Claudia Escobar Mejía: Marshall-Plan Like Effort Needed to Eliminate Corruption in Central America
from Women Around the World, Women and Foreign Policy Program, and Democracy, Corruption, and the Fight Against Human Trafficking

Claudia Escobar Mejía: Marshall-Plan Like Effort Needed to Eliminate Corruption in Central America

Without new measures to build democratic institutions, entrenched corruption, migration, and violence will only get worse.  
A woman takes part in an anticorruption protest in Guatemala City, Guatemala, September 14, 2017.
A woman takes part in an anticorruption protest in Guatemala City, Guatemala, September 14, 2017. REUTERS/Luis Echeverria

This interview with Claudia Escobar Mejía is part of the Women and Foreign Policy program’s Democracy, Corruption, and the Fight Against Human Trafficking Project, produced by Senior Fellow Ann Norris.

How would you describe corruption and weak governance in Central America today? How significantly does it impact everyday life, and what role do these issues play as push factors for migrants and asylum seekers? Will it be possible to stop migration without addressing these issues in a significant way?  

Corruption is endemic in Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. In fact, Guatemala and other countries in Central America are kleptocracies. Their leadership is principally focused on personal enrichment and they do not provide governance or services for their populations, which has a massive impact on people’s well-being. Governments have created a system that exists only to steal. In addition, the Northern Triangle is extremely violent. This leads to a very dangerous mix because you not only have corrupt governments but also a lot of influence from organized crime. And that promotes violence. 

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Rule of Law

In addition, the countries of Central America are post-conflict countries. Most of them went through long periods of civil wars, which created polarization in society. That makes it very difficult to promote the rule of law and a culture of legality when people are used to using violence to resolve their problems. It will be impossible to stop migration without addressing these issues. 

Would you characterize this all as a major push factor? 
These are all major push factors. Migrants and asylum seekers are leaving because they face the very real threat of violence from criminal gangs or because they really don't have any opportunities for survival or safe living conditions. These countries are extremely poor. People do not have health care, education, jobs, or pathways toward building a life. So even though it is incredibly challenging to migrate because of the cost and the threat of danger or exploitation—including human trafficking—they do it anyway because most believe they do not have any other choice. 

You have said that without considerable effort to strengthen institutions, Central America risks becoming the next Afghanistan, noting that: “The right approach would be to strengthen the institutions, because if the institutions don't work, the country is not going to be able to stand by itself.”  How would you assess progress in this area by the Biden Administration? What role should other countries/international institutions be playing?  

Unfortunately, I do not think that the Biden administration is approaching efforts to strengthen institutions in the right way. They have rightly made efforts to target corrupt individuals, such as placing sanctions on Maria Consuelo Porras Argueta de Porres, the current Attorney General of Guatemala. And they have placed many other high-level public officials on the Engel sanction list, including many who work in the judicial systems of their respective countries. But the United States is not undertaking broader efforts to encourage the administrations in Central America to build stronger public institutions. Without doing so, I believe other efforts—like sanctions—will fall short.  

The core issue is that these governments believe they can do whatever they want and there will not be accountability; Nicaragua has essentially become a dictatorship. They have ensured there are no checks and balances by going after anyone who calls them out on their corrupt practices, including journalists and human rights defenders. In Guatemala, the situation is no different: There are prominent journalists in prison as well as lawyers and former prosecutors. Anyone who has had a role over the past decade in fighting corruption has become an enemy of the state.  

The international community should be promoting the establishment of regional or international institutions that safeguard the rule of law in Central America. If there is a lack of capacity and credibility in justice institutions, including those responsible for investigating individuals who commit acts of corruption and serious human rights violations, then the region will remain a safe haven for criminal organizations that thrive in an environment of impunity. The role of other countries and international institutions, in my opinion, is crucial. They should support these efforts by providing resources, technical assistance, and by setting conditions for aid based on advancements in the rule of law, human rights, and corruption eradication. Additionally, they should encourage regional cooperation as these problems often spill over borders. 

More on:


Immigration and Migration

Central America


Rule of Law

As a follow-up, are there any lessons to be learned from Costa Rica? 

Yes, there are important efforts to be learned from Costa Rica. Most notably, Costa Rica has a strong civil service that helps support effective governance. Much like in the United States, individuals who make up the civil service do not leave when governments change, helping to ensure continuity and expertise across the country’s government agencies. In places like Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, the ruling party fills every job when they take power, which creates conditions for massive corruption at every level. Everyone is loyal to the politicians and not to the institutions for which they work.  

Another difference is that Costa Rica does not have an army. Costa Rica decided to instead invest in institutions and public services instead of financing a military. So, they have a government that delivers for its citizens. It is often referred to as the “Switzerland of Central America.” Costa Rica invests in things like education and in building effective institutions. As a result, it is completely different in almost every sense from the rest of the countries of Central America. 

 What more should the United States and international actors be doing to support civil society and others on the ground who are working on these issues? Do you have examples of promising initiatives you want to share or that could use additional support? 

We need to continue to think creatively about how to support civil society actors and others working on corruption and crime in the region. Much more can and should be done. I am currently working on an initiative called the “Democracy and Anticorruption Fellowship.” It is supported by George Mason University and the University of Peace in Costa Rica, and it will help give tools to anti-corruption fighters from Central America who are experiencing threats or facing difficulties in carrying out their work. What we hope to do is to create a network of experts from the region that can explain what is happening and propose policies to address different challenges based on their personal, first-hand experiences. We hope that these individuals can ultimately go back to their countries as anti-corruption fighters to continue promoting transparency, the rule of law, and stronger institutions.  

But we must think bigger. Central America is full of failed and failing states. It is a source of mass, rampant criminality, and incredible violence. And it deserves a commensurate response. We need something akin to the Marshall Plan for the region. Efforts at the end of the Second World War were able to bring countries together that had been involved in brutal conflict for years. That is an experience that needs to be analyzed and replicated in the region. We specifically need to look at how we can build functioning institutions and establish effective governance and the rule of law.  

Other partners must play a role too, including the European Union and development agencies. So much money is going into the region, and the reality is that by nearly every measure, the problem is getting worse. These countries have very weak institutions asymmetrically fighting against powerful networks of organized crime. If we hope to turn this around, we need a radical rethinking and a large-scale coordinated effort aimed at building regional institutions with built-in accountability structures. We also need to look at the issue of remittances, which is the main economic input for these countries. Guatemala alone received $18 billion in remittances in 2022 and Honduras received $9 billion. People come to the United States to work and send money back to their families back home. These funds take pressure off these governments to provide basic services like health and education because families pay for what they need using money from relatives in the United States. So, it is improbable that these governments will do anything to stop the migration. Not only because they like the financial input but because it is the only way that they can prevent a revolution. Without money from the United States, people would be starving to death. But instead, they all just leave. There are at least four million Guatemalans in the United States, which is about 25 percent of the population of the entire country of Guatemala.  

 The thousands of people who leave their homes to travel north to the United States often fall victim to abusive smuggling rings, human traffickers, and forced criminality. Women and girls are paying a particularly heinous price, enduring gender-based violence, rape and sex trafficking. Many fail to seek help after they are victimized, often because they believe nothing can be done or fear that they will be further victimized by corrupt local officials. Is there anything that can be done at the local level to strengthen protections?  

The reality is that, especially in Guatemala and Honduras, the population is afraid of the police. They know that if they reach out to the police for assistance or if you are stopped, they will demand a bribe, or give you a fine that is inflated. It is not like other places that prioritize this issue. Chile, for example, has a very professional police force, and that is something donor countries or the United Nations could look at as an example of what Central American police forces should look like. But we are so far away from that now – the police are often part of the criminal organization gangs. In fact, they are often indistinguishable from them.  

With all the money that is been going to the region—from the United States and other countries and development agencies—there have been different efforts to strengthen the judicial system, including the courts. But since the system is corrupt from the inside, they have a very slim chance of succeeding because you are dealing with corruption at every level. 

I was a judge for ten years and I saw corruption immediately after beginning my work. The clerks were corrupt. They would ask for bribes from people who came to the courts to seek justice. So, I exposed it, and I denounced it. And as a result, I received death threats on three occasions. Even if I was an honest judge, my court was corrupt. It ended up taking me two to three years to get rid of the corrupt clerks who were assigned to my court. Many of the lawyers are also corrupt. They work with the mafia, drug cartels, and criminal gangs, and they prey on the people they are supposed to protect. So, it is very hard for someone, such as a victim of trafficking, to have any hope of seeking justice.  

Professor Sarah Chayes wrote a very interesting book that looked at corruption in the judicial system in Honduras. And she found what I just mentioned—corruption is the system. It’s not just the police, or the lawyers, or the justice department. The whole operating structure is corrupt. And this will only change when these countries decide that they want to implement a different system. One hundred years ago, Denmark and Switzerland were corrupt countries. But they decided to change that—to build a civil service and with it a system of effective governance. But it will take time for this to happen in Central America as well as political will, which doesn’t exist at this moment.  

What would you like to like to tell U.S. policymakers working on these issues, including lawmakers in Congress? Are there tools that they are underutilizing? What steps need to be taken now?  

The United States is failing to effectively use the commercial tools it has at its disposal—such as free trade agreements—to encourage these countries to change. Commerce with the United States is such a powerful incentive. If we did more to tie adherence to the rule of law to trade and commercial agreements, it would be a powerful form of leverage. But again, commerce on this side is going to have to demand a different system, much like what happened in the United States when it decided to bring an end to an economic system dependent on slavery. The South didn’t want to end slavery because its economic system was dependent on slavery. It was willing to fight a war and secede from the United States to protect the system. In Central America, the system is corrupt, and it is very lucrative for those at the top. The population—more than 70 percent of whom live under the poverty line—is powerless to change the system.  

The truth is that governments and their cronies can continue to act with impunity—to steal and utterly disregard the rule of law—in large part because they have this strong economic relationship with the United States. It gives them power and resources, and they don't have to change a thing. I want to emphasize that I am not suggesting an embargo or other punitive measures, but rather that the United States and others use their economic ties to incentivize change.  

For example, the United States has a program called the Container Security Initiative, or CSI. This program was implemented after September 11, 2001, to screen cargo leaving ports around the world and headed to the United States. There is currently a program in Puerto Cortes in Honduras, but it is the only one in the region. That program could be implemented in Guatemala and elsewhere to help stop some of the illegal items that make their way into the United States.  

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This blog post is part of a series on the intersection of corruption, democracy, and human trafficking. This series is made possible by the generous support of Humanity United. The opinions expressed are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of HU.