Corruption in the Northern Triangle: The siren song of crime

Peace & Security03 Jul 2014Ivan Briscoe

The end of the civil wars in the Northern Triangle countries have made way for stable democracies. Despite this development, however, the governments of Honduras, Guatemala, Nicaragua and El Salvador remain infiltrated with corruption and malpractices. The former patrimonial regimes are still important sources of mobilization, which has created parallel states in these countries. Informal relationships, money and fear have initiated a vicious cycle of governmental emergency responses, militarization and crime that only virtuous policies with public backing can replace.

The tinkle of an ice-cream cart is possibly not the first sound that comes to mind at the thought of corruption. For the Congress of Honduras, however, tilín tilín is the chosen term to describe the payment of bribes to deputies. In light of the country’s predicament as Central America’s most violent country, the region’s second poorest and, according to Transparency International, its most corrupt, there is something jarring in hearing that one of the most systemically toxic forms of graft should be synonymous with a frozen sweet.

The Northern Triangle trilogy

This article is part of a trilogy on the security threats facing the Northern Triangle, that includes Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. These countries are challenged by the highest levels of youth violence in the world, the highest homicide rates, powerful drug trading groups, weak institutions and political crime. The influx of migrants in the United States reflects the instability in Central-American countries, as people flee to escape violence and poor living conditions. Many national, regional and international strategies have been developed to combat the region’s biggest threats in an integrated way, but often they have been counterproductive.

This trilogy therefore address each of the problems separately – the drug trade, gang wars and corruption – in order to untangle their causal relationship. All three articles present an overview of the security problems and their causes, the different strategies that have been developed to counter the proliferation of drugs, gangs and corruption, and evaluate their success.

The article on the relationship between drugs and violence, by Pien Metaal and Liza ten Velde of the Transnational Institute, untangles the relationship between the drug industry and high homicide rates for more effective violence reducing policies. This article on illicit networks by Ivan Briscoe of the Clingendael Institute sheds light on the intertwined structures of patrimonial relationships and the development of the state after the civil wars in the Northern Triangle, creating a criminal complexion of governments. And the article on anti-gang policies and gang responses by Chris van der Borgh of the University of Utrecht and Wim Savenije of the Facultad Latinoamericana de Ciencias Sociales, set out the gang phenomenon and how it’s evolution has been shaped by ineffective policies.

Over 17 years have now passed since the last of the civil wars which blighted the region came to a formal end. By that time, over 300,000 people had died across the region in three armed conflicts – in El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala – that were rooted in extreme levels of social stratification and economic inequality, fanned by the breeze from the Cuban Revolution, and eventually fought according to the black-and-white logic of the Cold War.

It is no small achievement that relatively stable democracies have emerged since then, despite occasional interruptions like the Honduran coup of 2009. Nor can it be denied that constituencies previously excluded from political life – be they the former guerrillas of El Salvador (FMLN), the Sandinistas of Nicaragua or the Mayan peoples of Guatemala – have grown in political prominence and, in the case of the first two, become dominant actors in government. And it is certainly a historical first that, following elections in El Salvador and Costa Rica this year, half of the region’s six Spanish-speaking countries are now run by the left, even though the other three remain in the hands of the right.

Yet whereas the old patriarchal regimes have seemingly fallen away, a criminal complexion and illicit infiltration of parties, state institutions, police and judiciary have been developing within the new wave of governments and now pose some of the most serious challenges to this post-conflict political transformation. Scandals pointing to deep collusion between criminals and officials are frequent, serious and generally go unpunished, above all in the Northern Triangle of Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador (see the box below).

Finding proof of the collusion between criminals and officials

The International Criminal Court in The Hague is now carrying out a preliminary study into the murders of dozens of journalists, politicians and community leaders in Honduras since the coup. One assassination that has reached a local court, that of the 71-year-old former counter-narcotics chief Alfredo Landaverde, shot dead just days after accusing the police in San Pedro Sula of linkages to narco-trafficking, ended last year with the imprisonment of one low-level hit man. No link whatsoever to any organized criminal structure was proven, and possibly not even sought.

Meanwhile, it took the arrival in Guatemala in 2007 of a UN body, the Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), to force the police and public prosecutors to devote attention to extra-judicial executions, trafficking and fraud carried out with official complicity. Yet the Commission has vented its frustration at the last ditch salvation of the suspects it has pursued: 18 leading magistrates, described by the CICIG in 2012 as the “Judges of Impunity”. It is currently hard to say how much of the work of the Commission and its crusading ally, Attorney General Claudia Paz, will remain in place once Paz leaves office in May, or when the Commission’s mandate ends next year.

An unstoppable tide?

The list of known cases and crimes goes on and on: deputies taking pay-cuts, customs servicing drug traffickers, police extorting locals, or members of military special forces operating drug cartels. Nevertheless, the ethical and legal plasticity of these officials does not strike most Central Americans as more than a minor problem; or at least, it is far from being their most acute worry. A recent report by the United Nations Development Programme on citizen security in Latin America (Seguridad Ciudadana con rostro humano) stresses that in the region as a whole, and most acutely in the Central American isthmus, citizens’ principal fear stems from their experience of petty crime, violent robbery, blackmail and murder; 80% of Guatemalans, for instance, regard youth gangs and ordinary crime as the most serious threats to their safety. A poll carried out at the start of this year by the country’s main newspaper, Prensa Libre, echoed these findings: while 52% stated that insecurity was the country’s main problem, only 3% regarded corruption as the most important concern.

It is this gap between the dominant fears of Central Americans, above all those living in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador, and the tolerance of systemic flaws in the way their countries are ruled, that goes to the heart of the difficulties in reforming state and judicial systems. On one side, this lop-sided public concern generates a political culture in which, despite all the evidence showing how ineffective the approach has been in curbing the rise of the region’s murder rate since 2000, repressive mano dura policies against crime with a military flavour remain enormously popular (while both Honduras and Guatemala rank among the Latin American countries most inclined to support a military rather than a democratic government).

Both Guatemalan President Otto Pérez Molina, a retired general, and the newly elected president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, have built their political reputations on a tough approach to crime, notwithstanding evidence that placing security forces on an emergency footing, or creating ‘liberated spaces’ for their action, has been the precondition to a most dramatic flourishing of state-connected organized crime. The current state of the de facto militarized Guatemalan prison system throws up an interesting example: an estimated 80% of the country’s blackmails, one of the crimes most feared by the public, are conducted from jails. One reason for this is the rising prices prison officials charge to exempt inmates from chores and other ritual humiliation.

It should be added that neither of these presidents are slave to a mano dura philosophy that they know from the inside. Pérez Molina is internationally recognized for his call to decriminalize drug use and trafficking, while Hernández has, among a flurry of initiatives, conducted a mini-purge of his country’s police force. However, there is no doubting the public inclination towards crime policies that are not only ineffective, but decidedly counterproductive. Alongside this punitive gut instinct is a readiness to indulge the corrupt acts of officials or, if not to approve them, at least to regard them as ineradicable, and so thoroughly embedded as to be beyond any power to reform.

The head of a local anti-corruption organization in Guatemala admitted to me last year that he had lost hope. “The situation has become unstoppable,” he said. “There’s a direct connection between politics and illicit business, and the country is losing the capacity to confront the problem. We don’t even bother going to Congress any more to discuss this with deputies. Laws are just passed for money.”

To prove his point, this activist advised me to consult a special investigation carried out by the newspaper El Periódico into the fortune accumulated by the Guatemalan vice-president, Roxanna Baldetti, whose property wealth is now estimated at 13.4 million dollars even though she has was born into a lower middle-class housing estate and has spent most of her professional life in public service. The report featured a number of photos extracted from her son’s (now defunct) Instagram account: among the shots of fancy shoes and views from private planes was a photo of the sun rising over a hotel swimming pool, with the caption ‘Champagne & cocaine !!!’. It is perhaps worth adding that legal action has been taken by Pérez Molina against the editor of the newspaper, José Ruben Zamora, for allegedly seeking to extort money from the state.

Military, parallel and opportunist states

At the same time, it is no mystery to any Central American to find that the main failures of the state, whether in its feeble provision of basic services, guarantees of security or capacity to generate equitable development, stem from a public sector and political establishment that act first and foremost on the basis of private, factional or criminal interests. Understanding how this system emerged, and how democracy has altered its shape and intensity, is crucial in pointing in the direction of what may be done to stop the seemingly unstoppable.

The three states of the Northern Triangle, together with Nicaragua, were profoundly marked by their early and exceedingly brutal colonization by the Spaniards, which in turn gave rise to a stratified and segregated class and ethnic system and to governments led by and deferential to business and military elites. A social order that is unbreakable, repressive and yet prone to violent spasms suffuses the great 1946 novel by Guatemala’s Nobel Prize laureate Miguel Ángel Asturias, Señor Presidente. By the second half of the twentieth century, however, the soporific certainties of a cast-iron social structure were being challenged in numerous ways, not least by jolts in economic growth and surges in agro-industrial production generated by the Central American Common Market, established in 1960.

It is against this backdrop of social volatility, rising inequality, revolutionary agitation and a US-approved military backlash that the dictatorships and conservative regimes of all four countries – the Somozas in Nicaragua, the various military-sanctioned governments of Guatemala, ARENA in El Salvador and the Liberal-National party duopoly of Honduras – morphed into repressive forces. Counter-insurgency provided the justification for exceptional security measures, which were invariably brutal, and in the case of Guatemala, genocidal. Yet within the protected spaces carved out by the war against ‘subversion’, huge and illicit profits could also be generated. The Somoza regime discovered this in the grand theft of donations following the earthquake of 1972 – a crime that hastened its downfall. Elsewhere, control over borders, customs, prisons and arms provided all the means necessary to make contact with criminal groups, ally with them, and even incorporate them into state-led mafia.

Eventual peace and transitions to democracy signalled an end to this era, although each country followed its own path. Guatemala was guided to democracy under military control, and with strict business vetoes on policy through the strategic use of multiple informal channels such as the media, judiciary and political financing. Nicaragua’s exhausted voters ejected the revolutionary government at the first opportunity. However, even as the formal systems of power were reshaped, state and sub-state powers from the counter-insurgency anchored themselves into new informal networks. It is here that the ‘parallel state’ nestled: a concoction of politicians, retired and serving military and police, and criminal agents, who were intent on defending their business interests and taking advantage of opportunities for profit. 1 Its structure in Guatemala was first laid bare, famously, by the report Hidden Powerspublished by the Washington Office on Latin America, which named the cast and crew behind some of the most ungratifying episodes of pillage and political murder in the post-conflict period, above all that of Bishop Juan José Gerardi, bludgeoned to death in 1998 days after presenting a major report on war crimes.

Yet the composition of these sub-state units operating through mystery and intimidation, above all in Guatemala and El Salvador, could not withstand domestic and international scrutiny. Perhaps more importantly, they were also to be sidelined by two new entrants in Central America’s shadow political economy: narco-traffickers seeking an alternative route to the North American market, and urban gangs –most notably maras – formed out of a demographic shift to big cities and deportees from the United States.

The initial reaction of some political leaders in Honduras and Guatemala was to allow the parallel state structures to capture the drug market, and to eliminate the violent youth gangs. Hence the programmes of extra-judicial liquidation that seemingly flourished under Guatemalan President Oscar Berger (2004-2008), and which were documented by civil society groups in Honduras, where a significant percentage of the 1,500 young people murdered between 1998 and 2002 were reportedly killed by off-duty security forces and their accomplices. 2 But the forces that were distributing and decentralizing illicit opportunity, enabling markets for drugs, firearms, migrants (especially women and girls), extortion, robbery and fraud to spread, as well as cultivating far better gateways to launder money, have proved much stronger and more resilient than those seeking to concentrate criminal powers in a few dark offices.

A new opportunity space for crime

It is this dynamic that has generated Central America’s new condition as a decentralized opportunity space for illicit combinations that traverse the boundaries of crime, the state and business. Illicit networks can subvert the formal order of a sovereign state in any number of blatant or subtle ways. They grab territorial control when needed to traffic drugs, as in the municipality of El Paraíso in Copán, on the border of Honduras and Guatemala, ruled by a 32-year-old mayor who has 20 bodyguards and describes himself as “the king of the town”. Less obtrusively, these networks have woven criminal activity into numerous state and security bodies, especially when contracts and licenses are stake, influenced appointments across the judiciary, and pumped political parties with funds.

According to one experienced deputy in charge of campaigns for a Guatemalan party, “money is not a problem – I can get it. The problem is where I get it from.” By his reckoning, 50% of campaign funds now come from companies seeking special treatment, and 25% from narco-traffickers. It should be added that this latter figure reaches an alleged 90% in Honduras (according to a source linked to organized crime cases in the country), though it is of course impossible and extremely dangerous to verify these numbers.

The Guatemalan deputy in question is one of a number of honest and reformist politicians: many senior figures in Central America are repelled by avarice in public service. But it is hard to channel this indignation when political entrepreneurs have become so skilled at tapping new sources of illicit finance in favour of what they claim to be radical and reformist goals. Both Manuel Zelaya, deposed left-leaning president of Honduras, and Manuel Baldizón, a leading presidential candidate in Guatemala, have struck redistributionist and progressive stances, yet both – and Baldizón in particular  – appear to have nourished clandestine links. Indeed, it may now be hard even to conceive any form of political mobilization without some such ties.

Even so, it would be a mistake to discount the possibility of sweeping change. Central America’s economies are growing modestly as a whole – although there is a stark difference between booming Panama and El Salvador, one of Latin America’s worst performers. Any sudden reversal of economic fortune may expose deep grievances at poor governance. The CICIG in Guatemala, as well as the leadership of Attorney General Paz, have shown that major corruption cases can be fought – if not always won. Costa Rica’s electorate appears to have voted for its new president, Luis Guillermo Solís, largely on the basis of its revulsion at corruption. Meanwhile, the truce with the maras in El Salvador, or the relatively low crime rate achieved by community policing in Nicaragua, have shown the merits of novel initiatives within a local context. Though even in Nicaragua, as the drugs case against the nightclub empresario Henry Fariñas showed, it has been supremely difficult to separate the police from some form of involvement in the narco trade.

More than ever, it seems clear where Central America’s people and government should direct their efforts: to controlling money laundering, stiffening the autonomy of oversight bodies, bringing development to border regions, and eliminating graft from security forces and judiciaries. But in democracies where money and fear are important sources of mobilization, achieving public backing for these policies requires making lucid, tangible connections between progress in combating civil insecurity and improvements to the integrity of the state. It is this virtuous cycle that is needed to replace the current vicious cycle of emergency, militarization and crime, and the siren song of the ice-cream bell.


Benedicte Bull, director of the Norwegian Latin America Research Network and associate professor at the University of Oslo.


  1. Briscoe, I. (2008). The proliferation of the Parallel State, Fride working paper 71.
  2. Amnesty International (2003) Honduras Zero Tolerance… for impunity Extrajudicial Executions of Children and Youths since 1998