Foreign Assistance

U.S. Rule of Law Assistance to Five Latin American Countries Gao ID: NSIAD-99-195 August 4, 1999

The United States has provided rule of law assistance to Latin America and the Caribbean to improve these countries' justice systems in order to strengthen democracy. During the 1990s, such assistance has focused on supporting efforts to reform criminal justice systems, including judicial institutions and the police and other law enforcement agencies. This report examines U.S. rule of law assistance programs in the following five Latin American countries: Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama. The United States has provide more than $160 million worth of rule of law assistance to these countries since the early 1990s--mainly through the U.S. Agency for International Development and the Justice Department. GAO discusses (1) what U.S. rule of law assistance has helped each country achieve, (2) what factors have affected implementation of reforms in the respective criminal justice systems, and (3) how U.S. missions in each country plan and coordinate their rule of law assistance programs.

GAO noted that: (1) based on GAO's review of program documentation and evaluations, interviews with U.S. and host country officials and nongovernmental interest groups, and selected site visits, GAO determined that U.S. rule of law assistance has helped these countries undertake legal and institutional judicial reforms, improve the capabilities of the police and other law enforcement institutions, and increase citizen access to the justice system; (2) for example: (a) with the Agency for International Development's (AID) assistance, Colombia, El Salvador, and Guatemala revised criminal codes and have trained judges, prosecutors, and other justice officials in how to implement them; (b) the Department of Justice helped police forces make the transition from military to civilian control in El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, and Panama and has provided assistance to law enforcement institutions in all countries in administration, investigations, forensics, and related matters; and (c) AID helped create local justice centers in Colombia and Guatemala where citizens could arbitrate disputes and obtain legal advice; based on the popularity of pilot projects in these two countries, the governments are establishing centers in other locations; (3) the five countries GAO visited are in various stages of reforming their criminal justice systems, but reforms in all of them have been affected by a number of challenges and constraints; (4) these include institutional weaknesses, limited resources, lingering resistance to reforms, corruption, and widespread crime; (5) host government officials and legal experts noted that continued assistance from the international community is needed to help encourage host governments to devote the necessary resources to enact, implement, and maintain justice reforms; (6) they also emphasized that lasting reform of criminal justice systems is a long-term effort that requires a sustained host government commitment; (7) U.S. missions in the five countries GAO visited had country teams as well as rule of law teams, headed by the Ambassador, that planned and coordinated U.S. rule of law activities; (8) the Ambassador or Deputy Chief of Mission normally chaired regularly scheduled meetings with these teams to help ensure that program duplication and other conflicts did not occur; (9) GAO identified no instances of duplication of efforts or conflicting activities among agencies; and (10) U.S. agencies also coordinated their rule of law activities with host country counterparts and with other donors to help ensure that country needs were addressed.

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