US uses ‘shame’ list to root out corruption in Central America

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WASHINGTON – This is a list that no one wants to be on.

On July 1, the US State Department released a long-awaited list of “corrupt and undemocratic actors” from El Salvador, Honduras and Guatemala.

In total, he listed 55 Central American notables – judges, a former president and many high-ranking members of the government – who the U.S. government says have been involved in corruption, undermined democracy, or hampered justice.

Corruption is an important issue for the United States under the Biden administration, whose plan to curb immigration from these countries is to stamp out corruption and other malfeasance in governments in the region.

Over the years and decades, officials in the region have pocketed foreign aid, undermined democracy to stay in power, and even accepted cartel and gang money – issues that immigrants to the United States say , forced them to emigrate en masse.

“Actions that undermine the rule of law and democracy in Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador, and their repercussions on the lives of people in those countries, contribute to irregular migration and destabilize entire societies,” said the secretary of State Antony J. Blinken in a press release announcing what has come to be known as the “Engel List.”

The list was created in late 2020 as part of the Northern Triangle Enhancement Engagement Act sponsored by its namesake, former Representative Eliot Engel of New York, who was then chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee.

Ironically, some TV broadcasters in El Salvador who have difficulty pronouncing it call it the “angelic” list, although the actions described therein are not angelic.

Using classified and unclassified information, according to US officials, they discovered that former Honduran President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa and his wife, Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, “have engaged in significant corruption,” including including fraud, embezzlement of public funds and accepting bribes from a drug cartel in exchange for political favors.

In Guatemala, Nester Vasquez Pimentel, recently appointed to the country’s Supreme Court even though he was under investigation for trading in influence, was on the list. US officials allege that he “undermined democratic processes or institutions by abusing his authority to improperly influence and manipulate the appointment of judges to positions of high jurisdiction.”

Carolina Recinos, current chief of staff to Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele, is one of four high-ranking members of the Salvadoran cabinet on the list and is believed to have been implicated in money laundering and the misuse of public funds for personal use, the State Department said.

“The intent is primarily to ‘name and shame’ individuals the United States considers to be involved in corrupt activity. Those on the list are denied entry visas to the United States and are subject to other sanctions, which could include freezing of assets, ”said Orlando J. Pérez, professor and scholar of Latin American politics. and Dean of the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at the University of North Texas at Dallas, in an email exchange with Catholic News Service on July 7.

Although the list was meant to shame those on it as well as those associated with it, it was undermined and attacked.

“Thank you for the list but in El Salvador we have one of our own,” Bukele tweeted, denigrating the list a few days after its publication, without mentioning members of his cabinet.

The list also includes Rolando Castro, his secretary of labor, who is said to have “obstructed investigations into corruption and undermined democratic processes or institutions with the aim of harming his political opponents”. Castro said he would no longer travel to the United States in protest because his correctness was challenged. His visa, however, had already been revoked.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández said the dignity of those on the list should be respected as there was no evidence of their wrongdoing.

And while Guatemalan President Alejandro Giammattei has remained largely silent on the subject, days before Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit on June 7, he criticized a senior official in the country’s special prosecutor’s office against impunity, saying that he was “biased”.

Pérez of the University of North Texas said the effectiveness of the list is “yet to be determined,” but part of its aim may be to pressure leaders in the region by appointing close collaborators, friends, supporters or political allies.

“The United States has used similar tactics before, especially in Venezuela with limited success,” Pérez said. “One problem, which some have pointed out, is that there doesn’t seem to be a clear strategy for why some people are included and others excluded from the list – the rationale behind the names is not published.”

For example, said Pérez, Guatemala’s list excludes members of Giammattei’s cabinet “some of whom have been accused of corruption” and Honduran President Hernández is also not on the list, even though he “is among the politicians. the most corrupt in the region “.

US authorities said they were investigating Hernández’s links to the drug cartels, including allegations that he received a bribe from the Mexican drug lord known as “El Chapo ”.

Leaders of the Catholic Church in Central America have highlighted the link between corruption and immigration.

At a meeting in June in Illinois between bishops from the United States and Central America, Bishop Guido Charbonneau, of Choluteca, Honduras, explained how Central America has become a corridor of the drugs, bringing with it violence and increased corruption, causing people to leave.

Honduras, in essence, he said, has become a “narco-state” with the government doing little to stem migration as it strengthens the economy as people send money home.

In July 2019, Cardinal of El Salvador Gregorio Rosa Chavez, during a mass in San Salvador in memory of the migrants who died on the journey to the north, said there was a factor involving the governments behind the migration that many did not like to tackle.

“There is another cause that we do not talk about, it is corruption,” he said. “All the money that was stolen that was needed for people to have better lives. This part is important to denounce because it is from the root that the drama of migration unfolds.

This is a message the Biden administration has heard, and while the list is a first step towards fixing part of the problem, Pérez said there were other factors at play and that he There was also more to be done than just naming an assortment of wrongdoers.

“The Engel list is a positive step in the right direction, but there is still a long way to go. The list must be coupled with a sustained multidimensional strategy that focuses on the root and broader causes of migration, including structural inequalities, crime and violence, and political instability, ”he said. “I think the Biden administration has taken positive steps, but there is still a long way to go.”

In a July 14 press appeal arguing for immigration protection for Guatemalans in the United States, Ricardo Barrientos, senior economist at the Central American Institute for Fiscal Studies in Guatemala, said corruption in the country is “an insidious problem that hinders the government’s response” to other problems. : unemployment, education, health, crime and malnutrition.

“There should be no doubt as to why the youngest (Guatemalans) want to leave the country,” he said.

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