TEPIC, Mexico, Oct 9 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Roughly one in three people in Latin America paid a bribe last year to a public employee, from corrupt police to teachers and hospital workers, said a report released on Monday.
Most people in the region say corruption is on the rise, and those most likely to have paid off officials were residents of Mexico and the Dominican Republic, said the study by Transparency International, a Berlin-based anti-corruption group.
Using results of a survey conducted in 20 Latin American and Caribbean countries, Transparency International estimates more than 90 million people paid a bribe last year in the region.
But due to the threat of violent retaliation, only one in 10 reported it to authorities, it said.
"Bribery represents a means for enrichment of the few, and a significant barrier to accessing key public services, particularly for the most vulnerable in society," said Jose Ugaz, chairman of Transparency International, in a statement.
"Governments must do more to root out corruption at all levels, especially in law enforcement agencies, which should play a key role in fighting impunity," he said.
While people across the board paid bribes, poorer people were hit hardest because graft took a larger share of their incomes, the report said.
In Mexico, 51 percent of people said they had to pay a bribe over the last year, followed by 46 percent in the Dominican Republic and 39 percent in Peru, it found.
About 60 percent of people surveyed said they thought corruption had risen over the last year.
In Brazil, rocked by the "Car Wash" scandal that uncovered billions of dollars in bribes paid to politicians and state-run enterprises for lucrative contracts, more than three-quarters of people thought corruption was increasing.
Majorities in Venezuela, Chile and Peru also said corruption is on the rise, it found.
Police and politicians ranked as the most corrupt officials by nearly half of those surveyed. Three-quarters of Venezuelans said their police are highly corrupt, as did nearly 70 percent of Paraguayans surveyed.
One in five people said they paid bribes to workers in hospitals and schools, the sectors seen as the biggest bribe risks, while payoffs to court officials were highest in Venezuela and Honduras, said the report.
More than half of those surveyed said their governments were doing poorly in the fight against corruption.
To address the issue, developing more government systems online would help by reducing the amount of direct contact people have with officials, the report said.
Also, clearly displaying fees and streamlining processes to keep officials from making discretionary decisions may stop them from demanding bribes, it said.
Protecting whistleblowers and eliminating immunity from prosecution for politicians would help as well, it said.
Reporting by Sophie Hares, Editing by Ellen Wulfhorst.
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