After a high-profile investigation, anti-corruption prosecutors in Honduras have secured a conviction against a former first lady, marking the first such judgment for MACCIH, the country’s internationally-backed anti-graft body.
A Honduran court found former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, the wife of disgraced former President Porfirio Lobo, guilty on charges of fraud and embezzlement and acquitted her on charges of money laundering and misappropriating public funds, authorities announced August 20.
Authorities arrested Lobo at her home in the capital Tegucigalpa at the end of February 2018 on a number of criminal charges.
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The arrest followed a months-long investigation first revealed by the National Anti-Corruption Council (Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción – CNA), which was then completed by prosecutors from the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) and an anti-corruption unit of the Attorney General’s Office known as UFECIC (Unidad Fiscal Especial Contra la Impunidad de la Corruption – UFECIC).
Dubbed the “first lady’s petty cash” (Caja Chica de la Primera Dama) case, authorities accused Lobo, along with other public officials, of seizing some 16 million lempiras (around $650,000) and creating a money laundering network to conceal government funds meant for social projects, MACCIH spokeswoman Ana María Calderón said in 2018.
The former first lady will be sentenced on August 24. She faces a minimum sentence of 58 years in jail, but could be behind bars for up to 87 years, according to La Prensa.
InSight Crime Analysis
The conviction of the former first lady -- a member of one of Honduras' most elite political families -- is a historic moment for anti-corruption prosecutors and the country’s broader anti-graft drive.
From the moment it began operating in April of 2016 with the backing of the Organization of American States (OAS), the MACCIH was hamstrung in part by a government that was slow to find the commission an official home, difficulties in recruiting talent and outside meddling in staffing decisions, according to a June 2018 report on the judicial mission from American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS).
However, this didn’t stop the MACCIH from investigating high-level corruption. One of its most ambitious cases to date, the so-called “Pandora Case,” accused several government officials of diverting millions of dollars of public money for political purposes, including to fund President Juan Orlando Hernández’s 2013 campaign.
But government intervention and manipulation made it difficult for MACCIH to advance investigations and secure convictions, making the final ruling against former first lady Lobo all the more significant.
That said, the future of the MACCIH and Honduras’ wider anti-graft drive remains in limbo as officials debate whether or not to extend the mission’s mandate, which is set to expire at the end of 2019. President Hernández may have a vested interest in dissolving the MACCIH to avoid further investigations into his alleged criminal conduct and that of his closest allies.
"While it underscores the breadth of corruption, and the importance of continuing and strengthening the MACCIH, [former first lady Lobo’s] conviction is token and largely for show … to make it appear that corruption is being effectively addressed,” Dana Frank, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told InSight Crime.