ON MAY 7th hundreds of officials gathered in the ballroom of the Camino Real hotel in Guatemala City to pay tribute to Thelma Aldana, who was stepping down at the end of her four-year term as the country’s attorney-general. A Powerpoint presentation touted her prosecutorial feats. They included jailing the country’s president, Otto Pérez Molina (pictured) in 2015, and the vice-president, Roxana Baldetti. Last year she began an investigation of the current president, Jimmy Morales, on suspicions that he had paid for his campaign illegally. The front-row seat intended for him was empty.
The corruption that Ms Aldana pursued is not new. In Guatemala, as in the other countries in Central America’s “northern triangle”, El Salvador and Honduras, it infects the highest levels of government. Attorneys-general have mostly ignored the crimes of the politicians who appoint them. This contributes to the lawlessness and violence that impel people to flee the region and go to the United States.
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But in all three countries recent holders of that office have fought impunity. Prosecutors in Honduras uncovered embezzlement at state agencies. In El Salvador a former president is in jail, another fled to Nicaragua and a third died before his trial. The region’s prosecutors have become “effectively a fourth branch of government”, says Charles Call of American University in Washington, DC. In Guatemala and Honduras they have had vital support from anti-corruption agencies backed by the UN and other international bodies.
Their successes are fragile. By early next year the three countries will have new chief prosecutors. El Salvador is due to replace five supreme-court justices. Politicians want to appoint tamer successors. The United States, which has helped in the fight against corruption, is retreating from the fray. All this threatens progress.
The main target in Guatemala is the International Commission against Impunity (CICIG), the UN-backed agency that helped Ms Aldana lock up the former president. Its enemies are getting help from an unexpected quarter: Marco Rubio, a senator from Florida.
CICIG was set up in 2006 to help prosecutors dismantle “illegal security organisations” and related networks of businessmen and politicians. It has the backing of more than 70% of Guatemalans. Mr Morales, a comedian who had never held office, was elected in 2015 on a promise to fight the graft that CICIG and Ms Aldana uncovered. But when they scrutinised the financing of his campaign, he struck back. In August he tried to expel from the country CICIG’s boss, Iván Velásquez, but relented in the face of protests.
Mr Morales has a new ally in Mr Rubio, a member of the Senate’s appropriations committee, which authorises the American contribution to CICIG. That help is part of the United States’ strategy to discourage illegal migration by bolstering the rule of law. On May 4th Mr Rubio suspended the $6m grant, nearly half the agency’s budget.
He is taking his cue from Bill Browder, a foe of Vladimir Putin who contends that Russia is manipulating CICIG. Mr Browder bases that claim on CICIG’s role in prosecuting the Bitkov family, who have antagonised President Putin. The Bitkovs were given harsh sentences for using false documents to get residency in Guatemala. No other compelling evidence has emerged to support Mr Browder’s claim. A Guatemalan court recently ordered the Bitkovs’ retrial. Mr Rubio cut off the money anyway.
Some Guatemalans think he and Mr Browder are unwitting pawns of CICIG’s enemies. “Someone astutely planted the seed,” says a business lobbyist. Mr Rubio’s attack on CICIG may make it easier for Mr Morales to force out its director or let its mandate expire next year. The fight against corruption would then depend on Ms Aldana’s successor, María Consuelo Porras.
She is not well known. Her career as a judge and prosecutor suggests that she can do the job. “We’re giving her the benefit of the doubt,” says Helen Mack, a human-rights activist. Ms Porras will benefit from progress made during the CICIG era, including better prosecutors. But, like Ms Aldana, she will have to choose between CICIG and a tainted president, says Ms Mack.
In Honduras the battle may already be lost. The president, Juan Orlando Hernández, controls most of the country’s institutions, including the judiciary. Political control of the attorney-general’s office weakened for a time after the discovery in 2013 of massive corruption at the social-security agency. Protests led to the creation in 2016 of MACCIH, a CICIG-like commission with weaker powers, under the aegis of the Organisation of American States. It has investigated corruption allegations against congressmen and a former first lady, in partnership with the attorney-general, Óscar Chinchilla. Political elites fought back after Mr Hernández was re-elected last November. Though the vote was widely thought to be fraudulent, the United States endorsed it. In January Honduras’s congress passed a law that transfers investigations of the misuse of public funds from prosecutors to an audit body influenced by the president. MACCIH’s chief, Juan Jiménez Mayor, quit in February. Mr Hernández has not replaced him.
He is in a bigger hurry to replace Mr Chinchilla, whose term ends in September. Most of the 26 candidates have ties to the president’s National Party. One is rumoured to be involved in organised crime. Whoever is appointed, argues Edmundo Orellana, a former attorney-general, for MACCIH “it’s over.”
El Salvador’s attorney-general, Douglas Meléndez, has no help from an outside agency. He got the job in 2016 because the two main political parties, the left-wing FMLN and the right-wing Arena, could not agree on anyone else. He surprised them by going after former presidents from both parties: Tony Saca, from Arena, who is in jail awaiting trial on charges of stealing hundreds of millions of dollars of public money; Mauricio Funes, from the FMLN, who fled to Nicaragua in 2016 when prosecutors began investigating him for illegal enrichment; and Francisco Flores (Arena), who was accused of embezzling millions of dollars meant for earthquake relief. After Flores died in early 2016, Mr Meléndez filed a suit against his estate.
Mr Meléndez has been criticised for self-promotion and for prosecuting more FMLN officials than Arena ones. But he is vastly better than his predecessor, Luis Martínez, who is in jail. The United States embassy has backed Mr Meléndez strongly. Arena, which gained control of congress in an election in March, has signalled that it may try to reappoint him when his term ends in December.
A bigger worry is who will replace five supreme-court justices in July. Four of them have been unusually feisty in defending human rights and loosening the stranglehold on politics of the two big parties. An international panel of experts will help vet the candidates to succeed them but congress will make the final choice. The parties regret naming independent-minded judges in 2009. “They won’t make that mistake again,” says Abraham Abrego of Cristosal, a human-rights group. In the northern triangle, a golden age of judicial independence may be ending.