In fighting corruption, whistleblowers must be encouraged

Whistleblowers and society must work together to combat the profound and dangerous penetration of organised crime into the fundamental institutions of the state in Latin America, and elsewhere. Español Português

José Ugaz Francesc Badia i Dalmases
25 May 2016

Workers pretend to beat a man dressed as former Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori, center, during a protest in Lima, Peru. AP Photo/Martin Mejia.

Francesc Badia: Thank you very much, Mr. Ugaz, for speaking with DemocraciaAbierta. There are several intricate issues on the agenda of transparency at the international level, although a number of steps forward have undoubtedly been made in recent years. The perception is that, in general, transparency and therefore denunciation and the follow up of major corruption cases hardly ever translate – at least in Latin America - into political consequences for the politicians involved. Above all, due to the deactivation mechanism that goes: "everyone is corrupt: this one is corrupt, but the other one is also corrupt; so, when it comes to voting, I'd rather do it for my corrupt one than for somebody else’s". It seems that one corruption nullifies the other. How do you see this problem?

José Ugaz: Corruption is a complex phenomenon, and I think it depends a lot on which point of view you choose to look at it. I think the reality today is a reality of light and shade. Although it is true that there are many more corruption scandals --and we just witnessed a global explosion with the Panama Paper revelations--, corruption has also become a lot more visible than in the past. And that speaks well of the investigation mechanisms, and of the tools of transparency and social mobilisation in many places, which have resulted in these cases coming to light. Before there was much more opacity, I think, on the issue of corruption.

However, it is true that there is still a lot of corruption going on in the world: today we are speaking of a qualitatively different phenomenon, that of big corruption. We define big corruption as comprising three elements: actors with great political power; actors with great economic power who muster an enormous amount of resources (scandals involve today hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars); and third, the impact that all this has on human rights, especially in developing countries. On the positive side, we have politicians who are paying the cost of their corrupt practices: we have a former president and a former vice president in prison in Guatemala; in Peru, Vladimiro Montesinos and Alberto Fujimori have been sentenced to 25 years; Brazilian President Rousseff has been suspended following the Petrobras scandal; and if we look around in the world, there are other examples that can be shown. There have been some high officials in Europe, for instance in Portugal, serving prison sentences as a consequence of corruption. In Africa, the former South African president Jacob Zuma is now under investigation.

But, on the other hand, in electoral matters it is true what you say: there is still a disconnect between what the voter, the citizen, expresses when casting his/her vote and the consequences this vote has for him/her later. And this, I think, has to do in part with the anomie of the corruption phenomenon, with the fact that the victims of its consequences are not usually aware of their victimhood. Those who suffer from the most substantial consequences of corruption are the poor, and the poor are simply not aware that they are being the victims of corruption. In some cases, because they think that since they do not pay taxes directly, it does not affect them. In other cases, because they simply lack the level of consciousness necessary to connect their inability to secure education, healthcare, housing, and nutrition for their children with what some criminals line their pockets. There is a complex relationship between victim and victimiser, between the victim of corruption and what this corruption implies, which very often expresses itself at the ballot box. This is why you get the kind of results you do.

To this must be added a sort of fatalism that, in countries like ours in Latin America, is very pervasive: this resignation before the fact which prompts people to say: "we are all corrupt, this will never change, we are like that because we are Latino, or African or Asian, so I will vote for someone who steals but will actually do something, which is always better than one who does nothing but steal". This fatal attitude leads people to vote for candidates who are known to be corrupt and who will presumably harm public interest.

FB: There are two factors that play a very important role in transparency, but whose independence from political and economic power is often questioned: the media, on the one hand, which put or do not put one scandal or other on the agenda depending on their interests; on the other hand, the judiciary, which has to act once the scandal has come out into the open or information has spread. How do you see these two factors operating in Latin America?

JU: Both are key, for better or worse. The Peruvian case, I would say, symbolises the role of the press, particularly in its two facets. In the 90s, the Fujimori dictatorship and the corrupt network that ruled the country for 10 years literally bought the editorial line of all print media and all television channels in the country, apart from three outlets that resisted this onslaught of corruption: two national newspapers and one cable television station. Then, the owners of the TV channels which surrendered their editorial line appeared in videos receiving huge amounts of cash - millions of dollars. So, all those who subordinated themselves to corruption - a good portion of them were the people in charge of what we call prensa chicha (tabloid press) -, then became a regime weapon against the opposition and a permanent source of attack and disinformation to the public.

But at the other end, the three media outlets that were not contaminated and resisted the temptation of corruption played a key role in rescuing democracy. They consistently documented corrupt practices, and when the authoritarian regime broke down, the information these media had gathered through their research units was crucial. I was the one who, as prosecutor, conducted the investigation on the Montesinos and Fujimori cases, and all our early research drew on information we took from the independent press.

The same happens in the case of the judiciary, because a strong and independent judiciary - we are seeing this in Brazil -, can produce extraordinary results. In that case, a handful of brave, professional prosecutors and three or four judges have put in check a corrupt elite in the private sector and the highest officials of the Brazilian state, and that is truly remarkable. But, on the other hand, what highly corrupt judicial systems do is impose rules of impunity that are unfortunately widespread in the region.

In both cases, I would say they play a positive role when facing corruption institutionally, but a nefarious one when they are accomplices or co-perpetrators of corruption.

FB: We see a scaling of the sentences for corruption cases depending on their nature, but some cases are especially painful, for they involve murder or violence, or the impunity of the perpetrators. In Latin America, we see in some places a kind of co-existence between state, security forces, institutional violence, and structural violence too. This is where corruption has a double impact. How do you see this problem, which is very specific to the region?

JU: In recent times there has been collusion between corruption and organised crime. This is very negative, especially in this part of the world: in Peru, in Colombia - the leading producers of cocaine in the world. But we also have illegal mining, illegal logging, human trafficking… there are a number of criminal industries in our countries. And this, without a doubt, has penetrated some of the fundamental institutions of the state. Not only the political parties, through campaign financing. Now drug traffickers do not wish to sit in parliament themselves, but to buy politicians to sit for them and defend their interests there.

The same thing happens with the judges. There has been a penetration of organised crime into the judicial system and we have many examples of that. In the case of my country, Peru, a criminal organisation broken up recently had been colluding with the regional president of Ancash (a northern region) who, in addition to having a group of gunmen at his service and having ordered the killing of several of his opponents, had connections with a property-trade mafia that controlled a judicial network. As a result of this investigation, as a result of which the regional president is now in prison together with of his accomplices, the Director of Public Prosecutions had to resign, after being investigated for his connections with this network. There are many similar cases in the region. We are witnessing it now in other countries - in Honduras, for example. There was recently a piece in the New York Times reporting that a group of Honduran police chiefs, fully implicated in organised crime, were murdering their own comrades in arms to benefit certain drug traffickers. We can confirm, then, that there is a very dangerous penetration of organised crime into the fundamental institutions of the state.

FB: On the positive side, however, we have also seen some popular mobilisations. You mentioned the case of Guatemala, a landmark case, a country that in principle is not very strong regionally, to all appearances, but that has this ability to mobilise and bring about political change. Or the case of Brazil, with strong mobilisations, for other reasons, perhaps, but which - as you mentioned - has a strong judicial system. We see how they do not hesitate to apply laws that are affecting those who instated them. This is a democratic step forward. How do you see the role of protests and demonstrations in accelerating the processes?

JU: Society is now playing a key role in this process of fighting corruption. Before, there was a sort of gloom, conformism and resignation with these problems. But I think it has reached a point where there has been a very significant change. Perhaps the Arab Spring was the most relevant collective expression at that time, but it has been spreading to other social groups. In our region in particular, there have been three very important examples in recent months: the ones you mentioned, and that of Honduras. In Honduras, every week, on Saturday afternoons, hundreds of people are mobilising to demand action against corruption.

This has led to ministers and senior officials now being imprisoned or under investigation, and to the Organisation of American States (OAS) finding it necessary to create a commission that will contribute to breaking impunity, such as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (ICIG). We have seen similar mobilisations in Guatemala, where thousands of people were out in the streets demanding the resignation of the president and the vice president when the “La línea” scandal was uncovered. In Brazil, millions of people took to the streets to demand justice following the Petrobras case. In Peru, there have recently been demonstrations too, during the election campaigns, expressing the citizens' rejection of candidates that could be linked to corruption.

I believe there is a new scenario in which citizenship plays a key role. We, as an organization, are attentive to that. In fact, what our Strategy towards 2020 aims to do is to connect with that social movement, to try to ensure that the protests are sustainable, because we do not want to see what happened in the Arab world happening here in Latin America: after some large demonstrations, repression followed, and nothing never again happened. And all these dictators eventually escaped accountability: Mubarak got away, Ben Ali is enjoying impunity. So, Transparency International is trying somehow to connect to this social movement and contribute to it.

FB: There is another issue that could be a game changer: the leaks, be they the result of research, or of people within the system who have sensitive information and bring it to public attention through the media. This has been a constant feature lately. We have recently seen the Panama Papers case, which is a new factor. Do these leaks help the work of Transparency International or does a part of this phenomenon, in some ways, weaken its work, as leaks come up unexpectedly and often without the necessary legal cover?

JU: Our organization has, from the beginning, a very clear position in defence of the so-called whistleblowers or informants. Moreover, we have developed principles for the protection of these people. Right now, there is a debate going on because a whistleblower associated with Price Waterhouse in Luxembourg is currently being brought to court by his former company for having revealed very relevant information, known as the LuxLeaks, regarding tax evasion. We, as an organization, have spoken in favour of dropping criminal proceedings, and giving protection to this person. The same applies to the other global cases that have occurred.

Now, in Panama, this law firm is threatening to investigate and prosecute those responsible for the leaks. To us, everything that contributes to transparency and clarity regarding corruption must be protected, and in that sense we must weigh up the interests that are at stake. There may eventually have been some violations of the individual rights of persons involved in criminal acts, but this should never come before the interests of the millions of people who are affected by these corrupt practices. So, I clearly think that whistleblowers should be protected and that such practices must be, in some way, encouraged, because it is the only way to break impunity.

FB: A final question. You played a central role in bringing Fujimori and Montesinos to trial, presenting them before the court and finally securing a sentence for very serious crimes. Pending the second round of the presidential elections, however, Fujimori's daughter stands a good chance of returning to power and continuing the saga. Perhaps in Peru things look a little different, but seen from outside this causes some perplexity: how can it be that the daughter of such a character, who has been exposed and convicted of crimes against humanity, gets such great popular support?

JU: Well, the explanation is long and complex and there are many influencing factors. Firstly, to make it simple, there is a sector of the Peruvian population that holds a positive memory of some of the things Fujimori did, such as, for one, the capture of Abimael Guzman and, somehow, the defeat of Sendero Luminoso, of terrorism;  for another, controlling inflation. Those are achievements that can be credited to his government, with some nuances because they are not necessarily 100% attributable to it, but they did occur during his tenure. Secondly, we Peruvians are a people who sympathise with victims: Fujimori has been in prison for several years, he is old, he suffers some illnesses, and this also plays as an emotional factor. Thirdly, Keiko Fujimori, his daughter, has done her homework, and has dedicated herself full-time to building her candidacy, traveling around the country, gaining local supporters, talking to people. And that, ultimately, I think, has yielded returns to the point of her having an overall majority in Congress: this is unprecedented in our country. On the other hand, she has tried to keep, progressively, a distance with her father.

First, she said that her father had made some mistakes; then, she acknowledged that they were not only mistakes but crimes; and now, she says she is carrying a heavy weight, but that she will not acknowledge any act that links her with her father in that matter. When you look at the big picture, though, you can see that she is surrounded by many of the figures that were next to her father - who, whenever they can, draw attention to her non-authoritarian ways. So, there is an ambivalent situation here, which I think expresses what we have been talking about: there is a lack of awareness on the part of the victims of what this "he steals, but gets things done" principle entails, a principle that allows, by way of a comparison over time, for them to say: "well, we now have widespread corruption as well but things are not going as well for the economy and development as they did with Fujimori". This is a complex affair, that has led to this unfortunate situation and that puts voters in a state of being permanently up against the wall, especially those who are clearly conscious that they do not want to see a corrupt and authoritarian regime running the country again.


DemocraciaAbierta attended the International Civil Society Week 2016 in Bogotá (24-28 April), thanks to a Media Fellowship from CIVICUS. This piece belongs to a series of interviews to prominent civil society leaders who participated in the event.

Translated from the original in Spanish by Katie Oliver, member of DemocraciaAbierta’s Volunteer Program

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