Corruption in the Americas: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly?

The 2014 Corruption Perceptions Index does not show significant movement in the scores of the countries in the Americas. For the more cynical among us, this is a good sign as there is always the possibility of worsening. But the reality is that stagnation is not good news. Each year that passes without things improving, is a lost year for the process of strengthening state institutions and the improvement of the quality of life of people.

So what is happening? Although there is no single answer for all countries, it seems that in general those who are traditionally seen as “the Bad” or “the Ugly” of the story – politicians, public officials, and some business people who deal illegally with them – continue to follow their “usual” path: Performing some specific anti-corruption reforms to show that they are doing something against corruption, but not advancing on all key issues. This has led to an increase in the number of countries that have adopted access to information laws, improved their public procurement systems or joined international initiatives such as the Open Government Partnership. All good steps, however, big corruption schemes that involve individuals at the highest level of power and lack of punishment of the corrupt continue to prevail in the Americas.

This is well exemplified by Brazil (score of 43, on a scale from 0 to 100 where 0 is highly corrupt and 100 very clean) and Mexico (35). The case of Petrobras in Brazil, where corrupt officials and their private sector cronies siphoned billions of dollars from the country’s largest company into political parties’ coffers and private hands, and the presumed killing of more than 40 students in Iguala, Mexico, where it became evident that corruption allows criminal gangs to capture public institutions; are just recent examples that serve as a reminder of the lack of significant progress in the region. These two countries – instead of making positive use of their influence as geopolitical leaders – show signs of stagnation and even backwardness by allowing for the abuse of power and looting of the countries’ resources for the benefit of the few. Similarly, Guatemala, a country that although slightly increases its score this year (32), will not even match its 2012 score.

Therefore, to achieve positive change in the region, leaders need to urgently prioritise these key issues:

  • Putting an end to impunity for corruption by removing politics and bribe paying from police and justice institutions, and helping them become more professional. Also, mechanisms need to be created to protect citizens who want to speak out and act against corruption. Rebuilding citizens’ trust and strengthening law enforcement institutions are at the core of the insecurity problem in the region.
  • Opening political financing to public scrutiny so that it is known who finances which candidates and political parties with how much money. This measure should help in deterring organised crime from infiltrating politics and the state.
  • Tackling inequality by incorporating transparency as a central element of social investment, so that support is given to those most in need, and not following political criteria.
  • Creating public registries of the actual company owners to prevent the corrupt from hiding behind secret companies, laundering money and taking off with the loots of their corrupt schemes.

This reality of governments making small steps forward while continuing to allow the abuse of power to happen is sad, but is not surprising. What does surprise me, however, is the lack of the actor who is usually perceived as “the Good” of the movie: the people. Us citizens – whether we’re business people, academics, athletes or students – we tend to see ourselves as the passive victims suffering from corruption that others commit. But if we have spent years observing the behaviour of political parties, some politicians and public officials and a few business people abusing power to enrich themselves, isn’t it possible that people’s resignation and passivity is part of the problem and therefore helps explain why the situation does not improve?

It seems nonsensical to leave reforms and anti-corruption actions in the hands of a few leaders. People somehow assume that the reforms the authorities implement will automatically modify illicit behaviours. However, it seems unrealistic to believe that those who benefit from corruption will be the ones who will eradicate it. Instead, we need to understand that by not acting we risk joining the ranks of “the Bad” and “the Ugly”.

We are responsible at various levels:

  • When we take part in a corrupt transaction. The one paying a bribe to a police officer is as guilty as the cop.
  • When we reward the corrupt. Under the popular slogan “he steals but works”, it is not uncommon during election times to see huge numbers of citizens willing to vote for a crook in exchange of populist promises. We should also be the first to reward honest actions and reject those who engage in corruption.
  • When apathy guides us. When nihilism takes over and people abdicate their capacity to generate change against what is seen as an unavoidable reality – some sort of genetic or cultural pre-programming that we all have – and is reflected in the popular phrase “what can I do, that’s the way we are”.

If we want to be a better reflection of the title of the spaghetti western The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, instead of just waiting for “the Bad” to stop being bad and “the Ugly” ugly, let’s make sure that more people join the ranks of “the Good” so we can finally put an end to corruption and impunity in the Americas.

Read the Spanish version here.

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Alejandro Salas

About Alejandro Salas

Alejandro Salas is Regional Director for the Americas at Transparency International.

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16 Responses to Corruption in the Americas: the Good, the Bad and the Ugly?

  1. Luciano 3 December 2014 at 1:53 pm #

    So we can’t measure actual corruption but we can ask to normal people who usually don’t understand much of public administration and they are media biased to “know” how much a country is corrupt. It is useless data to determine corruption. That’s is bad science.

  2. Exilada na NZ 6 December 2014 at 9:28 pm #

    Fantastic solution proposed by a gang of corrupt politicians led by Aecio Neves, who lost the Brazilian election to another gang of corrupt politicians, led by Dilma: sell off whatever state assets still exist. Transparency International has NEVER suggested privatization as a way of addressing corruption. http://veja.abril.com.br/blog/reinaldo/geral/o-brasil-tem-jeito-privatizacao-de-estatais-e-quase-extincao-de-cargos-de-confianca-vai-encarar-dilma-ou-so-embromar/

  3. Craig T 7 December 2014 at 2:13 pm #

    As one views the world, corruption is increased where lack of knowledge and individuals with power are at extremes ends. The ignorant are attempting to survive, while the powerful live in egregious luxury. Did not all societies begin and progress toward democracy. Corruption still happens; however, with more technology and the internet, change may happen sooner to those who truly are vicious to their people.

  4. Bonnie Palifka 7 December 2014 at 10:11 pm #

    The distribution of CPI scores in the Americas mimics the world distribution very well, and represents the whole gamut of corruption problems and solutions. One promising development in Mexico (and other countries of the region) is the emergence of investigative journalism and civil society organizations revealing corruption and calling for accountability. It may come slowly, but this is a good and necessary first step.

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