MIAMI — It was a bright Saturday in December 1994 when hemispheric leaders who gathered for the First Summit of the Americas stood for a photo in the Vizcaya gardens in Miami with stiff smiles and a formal wave.
With a dash of their pens, the majority of the region's 34 leaders signed what was billed as the world's first international agreement to stop corruption. They vowed to combat widespread political thievery with every resource at their disposal -- and they put it in writing.
Fifteen years later, almost a dozen who signed the anti-corruption pact in Miami or in subsequent years are in prison, under indictment, or spent years dodging criminal charges of corruption or violation of human rights. From Panama to Peru and Paraguay, the Western Hemisphere presidents have battled accusations of embezzlement, money laundering and even murder.
While seeing leaders who signed precedent-setting declarations against corruption fall to criminal charges themselves is rich with irony, experts agree: The 1994 summit in Miami made it happen.
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"In 1994, 'corruption' was a bad word,'' said Washington-based political scientist Gerardo Berthin, who designs good governance and transparency programs throughout the hemisphere. "Nobody would accept that corruption existed. One of the successes of that summit was that it put the word out there. [Peruvian President Alberto] Fujimori was just sentenced. Ten years ago, that was unthinkable.''
Earlier this week, Peru's Supreme Court sentenced the 70-year-old former agronomy professor to 25 years in prison for authorizing massacres that left 25 people dead. He was also convicted of the 1992 kidnappings of a journalist and businessman.
President from 1990 to 2000, Fujimori left office abruptly amid a corruption scandal related to the sale of weapons to Colombian guerrillas, engineered by his top intelligence advisor, Vladimiro Montesinos.
A newspaper investigation also disclosed that Fujimori's reelection campaign had created ''a human factory'' that falsified signatures to register the campaign in the electoral process.
His conviction would not have occurred without the help of Japan and Chile, two countries where he had fled while on the run, experts say. That international cooperation was one of the many byproducts of the Organization of American States' Inter-American Convention Against Corruption, the action plan hatched two years after the 1994 declaration was signed, said Joseph Tulchin, a senior scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center and author of Corruption in Latin America.
''With the summit, corruption became an international issue. Spain indicted [Chilean dictator] Augusto Pinochet. Japan and Chile helped boot Fujimori,'' Tulchin said. "You've got corruption -- that's bad. The fact you have efforts to control it has to be taken as a good.''
Experts say the summit was significant because it was the first time the world took a regional multilateral approach to ending what had long been accepted as a cost of doing business.
''The fact that some of these leaders have been identified as having engaged in corrupt practices I think is a positive thing -- it shows the capabilities of democracies in the region to address corruption,'' said Thomas Shannon, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State.
In the mid-1990s, many Latin American countries were new democracies only recently learning how to investigate leaders.
Democracy plus the OAS action plan created the atmosphere to battle everything from misuse of funds to favoritism.
''What used to be perfectly OK with a wink and a nod was suddenly prohibited,'' said retired U.S. State Department official Richard Werksman, who was the first American representative to the committee charged with following up on the OAS convention.
It created an annual corruption review for countries with published reports and input from nongovernmental groups. Countries shared investigative technologies and started putting their financial budgets on the Web.
In 2001, they created a mechanism to follow up on results.
''I wish I could point to someone in jail and follow the trail right back to the convention that was signed. Can't do it,'' Werksman said. "But it's hard to believe Fujimori would be where he is now if it was not for this movement the anti-corruption convention was part of. I will never accept that this effort was for naught.''