A Honduras court has ended the prosecution of nearly two dozen people -- including government officials -- accused in the Pandora case, a vast corruption scheme that saw $12 million in public money embezzled for political ends. The court's decision deals a final blow to Honduras' already embattled anti-corruption efforts.
The country's judiciary made an August 4 announcement that a special appeals court had dismissed criminal proceedings against 22 of 26 people. Attorney General Óscar Chinchilla called the decision in the case "unacceptable" in a post on Twitter, and the Attorney General's Office immediately said it would appeal the decision.
The investigation into the Pandora case began in 2016 after an audit from Honduras' Superior Accounts Tribunal (Tribunal Superior de Cuentas -- TSC) found that public funds from the Ministry of Agriculture had been sent to private accounts.
The audit sparked a far-reaching probe by the Attorney General's Office -- with investigative support of the now-defunct Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), an anti-corruption body backed by the Organization of American States. The inquiry found that 282 million lempiras (around $11.7 million) destined for agricultural projects had been diverted to various foundations and non-governmental organizations.
Prosecutors said a portion of those funds then went to finance electoral campaigns for Honduras' two main political parties, the Liberal and National parties, including the winning campaign of President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2013.
The accused who had their cases dismissed include five current congressmen, a former mayor, a former governor, and the ex-husband of the president's late sister.
InSight Crime Analysis
The unraveling of the Pandora case appears to be the final nail in the coffin for Honduras' fight against graft, which had already been severely weakened with the dismantling of MACCIH last January.
After MACCIH, the Special Prosecutor’s Unit Against Corruption (Unidad Fiscal Especializada contra la Corrupción – UFERCO), which investigated the Pandora case, became the only institution in Honduras able to lead complex corruption investigations into political and business elites. But the unit has been increasingly hampered by a lack of resources and legal hurdles.
Earlier this year, one UFERCO official told InSight Crime the unit had received cuts to its budget and personnel.
Honduran politicians have also regularly sought to diminish the power and independence of anti-corruption institutions like UFERCO through changing the country's criminal code to reduce sentences for corruption and drug trafficking cases.
The Pandora case had long stagnated before the dismissals. The investigation was frozen for several months after a protracted judicial reform of Honduras' accounting office made it impossible for the Attorney General's Office to keep moving it forward.
One prosecutor close to the Pandora case told InSight Crime in 2019 that the reform had been designed to "kill" large-scale corruption cases like this one.
President Hernández initially voiced support for the Pandora case, but that soon rang hollow. Named in court documents is the president's late sister, Hilda, who allegedly "signed contracts with providers who later, even in the same day, paid with checks" from nonprofits alleged to have received embezzled funds, according to a Univisión investigation. Hilda Hernández also allegedly directed others how to spend the money, Univisión reported.
A Honduran prosecutor involved in the Pandora case, who asked to remain anonymous for security reasons, confirmed to InSight Crime the suspicions surrounding Hilda Hernández, who died in 2017 in a helicopter crash.
The Pandora case had been considered a shining achievement for the Attorney General's Office, marking the first time in Honduras that a corruption investigation threatened to bring down influential politicians, including some close to President Hernández. Now only the narrow chance of appeal will save it.