How do Central Americans experience corruption?

Almost a third of people who interacted with basic public services in the last 12 months paid a bribe. This equates to over 90 million people in the 20 countries surveyed.

By Jonathan Menkos ZeissigExecutive Director, Central American Institute ofFiscal Studies (Icefi)

Transparency International recently published its study “Global Corruption Barometer, People and Corruption: Latin America and the Caribbean,” a document that summarizes the results of a survey conducted from May to December, 2016. The survey contacted over 22,000 people from 20 countries in Latin America and the Caribbean, including the countries of Central America. The goal was to understand people’s direct experiences of corruption in public service and perceptions of how widespread corruption is.

One of the study’s main conclusions is that most people in the region, almost 62% of those surveyed, believe that corruption got worse over the 12 months leading up to the survey. In Central America, that figure was 53%, with respondents in Costa Rica, El Salvador, and Honduras affirming most often that corruption in their countries is worsening.

The sections of the above chart, “Central America: Results of questions related to corruption,” read, from left to right: Country/Region; Percent of people who believe that corruption has worsened; How well or poorly has the government acted against corruption?; How often have you had to pay a bribe, give a gift, or do a favor in the last 12 months?; It is socially acceptable to report corruption; Normal people can make a difference against corruption.


Regarding the fight against corruption, over half of respondents (53%) believe their government is waging the fight poorly. When surveyed about corruption in different sectors of government, 47% of respondents said that most or all public officials in the police force and Congress were corrupt. Fewer held the same opinion of local government officials (45%), of the federal bureaucracy (43%), and of judges and magistrates (40%). Finally, 36% of respondents believe that most or all private sector executives are corrupt.

Corruption eats away at democracy as it prostitutes public institutions for private gain.

The study also shows that almost a third of people who interacted with basic public services like the education system, the health sector, identity document issuance, and law enforcement paid a bribe in the last 12 months. This equates to over 90 million people in the 20 countries surveyed.

About one in every five people who went to hospitals and schools paid a bribe, gave a gift, or did a favor for a public employee to access the service sought. Only 9% of those who paid a bribe, however, reported it to the authorities. Of this limited number of people, 28% suffered negative consequences for reporting corruption. Authorities took action against the corrupt public employee in just one out of every five cases (20%) in which a bribe was reported.

47% of respondents said that most or all public officials in the police force and Congress were corrupt.

In Central American countries, between 24% (Costa Rica) and 38% (Panama) of respondents said they had paid a bribe in the past 12 months. Among the more revelatory statistics were the following:

  • In Honduras, 51% of respondents who had used the justice system said they had paid a bribe in the past 12 months.
  • In El Salvador, Panama, and Honduras, between 21 and 30% of respondents had to pay a bribe to access public services in health or education.
  • In Guatemala, respondents reported the highest percentage of police bribes in Central America – between 21 and 30%.

The chart above, “Central America: Results of questions related to bribes,” shows the percent of respondents who paid a bribe in the 12 months preceding the study when they tried to access different public services in the following sectors, read from left to right: Education/schools; Health/hospitals; Identity document issuance; Other public services; Police; Court system.


The study asked respondents if they believe that normal people can make a difference in corruption and 70% said yes. In Central America, the average was 73%; people believe that civic engagement and the reporting of cases of corruption help fight back, especially in Costa Rica (82%), Nicaragua (77%), Honduras (76%), and Guatemala (70%).

The study recommends that governments:

  • Involve civil society more in their anti-corruption efforts, which can give these efforts greater credibility.
  • Continue efforts to build a secure environment that fosters greater social participation.
  • Strengthen institutions that detect, investigate, and sentence corruption-related crime.
  • Eliminate political immunity in cases of corruption.
  • Protect whistleblowers through the creation of accessible, anonymous corruption reporting channels.

To reduce bribery in public service, the study recommends that governments:

  • Ensure that official fees for public services are publicly posted.
  • Steamline administrative processes so that decision-making doesn’t become prolonged or arbitrary.
  • Invest in electronic platforms that allow citizens to access public services without interacting with bureaucrats or public employees.

Finally, to improve law enforcement institutions, the report recommends that governments:

  • Build capacity in investigations.
  • Develop internal disciplinary measures
  • Establish accountability mechanisms and integrated systems of institutional management.

Corruption is a tool for the powerful and a cancer that is eating away at democracy by destroying public confidence and social cohesion. It prostitutes public institutions for private gain. It is time to take holistic approaches to root out corruption that has become structural and systematic.

Cover photo: Anti-corruption demonstration in Xela’s Central Park, Guatemala, August 27, 2015. Photo by Patricia Macías.