Central America cleans house

Today's conference in Guatemala affirms the region's budding anticorruption drive.

Standing in the patchy shade of a tree in Guatemala's Central Park, Sandra Valdez adds her name to a long list of people asking Guatemala's president and vice president to resign in the face of a relentless barrage of corruption allegations.

Glancing over her shoulder to the majestic presidential palace looming on the other side of the park, Ms. Valdez shakes her head slightly and frowns.

"It's just too much, all the corruption, and the way they take advantage of the country's resources.... It is time to express ourselves," says Valdez, a college student.

She is part of the rising tide of anticorruption sentiment swelling across Central America. Citizens of fledgling democracies, many of which have recently emerged from armed conflicts, are turning their attention to the long-present ill of corruption, and are demanding that their governments address it.

The number of signatures from the month-long petition drive, estimated to be 300,000, will be announced at today's anticorruption conference. The event is a formal call to authorities to address the issue. In the past few months, growing pressure from local press, citizens, the international community, and in some cases, government officials, has forced high-ranking authorities across the region into the cross hairs of corruption probes.

"The problem is no longer eliminating dictators or making peace, there is no war, nor dictators," says Roberto Courtney, director of a Nicaraguan corruption watchdog group. "Now with free elections and democratic freedoms in place, people have shifted their attention to economic issues where corruption plays an important role."

Several high-profile corruption cases across the region have spurred the recent backlash:

• In Guatemala, allegations of corruption in government ministries and entities have dominated the press coverage for more than a year. Most recently, a local paper accused President Alfonso Portillo, his vice president, and two other high-ranking government officials of opening 13 bank accounts in Panama. Many here suspect they were set up to launder money or to receive stolen state funds. The president and his vice president deny any wrongdoing.

• In Nicaragua, the attorney general's office recently accused former President Arnoldo Alemán and other high-ranking officials of corruption for their involvement in a $1.3 million fraud at the state-owned television station. Government officials allegedly ordered their subordinates to transfer funds from various state agencies to the station, but the money never reached the station's accounts. Mr. Alemán, currently the president of Nicaragua's Congress, denies any wrongdoing.

In a more recent development, Byron Jerez, Alemán's right-hand man and chief tax collector, was indicted for allegedly using state funds to buy a fleet of luxury cars.

• In Honduras, Congress is currently reviewing stripping 15 representatives of immunity from prosecution – which all legislators enjoy – so they can face judicial processes for crimes, including corruption. One of the 15 is former president Rafael Callejas.

• In Panama, the nation is following with rapt attention a case involving the alleged acceptance of bribes by members of Congress, to approve a government contract for a private company. The scandal is considered the most publicly aired corruption case in the nation's history.

While corruption, and impunity for those who commit it, has long existed in the region, it was eclipsed by massive violations of human rights and suppression of personal liberties. But as these countries get past these issues and more democratic institutions are developed, citizens are becoming increasingly aware that in a true democracy, no one is above the law.

Additionally, many here expect democracy to bring better economic conditions. Although economic hardships continue to plague the region, citizens are more incensed with misuse of state resources, especially in a region where sales taxes have been steadily on the rise.

The new anticorruption movement has also been buoyed by increasing international pressure, especially from the United States.

"Since the Sept. 11 attacks and the Patriot Act that followed, the US has adopted a strong foreign-policy stance not only against terrorism, but against other illegal acts that it has equated to terrorism, including corruption," says Emilio Alvarez, a former Nicaraguan foreign minister. "The United States doesn't want to give money to a country where the authorities might embezzle it."

On his recent trip through the region, President George W. Bush emphasized the fight against corruption as a condition for continued foreign aid.

While Mr. Alvarez sees the new US stance as part of an attempt to adopt an ethical image to go along with its antiterror crusade, he and many here see it as something new and positive for a country that previously gave massive support to corrupt dictators throughout the region.

It will be an uphill battle for the various corruption allegations in the region to bear fruit. In most of these countries, many in government enjoy immunity from prosecution.

Last week in Nicaragua, the legislature shelved a judge's request to strip Alemán of his immunity. In Guatemala, the petition, while signed by many, has no legal bearing. Both the president and his vice president enjoy immunity from prosecution.

Nonetheless, many in the region believe that great strides have already been made.

"There is an advance in the sense that this issue is now on the agenda in Central America," says Miguel Angel Sandoval, a Guatemalan political analyst, who is part of the signature-collecting campaign. "People are saying that this can't go on. We are heading in the right direction."

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