Honduras' congress has passed a new criminal code that lowers the sentence for corruption and drug trafficking cases, among other controversial measures. The move is poised to worsen impunity in a country whose foremost political figures have been linked to organized crime.
The bill was originally approved in 2019 after remaining in political limbo for four years, but it was suspended after receiving numerous objections from opposition parties and civil society.
A final extension for passing the law was set to expire, but the country's Supreme Court signed off on it last week.
Critics of the new law say it is a tool to help corrupt politicians and criminal allies get lowered sentences or avoid jail altogether.
For Honduras' National Anti-Corruption Council (Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción — CNA), which has closely studied the new code, it is clear that certain congresspeople involved in embezzlement of public funds manipulated congressional debate in order to protect themselves from future investigations.
“There are articles that were approved in legislative sessions that did not have at least 65 deputies, as the law requires. And the law was approved by lawmakers currently under investigation or facing court cases,” Odir Fernández, head of investigation and analysis at the CNA, told InSight Crime.
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One of the institutions that most actively fought against the law was the now-defunct Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras — MACCIH). In an exhaustive study sent to congress last August, MACCIH recommended 17 specific changes to the text that, if not carried out, “would affect the investigation and criminal prosecution of crimes linked to corruption.”
In terms of drug trafficking, one of the main criminal economies in Honduras, MACCIH said that the new criminal code simplifies the types of sentencing available and metes out punishment based on the drugs being trafficked. It does not take into account the specific roles the accused plays in his or her criminal organization.
The new code also decriminalizes slander, which MACCIH saw as a positive step, since the previous law was used by political elites to silence critics in the press.
In a last-minute move, when faced with growing anger, Ebal Díaz, chief of staff of President Juan Orlando Hernández, said the executive branch would seek to repeal the new regulations.
InSight Crime Analysis
This is the latest reform aiming to snarl investigations and legal cases targeting drug trafficking and corruption networks within Honduran political circles.
In March, a reform of the Law of the Superior Accounts Tribunal (Tribunal Superior de Cuentas — TSC) prevented the Attorney General's Office from beginning criminal investigations related to corruption cases before the TSC had completed its own legal proceedings. The TSC is not independent of the executive in Honduras.
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Another recent reform, made to the Criminal Procedural Code, prevents the Attorney General's Office from carrying out surprise searches of suspects. According to Joaquín Mejía, a Honduran analyst who studies these legal reforms, the change will make it easier for those under investigation to destroy evidence.
For Mejía, the reforms are clearly designed to weaken the powers of criminal investigators.
“All this is linked to a strategy, a systematic process coming from Congress and the Executive who have...weakened already-weak institutions that go after crimes, especially corruption and drug trafficking,” he told InSight Crime.
Last September, a prosecutor who spoke with InSight Crime on condition of anonymity said that the new criminal code could hamper major corruption investigations, such as the Pandora and Arca Abierta cases.
For Fernández, from the CNA, the code simply gives criminals another way to maintain their impunity. “The intention of many lawmakers has been to legislate...in order to avoid being caught by the judicial system for having committed different crimes, whether they be corruption or drug trafficking,” he said.
The controversy around this new criminal code is just one of a long list of scandals linking Honduras' government to organized crime, including an accusation that the president was part of an international drug trafficking ring.