Politics, Business & Culture in the Americas

Can El Salvador’s New Anti-Corruption Commission Deliver?

Reading Time: 4 minutesThe CICIES could be a potent tool, or just a political show.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Camilo Freedman/APHOTOGRAFIA/Getty

Reading Time: 4 minutes

Part of a continuing series on Latin America’s crackdown on corruption.

On Sept. 6, El Salvador’s President Nayib Bukele announced an agreement with the Organization of American States (OAS) to create the International Commission against Corruption and Impunity in El Salvador (CICIES). On paper, the accord fulfills a popular campaign promise by Bukele to create a Salvadoran version of the body’s celebrated counterpart in Guatemala known as CICIG. CICIES is part of Bukele’s desire to shake up El Salvador’s ideologically polarized and corrupt political system; three months into his term, his approval rating sits around 90%.

But there are reasons to be cautious about projecting just how successful Bukele and the CICIES will be.

Bukele became enthusiastic about an anti-corruption commission after the CICIG achieved notable success and popularity, jailing a president, cabinet ministers and top elites before Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales (himself under its investigative eye) decided not to renew its mandate. Many Salvadorans expect the CICIES will have similar success, and that the body could serve as a potentially powerful tool to fight criminal networks and political corruption. A January poll showed 92% support for such a body.

But it is still unclear how CICIES will be funded, who will run it, or how it will be organized. The accord with the OAS appeared hurried through in order to meet a pledge Bukele made via Twitter to “install” the body within his first 100 days in office, which concluded on Sept. 8. But it will be months before the body is up and running.

There are also concerns about how transparent and effective the body will ultimately be. Though details are still scarce, Bukele has made it clear that the CICIES will work with the executive branch, including the national police, rather than carry out investigations with the independent Attorney General’s office, which would require legislative approval.

These limitations made it easier to get the body started, but could limit investigators’ willingness to pursue potential cases tied to the administration. There is a risk CICIES could end up focusing only on past administrations led by the two traditional parties that dominated politics for decades before Bukele’s election.

The OAS’ role itself raises further questions. The international organization moved quickly to announce a general mandate for CICIES after a lightning visit by an OAS official to El Salvador that involved meetings only with the executive branch – not even with the Attorney General’s office.  

This eagerness echoes a similar process in Honduras in 2015, when the OAS’ desire to manage a new mission resulted in its assenting to a weaker mandate than CICIG for the OAS Mission in Support of the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).  

The inclusion of the term “active collaboration” in its announcement with El Salvador suggests that the OAS will assume all functions related to CICIES, including eventually participating in criminal investigations – a role the government had originally indicated it would cede to the United Nations. UN involvement, as was the case for CICIG, could strengthen CICIES’ standing to carry out investigations. 

Indeed, the OAS’ experience in Honduras gives cause for pause. There, the OAS too readily acceded to the government’s whims on the MACCIH’s structure, and appointed people with inappropriate backgrounds for its anti-impunity mission. Some of these practices have improved, yet concerns persist about budget management, hiring and political factors affecting the mission.

Finally, Bukele’s delay in announcing the agreement raised questions about his commitment to the commission. The government reportedly did not publish a proposal or reach out to the UN until September, even though Bukele’s staff had draft documents on his desk within weeks of his February election.

Some have speculated that Bukele’s slow movement toward CICIES could reflect pressure from U.S. officials, who in recent months told members of Bukele’s government that they didn’t see a need for an international commission, since the U.S. is already providing advisers to the Attorney General’s office, which has indicted three ex-presidents. The U.S. had, however, pledged to support a CICIES-like body if Bukele chose to create one, and the new U.S. ambassador last week expressed his support as well.

A meaningful, independent role for the CICIES would give Bukele a chance to push back criticism that he is more show than substance. But if the body is to act independently and collaborate with public prosecutors, it will need a mandate from the legislature, where the two traditional parties – both of which opposed CICIES during the campaign – will hold a majority at least until 2021 legislative elections. Without a legislative mandate or specific delegation by the courts or the Attorney General’s office, the international commission will only be empowered to investigate executive branch misdeeds.

If Salvadorans want to see a CICIES with more effective bite, they should also press for the UN to have the role in supporting investigations, as should external allies and the government itself. U.S. aid has been the main support for both MACCIH and CICIG, and U.S. legislators could help facilitate a strong UN investigative mandate if they chose to do so.

CICIES should certainly strengthen state capacity, including the Attorney General’s office. In Guatemala, CICIG was able to strengthen the Public Ministry’s capacity and empower it to pursue high-level, sensitive cases doggedly. Ultimately, most Salvadorans and international observers would like to see an international anti-corruption mission succeed in El Salvador. However, the initial steps raise the possibility that CICIES may be getting off on the wrong foot.  

Call is associate professor of International Peace and Conflict Resolution at the School of International Service at American University 


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