Judge Claudia Escobar - Fighting Corruption from the Judiciary

Many people in countries around the world are struggling to fight corruption. The massive anti-corruption protests of the last few years in Latin America and several other countries around the world, such as Romania, South Africa, Guatemala, Ukraine, and Kenya, are indicative of the critical situation that many societies are facing. 

We are starting to understand that corruption is not just a matter of wrongdoing by governmental leaders in conspiracy with the private sector or criminal groups, but it also relates to development, access to health, education, and justice.

Even though corruption is a behavior or a practice that can happen anywhere around the globe, it is an especially serious threat in some developing countries, where democracy, human rights, and the rule of law are not respected. In these countries, where corruption has become systematic, government officials organize to make illegal profits from their activities, and the institutions established to guarantee peace and security are controlled by the mafia itself, which further promotes corruption. In such places, citizens that want to fight corruption face great risk, and they put their lives in danger because any charge or denunciation against corruption means a threat to the status quo that the powerful elites defend.

I have experienced the consequences of speaking up about corruption firsthand in my home country of Guatemala. As a judge, I have always been extremely protective of judicial independence. In 2014, during the process of election for judges in the Court of Appeals, the former president of Congress conditioned my election in exchange for a resolution to favor the vice-president at the time. I knew I had to press charges. I also knew that the election of judges was tainted and that organized crime was involved.  Of course, I was afraid of the consequences.  Immediately after I denounced this wrongdoing, the president, the vice president, and the Congressman that I denounced started a campaign to intimidate and discredit me professionally.  The judges that were elected for the Supreme Court threatened to initiate a process of sedition charges against me.  These same officials are currently facing trials for corruption. The United States is asking for the vice president to be extradited for drug smuggling on its territory.  Recently, the head of Congress was convicted to 13 years in prison for bribery and influence peddling. This was possible only because in 2007 the United Nations established the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  But there is still much to be done to strengthen the judiciary in Guatemala. 

We all know that in a democratic republic where the separation of powers work properly, checks and balances are in place and the judiciary will prosecute illegal activities that the ruler or politicians try to promote. This has happened in Brazil with the case of Lava Jato and in Chile with the politician scandals or Spain in the Nóos case, for example. But if the judiciary is weakened or has been infiltrated by corrupt politicians, there is little that can be done to stop corruption, and impunity grows. When citizens do not have the tools to fight corruption, the risk of kleptocracy skyrockets. 

Another problem of corruption is that it is a disease that spreads to other sectors of society and to other countries, such as in the Odebrecht case or the Panamá Papers case. That is why the international community must pay attention to this problem, because it seems to be growing. 

If a strong, independent and impartial judiciary is a needed tool to fight corruption, we have to make sure that the judges have enough power, resources, and capacity to rein in the other branches of government. This is almost impossible to do in a society where corruption is the norm. This problem needs to be addressed through international organizations.

In the last 10 years, various international programs have been implemented to promote more transparency and reduce corruption and impunity.  One of these programs initiated by the United Nations is the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).  This commission has been able to prosecute high officials in power including the president, vice president, head of Congress, and other powerful army officials and businessmen. Another effort that has been implemented by the Organization of American States is the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCHI), which is providing support to the Honduran government to build stronger institutions. These programs are crucial not only because they help to prosecute individuals that are involved in corruption cases, but also because they obtain criminal convictions and sentences. In order to do these things, the judiciary also needs to be independent.  

It will be important to seriously analyze how a regional or international organization can help develop stronger judicial systems. 

Corruption is an activity that goes beyond borders and sometimes has more resources than the government, especially in developing states. We need to think out of the box and ask ourselves whether an International Anti-Corruption Court, similar to other international courts such as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the European Court of Human Rights, or the International Criminal Court, can address this problem. 

About Judge Claudia Escobar: 

Having grown up in a country marked by impunity, corruption, and violence, Claudia Escobar has dedicated her life to working for the respect of the law and for the promotion of justice, with the conviction that a strong judicial system is the vehicle to build a true “State of Law,” which can bring peace, freedom, and prosperity to her home country of Guatemala. Escobar, a judge, is also a dedicated professor and has taught at different universities, and she was the coordinator of the master’s degree in corporate law at the Universidad Rafael Landívar for more than five years.