The future looks much dimmer in Honduras today after President Juan Orlando Hernandez failed to prevent the demise of the country’s anti-corruption mechanism known as the MACCIH.
Despite one of the highest homicide rates in the region, violent gangs, chronic poverty and deep inequality, widespread perceptions of corruption, and the highest rates of migration in Central America, Honduras had shown some glimmers of hope thanks to the MACCIH.
The MACCIH was an innovative anti-corruption mechanism stitched together by the Honduran government and the Organization of American States, with help from civil society, to support the Honduran justice system in investigating and prosecuting the widespread corruption in their country. Its work began in January 2016 under a cloud of suspicion.
It did not enjoy the same authorities and independence of a similar UN-sponsored mechanism in Guatemala – CICIG – that in 2015 brought down a sitting president and vice president. But the MACCIH and its team of international investigators and prosecutors moved quickly to establish a new circuit of anti-corruption courts within the Honduran judiciary, as well as a special prosecutor’s unit, known as the UFECIC, to handle highly sensitive corruption cases.
Both the MACCIH and UFECIC faced enormous challenges from the outset but ultimately brought 14 major cases involving 133 individuals, including more than 80 politicians and government officials. By Honduran standards, and even compared to the CICIG, this was a remarkable feat since almost no one previously had been held accountable for corruption in Honduras. MACCIH and UFECIC slowly gained the admiration and support of an otherwise divided civil society. According to a recent survey, 75 percent of Hondurans support the MACCIH’s continued efforts in the country.
But success also brought a backlash from powerful and corrupt forces within and outside of government. Investigators uncovered extensive networks of corruption within the country’s Congress.
Politicians of all stripes were implicated in schemes to launder government money through bogus non-profits that would line their pockets. A former Honduran President, Pepe Lobo whom the United States backed in the post-coup period in 2009 and 2010, was implicated in extensive corruption, and his wife was sentenced to 58 years in prison for, among other things, stealing from a special fund for school children in her impoverished nation.
The family of current President Juan Orlando Hernandez is also under investigation by the MACCIH and UFECIC, and this past October his brother was convicted in a U.S. federal court for conspiracy to import cocaine to the United States. The President was named an unindicted co-conspirator in the case. Throughout, the Honduran Congress, lead by the National Party, moved to blunt the MACCIH’s work and shield themselves from further investigation and prosecution.
Not surprisingly, then, when it came time to renew the MACCIH’s mandate the Congress recommended against it. Under enormous political pressure from his political party, and swirling allegations of corruption in his family, President Hernandez pressed for a much watered down MACCIH with no teeth to conduct investigations or prosecutions with the UFECIC. Just hours before the MACCIH’s four-year mandate was to expire on January 19th, talks to renew and extend the mandate collapsed and the MACCIH was dealt a deathblow.
The United States also bears some responsibility because of its confusing messages to the Honduran government. Where United States policy was once clear and consistent in its support for the MACCIH, more recently the U.S. has signaled greater concern about Honduras’s cooperation in stopping irregular migration than fighting corruption.
The visit of Acting DHS Secretary Chad Wolf to Honduras last week and his full-throated endorsement of Hernandez flew in the face of far less visible efforts in the State Department to support the MACCIH’s renewal. Furthermore, the Trump Administration’s decision to freeze aid to Honduras in 2019 meant the U.S. had almost no leverage on the issue of the MACCIH.
Efforts to fight corruption in Honduras have been undermined and impunity is likely to continue into the foreseeable future. Immediate steps need to be taken to support the brave Honduran investigators, prosecutors, and judges who stuck their necks out to hold corrupt politicians accountable. Bipartisan members of Congress have raised the alarm as well. Here are a few suggestions for the road ahead:
1) Honduras must move immediately to protect Honduran members of the MACCIH and UFECIC who may be at serious risk of reprisals when the OAS pulls up stakes after January 19th. Diplomatic immunity will have ended, and security details withdrawn.
2) The Attorney General, head of an independent branch of government, announced last week that he would create a new anti-corruption unit to absorb the UFECIC’s staff and continue to work on the corruption cases already under investigation. This is a risky but positive development that the international community should support by reaching bilateral agreements to provide technical and financial support, and buffering him from political pressures within Honduras.
3) Civil society groups and independent investigative journalists have to re-double their efforts to hold the government accountable through their own investigations and advocacy and the US and other donors should back them.
4) The United States must recognize that systemic corruption weakens democratic institutions which leads to greater insecurity, greater distrust in government, and undermines the economy – all factors in people’s decisions to migrate. Corruption also feeds the cartels and transnational criminal gangs who endanger the region and our own citizens. To elevate “safe third country agreements” above the fight against corruption is to shoot oneself in the foot.
Finally, we have learned some important lessons in this latest battle. Rebuilding state legitimacy is extremely difficult, especially when the state is infected with systemic corruption. We know from the Honduras and Guatemala experiences that it’s not simply a matter of prosecuting a few rotten apples.
To reestablish the rule of law and end impunity requires a sustained effort. To do so is in the national interest of Honduras, the Northern Triangle, and ultimately the United States.
This is the way to restore light and a little hope for Central America.