Latin American Corruption in Geographic Perspective

Barney Warf & Sheridan Stewart


Corruption, the misuse of public office for private gains, is a cancerous phenomenon in Latin America, although it varies widely among countries in the region. This paper opens with a brief review of the causes and consequences of corruption, including the decisive roles of poverty, inequality, illiteracy, democracy, and the media. It then delves into the deep historical roots of corruption in the region, which in some cases extend to the colonial period. The third part offers a series of national vignettes to highlight the spatial unevenness of corruption. Fourth, it assesses Latin American corruption using an index from Transparency International, maps it, and offers some simple correlations to examine its ties to national well-being. The conclusion summarizes the findings and notes the ineffectiveness of anti-corruption campaigns.


Although corruption is a deeply entrenched part of the political economy of most countries, Latin America seems particularly affected by it. Many countries are wracked by periodic corruption scandals, which are typically met by anemic anti-corruption efforts. It is undeniable that corruption is a concern among Latin Americans. For instance, a 2014 Pew Research Center study found that among the nine Latin American countries surveyed, corruption was seen as a “very big problem” by a substantial majority—second overall only to crime (Pew Research Center 2014). Systemic and widespread corruption throughout the region has depressed the sale price of firms (Gaviria 2002), lowered land productivity and accelerated deforestation (Bulte et al. 2007), and undermined the legitimacy of many regimes (Seligson 2002). For many Latin Americans, corrupt police and bureaucrats are accepted facts of life.

Despite the fact that it varies markedly among (and even within) countries, corruption has received little attention from geographers, and few have studied it in the context of Latin America. This paper aims to fill that void. The goal is to ...

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