In the beginning, Guatemala had an impunity rate of  95%, meaning only 5 out of every 100 criminals were actually punished for their actions.[5] Over 2 years, the homicide impunity rate (often considered the first indicator of improving times) was reduced by 27% in Guatemala City, the locus of most government corruption.[6] All this occurs despite a strongly heralded World Bank warning that drug enforcement efforts are not likely to work in Latin America.[7] The success of 200 complex cases is not rooted solely in the multinational coalitions of experts from Italian mafia-prosecutors to Colombian money laundering maestros, but also in the policy suggestions made to the government.[8] Taking out a President is a task that would often cause more instability than it is worth, but CICIG has managed to recommend concrete steps to the government throughout its presence to ensure that it will no longer be needed in the future. The Open Society Justice Initiative states that it is currently an “indispensible partner,”[9] but that is not its goal in the long term. Yet, the group has been present in Guatemala for 8 years despite having a 2-year mandate. It is true that the group has accomplished much that the local government could not, and that a premature retraction of CICG would undo all the progress which has been made. Nevertheless, the question remains: if there is a dependency complex forming, should this be encouraged?

CICIG’s Mandate Today

Though the mandate of CICIG has the long-term goal of making “recommendations,”[10] these recommendations can often mean little to none to a government constantly being dismantled or one that threatens to dismantle the CICIG itself.[11] If anything, CICIG may be prolonging the cycle of corruption in Guatemala by simply disempowering corrupt leaders long enough to give people hope. A common measure of hope is government bonds; within the first two years of CICIG, there was a strong and indubitable rise in the interest rate on bonds (generally indicative of increases in confidence in the government), followed by a rapid collapse in 2008 due to the financial crisis.[12] The most shocking element is that these bonds never really rose again, but kept falling, as people lost faith in their own government entirely rather than gaining hope as reforms and step-downs took place. If anything, rather than empowering people to take control of their governments, CICIG’s efforts may just be showing the entrenched cronyism in the government of Guatemala. The question still remains: how do we make CICIG sustainable?

In the recent presidential election, the Guatemalan people finally voted for a candidate, comedian Jimmy Morales, who was not associated with traditional politics or strongly associated with corruption.[13] President Jimmy Morales should be a sign that there is no longer a negative populist pressure for corrupt government officials (Figure 1). CICIG’s mandate should now be revisited to encompass this new popular support. Guatemalan citizens, despite this change in political pressure, still collectively pay an annual $61 million in extortion fees.[14]

Fighting Corruption in the Long Term

The fall of the “political class” in Guatemala is not a fall in corruption as a whole, and this is what CICIG should start focusing on. Teaching Morales’s new government to enact anti-extortion and anti-bribery legislation, as well as to crack down on the pay-for-forgiveness style justice in the nation, is the next logical step for CICIG. It has exonerated the government from the clutch of the previous president and his nefarious tax and customs schemes; surely there is more to be done, but CICIG has already generated the domestic momentum, which implies it is time to hand that back to the Guatemalan people (with guidance, of course). Otherwise, CICIG may end up in Guatemala another 8 years, weeding out the individual corrupt politicians that the people can vote out on their own. Guatemalans in 2012 acquitted their first Presidential corruption-charged defendant just so he could be prosecuted abroad; this is not justice by the people, but the lack thereof.[15] Corruption is a delicate balance: On one hand, safety nets leaving too early can cause it to come back and erode any progress. Alternatively, leaving too late could make corruption the easiest method to fill the gap. These ideas may not be entirely new, but they are undervalued in comparison to the CICIG mission. Teaching alternatives to the government after CICIG’s display of effective power is the strongest way to bridge the corruption gap. Thus, our first two reforms arise: CICIG should educate and empower the voices that are strongest against corruption using media promotion and campaigning.

A Campaign Poster for Jimmy Morales, The President of Guatemala

A campaign poster from Guatemala’s new President, Jimmy Morales. Note the powerful anti-corruption agenda takes the lead. Source: Jimmy Morales For President

Extradition: Exporting Power and People

The second, more nefarious model of exporting justice does not even begin to show the same potential as the Guatemalan CICIG operations. The infamous escape of El Chapo this past year was amid a Mexican attempt to extradite the drug lord to the United States; unfortunately, this distracted them from his tunnel-digging operation beneath the noses of their paid-off guards. Mexico is not alone; Honduras joined the extradition tradition in 2012, El Salvador sent its first drug lord over in 2013, and the Dominican Republic just renewed its treaty this January.[16] These are not small treaties either; in Honduras, the law was a constitutional amendment that listed the terrorists and drug lords of the state to be packaged for trial in the United States, and Colombia relies on the law for about 130 extraditees annually.[17] The United States may have a vested interest in ending the drug wars, but recognizing that internal instabilities are what made drug kingpins possible places this whole feedback loop in a questionable stance.[18] If we run into the same problem as with CICIG here, it’s worth exploring a recommendation as well.


If the CICIG operations create a possibility for dependency despite the work they do, outright extradition and a lack of internal reform is a quagmire beyond repair. Thirteen men this past January, including “The Barbie”, were extradited to the United States for committing crimes in both Mexico and the US.[19] An InSight Crime analysis concluded this was a response to the diplomatic fallout from the Mexican El Chapo fiasco in an attempt to repair the broken extradition agreement with the US and rebuild this trust.[20] There is a clear prerogative inherent in this exchange; Americans have a relationship with these Latin American countries, whether it is liked or not, that cannot be forsaken on a whim. We should not leave Latin American countries resource-less in fighting their biggest terrors. However, they should be ready to do this independently in the future, and we can leverage our almost paternalistic relationship with them to send institutional help like CICIG in the post-Morales phase in the areas of justice education and reform. These governments want the United States to help; the United States should be open to providing more long-term help rather than “vengeance quests” like that of El Chapo or La Barbie. In fact, by cutting deals with many of these criminals (just as El Chapo’s case threatened to do last year), the US can weaken apparent state sovereignty and contribute to generating new corruption in government.[21] This cycle can and will break if the US changes its strategies. Another key recommendation therefore arises: the US, having been the abroad muscle, can maintain its position by strengthening the security sector of these embattled nations while keeping the issues local.

&quot;El Chapo&quot; being arrested 

“El Chapo” Guzman, the infamous drug lord who escaped from a prison this year by tunneling out. Source: PBS.org

Concluding Recommendations

Recognizing the common interest between the US and Latin American countries like Mexico in these fights, the US, or perhaps even the United Nations, should be ready to provide assistance to the courts where these criminals are tried; this support could include enhanced security around the prisoner, selected judges and juries, and descriptions of morally upstanding due process that can serve as recommendations to leaders and people trying to institute the change locally, like the prosecutor of the aforementioned El Chapo or the new President of Guatemala. CICIG was a step in the right direction, and it serves as model for the more restrictive, and perhaps even arcane, extradition treaties of nations like Mexico. To institute long-term changes in nations embattled by impunity and corruption, more is needed than just trying for those countries. Training new officials and protecting and promoting the opinions of those on the vanguard of the fight against corruption through new media, education, and security sector support are the main methods to consider looking forward, as these will bring the power back to the hands of the people.


  [1] “Outsourcing Justice,” The Economist, November 25, 2015.


  [2] Elijah Stevens, “Leaked Intelligence Points to Top-Level Corruption in El Chapo Escape,” InSight Crime, November 24, 2015.


  [3] Gabriel Labrador, “Head of Guatemala’s CICIG Reflect on Past Victories, Challenges Ahead,” InSight Crime, November 17, 2015.


  [4] David Luhnow, “Guatemala Outsources a Corruption Crackdown,” Wall Street Journal, September 11, 2015. http://www.wsj.com/articles/guatemala-outsources-a-corruption-crackdown-1442001944

  [5] Ibid.

  [6] “Guatemala 2014 Safety and Crime Report,” United States Overseas Advisory Council, May 14, 2014. https://www.osac.gov/pages/ContentReportDetails.aspx?cid=15656

  [7] “Crime and Violence in Central America: A Development Challenge,” World Bank, 2011. https://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTLAC/Resources/FINAL_VOLUME_I_ENGLISH_CrimeAndViolence.pdf

  [8] Nina Lakhani, “Guatemalan President’s Downfall Marks Success for Corruption Investigators,” The Guardian, September 9, 2015.


  [9] Jonathan Birchall, “Guatemala Debates Future of UN-Backed International Commission Against Impunity,” International Justice Monitor, March 20, 2015.


  [10] “Mandate to Establish CICIG,” CICIG.org, December 12, 2006. http://www.cicig.org/index.php?page=mandate

  [11] Pedro Abramovay, “Aren’t We All Guatemala?,” OpenDemocracy, November 2, 2015. https://www.opendemocracy.net/democraciaabierta/pedro-abramovay/are-nt-we-all-guatemala

  [12] “Guatemala Interest Rate,” TradingEconomics, November 2015.


  [13] Carlos Sabino, “Morales’s Victory in Guatemala Signals Populism’s Demise,” PanAmPost, November 2, 2015.


  [14] Danielle Renwick, “Central America’s Violent Northern Triangle,” Council on Foreign Relations, November 27, 2015.


  [15] Hannah Stone, “With Extradition Law, Honduras Outsources Justice to the US,” InSight Crime, January 30, 2012.


  [16] “How to Handle a Drug Gang,” The Economist, November 21, 2015.


  [17] Hannah Stone, “With Extradition Law, Honduras Outsources Justice to the US,” InSight Crime, January 30, 2012.


  [18] Evan Brown and Dallas Owens, “Drug trafficking, Violence, and Instability in Mexico, Colombia, and the Caribbean: Implications for U.S. National Security,” The Strategic Studies Institute, February 12, 2010. http://www.strategicstudiesinstitute.army.mil/pdffiles/PUB968.pdf

  [19] Brinley Bruton, “Mexico Extradites Alleged Drug Lord ‘La Barbie,’ 12 Others to US,” NBC News, October 1, 2015.


  [20] Arron Daugherty, “Explaining Mexico’s Decision to Extradite Alleged Drug Lords,” InSight Crime, October 1, 2015. http://www.insightcrime.org/news-analysis/mexico-extraditions-drug-traffickers

  [21] Vanessa Buschschluter, “Should Drug Lord Guzman Have Been Extradited to the US?,” BBC News, July 13, 2015. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-latin-america-33506562

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