Mayor ousted and local school rebuilt after local citizens discover $250,000 “invested” in ghost projects

This story was originally published by Transparency International.

Addressing crowds during campaign season, a local politician in the Chinique de las Flores municipality in Guatemala pledged that if he became mayor, he would make life better for residents.

By investing money into public projects, he promised to fix up a local school that had fallen into disrepair, and make sure children received school meals. When elections came, the crowds stretched far outside the polling booth, winding across the square.

The politician won. But he didn’t keep to his word. A year into his leadership, the school continued to crumble, the food never arrived. According to rumours, the projects hadn’t stalled due to a lack of money. A local person working in the public comptroller’s office claimed the works were marked as completed in official reports. It looked as if the money had been paid out.

Amid growing frustration, residents started to gather for informal meetings in parks and houses. Soon their group swelled to more than 150 people.

They called on the authorities to answer their questions, but there was little response. That’s when they turned to Transparency International’s anti-corruption legal advice centre for support. By offering free legal advice and guidance to the victims and witnesses of corruption, the centres help citizens like these navigate the legal system and demand justice.

After listening to the case, staff from the centre worked with the citizens to comb through public information in a database provided by the government. The full picture came into view. There were over 100 cheques paid out on projects that had no supporting documentation. All payments had been collected and signed for by the mayor himself.

Together, they contacted the public comptroller, calling for a full audit of the mayor’s term in office.

Examining the case, the office confirmed they had found irregularities.

Meanwhile, it was election time again, and the mayor had already presented himself as a candidate. As news of the suspected abuse grew, his popularity plummeted. Yet he still secured a victory. The reason, say the residents, is that he paid neighbouring communities to vote, hiring buses to bring them to the booths.

As outrage grew, the election was annulled and a new vote was held. This time local people positioned themselves at entry points to the town, keeping watch for any incoming buses. The mayor was defeated, and lost his immunity.

The office of the comptroller general charged the mayor with misuse of more than US$250,000 that was allegedly “invested” in ghost projects.

Charged with taking money intended for public purposes, he received a four year prison sentence (or the payment of 25 quetzales a day) and fined 5,000 quetzales. He’s said to have spent six months in jail.

Meanwhile, his successor took office, and made increased government transparency a priority. In 2013, based on judging by the Ministry of Finance, it won a national prize for being among the 10 most transparent municipalities.

It’s a huge victory for the residents, and today they continue to keep watch. “We are a group of men and women who have confronted the irregular practices of a mayor,” one man said. “Now we are awake.”

Key Lessons

  • Citizens should use civil society expertise, such as legal and technical advice, to navigate through the bureaucracy of government processes
  • Even in the smallest communities, citizens can work together to monitor local projects by getting access to local government plans and budgets

Website: http://www.transparency.org