WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas

(AP Photo/Fernando Antonio)

15 Jan 2020 | Commentary

Q&A: The Threats Facing Honduras’s Fight Against Corruption

By Elyssa Pachico, Adriana Beltrán, and Adeline Hite

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has until January 19 to decide whether or not to renew the mandate of internationally-backed anti-corruption initiative the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH, by its Spanish acronym). His administration has been in talks with the MACCIH’s primary backer, the Organization of American States (OAS), over whether the initiative will continue operating in Honduras after its mandate officially expires on April 19, and under what terms. In December 2019, the board established by the Honduran government and the OAS to evaluate MACCIH recommended its full renewal. 

Renewal of the mandate can be done through an exchange of letters between the executive branch and the OAS Secretary General. The delays in renewing the mission’s mandate have raised concerns that the Honduran government may be seeking to limit the powers of the mission and its ability to help investigate entrenched corruption. 

Should any elements of the original 2016 agreement establishing the MACCIH change, it will have to go back to the Honduran Congress for approval. And given that a majority in the Honduran Congress has already recommended that the MACCIH’s mandate should not be renewed, there’s a possibility that lawmakers will reject any agreement that doesn’t essentially render the mission ineffective. 

As the Honduran Congress has consistently blocked the MACCIH’s attempts at reforms, and sought to pass a series of laws that essentially shield public officials from being investigated for corruption, it is evident that segments of the legislature have a strong interest in hindering rather than advancing anti-corruption efforts. This context is why Honduran civil society, with support from a bipartisan group of U.S. Members of Congress, are pressing for the renewal of the original 2016 agreement without alterations.

In order for anti-corruption efforts in Honduras to continue advancing, the MACCIH’s mandate must be renewed with its full authorities. Honduran civil society and international stakeholders will play a crucial role in pushing to overturn the recent laws upholding impunity. 

The following Q&A provides facts and context essential for understanding the MACCIH’s role and impact in combating corruption in Honduras, the troubling legislative agenda pushed by the Honduran Congress, and what potential there is for the U.S. government to play a more productive role in advancing anti-corruption efforts in Honduras. 

1.) Why was the MACCIH established, and what does it do?

The MACCIH was created in 2016 in response to a massive corruption scandal, in which public officials embezzled some $355 million from the country’s Institute of Social Security, which provides medical care and pensions, between 2010 and 2014. President Hernández himself admitted to taking some $147,000 of the stolen funds to finance his 2013 presidential campaign. Hondurans took to the streets in weekly demonstrations throughout September 2016, calling for Hernández’s resignation and for the establishment of an anti-corruption mechanism similar to the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

In response to the unrest, the Hernández administration entered into negotiations with the OAS, resulting in the creation of the MACCIH in January 2016. The purpose of the MACCIH is to help local institutions combat corruption and impunity. 

Under the terms of the agreement between the Honduran government and the OAS, the MACCIH cannot instigate criminal investigations or participate as a plaintiff in criminal cases; rather, it supports the work of the Attorney General’s Office, the judiciary, and other local authorities in investigating corruption. In addition to working with local prosecutors, the MACCIH is also supposed to recommend new laws and public policies aimed at strengthening Honduras’s justice system, reform the electoral system, and improve public security.  

2.) What has the MACCIH accomplished? 

During its four years of operation, the MACCIH has:

  • Promoted the creation of a special unit in the Attorney General’s Office dedicated to investigating corruption, the Special Prosecutor’s Unit against Impunity and Corruption (Unidad Fiscal Especial contra la Impunidad y la Corrupción, UFECIC). 
  • In collaboration with the UFECIC , the MACCIH has helped present 11 corruption cases before the Honduran courts, with charges filed against 112 people (including 80 public officials), according to the OAS evaluation board. These cases involve an estimated $16.2 million in embezzled funds. 
  • Worked with prosecutors in landmark corruption cases that implicate a wide range of political and business elites, including former government officials, sitting members of the Honduran Congress, and former presidential candidates. 
  • The largest of the corruption cases yet filed by Honduran prosecutors and the MACCIH, known as the “Pandora” case, saw 38 lawmakers and public officials charged with funneling some $12 million in government funds into election campaigns. As revealed in an investigation by Univision, those indicted in the “Pandora” inquiry may represent just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to corruption schemes that divert public money into political campaigns. Top leaders in the Honduran Congress—including the congressional president, vice president, and secretary—have been linked to shady dealings involving money laundering through sham nonprofits. 
  • Other MACCIH-backed investigations have implicated some of the most powerful people in the country. One investigation ended with a former first lady sentenced to 58 years in prison on corruption charges; another ongoing case involves five legislators from various political parties accused of embezzling hundreds of thousands of dollars in public funds; another investigation involves the hydroelectric megaproject opposed by slain environmental activist Berta Cáceres. MACCIH-backed probes have also resulted in historical outcomes: one case resulted in the first ever conviction for influence peddling, another saw the longest sentence handed down to any public official in recent history. 
  • Promoted the creation of a specialized court system exclusively dedicated to handling corruption cases, making Honduras the second country in Latin America to have created this kind of specialized system. 
  • Recommended at least 10 institutional reforms, covering issues such as campaign finance reform, protections for human rights defenders and journalists, and the facilitation of corruption probes involving high-level public officials. While some of the recommended reforms have passed, most are languishing in the Honduran Congress.

This track record is why Honduran civil society, the European Union, the U.S. State Department, and a bipartisan group of Members of the U.S. Congress have all called for a renewal of the MACCIH mandate. Public opinion in Honduras also favors keeping the MACCIH: 75 percent of respondents in a recent survey said they wanted MACCIH to continue its work.

3.) What have been the obstacles to the MACCIH’s work?

The Honduran Congress has repeatedly impeded the MACCIH’s anti-corruption efforts in the following ways: 

  • Passing laws that disrupt anti-corruption efforts. This includes one piece of legislation that essentially blocks the Attorney General’s Office from investigating cases involving improper use of state funds for up to seven years. Approved reforms to the national penal code reduce sentencing for corruption-related crimes; another reform (currently being challenged in court by the Attorney General’s Office) seeks to reinstall parliamentary immunity for crimes related to legislative functions. 
  • Congress has dragged its feet in terms of debating and approving many of the bills promoted by the MACCIH, including a new legal measures that would empower the Attorney General’s Office to negotiate plea deals with those accused of crimes, offering more lenient sentencing in exchange for substantive information. The draft bill has been before the Honduran Congress since 2017 (see WOLA’s Central America Monitor report for a more in-depth account on the status of legislative proposals backed by the MACCIH).

4.) Why is it critical that the fight against corruption in Honduras continue? 

Corruption is at the heart of Honduras’s poor governance and security problems. Unchecked corruption keeps economic and political power within a small circle of elites, a number of whom work hand in hand with drug trafficking cartels. These ties to drug trafficking organizations extend to the highest levels of power: U.S. prosecutors have convicted President Hernández’s brother of trafficking cocaine. His trial included testimony concerning attempts by Sinaloa Cartel leader “El Chapo” Guzmán to deliver a $1 million bribe to President Hernández via his brother. 

Rampant graft drains state coffers, exacerbates inequality, and neuters the justice system. Corrupt networks protecting their land interests have made Honduras the most dangerous country in the world for environmental activists. 

All this has helped create desperate conditions spurring migration from Honduras: in the last three fiscal years, U.S. authorities have detained just under 400,000 unaccompanied children, families, and single adult migrants from Honduras at the southwest border—about 4 percent of the country’s population. 

5.) How has the U.S. government failed to support anti-corruption efforts in Honduras? 

Rhetoric by U.S. officials frequently paints the Hernández administration as a “strong partner” in the region on migration, security, and drug trafficking issues. But the emphasis on obtaining collaboration from Honduran authorities on the Trump administration’s inhumane migration policies—coupled with various other U.S. policy stances on Honduras—has been unhelpful in terms of advancing strong rule of law in Honduras and addressing issues like corruption that are driving migration. 

There are numerous examples of the Trump administration’s counter-productive and damaging approach. The U.S. government congratulating Hernández on winning the contested 2017 presidential election—despite recognition by the OAS that irregularities had taken place—sent an anti-democratic message to Honduras and the region. Directly after Hernández claimed victory, the U.S. State Department certified that Honduras was making progress on human rights, despite evidence of abuses committed by Honduran security forces in the post-electoral protests. 

The signing of an unworkable asylum agreement with Honduras, which will send asylum seekers from the U.S.-Mexico border back to a country that ranks among the four most violent in Latin America, came at the expense of pushing for stronger anti-corruption efforts. Moments such as President Trump praising Hernández, even as the case against Hernández’s brother revealed the depth of drug-fueled corruption in the country, appeared to signal that the U.S. government is prioritizing acquiescence to a harmful anti-migrant agenda, rather than addressing the systemic corruption that is driving migration. The Trump administration cutting foreign assistance programs to Honduras also undercuts the U.S. government’s interest in tackling the conditions—weak institutions, poverty, insecurity, and climate change—that are forcing people to leave their homes and journey north.

6.) What should the U.S. government do to support anti-corruption efforts?

The U.S. government has a fundamental interest in building a stable, prosperous Honduras, and initiatives like the MACCIH are a critical tool for doing so. The bipartisan support from Congress for a “clean” renewal of the MACCIH’s original mandate should be complemented with diplomacy and rhetoric that makes clear that the U.S. government strongly supports the fight against corruption in Honduras. Another important tool could be the use of the Global Magnitsky Act and other tools to sanction corrupt officials in Honduras, which would send a strong message that those engaging in corruption and working to subvert the rule of law can expect to pay a real price. 

The fight against corruption in Honduras is entering a critical moment. Without an extension of the original 2016 mandate of the MACCIH, and without strong international pressure denouncing the regressive legislative agenda pushed by the Honduran Congress, there is a high risk that effective anti-corruption efforts could suffer a fatal blow.