Authorities in Honduras have accused dozens of officials and collaborators of diverting millions of dollars of public money for political purposes, including to fund President Juan Orlando Hernández's 2013 campaign. But the explosive allegations are likely to generate strong pushback from the suspects and their allies, potentially hindering the progress of the case.
On June 13, as part of a corruption investigation dubbed the “Pandora Case,” prosecutors from a special unit of Honduras’ Attorney General’s Office and the internationally-backed Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) presented the country's Supreme Court with information about 38 government officials and other individuals accused of misusing more than 282 million lempiras (nearly $12 million) of government funds.
Those accused allegedly stole public funds destined for agricultural development projects, which they then funneled through various foundations and non-governmental organizations before using the money for political purposes.
Part of the funds allegedly helped finance a program tauted by then-candidate Hernández in 2013 called the "Cachureca Card." ("Cachureca" is Honduran slang meaning politically conservative.) The program allowed cardholders to recieve sizeable discounts at participating businesses.
Other funds were siphoned off to support political campaigns for the opposition Liberal Party and another smaller party known as the Broad Front.
Prosecutors did not make the names of the suspects public, but local media reports suggest those implicated may include a number of congressmen from Hernández's National Party and a former Liberal Party presidential candidate, among others.
The National Party responded to the accusations by stating the party would cooperate with the investigation but that the "responsibility is individual."
In comments reported by La Prensa, President Hernández said that, “It is essential that justice is served. Nobody is above the law, but as well as the principle of the rule of law, the principle of innocence is what we should all look for."
The latest allegations come after Hernández was declared the winner of a November 2017 election strongly questioned by the opposition and international observers due to credible indications of fraud.
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Elites in Central America have recently been waging an all-out offensive against anti-corruption efforts for some time, and it’s unclear how far the case against Hernández and other officials in Honduras will be able to progress in the face of this onslaught.
Charles Call, the head of American University's special research team on MACCIH and anti-impunity efforts in Honduras, told InSight Crime that it's "too early to tell ... what the implications of this case are going to be."
However, he noted that past experience suggests elites aligned against anti-corruption efforts may be able to stall the case.
"The courts and Congress have found ways to get around these types of indictments in the past, and it's possible they might do that again," Call said.
Christine Wade, a Central America expert and political science professor at Washington College, told InSight Crime that it’s “difficult to be optimistic” about the future of anti-corruption efforts in Honduras.
“Over the past several years, elites in Honduras have had nothing but disdain for the MACCIH and have tried to completely undermine its investigatory capacity,” Wade said.
Indeed, lawmakers recently attacked the constitutionality of the MACCIH. While the Supreme Court later ruled the body to be constitutional, the decision also restricted collaboration between the MACCIH and a special unit the body works with to build corruption cases, which could undermine the effectiveness of the anti-graft body all together.
Legislators in Honduras also passed a reform earlier this year dubbed an “impunity pact,” which essentially robbed the Attorney General’s Office of the ability to effectively investigate the misuse of public funds.
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However, Eric Olson, the director of the Woodrow Wilson Center's Latin American program, told InSight Crime that it's important to recognize that the MACCIH and the Attorney General's Office decided to go forward with the investigation despite these obstacles.
"The scenario is incredibly adverse for the Attorney General's Office and anti-corruption efforts in Honduras, but they've taken the step anyway," Olson said.
All of this comes in the context of growing concern among civil society organizations regarding the country’s anti-corruption drive as the selection of a new attorney general approaches later this year. The MACCIH is also still without a permanent leader after the February resignation of Juan Jiménez Mayor due to what he said was a lack of institutional support.
In addition, President Hernández is one of the United States' closest allies in Central America. Washington has continued to support him amid other corruption allegations, which has given him some political cover from multiple swirling scandals.
Both Olson and Wade agreed that the latest corruption investigation will likely hit a number of roadblocks. According to Wade, "elites in Honduras have little to no interest in prosecuting themselves."