Experts see hope after fresh spate of Latin American corruption scandals

Montevideo (AFP) –


With huge new scandals rocking the political elite in Argentina and Peru, and several former Central American presidents in court, Latin America is once again being buffeted by a wave of corruption.

But experts say that despite the sense the region is suffering a recurring nightmare, there is reason to believe the judicial system is finally gaining the upper hand in the fight against graft.

- Latin America's 'dirty dozen?' -

In Central America, jailed former Salvadoran president Elias Antonio Saca recently admitted to diverting more than $300 million during his 2004-2009 term in office. His successor Mauricio Funes is accused of similar crimes and has taken refuge in Nicaragua.

Panama's former president Ricardo Martinelli was not so lucky -- he was extradited in June from the United States to face charges in a raft of corruption cases.

From Brazil's Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva down through the list of the last four Peruvian presidents, "there are a dozen ex-presidents in prison, on the run, involved, or dismissed" in similar corruption cases, says Peruvian lawyer Jose Ugaz, former head of the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International.

The scandals in Peru have not only ensnared presidents, but the judiciary too, after the broadcast of audio recordings in July.

On tape, judges can be heard negotiating over the sentencing of defendants. Justice Minister Salvador Heresi, Supreme Court chief justice Duberli Rodriguez and Orlando Velasquez -- the president of the judicial council which appoints judges and prosecutors -- have been forced to resign.

In response to the scandal, Peru's President Martin Vizcarra announced a major reform of the judicial system and the holding of a referendum to ensure public backing for it.

- Money and politics -

Some of the most notorious cases embroiling current and former governments involve the Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, which operated a slush fund amounting to hundreds of millions of dollars across Latin America to grease the palms of politicians, and in the process, the wheels of its lucrative public works empire.

"The relationship between money and politics is at the heart of the matter," says Gaspard Estrada, head of the Observatory on Latin America at the Institute of Political Studies in Paris.

From Brazil to Argentina, "we find the same mechanisms, with crooked entrepreneurs and politicians seeking to finance their campaigns," he said.

In Argentina, the so-called notebooks scandal has rocked the world of big business and politics.

Oscar Centeno, a chauffeur, used school notebooks to detail the delivery of tens of millions of dollars in kickbacks he was responsible for ferrying to various politicians, including to the homes of Cristina Kirchner when she was president.

The alleged kickbacks were paid by business executives to secure public works contracts for their companies.

Several former officials and corporate executives are under arrest and Kirchner herself, who was president from 2007-2015, was summoned to a court hearing on Monday by the judge leading the massive anti-corruption case.

The defiant 65-year-old refused to answer questions but took to the defense of leftist former leaders like herself who have been swept away by a right-wing surge across Latin America.

"This is a new regional strategy to outlaw leaders, movements and political forces that expanded rights and allowed millions of people out of poverty during the first decade and a half of the 21st Century," Kirchner wrote Monday on Twitter.

The big question on legal minds is how to "move away from this dependence and break this vicious circle," says Estrada.

Stricter legal frameworks governing political donations are vital, he says. "There should be limits to the donations of private persons and this should go hand in hand with a strict public funding."

"The big institutional problem in Latin America is the lack of mechanisms of checks and balances," laments Raul Ferro of the Center for Openness and Development in Latin America (CADAL).

That is something that Argentina's notebooks scandal has highlighted, according to Nicolas Solari of the Poliarquia consultancy.

"There is no doubt that the copybooks describe in detail the way in which the Kirchners raised money illegally for seven years without any alarm going off at any oversight agency," says Solari.

- 'More difficult' to cheat -

"In Latin America, there is a history of corruption, there will always be business, it is the nature of the human being," says Ferro.

Nevertheless, he is "optimistic, without being naive," about the future.

"What's important is that it's getting harder and harder to do it, and easier to see where it's going on. Every breaking scandal is a small step forward," he says.

"The 'Car Wash' case in Brazil has launched a dynamic in the region, to which the public has added its voice, which is new and interesting. Thousands of people have marched in the streets to denounce corruption -- this is a reason for hope," insists Jose Ugaz.

But he says anti-corruption watchdogs must not now drop their guard, just when the tide of Latin American corruption might just be turning.

"It's just that it must not amount to a straw fire, like the Arab Spring, that's why the public must remain alert."