Corruption in Latin America
Photo 1-Citizens in Rio de Janeiro protest impunity as well as the corrupt Government lead by Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva-2005
Definition of Corruption:
Before exploring the topic of corruption in Latin America, it is important to understand what corruption is. As a group we have defined corruption as: A misuse of allocated powers by an authoritative individual or group for illegitimate personal gain by promoting their own agendas at the expense of the group underneath them.

Corruption within a region exists simultaneously with democracy as democracy enables corruption through freedom within the authoritative powers. Democracy in the scope of a political spectrum is designed to promote majority rule with respect to the rights of the minority, this is where problems are encountered. In political structures that become corrupt, there is an unequal balance between the majority rule and the the rights of the minority threatening the democracy of others.

Early Corruption:
Corruption in Latin America has been very prevalent for many years, the earliest forms through lack of democracy. In the 1970s (not the earliest period of corruption in Latin America, yet the time which will be focused on as corruption has been on a steady increase since the 1970s) democracy was considered an "endangered species" (Millett, 2) in Latin America. This was seen through the Military- which dominated politics in twelve of the hemispheres twenty nations, Ruling by family dynasties, seen in Nicaragua and Haiti, dormant governing bodies as seen in Mexico which neglected to improve its domination for over half a century. Combinations between one-party rule and military dictatorship as well as one-party communist states such as Cuba lead by Fidel Castro paved the way to uneasy forms of government. Moving between military and civilian rule was an uneasy imbalance for Ecuador as the military was always ready to force change,while Columbia was painted by traditional elites that established democracy without any substance and in Venezuela two corrupt parties dominated the political system.

As the forms of corruption outlined above are not as severe as they have become, it is confirmed that corruption in Latin America has been a disease in the country which has only gotten worse.

Corruption through History:
After independence, conservative rural landowners, (caudillos) filled the power left by the departed colonial regime. Strong dictatorships, periods of instability and the gross inequality between powerful elites and the disfranchised masses have since characterized most South American countries.
After World War two, which marked the beginning of industrialization throughout South America, most countries turned to foreign loans and investment to make up for their lack of capital. This set the stage for the massive debt crises of the 1970s and 1980s, as South American governments accelerated their borrowing, and profits from industry and agriculture made their way into Western banks and the pockets of corrupt South American officials. Dictatorships provided a semblance of stability, but oppression, poverty and corruption bred violent guerrilla movements in many countries, most notably (and most recently) in Peru and Columbia. Many of the problems facing South America today are a direct result of foreign debt and the systems of corruption and inequality that date back to colonial and post-independence years.

Military Rule: Corrupt militaries have been present in Latin America for many years, they possess a great force of fear which compels citizens to act in the ideals set out by the military or political ruler. The ideals of the ruler are usually not in the best interest of the people which is why in most cases they revolt against the military resulting in force and brutality. The corrupt militaries are responsible for 75-80% of assassination, kidnapping, torture, and massacre of civilian non-combatants in Latin America

Drugs: Trafficking of drugs has been a substantial source of income for citizens as well as political leaders in Latin America for hundreds of years. Just as the citizens have the ability to make money off of the illegal drug trafficking, so do the political leaders. The only difference is that the political leaders are able to carry out such acts with limited observation by authoritative figures, as they are at the top. These people may then use the money for political or personal use.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called for Latin America to fight drug corruption in a regional swing that recently ended in Guatemala, days after the country's drug czar and national police were caught in a drug scandal.

Unhealthy Political Influence: This includes all aspects of corrupt political action such as bribery, fraud, embezzlement, unfair policy making, government secrecy, kickbacks, nepotism as well as employee exploitation. These are ways in which an individual or group in power will use their power to influence their own personal gain (including family and friends) while keeping these activities a secret from the general public and those who watch over them and their actions.

Of course corruption does not solely exist because of those in power, citizens of society are also corrupt and perpetuate these problems. A concept that is of strong importance is that the "richer get richer, while the poorer get poorer". Those who are becoming richer are most likely those who are in power and are corrupt, causing great stratification within the society, which is also a cause of corruption. Corruption has become so strong in Latin American countries because it is a way for them to become strong and stay strong within the economic, political and social spheres. If the corrupt countries were to become transparent and honest they would loose the ability to compete with the other countries, who are also corrupt or as strong as they are.

The Political, Economic, and Social effects of Corruption in Latin America
By: Arshia Uddin

Corruption is present everywhere in the World, in the poorest countries and the wealthiest. It comes in many forms, and effects people among all social categories especially the poor. Corruption affects us in our everyday activities and has a huge impact on the way we live our lives. It is an issue that people tend to ignore and don’t handle seriously. The citizens that are proactive in combating corruption within their society realize how helpless they are in solving issues of concern on their own. The biggest ally of corruption is power. Power has a significant role in a Country, power can help build a nation or simply destroy it. Power is something that we entrust to our nation leaders, teachers, institutions, and military. The question is do they utilize this power for the benefit of society or do they simply abuse and ignore the wishes of the people? In Latin America Corruption is evident in the elite, the government. The government in Latin America is flawed, issues such as democracy play a significant role in how a country is structured. Economic policies have an ulterior motive, and basic human rights are constantly being infringed upon in Latin America. In this paper I will be discussing political, economic, and social effects in Latin America. Corruption always traces back to the people who have authority. It is the people who facilitate power that are responsible in leading Latin America to its demise today.


Firstly I will begin by describing the economic flaws that reside in Latin America. It is vital to understand that the poorer the country the lower the GDP, therefore power easily falls in the wrong hands. Similarly, some argue that less economically developed countries generally have lower public sector wages, which is thought to increase the incentives for state employees to engage in illegal rent-seeking activities to supplement their low income (Biddle). This is subsequently true because the less income you formulate, the more difficult it is to survive, let alone manage a family. Citizens become desperate and therefore turn to illegal practices such as drug-trafficking, stealing, and an increased participation in illegal buisness's to make money. The elite and people in positions of authority pay the citizens below minimum wages, which results in a huge disparity between the rich and the poor. In most cases the wealthy tend to be more educated, and the poor generally don’t or never did have any access to education. The government fails to incorporate more institutional facilities that should be easily accessible for all citizens. The more educated the people are, the less fraud committed by individuals.

Corruption has a strong presence within the government. Democracy is the most vital necessity and right the citizens should be granted on any circumstance. Democracy consists of many elements such as freedom of speech, universal suffrage, civil liberties, right to opportunity and much more. When these rights are threatened and not being adhered to it generates a level of distrust in our leaders and represents corruption at its highest rank. In Nicaragua, former president Arnoldo Aleman has faced fraud, embezzlement, and money-laundering charges (Allison). In Argentina, President Carlos Menem left office in 1999 after a number of scandals. Two years later, he was arrested on charges of illegal arms trafficking and accepting millions of dollars in bribes (Allison). All of these are examples of corruption taking place inside the government, and most of the citizens are not even aware of these atrocities being committed.


This chart clearly shows the level of democratic corruption in Latin American countries is a lot more severe compared to outside countries. In countries outside Latin America the highest level is below 5, compared to Latin American countries the highest being 8.5 in Paraguay. This is a clear indicator that democracy is being deprived of the citizens present in Latin America, this poses a serious problem. In order for democracy to be promoted citizens must be educated enough to elect a leader who will eradicate most forms of corruption and grant legitimate democracy. Most Latin American citizens fail to realize that they are being suppressed, some are not even aware of what a democracy is. Firstly the citizens must realize what corruption is, and when it is present so they can act accordingly. The biggest obstacle is granting trust in our leaders, but the citizens must understand that they are the ones with the real power. The government and elite consist of a small majority. The government is there for the people, if the government is not doing the job they were assigned to citizens must take matters in their own hands. It is easier said than done, but the Latin American people must educate themselves and gain more knowledge about these circumstances in order to bring an end to this perpetual cycle of corruption.

Social :
With democracy at stake this has a greater negative social effect on the citizens at large. Firstly the more diverse the nation the more problems, therefore more corruption is evident. Latin America is very rich in diversity, instead of uniting and putting differences aside people use it against one another. Most of the political leaders of Latin American countries have whiter skin, and the fact that race plays a huge part in the political system explains its faults on a whole different level. The government is also responsible for many of the atrocities that have been committed against the indigenous peoples in Latin America. Indigenous people today form about 11 percent of Latin America’s total population of 540 million (Cott). The indigenous peoples have inhabited Latin America in widespread areas and demand specific land claims, rights, and democracy. The indigenous rights promised in Guatemala’s 1996 peace accords failed to pass in a 1999 constitutional-reform referendum (Cott). There have been numerous incidents like these, where agreements were shut down, and mishandled. However recently indigenous people are fighting this obstacle and continue to have standings in political national parties and expect to keep it this way.

Achuar indian, Ecuador, South America
Achuar indian, Ecuador, South America

In Bolivia in 2002, for example, not only did the MAS (Movement to Socialism) finish second in the national election, but seventeen indigenous legislators entered office representing non indigenous parties (Cott). This provides a vast amount of hope for the people in Latin America in different ways. The fact that indigenous people are advancing themselves in the political realm of Latin America provides hope for the people. It doesn’t mean that the problems associated with race will be completely eradicated, but it is a major step for people of color, race, and ethnicity to have a presence in the government. Other social effects may be class, the gap between the rich and the poor which was discussed previously. Class and social status has lead to fragmentation among people. Today, gated communities of different types and dimensions are common elements in almost all Latin American cities (Coy). This whole idea of fragmentation just broadens the gap between the rich and the poor. The citizens living in poverty don’t have access to the luxuries the rich do, this in turn will cause them to rebel more. This is creating more social inequality and the more corruption will exist if this keeps continuing.

In the end the government is the main reason why corruption is thriving. People with power aren’t maximizing the good in society, and they are too busy indulging in their own liberties. Democracy isn’t present, and citizens aren’t educated enough to realize that they are being victimized, misused and abused. The gap between the rich and the poor continues to expand and the government fails to implement any plans in shortening the gap. It’s time for citizens to become aware of the situations unfolding today, and play a more proactive role in diminishing corruption. More importantly there must be unity, when people start putting their differences aside and help one another democracy will have a brighter future.

Structure of corruption within society

Corruption in Latin America’s society is founded on the European conquest. When the Europeans reached the new world, they imposed their ‘superiority’ and authority by stealing the indigenous lands, and raping their women. They also instituted a new economic, political and social system in which the white people were the only beneficiaries. The social stratification in the colonial period was dominated by the peninsulares followed by the criollos, mestizos and finally the Amerindians and African slaves. The Spanish had a great concern with limpieza de sangre. This principle was used by the Spanish to determine social and racial status in the Americas. Following limpieza de sangre the Spanish elaborated nomenclatures that gave degrees to push people away from whiteness. This not only put the white people in a dominant position but also make them accessible to every resource, education, and better standards of living. While some mestizos and people from the lower positions in the hierarchy started to become more dominant economically, they were still not able to have all the liberties and opportunities the white people had just because of the color of their skin. The Spanish Crown made available the cedula de gracias al sacar, a document that asserts that the person was legitimate white and that non-white rich people were able to buy. With this, the social structure and hierarchy in Latin America was set. Then, how to expect for a society to follow an honest way when it is conscious that the minority got everything by illegitimate ways?
Latin America’s society is marked by this racial problem where the elites are the ones who always get benefit by honest or corrupt ways. In the region of Latin America, it is them, the rich and the powerful that impose their authority on the minority. They abuse their power to obtain a certain benefit for themselves. For example, It is very common in Latin America for people to give a small amount of money to police officers so they do not give them a ticket. Corruption can also occur between teachers and students in selling grades or between teachers and parents in buying passing grades for their children. As it is known, the region of Latin America is very poor and the wealthy ones are only the few, this is why some of the people are willing to do anything for the extra cash. However, there are people who take advantage of the situation and decide that they can make people do what they want by threatening and bribing them. It all depends in how much powerful the person is and how much money the person is offering. Corruption affects the moral level of society as a whole and to the extend corruption is widespread, ethical scruples are being lost.


Moreover, Latin American countries exist in a culture of corruption and in a sick society, to a considerable extent characterized by habits and a mentality that renounce the valid laws. The issue of corruption as a structural problem in the region has often been addressed in allusion to the concept of ‘anomie’. The concept of anomie was popularized by Emile Durkheim and used by several sociologists and anthropologists, one of them is Robert Merton. For Merton society should be considered as a cross between the goals of the society and the ways individuals should use to attain these goals. However, some of the individuals do not chose the right ways but choose the bad because they give better returns. Hence, the people see these two ways with feelings of ambivalent: on one side people rejects the illicit ways and consider it as a crime. On the other hand, they also envy the things that the ones that followed the illicit ways have achieved because they want to have the same things. This make them realized the poverty they are living and even considering joining them.

Furthermore, it can be said that corruption is the means to gain advantages and benefits by unlawfully ways. Sometimes, as it is the case in Latin American countries, corruption can be so steeped in society that the soul of the country starts to deteriorate generating a situation of hopelessness in the government and in the future. The discontent generated by the decisions of the governments which benefits a portion of the population and go against the majority has as a result the general rejection of the people which is reflected in the social decontrol and strikes. People start to accuse the government of corrupt and inefficient. Consequently, people start losing respect for their government and stop caring about the law and norms because they feel that the government does not care about them either. Situations like this one in Latin America has make people to want to take control and power in their own hands. However, the disillusionment in the government is not the only fact that intervenes in corruption poverty and the lack of education is also of great influence. Poverty is one of the biggest reasons of violence in Latin American cities because in most of parts of the region there is no hope or opportunities to go ahead and to look forward. People have ambitions but they are not able to fulfill them. The lack of education and poverty that exists in Latin America make the individuals and specially young people to get into the little gangs and mafias, to get involved in drug trafficking such as El Cartel de Medellin and its most famous leader, Pablo Escobar, the leader of one of the biggest drug trafficking mafias in history. It makes people to get into the armed groups because of hate, because of vengeance because they want to be somebody, but they cannot. Society does not let them, the powerful does not let them and the government does not let them. An example of this situation can be seen in the documentary ‘La Sierra” where young people in this Barrio of Medellin lives among violence and poverty. It demonstrates the lives of the young Colombians that are affected by conflict, vengeance and the struggle to grow, to be able to work, look forward and fulfill their dreams; however the corruption in their government shut them all the doors.
Bloque Casique, Medellin. Paramilitar group

The structure of Latin American Societies which is mostly a legacy of the European conquest helps the creation of corruption in societies. The elites are the ones with the power to bribe the rest of the population, to make them fear and do whatever they want. They take advantage of their situation and in some cases even violate human rights. Corruption in the society involves a considerable majority, victims of ignorance, and contempt as well as some elements of the dominant classes who prefer to keep the rest of society limited and excluded.

Political Corruption and Ethics

Corruption was evident during the Latin American reforms of years past. This means that many reformers stole other people’s money and property, causing a large disparity between people. The reforms were an opportunity for public servants to take advantage of the transition from economic nationalism to private enterprise, with businesspersons banking on the fact that it was about seducing the people who called the shots and not the consumers (Llosa, 2005). Gauging the corruption levels of countries is indicative of what is measurable when it comes to corruption, and sometimes it provides a window into which we can see countries that are the most corrupt. Transparency International is one such organization, as it proclaims to be “a global coalition against corruption” (n.a., 2010).
The unusually high occurrences of corruption during the reform years were connected to the increased opportunities that political officials and bureaucrats had with division of assets. But saying that corruption was due to reform failure or because of underdevelopment is false. Corruption was indeed present before and after reforms came about and is an all too visible problem today (Little & Posado-Carbó, 1996).
As already stated, and what Transperancy International difines corruption – the abuse of entrusted power for private gain – it is not just a means to gain profits in a country where capital is power. Instead of power being of initiative and enterprise, it is about the legitimate loss of the law and the state and the loss of moral values that make life cohesive in society (Llosa, 2005). The problem with corrupt governments is that there is no separation between it and the state and between the political and the administrative. This is where the Spanish term of clientelismo comes into the foray. This word describes the patronage between politicians/public servants and their supporters, who in turn see each other as their respective clients (Little & Posado-Carbó, 1996). Unfortunately, clientelismo continues despite a change of government, which in turn only supports Latin America’s view of this type of conduct as being functional.
There is a dichotomy when it comes to public perception of the corrupt state. At one end there is distrust from the public in the services provided by the state, but at the same time the public looks towards the state as the only method for social mobility and profit.
In Latin America, the cost of doing business is much higher than most parts of the world. This is due mostly in part by the high levels of corrupt bureaucratic practices (Llosa, 2005). For instance, there are regulations that impede the common inhabitant starting up their own business, and favour potential producers into rewarding government posts, leaving the ones who cannot afford to play in the field without. To exemplify this, in Mexico it takes 112 business days and 15 different procedures just to be able to operate a start-up company. In Brazil, the wait is 62 business days and 15 procedures. In Peru it takes 171 business days and 14 procedures to start a company. All of this points to the corrupt nature of doing business and only increases the exclusion of those that do not have the means to comply with such obstacles. This only creates a cycle that is too common in Latin American countries – the bureaucracy is always empowered.
With the corrupt practices of early Latin American governments and the ridiculous nature of some laws, it was no surprise of revolution at the turn of the 20th century, but at the turn of the 21st century, things have changed differently. This new illegitimacy of the law has created devalued human relations – now there is disrespect for human life, as seen increasingly via violence in many Latin American cities. Even disrespect for members of the state, such as police officers and judges is all too apparent (in the form of assassinations) (Llosa, 2005).

Rankings of Corrupt Countries


Solutions to corruption are possible, but as with all reform, it is more about undoing than doing. Some authors like Llosa write that in order to see some change, there has to be changes that will affect everyone in some way. Most affected would be the powerful, whom are too keen on not relinquishing their power in some form. There are four reforms that need to be made in order to impede the corruption (Llosa, 2005).
The first is cleansing the law. This means that the law should go through a compete overhaul, in which all laws should be looked over and, if need be, changed to appease such things as equality and to whom or what they relate to. Is it for individuals or corporations?
The second is “sanctifying the choice of the poor”. This means that the government should pay attention to the way people have responded to these reforms. The government should be able to see at what point and where the people deviated from the previous laws by gauging how they respond to the new laws. This would be a source of great inspiration. Quite simply this means being able to learn from mistakes made.
The third suggestion is empowering the Justice system. Since some would see Latin America as not having a justice system, this would bring about great change. With the courts not functioning as the agencies for others that have power, the people would have guarantees of impartiality – trust is formed in the judicial system in this way.

The fourth suggestion is having a gentle landing for those that heavily depend on the government for assistance. By continuing to offer basic needs like health care and education, it would show that the government means well for reform. In the long run, this liberty will give people the means to survive and with less government intervention and more power to consumers, all of this will be provided at low cost.

(Mary) Photo 1-

(Mary) Different types of Corruption-

(Mary) Millet, Richard L.Latin American Democracy ,Emerging Reality or Endangered Species 2008 publication. New York: Routledge,2008, 2008. Print.
Mainwaring, Scott, and Christopher Welna.

(Mary) Democratic Accountability in Latin America (Oxford Studies in Democratization). New York: Oxford University Press, USA, 2003. Print.

(Mary) The State of State Reforms in Latin America (Latin American Development). New York: World Bank Publications, 2006.

(Arshia) : Allison., Damarys Canache and Michael E. "Perceptions of political corruption in Latin American democracies." (2005).
(Chart was collected from this data base as well)

(Arshia): Biddle, Lauren. "Corruption in Latin America:Political, Economic, Structural, and Institutional Causes." 12 April 2007: 17/52.
(Arshia): Cott, Donna Lee Van. "Latin America’s Indegenous People's." Transformation: Venezuela in Comparative Perspective." Latin American perspectives 2002: p2.
(Arshia): Coy, Martin. "Gated communities and urban fragmentation in Latin: The Brazilian Experience." (2006): p1.

(Arshia): Picture of Indegenous man:**anomia**/at_download/file

Cheryl E. Martin, Mark Wasserman, Latin America and its People, second edition.

Kevin A. Yelvington, Patterns of "Race", Ethnicity, Class and Nationalism, Understanding Contemporary Latin America.

Bloque Cacique:
Man with Money:

Little, W., & Posada-Carbo, E. (Eds.). (1996). Political corruption in europe and latin america (1st ed.). New York: St. Martin's Press, Inc.
Llosa, A. (2005). Liberty for latin america: How to undo five hundred years of state oppression. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
Transparency international: The global coalition against corruption. (2010). Retrieved March 20, 2010, from
West, J. (Ed.). (2006). South america, central america and the caribbean 2007 (15th ed.). London: Routledge.

Photo of Corruption Perceptions Index 2009: