MEXICO CITY (AP) — In just three months, three former presidents of Central American countries have been charged with corruption, two of them in the past week as ex-leaders of both Honduras and El Salvador were ordered to stand trial.
The region has always been fraught with scandals involving crooked politicians, but never have investigations hit so high. It's a new indication that these small, yet strategically located countries long known for unpunished corruption may be more willing to go after the powers that be.
The Honduran government announced Thursday that the U.S. has requested extradition of former President Rafael Leonardo Callejas on charges of taking bribes for television contracts through his position as head of the Honduran Soccer Federation.
The same day, a judge in El Salvador ordered former President Francisco Flores to stand trial for allegedly diverting $15 million in donations for earthquake victims to his personal and political party accounts during his 1999-2004 term.
But the most dramatic example is Otto Perez Molina, who was taken down by corruption charges in September while still sitting as Guatemala's president — an unprecedented act since democracy took hold in Latin America. He is now jailed along with his former vice president, both facing graft charges.
"We're finally beginning to see countries willing to investigate and try to hold accountable people who were previously untouchable," said Eric Olson, associate director of the Latin American program at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. "This is more than just more of the same, especially in Guatemala. And that has other sitting presidents quite nervous."
Experts cite two main reasons for the change: a more vibrant civil society and outside intervention.
Latin America just experienced a "golden decade," in which strong economic GDP growth produced an emerging middle class fed up with corruption and more demanding of government officials, said Daniel Zovatto, regional director for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance.
Guatemala and Honduras have seen diverse groups of various classes taking to the streets to protest corruption. On Thursday, Hondurans publicly cheered the indictment of Callejas, chanting "To jail! To jail!"
While human rights violations were long the main crimes at the center of attention in the region after decades of civil wars, the galvanizing issue now is corruption.
"We had 'never again' as the theme for the massive violations of human rights in the early transition to democracy," Zovatto said. "Now in the more advanced stage, the new 'never again' has to do with corruption."
Even so, the traditionally weak and politically malleable institutions in these countries cannot carry out the sentiments of the population.
Most federal prosecutors remain political arms of the presidency. All three recent cases have required help from the outside — the United States for Honduras and El Salvador, a U.N.-backed international prosecutorial commission in Guatemala.
The U.S. is prosecuting Callejas, but the Honduran government is fully cooperating with extradition of a man who remains a very powerful figure.
El Salvador's case against Flores started with a suspicious activities report by the U.S. Treasury Department that was revealed last year by then President Mauricio Funes.
Perez Molina was brought down by the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, an international group of independent prosecutors who uncovered a large government fraud ring requiring businesses to pay kickbacks in exchange for lower import duties. The body was set up in 2006 with the help of the United Nations to aid Guatemala's federal prosecutor and national police.
Other cases may come. Former Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli is under investigation by authorities of his own country. The billionaire supermarket magnate faces accusations that he inflated contracts worth $45 million to purchase dehydrated food for a government social program.
Just a few years ago, such cases were unthinkable, and the general feeling among citizens was resignation. Today, anger at elected officials is widespread and public.
"Part of the reason is that it had gotten so obscene," Olson said. "Organized crime and the political and economic elites have become indistinguishable."
Associated Press writer Alberto Arce contributed to this report.
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