A new report says that the OAS-backed international judicial mission in Honduras has survived, even succeeded at times, despite numerous efforts by its enemies and proponents alike.
The report — published on June 21 by American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS)* and written by political science professor Charles “Chuck” Call — chronicles the origins and subsequent travails of the Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) at the body’s two-year mark.
After a tortuous negotiation with the government that eventually placed it under the aegis of the Organization of American States (OAS), the MACCIH began operating in April 2016. But from the beginning, it was hamstrung by both its host government, which was “dragging its feet” in finding a place to house it, and the OAS, which wouldn’t commit to giving its employees contracts longer than six months and meddled in the mission’s staffing decisions.
The difficulties have continued. Unlike a similar body operating in Guatemala, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), the MACCIH 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 its relationship with the attorney general, the report says.
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These were ominous signs. The MACCIH had arrived with high expectations, in large part because of the CICIG, whose investigations had led to the dramatic resignations and charges against a sitting president, his vice president and numerous other officials in 2015.
The MACCIH itself had begun on the heels of an investigation into the ruling party’s connections to a vast corruption scheme in the Honduran Social Security Institute (Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social – IHSS) that had helped fund its victorious 2013 campaign.
Protests erupted around the IHSS probe, calling for President Juan Orlando Hernández’s resignation and the creation of what the protestors called CICIH, in honor of their Guatemala-based heroes. The compromise solution to that crisis was, in essence, the creation of the MACCIH.
However, from that moment on, the MACCIH was set up for failure. For the protestors, nothing less than Hernández’s head on a platter will suffice. But Hernández, who was elected to a second term in November under dubious circumstances, and his allies are never going to let that happen.
The result, as the report says, has been a game of cat and mouse. Just when it appears that the MACCIH is about to have a breakthrough on a big case, opposition forces snatch the cheese and scramble into the hole, and the would-be proponents of the mission bemoan its toothless nature.
Call and his colleagues at CLALS chronicle numerous examples of this, most notably a case against several congressmen. Just weeks after the MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office announced charges against five members of Congress for embezzlement (MACCIH Special Representative Juan Jiménez later blurted out in a press conference that dozens and possibly hundreds of other congressmen were under investigation), Congress passed a law effectively taking the probe out of the prosecutors’ hands and placing it in the hands of an entity the legislators controlled. The events that followed, which included a strange public exchange between Jiménez and the head of the OAS, led to Jiménez’s resignation.
Other cases played out in similar, frustrating fashion. One involved former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, whose son Fabio pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in the United States in 2016. Bonilla de Lobo was indicted and later arrested in February 2018, for embezzling public funds, money laundering and illicit association. Some of her assets were seized. However, Congress and the courts intervened again, the report says. After several dubious decisions and congressional legislation regarding asset seizures, most of the heaviest charges against Bonilla de Lobo have been dropped and her properties have been returned.
Even when the MACCIH won, it lost. In the IHSS case, 12 people were convicted for money laundering and bribery, including the former head of the institute, Mario Zelaya, and two former vice ministers. Zelaya was sentenced to 56 years in prison. But MACCIH critics, many of whom were part of those initial protests that led to its formation, were not satisfied.
“It has been a source of frustration for MACCIH officials at the underappreciation of what they consider to be speedy and relatively successful work at trying some senior officials,” the report says. “A wide gap seems apparent between popular expectations and the ability of investigators, prosecutors and courts to investigate and try cases involving corrupt networks.”
InSight Crime Analysis
The MACCIH cannot win. Between the meddling by the government and the OAS, congressional and courtroom manipulation, and the impossible standard set by its cousin, the CICIG, the mission has been set up to fail.
That is not to say it has not had success. Despite these obstacles, the report illustrates that without the MACCIH, numerous cases would not have gone forward, suspects would have been released, and important laws — especially those regarding campaign financing — would not have been written. More recently, it launched perhaps its most ambitious case, charging dozens for illegal diversions of funds in Hernandez’s 2013 campaign.
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The MACCIH is also young. It took the CICIG, which has been in Guatemala for over a decade, a long time to get its feet under it and eight years to reach a point where it could bring a case against a sitting president. And as the report says, the MACCIH has actually gotten more convictions than the CICIG had in its first two years.
But therein lies the trap. The Hondurans who clamored for the MACCIH want the mission to do cases, and they won’t be satisfied with just anyone in jail. Trying to meet that expectation is a recipe for failure every time, especially with all the inherent obstacles in Honduras.
The challenge for the MACCIH is not just to dodge efforts to get rid of it or debilitate it, but to shift expectations away from big, splashy cases and get down to the hard work of building resilient independent judicial institutions that can do the work when it eventually leaves.
*The author is a Senior Fellow at CLALS. He participated in the early planning stages of the research but did not do any of the investigation, writing or editing of the report.