Among Apparent Rampant Corruption in the Region, El Salvador Ranks Surprisingly Low

The second part of USAID’s survey on the political culture of Latin America examined the effects of crime and corruption on democracy. As trust is a necessary facet of democracy, fear of violence and a lack of confidence in the police or other public officials are detrimental to its development.

When survey respondents were asked about their perception of personal security, 44% of Salvadorans reported feeling “somewhat” to “very” unsafe, the third highest level of insecurity in the Americas, ranking behind only Peru and Argentina. El Salvador also has one of the highest rates of violence in the Americas, so these results aren’t surprising. In fact, these abstract perceptions of insecurity are approximately in line with the crime respondents have actually experienced: 38.6% of households report having at least one member who was a victim of violent crime in the past 12 months (crimes specifically mentioned in the survey question are robbery, burglary, assault, fraud, blackmail, extortion, and violent threats). This rate places El Salvador in the group of countries with the highest levels of victimization, on par with Mexico and Venezuela – an alarming place to be. Generally, the young, the wealthy, and those who live in urban metropolitan areas are most likely to be victimized, though citizens with greater economic problems also report high levels. USAID interviewers further found that respondents in neighborhoods with gang presence (pandillas) were more likely to have been victimized, though it is impossible to determine from these data whether this is causation or simply coincidence.

After discussing crime, survey questions turned to the issue of corruption. When asked directly how common it was for public officials to be corrupt, 66.7% of Salvadoran respondents answered that it was “common” or “very common,” a decline from 2008, and only 8.2% believe the problem of corruption is non-existent. Though at first glance these rates may seem high, it’s important to note that this is the 2nd lowest rate of perceived corruption in Latin America, lower even than that of the United States (69.9% of U.S. respondents think corruption is common practice in the country). Furthermore, only 11.4% of Salvadorans polled said they had been victims of corruption: again, one of the lowest levels in Latin America. These numbers would appear to be heartening, but given what we know about El Salvador, they are mostly just perplexing.  Nor do the results match up with other surveys, such as Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, which places El Salvador more moderately, as the 16th most corrupt country in the region (out of 28).  According to Transparency International’s metrics, corruption in El Salvador definitely exceeds levels in the US, Chile, Costa Rica and Brazil, among others.

It is difficult to determine whether these responses of perceived corruption correspond to the real levels.  Any number of factors can influence the accuracy of responses, be it a misformulation of the survey questions, the well-known ‘honeymoon period’ of recently elected President Funes, who still enjoys a 72% approval rate, or the simple subtlety of corruption.  A cultural accustom to corruption, along with differing personal definitions of the term can greatly affect the public’s perception.  On the other hand, since there is no way to measure the actual level of corruption in a country, there is no evidence contrary to the survey’s results.  The level of perceived corruption could very well be an accurate representation of the level of practiced corruption.  Also, the percentage of those who perceive the country to be corrupt, puzzlingly, seems to be lower than that of those who note that police don’t protect their citizens.  Many people would consider corruption to be a factor in situations where police fall short of their responsibilities.

Perhaps this is because corruption motivated by power is inherently harder to measure than that motivated by money. Even financially-motivated corruption, however, is much more complex than the survey implies.  The only question used to assess the entire culture of actual (rather than perceived) corruption is about authority figures asking law-abiding citizens for bribes. This is where the survey’s information most significantly falls short of a full investigation of the issue.  Corruption is more than actions, it is a culture.  When it takes hold of a society, it builds impunity and a weak rule of law, which erode democratic values.

If the perception of corruption is so low, relative to the other nations in the region, then the lack of respect for the law is puzzlingly high. More than 52% of interviewed Salvadorans agree that officials would be justified in occasionally acting outside of the law in order to catch a criminal, giving El Salvador the 2nd lowest population support for rule of law. Moreover, just over 50% of citizens say that a coup d’état would be justified in conditions of high crime and high corruption.

Overall, the seemingly low level of perceived corruption relative to other nations in the region is promising.  Although the true level of corruption is extremely important to the success of a democratic system, the public’s perception of corruption is also important.  The more corrupt the public views the government, the less trust people have for the government, which eventually destabilizes democracy.  The public’s optimistic attitude towards the level of corruption implies a certain level of trust in the government’s democratic system.

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