In Paraguay, the phrase "I have a friend" is uttered all too often, often accompanied by a wink and a nod. It’s usually a tip-off that someone in power is ready to break the law. One word for it is corruption, and Paraguay has seen a lot of it: The UN once labeled Paraguay one of the most corrupt countries in Latin America. But it’s happening a lot less these days, thanks to three citizens who decided enough is enough.
In the early 1990’s Carlos Bareiro and two others formed a citizen’s group in their town, made complaints and eventually unseated a dishonest governor. They helped to found another group in another small town, and then they helped to create one in the capital, Asuncion.
Their example inspired 15 other groups, and within a year they had formed a network of Citizen Watchdog groups or Controlarios Ciudadanas. Today, there are over 70 groups across Paraguay, representing every province. The results have been significant; the removal of 20 mayors, the punishment of 4 members of parliament, and the dismissal of over 100 corrupt government employees.
The constitution of Paraguay declares that “sovereignty resides in the people,” but the people must be willing to exercise their rights and their duties as citizens, says Bareiro. Hunger for power is the major culprit in a culture that condones corruption, but citizen apathy is also to blame.
“When Paraguayans finish high school and university they are not aware of what does it means to be a citizen,” he says. Every act of corruption is a crime against the common interest. “Our job is to help them understand that they are responsible for controlling and managing the common interest.”
The groups share information on how to file criminal reports of corruption and help each other to get the word out to the press about corrupt officials. Public shame is a powerful tool for prevention, says Bareiro, “it creates fear of committing acts of corruption.”
If they shame the bad, they also work to spotlight the good. Watchdog groups can make powerful collective statements of support for politicians and judges who demonstrate integrity. Arnaldo Giuzzio is a district attorney whose life was threatened after he began investigating corruption claims. Members organized marches on his behalf and pooled resources to place ads in the paper attesting to his honesty and courage.
“Citizen control changes the culture, which is important,” says Bareiro, “when there is citizen control, corruption decreases.”
What do you think?
The Citizen Watchdogs network hopes to expand to every city in the country and to keep up the pressure on officials to stay honest. Some have asked whether a group that has gained the power to unseat so many public officials doesn’t risk becoming a corruptible power itself. How do they guard against using that power for their own political ends?
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