A package of controversial legislative reforms became law in Honduras this week, further sinking any lingering efforts to combat corruption in the country.
Approved earlier in October, the amendments to the penal code, criminal procedure code and money laundering law officially took effect on November 1. The most controversial change comes to Article 439 of the Penal Code. It now specifies that as part of any action taken against money laundering, the Attorney General’s Office must prove that the specific assets being laundered are directly connected to particular crimes.
Since this package of reforms was presented, it has been met with strong international concerns, including from the United Nations, and warnings that it would severely weaken Honduras’ fight against corruption.
When addressing the media on November 1, the head of the Special Prosecutor's Unit Against Corruption Networks (Unidad Fiscal Especial contra Redes de Corrupción - UFERCO), Luis Javier Santos, stated that the reforms would “consolidate ... impunity and weaken the fight against corruption, ... we will see the consequences shortly, it’s bad.”
The reforms have been steadfastly supported by a number of deputies from the ruling National Party. One of them, Waleska Zelaya, was previously under investigation for a suspicious million-dollar sale of face masks during the pandemic.
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These reforms are not surprising. Honduras, mirroring its counterparts in Central America, has moved consistently away from strengthening the rule of law.
The biggest blow came in January 2020 with the disbanding of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras - MACCIH), an anti-corruption commission backed by the Organization of American States (OAS).
Later in June 2020, the Honduran congress passed a new criminal code lowering sentencing for corruption and drug trafficking cases, among other controversial measures. Although the new measures were originally suspended following complaints from critics who claimed it enabled reduced sentences or jail avoidance for corrupt politicians and criminal allies, the Supreme Court later re-approved them.
Then, in August 2020, a special appeals court dismissed charges against 22 of 26 defendants in the high-profile Pandora case. This had been one of MACCIH’s flagship cases implicating hundreds of former members of congress, and had revealed how deeply entrenched corruption networks are within the national political system.
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All these legal changes have come under the mandate of the National Party, which has governed Honduras since 2010 and has seen a number of its members connected to illicit activities, ranging from drug trafficking to timber trafficking and embezzlement. US prosecutors have accused President Juan Orlando Hernández of protecting drug traffickers in exchange for drug money, though he has denied those charges.
As warned by the head of the Investigations and Case Monitoring Unit of the National Anticorruption Council (Unidad de Investigaciones y Seguimiento de Casos del Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción, CNA), Odir Fernández, when discussing the latest legal changes, Honduras “is reaching a point of no return it if does not choose the next congress wisely."