The announcement by the administration of President Juan Orlando Hernández that a regional anti-corruption commission in Honduras will not continue marks the coup de grace for a body that had little chance of retaining its power after getting in the way of the country’s elites, including the president.
The Organization of American States (OAS) also confirmed the end of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras - MACCIH) after negotiators with OAS and the Honduran government failed to reach an agreement to renew the MACCIH's mandate, according to January 17 news release.
Last December, congress voted to recommend that the MACCIH be discontinued, claiming that the mission had exceeded its powers and had violated the constitution. Several congressmen who voted in favor of disbanding had come under investigation by the Attorney General’s Office, with assistance from the MACCIH.
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The OAS said that the sticking point in the negotiations was the government's unwillingness to allow MACCIH's continued collaboration with the Attorney General's Special Prosecutor’s Unit Against Impunity and Corruption (Unidad Fiscal Especial Contra la Impunidad de la Corruption – UFECIC).
Two sources with knowledge about the negotiations, who spoke with InSight Crime on condition of anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the proceedings, said that reforms to UFECIC, which worked with MACCIH to bring major corruption cases against powerful officials, dominated the talks leading up to the January 19 deadline for the MACCIH's renewal.
High-profile investigations spearheaded by the anti-corruption unit included the Pandora case, which accused 38 people, including officials from both the National and Liberal parties, of diverting some $12 million from Honduras’ treasury. The cash pilfered from the government's coffers went to President Juan Orlando Hernández's initial presidential campaign in 2013, while first lady, Ana García de Hernández, was linked to a company implicated in the case.
According to one of the sources consulted, in the absence of an agreement on UFECIC, the negotiation between the Hernández administration and the OAS stagnated and eventually imploded.
In the wake of MACCIH's end, the fate of UFECIC is also unclear. Honduran Congressman Tomas Zambrano said that MACCIH's disbandment also ends the special prosecutor's unit, according to El Tiempo. But law experts explained that the unit does not depend on MACCIH and UFECIC head, Luis Javier Santos, said it will continue with its investigations, El Heraldo reported.
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MACCIH’s demise seems to be the logical end of the road for the mission, which always was caught between the Honduran State's reluctance to give the regional anti-corruption body too much power and its international sponsors -- particularly the OAS and the US government -- which wanted to see MACCIH have independence and staying power.
Even negotiations in 2015 to create MACCIH were exceptionally difficult. The Honduran delegation refused to agree to international investigators assisting the Attorney General’s Office with complex investigations, calling for the mission to have technical advisory capabilities only.
The Honduran government only acceded after pressure from the administration of President Barack Obama and both Republican and Democratic senators in Washington. These later earmarked important economic aid packets for Central America’s Northern Triangle countries to support anti-corruption efforts like MACCIH and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala - CICIG).
Once in place in 2016, MACCIH was immediately beset by problems. It had to fundraise on the fly; its Honduras-based leaders did not have total control over the staffing decisions; and it was “highly dependent” on Honduras' attorney general, according to a 2018 report by American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS).
In February 2018, about two years after the MACCIH's creation, its head, judge Juan Jiménez of Peru, resigned. In his resignation letter, he said that the anti-corruption mission faced limited resources and interference by the Honduran congress, which passed a law effectively shielding officials from corruption investigations. Jiménez also claimed that OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro put political interests ahead of the MACCIH, leading to a public spat between the two men.
Despite these obstacles, the MACCIH has managed to take on high-profile corruption cases. For example, it helped secure the conviction of former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, the wife of disgraced former President Porfirio Lobo, on charges of fraud and embezzlement. The Pandora case, however, stagnated and foundered.
According to the OAS news release, in the four years it was in operation, the MACCIH aided in the prosecution of 133 people and 14 cases.
MACCIH's dissolution does not bode well for the fight against corruption in a region beset by graft. It comes after Guatemala's CICIG shut its doors in September 2019. The United Nations-backed anti-graft body, whose success provided a blueprint for the creation of MACCIH, had come under fire by political and business elites who were being investigated for corruption.
Meanwhile, Hernández was always noncommittal in throwing executive support behind MACCIH's renewal. After the OAS provided a report in early December that recommended continuing MACCIH, Hernández responded that he'd wait until negotiations in January to provide the government's position. When the negotiations failed, the announcement came from Honduras' secretary of foreign affairs.
After the MACCIH's termination, President Hernández said his government was still committed to fighting corruption.
Given the Honduran government’s track record, the reluctance on the part of the Northern Triangle governments to investigate their political allies' corruption, and the United States' current passivity on the issue, Hernandez's statements ring hollow for critics who largely blame him and other officials for MACCIH's demise.
As in its neighboring countries, Honduras has once again been left on its own to take on corruption, if it even chooses to do so at all.