Two decades of corruption at the highest level in Central America

Of 32 presidents between 1990-2010, 13 are behind bars, in exile or under investigation

If it’s true that the people get the government they deserve then, judging by the past 20 years, Central American voters need to examine their consciences.

Of 32 presidents serving the region’s six countries between 1990-2010, 13 are behind bars, in exile or under investigation for crimes ranging from human trafficking to money laundering. The list would be longer were it not for the fact that sitting presidents and legislators are immune from prosecution.

Nicaragua's president Daniel Ortega (1979-1990 and 2007-present) escaped charges of sex abuse and corruption by cutting a deal with old enemies and changing the constitution to enable perpetual re-election and with it, perpetual immunity.

The most prolific member of this motley crew is former Guatemalan president Alfonso Portillo (2000-2004), extradited last year to the US where he is serving a 20-year sentence for laundering $70 million of public money through US banks. During the trial he was accused of turning his country's treasury into a "private ATM machine".


Killed two students

Portillo came to public attention when he shot and killed two students during a bar-room brawl in


in the 1980s, claiming self-defence. He was never charged with a crime.

On the eve of his election victory, speaking to The Irish Times, he pledged to end corruption. "Morality and ethics are the founding principle of this government and I will be a loyal servant", he said.

Behind the scenes, he was the loyal servant of retired Guatemalan general Efraín Ríos Montt, ineligible for office due to his role as de facto president when thousands of indigenous men, women and children were massacred in the 1980s.

Earlier this year, Francisco Flores Pérez, former president of El Salvador (1999-2004), fled the country after the attorney general's office charged him with stealing a $10 million donation from the Taiwanese government intended for victims of a 2001 earthquake.

The fugitive has had his financial assets frozen and an arrest warrant was issued in May. "This might look like a routine corruption investigation in other countries but here it is absolutely groundbreaking", commented Gregorio Rosa Chávez, archbishop of San Salvador. "Everyone is waiting and watching to see if this is for real or just another show."

Arnoldo Alemán Lacayo, Nicaragua's president from 1997 to 2002, lavished gifts on his friends and financed a lengthy honeymoon for his wife, drawing funds from a bottomless government credit card.

Alemán was formally charged in December 2002, and given a 20-year prison term for crimes including money- laundering and corruption.

Due to ill health he was allowed to serve his sentence at home and his strategic alliance with President Ortega resulted in a power-sharing arrangement that saw his guilty verdict overturned in 2009.

Alemán’s predecessor, Enrique Bolaños Geyer (2002- 2007), was also questioned over Taiwanese donations to his election campaign, along with human trafficking, but his position as a parliamentary deputy guaranteed him immunity.

In Honduras, former president Rafael Leonardo Callejas (1990-1994) was accused of abusing his office after investigators revealed he had apparently diverted a fund for oil payments into his private account. The case was delayed long enough to reach its statute of limitation.

Manuel Zelaya assumed office in Honduras in 2006 but his term was cut short by a military coup when he allied himself with the region’s left-wing governments. Zelaya was accused of corruption but the charges were shelved once the ousted president agreed not to run for office again.

In Costa Rica, former presidents Rafael Ángel Calderón Fournier (1990-1994) and José María Figueres (1994-1998) were jailed for corruption. Their successor Miguel Ángel Rodríguez Echeverría (1998-2002) fled to Spain for seven years, fearing a similar fate.

Ernesto Pérez Balladares, Panamanian president from 1994 to 1999, was accused of receiving bribes in return for granting casino licences but was eventually absolved. Mireya Moscoso, his successor, was renowned for her expensive taste in clothes and jewellery. After leaving office she was charged with stealing $45 million donated from abroad and with an unexplained $146,000 gift of watches to favoured legislators. She was absolved of all charges.

Guatemala's former president Jorge Serrano Elías (1991-1993) has been exiled in Panama since he attempted to dissolve congress and shut down the Supreme Court. He has successfully fought efforts to force his return to face charges of misuse of state funds.

Nobel prize

One notable exception is former Costa Rican president Óscar Arias Sánchez (1986-1990 and 2006-2010) who helped broker peace in the region and was rewarded with the Nobel Peace prize in 1987. At the time he ran for re-election he was the only living former president not in jail, under indictment or facing investigation.

In their defence, Central America’s disgraced presidents argue they inherited weak political institutions with a legacy of brutality and corruption. The outcome, however, is a widespread disregard for the rule of law and an alarming growth in crime and violence as citizens seek to emulate their leaders’ example.