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Corruption busters



There are no quick fixes, no magic cleaners to get rid of corruption. But the courageous stand of both groups and individuals shows that corruption is not insurmountable.

On a summer’s day in 1992, women in Palermo were hanging out their sheets from their balconies. Nothing unusual about that – except that the sheets were inscribed with anti-mafia slogans. Soon the sheet protest turned into a city-wide demonstration.

The assassination of anti-mafia judges Giovanni Falcone and Paolo Borsellino spurred Sicilian women to action. Not for the first time – ten years earlier widows of judges, lawyers and police chiefs assassinated in the line of duty had formed the Association of Women Against the Mafia. They sent a delegation to the Government in Rome to demand action, winning much popular sympathy and support. But in their mafia-dominated communities the women became increasingly isolated – they lost their jobs, their children were threatened and eventually they had to withdraw.

In 1992 it was different. In the July heat, the women staged a hunger strike in the centre of Palermo and demanded the resignation of ministers who had failed to protect the judges or take any action against their killers. ‘We women felt our responsibility very keenly,’ says Piera Fallucca, a long-term member of the Association of Women Against the Mafia. ‘Men are inside the system of death and violence – it is their system; at that time, women stood outside it. We wanted to break the chain of death and violence... I think we shamed people into taking action.’

Today Sicily is by no means rid of the mafia – but the mafia is more vulnerable to prosecution. After countless arrests and trials, many leading figures are now behind bars. Mafia killings are no longer front-page news every day. And the widely held view that mafia control of Sicily is cultural and inevitable has been challenged.

A number of different groups helped bring about this change. Inspired police and judicial investigators networked globally in a collaborative effort to follow ‘dirty’ money. They managed to ‘turn’ witnesses and uncover evidence of criminality. Sustaining these efforts was the movimento antimafia, a multi-faceted social movement whose citizens poured time and energy into promoting the values of democracy and civility.

The improvements are visible. Palermo is a cleaner, safer and better-run city than it was 10 or 20 years ago. Another indicator: photographer Letizia Battaglia, celebrated for her pictures of mafia violence, says she is now looking for new themes for her work.


Cleaning up the Buenos Aires provincial police force – _el Bonaerense_ – is a Herculian task. This particular police force, Argentina’s largest, has an exceptionally dirty history. Apart from mundane corruption, it was heavily involved in the torture and the disappearance of some 30,000 people during military rule from 1976 to 1982. Not for nothing does the human rights group, the Mothers of the Plaza Mayo claim: ‘Assassins are walking the streets of Buenos Aires’.

The force’s present day record is not too good either. El Bonaerense – brought under the international spotlight by the Pablo Trapero film of the same name – remains one of the most violent and corrupt of police forces. It still murders people and its members still enjoy lucrative deals involving Argentina’s most powerful political bosses.

Street protests against the police are frequent. And despite death threats to his own family, Argentine President Néstor Kirchner has vowed to tackle corruption in the force. The President is serious: some 119 high-ranking police were dismissed in April this year – the first time senior staff have been purged. The officers are accused of a number of crimes, but corruption and working with criminal gangs are the most prevalent. The purge is part of an ongoing attempt to put an end to a generation of self-styled chieftains within the Bonaerense. People with a more scientific background have already replaced some senior officers who had risen through the ranks, in an attempt to modernize. All of which helps improve the force’s image – but it may take a lot more than that before sceptical Argentines can begin to trust their police.


It takes courage and determination to fight corruption. Often those doing so put themselves at great personal risk. Here are a few of the winners of the Integrity Awards that the anti-corruption NGO Transparency International confers annually.

Dora Nkem Akunyili, a Nigerian pharmacologist, defied death threats while tackling corrupt practices in the manufacturing, import and export of drugs, cosmetics and food products. As Director General of Nigeria’s National Agency for Food and Drug Administration and Control she earned nationwide respect for her persistence in prosecuting illegal drug traders and in imposing strict standards on multinational companies. In particular, she has pursued manufacturers and importers of counterfeit drugs, deemed to be a leading cause of deaths by stroke and heart failure in Nigeria. Counterfeit drugs worth an estimated US$16 million have been confiscated and destroyed, and in the process the lives of thousands of innocent Nigerians have been saved.

Khairiansyah Salman is an auditor at the Supreme Audit Agency in Indonesia who revealed grand corruption in the procurement activities of the General Election Commission and then exposed the bribery of the Commission’s members. His actions enabled the Corruption Eradication Commission to uncover a $2.1 million scandal in the General Electoral Commission which involved virtually all of its members.

Eva Joly is seen as the leader of a new breed of judges who have not shied away from calling to account crooked business people and the French political élite, including such figures as Roland Dumas and Bernard Tapie. She was propelled into the limelight by her seven-year investigation of the Elf-Aquitaine oil company scandal during which she was subjected to intimidation and death threats and remained under constant police protection. Joly has investigated financial crime in France with unprecedented zeal, ending a tradition of not treating high-class financial wrongdoings as crimes at all.

Milica Bisic fearlessly took on corruption in the tax system of the Republic of Srpska (former Yugoslavia), clamping down on those benefiting from the shadow economy by refusing to pay their share of taxes. For the first time the economics professor and former Head of the Tax Administration forced large businesses to pay. Many have since been charged with tax evasion. Dr Bisic has implemented a series of administrative and legal reforms that will have a lasting impact and give citizens some faith in the tax system.

Naftali Lagat, a Kenyan police constable, was on duty at the airport one night in 1991 when a director of Goldenberg International arrived, carrying a suitcase full of gold. Constable Lagat bravely refused orders from senior officials whom he suspected of trying to cover up illegal actions. Even after he was forced to appear before the Criminal Investigations Department the constable did not budge, refusing to give in to corrupt officials as he felt that he would be breaking the rules. It turned out that he had helped uncover one of the country’s biggest corruption scandals.


For years child-abusing priests have got away with it because their churches were more concerned with protecting the institution and its clergy than protecting children. But today the Catholic Church is having its confidence – and its coffers – shaken like never before by sex-abuse survivors, their families and even in some cases, governments.

In Ireland a 2005 official government inquiry identified more than 100 allegations of child sexual abuse made between 1962 and 2002 against 21 priests operating under the aegis of the Diocese of Ferns. As a result of the Ferns Inquiry hundreds of survivors came forward and spoke out for the first time about their experiences. This year the campaign group One in Four collated data revealing that 38 Dublin parishes harboured paedophile priests who preyed on children.

Meanwhile, in Milwaukee in the US State of Wisconsin, the family of Dan O’Connell – killed by Rev Ryan Erickson, a priest he accused of child sex abuse – were having their calls for reform ignored by the church. In August 2006 they took the US Council of Catholic Bishops to court, naming almost 200 bishops. The family filed an unprecedented lawsuit, which asks for the names and locations of some 5,000 clergy accused of molesting children, so they can publicize the list. They say the list is known only to the church. No one has successfully sued the Vatican as a whole over sexual abuse by priests but individual dioceses, especially in the US, have had to pay out large settlements.

Whistleblowers within the Catholic church are few, but Father Tom Doyle is one notable exception. Doyle was a Vatican lawyer until he was sacked for criticizing the church’s handling of child abuse claims. This year he took part in a BBC TV _Panorama_ programme that examined a secret document instructing bishops on how to deal with sex abuse scandals: it included an ‘oath of secrecy’ – or ‘cover-up’ in layperson’s terms – enforceable by excommunication. The Cardinal responsible for enforcing the 2001 document was one Joseph Ratzinger – the current Pope.

Father Doyle says: ‘What you have here is an explicit written policy to cover up cases of child sexual abuse by the clergy and to punish those who would call attention to these crimes by the churchmen. When abusive priests are discovered, the response has been not to investigate and prosecute but to move them from one place to another [giving them]... a whole new crop of victims in the next place. This is happening all over the world.’

New Internationalist issue 396 magazine cover This article is from the December 2006 issue of New Internationalist.
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