In the last couple decades, Latin American countries have sadly seen more than a few presidential corruption cases, most of which have been followed by lengthy dramatic legal processes. Former presidents have been arrested or have run away; charges have been presented, withdrawn and then brought up again; while in some cases convictions have been handed down only to be annulled when a different political party is in power.
Political interference and judges’ changing criteria bring unpredictable volatile outcomes to legal processes, casting doubt over the rule of law in Latin America. Here are some examples of recent or ongoing cases of presidential corruption that were tainted by a break-down of judicial process:
Arnoldo Aleman, Nicaragua (1997-2002). Considered one of the most corrupt presidents, Aleman was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2003 for money laundering, embezzlement and corruption. He continued to be the main leader of the liberal party and did his time in home arrest -with freedom to “move around” Managua- until he was officially freed earlier this year, after a political agreement with President Daniel Ortega. The Supreme Court, integrated by judges with well-known political affiliations, overturned the conviction and returned Aleman assets previously confiscated because they belonged to the State.
The weakness of the Nicaraguan judicial branch was confirmed by the Global Integrity Report: 2008. Our researcher commented: “Supreme Court judges are appointed by the two major political parties based on their loyalty to their party as the principal reason. These judges act first on their political interests and second on their personal or family interests. These judges decide and appoint the regional, department, local and district-level judges.” Read the full Global Integrity Report: Nicaragua
Carlos Menem, Argentina (1989-1999) His involvement in a scheme to smuggle arms to Ecuador and Croatia put him under house arrest in 2001, but the charges were dismissed the same year by a controversial ruling. Menem then moved to Chile and the charges were brought up again, but Chilean authorities refused to extradite him. The charges were eventually annulled and he returned to Argentina with renewed political aspirations, becoming senator in 2005. However, he was charged again not just for the arms smuggling case for another two as well.
In 2008, Global Integrity’s Argentinian research team explained that “judges may be politically influenced in their decisions” and not all judicial decisions are enforced, “in some cases because there is no will to do so, for example in politically sensitive matters”. Menem’s trial finally started this year, almost a decade later, and he says it´s a politically motivated maneuver by the Kirchners (currently in power). Read more on the Rule of Law in Argentina in the Global Integrity Report: Argentina
Alfonso Portillo, Guatemala (2000-2004). He made several transfers of army public funds to bank accounts held by himself, his relatives and even friends. To avoid being processed, he ran away to Mexico and was finally extradited in 2008. Since his return to Guatemala, he´s free on bail and working on appeals and other legal resources to stall the process and avoid the trial. Prosecutors have an April 7th deadline to formally charge him and last week ordered the arrest of three military officers and more than 30 others are under house arrest.
Miguel Ángel Rodríguez, Costa Rica (1998-2002). A mere few days after taking oath as secretary general of the Organization of American States in 2004, an arrest warrant was issued against Rodriguez for allegedly receiving funds from the French telecommunications firm Alcatel. Similar charges were later presented in relation to money he received from the Government of Taiwan and an insurance scheme to deviate public funds. Rodriguez has been in and out of jail and the charges were not formally presented until 2007, but he´s still awaiting trial.
Rafael Ángel Calderón, Costa Rica (1990-1994). Calderon was arrested for a few months in 2004 in relation to a procurement corruption scandal that happened when he was no longer in power. However, he continued to be the leader of one of the main political parties and has said he´s preparing legal reforms to stop similar “unfair processes” from happening to other citizens. This month he announced he’ll run for president in the 2010 election and, even though he´s not likely to win, he could with a Congress seat and immunity from a potential conviction. The trial, the first ever against a former president in Costa Rica, started at the end of last year. Read more in the Global Integrity Report: Costa Rica
Alberto Fujimori, Peru (1990-2000). Fujimori fled to Japan in the midst of a corruption scandal and Congress removed him from office. He remained in Japan, out of reach for the Peruvian justice until 2005, when he arrived in Chile to prepare his presidential campaign for the 2006 election, but was arrested and extradited in 2007. He did not expect to be arrested in Chile and even called a press conference to announce his intentions to return to power. He´s currently serving a six year sentence for an illegal search and seizure of documents and is facing charges for human rights abuses. Read more in the Global Integrity Report: Peru
The Power of the President
In Paraguay and Ecuador, where presidents have had a difficult time ending their terms and have been usually charged with corruption or human rights related abuses by their political opponents, processes tend to have a political tint.
In Ecuador, a 2004 political agreement between then president Lucio Gutierrez (2003-2005) and deposed president Abdalá Bucaram led to the dismantling of the Supreme Court. The newly appointed members dismissed all corruption charges against Bucaram and three other ex-presidents, causing public revolt and finally pushing Gutiérrez out of power. The Global Integrity Report: Ecuador confirms that it is not uncommon to read stories in the Ecuadorian media about political agreements and the exercise of political pressure for judges to decide one way or the other in sensitive cases.
Some cases are just astonishing, like that one of Paraguayan Raúl Cubas (1998-1999). When presidential candidate Lino Oviedo was sent to jail during the political campaign, Cubas took over the candidacy, won the election and freed Oviedo in defiance of Supreme Court orders. His vice-president, Luis María Argaña, was opposed to the move and was shot to death, causing public uproar and accusations about an alleged Cubas involvement in the trial. Cubas ran away to Brazil and returned to Paraguay in 2002, when he was declared innocent of both corruption and murder charges.
Some argue that corruption and abuses by Latin American presidents have their origin in its autocratic past, which has led to weak political parties that revolve around charismatic leaders and presidential democracies characterized by an imbalance of power in favor of the president. The lack of separation between Government and personal interests and clientelism are then common elements in the stories of presidential corruption in Latin American.
Latin American institutions have evolved and left behind dictatorships and military conflicts in the last decade, but cases of presidential corruption and uncertain legal processes show the judiciary still has a long way to go.
Weak Judicial Systems as a Starting Point for Reform
Half of the Latin American countries covered in the Global Integrity Report 2008 show major obstacles in the rule of law. In Argentina, Ecuador and Nicaragua, judicial rulings don´t necessarily follow written law, judicial decisions are not enforced by the state, and judges are not protected from political interference and can be removed without relevant justification.
Even in Costa Rica, where the 2007 Report highlighted rule of law to be strong, legal processes can be very slow. While judges have been able to proceed according to law in relation to the charges against two former presidents, almost five years later Rodriguez´s trial hasn´t started. Meanwhile, in the US, a French Alcaltel executive, Christian Sapsizian, involved in the case was arrested in November of 2007 and by October 2008 had been sentenced to 30 months in prison after pleading guilty to paying bribes to senior Costa Rican officials.
Clearly, reforms to achieve the independence of the judiciary could be a strategic starting point to push towards institutionalization and balancing powers in the Latin American democracies. In that sense, Global Integrity’s indicators show that building transparent systems to appoint and protect judges is a first step in increasing accountability in the judicial branch. Hopefully these types of reforms can deter Presidential corruption in Latin America and bring greater benefits to its people.
— Hazel Feigenblatt and Global Integrity