New TraCCC fellowship aims to strengthen democracy, fight corruption in three Central American countries

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The Terrorism, Transnational Crime and Corruption Center (TraCCC) at George Mason University has received $9.9 million to establish a unique fellowship that will provide nationals from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras critical tools to help strengthen democracy and fight corruption in their home countries.

Louise Shelley
TraCCC founder and director Louise Shelley. Photo by Alexis Glenn

The Democracy and Anti-Corruption Defenders Fellowship, part of a multi-donor and multi-institutional effort that includes the U.S. government, will begin in the summer of 2023 and run through September 2025. Three cohorts of 20 fellows each will include those who have worked in either the public sector, independent media, and/or civil society in their respective countries.

The fellowship will be conducted in Spanish at Mason Square in Arlington, Costa Rica’s University of Peace, with which TraCCC has had a long-standing relationship, and online for those who cannot attend at those locations.

“At this point, this is only for people from El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras,” said Louise Shelley, a University Professor at Mason and TraCCC’s founder and director. “They are the ones where there has been a serious erosion of the rule of law and the back-sliding of democracy.”

The fellowship is just right for Mason, a university committed to solving the world’s grand challenges by nurturing critical thinkers and fearless leaders. TraCCC already has an international reputation for understanding the links between terrorism, transnational crime, and corruption, and helping to formulate policy on those issues.

“I’m confident it will be highly consequential,” Mason Provost Mark Ginsberg said of the fellowship, “as it will strengthen the expertise and capacities of champions of democracy and anti-corruption who are vitally important for preserving the rule of law in the region.”

Claudia Escobar Mejía, a Distinguished Visiting Professor in Mason’s Schar School of Policy and Government, and co-director of the fellowship with Camilo Pardo-Herrera, a senior analyst at TraCCC, said the fellowships are in two parts.

Mason Square with signage
Mason Square is one of the sites where these international fellows will received training and mentoring. Photo by Ron Aira/Creative Services

The first includes a seminar series focused on the three pillars of the fellowship: institutions, anti-corruption, and democracy.

There will be opportunities for fellows to examine transnational crime, including money laundering and corruption networks, and how investigative journalists and other actors can work collectively to combat corruption and support transitions to democracy. English language instruction will also be offered to all fellows.

The second part of the fellowships include an anti-corruption lab intended to produce deliverables that propose regional solutions in democracy-training and anti-corruption.

Each fellow will have a mentor and opportunities for internships in their particular fields through organizations partnering with TraCCC.

There also will be three gatherings for each cohort: one at Mason Square, one in Costa Rica, and one at the University of Monterrey in Mexico, where the group will be hosted at an annual anti-corruption academic conference.

“They are going to have different experiences in which they are going to build up their capacities to address problems that are really undermining the rule of law and driving migration to the United States,” Escobar Mejía said. “These areas in northern Central America are becoming the hubs of transnational criminal organizations that promote corruption and organized crime. So we’re trying to build their capacities to address problems in the whole region.”

“The important issue is that Mason has a chance to impact significantly in the trajectory of democracy,” said Pardo-Herrera, PhD Public Policy ’19. “We are going to be able to select the best people who really want to have an impact. That is very significant.”

Mason is the natural place for the fellowship to live, Escobar Mejía and Pardo-Herrera said.

Not only is the university close to Washington, D.C., which Escobar Mejía calls “the capital of the international community,” its other academic resources will help TraCCC create new tools for investigations.

In addition, Pardo-Herrera said, “Mason is committed to diversity. Mason is a place where people understand different perspectives, and a place where people can connect to the difficulties of others because of that diversity.”

Bottom line, said Judy Deane, TraCCC’s deputy director, “This fellowship is a practical way of helping individuals who are fighting against corruption and fighting for democracy. In that sense, they are fighting for us.”