Upending Impunity: Explaining Post-Tenure Presidential Prosecutions in Latin America

Gretchen Helmke | Professor, University of Rochester

Monday, November 2, 2020 12:15 PM



In contemporary Latin America roughly one-third of all democratically-elected leaders are prosecuted by their successors for corruption after leaving office. Drawing on a simple reciprocity game, we argue that upending impunity depends more on the predecessors’ capacity for retaliation than on conventional rule of law considerations, or on the successors’ desire to use the law opportunistically to weed out future political competitors. We then exploit an original dataset on extended post-tenure fates to show that presidential prosecutions in Latin America correlate with two types of political shocks: irregular presidential exits and the election of political outsiders. Such relationships remain robust whether the successor is from an opposition party, the courts enjoy independence, or previous leaders were especially corrupt. To explore whether the correlates of selective accountability that we uncover are causal, we instrument for domestic political shocks with an index of international commodity prices and U.S. interest rates.