Monday, December 21, 2015

Understanding International Anti-Corruption Measures in Honduras

photo courtesy flickr user rbreve
They called themselves the Indignados, “The Outraged,” and they took to Honduras’ streets by the thousands in June of 2015 when it became clear that the current President’s campaign had received funds stolen from the Honduran state.

The funds came from the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS), an entity charged with providing public health in Honduras. As much as $330 million was pilfered by corrupt officials, Insight Crime reported, who used back-room deals, overvalued contracts, and political maneuvering to steal desperately-needed money while Honduran people died in hospitals for lack of medicines and equipment.

The fact that the corrupt companies donated $150,000 of the stolen money to Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez’s political campaign in 2013 further enraged the Indignados, who called for his impeachment. Hernandez denied any knowledge of the source of the funds, and promised to return the money, but this did little to garner trust with the protesting groups.

His political party, the Nationalists, had taken power from the opposition in 2009 in a military coup, and for some people, marching in the streets became a way to protest this, to protest the unthinkably high levels of violence and drug activity in Honduras, to protest the rampant corruption that made theft on such a grand level possible.

The marches were unavoidably political. Mel Zelaya, the president who had been ousted and would later become a de facto leader of the new leftist “LIBRE” party, was seen marching in the rallies. Popular sportscaster-turned-politician Salvador Nasralla, who ran against Hernandez in 2013 for the new Anti-Corruption Party, would become a vocal supporter of the marchers’ demands.

Besides the removal of the president, the Indignados had a specific request. On signs held up in protests or words spray-painted onto walls, they claimed, “We want the CICIH”.

What they wanted was a CICIG, Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad Guatemala (International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala) – but in Honduras.

CICIG was created in 2006 through an agreement between the United Nations and the Guatemalan government. Funded through U.N. partner states, the independent, international entity supports state institutions by investigating emblematic cases of corruption, filing criminal complaints, and joining criminal proceedings as a private prosecutor[1].

At the same time as the Honduran IHSS case was unfolding, the CICIG was filing cases in Guatemala against their current political regime. These cases implicated dozens of officials up to and including the president and vice-president for involvement in a huge corruption ring out of the tax and customs department.

Protests also broke out in the streets of Guatemala, calling for the resignation of the political leaders. In May, 2015, Vice-president Roxana Baldetti stepped down under pressure from the CICIG and the Attorney General’s office. In August, Baldetti was sought for arrest, and the President of Guatemala, Otto Perez Molina, was sought for impeachment. He was impeached on September 1st, resigned rather than face an impeachment trial, and was immediately taken into custody to face charges.

People in Honduras were looking for similarly dramatic results.

By September, the torchlight marches had waned, and the Indignados movement began to fade. Progress was moving slowly on the IHSS case – out of 40 charged, only one had reached a conviction. In October, José Ramón Bertetty, the financial manager of IHSS, was charged on one of his multiple counts of abuse of authority, fraud, and misuse of public funds. The Director of IHSS, along with other high-ranking officials, are still awaiting trial.

Observers would have liked swifter, more decisive convictions, but even this much rule of law was unprecedented. The accusations followed a string of high-profile arrests. Reports by Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) exposed corruption in medical purchasing and warehousing that led to then-vice-president of Congress Lena Gutierrez being charged with corruption, along with her politically powerful family. Ten Honduran nationals were extradited to the United States to face charges for drug trafficking. Honduran ex-President Rafael Callejas was extradited to stand trial for corruption related to FIFA.

The increasing will of the Honduran Public Ministry to process corruption cases, however, is limited by inadequate budgets, historically inefficient management, and other procedural difficulties. A “CICIH” could potentially offer the support, independent investigation, and oversight that the Public Ministry needs to process the cases that are coming to light.

But creating a copy of CICIG in Honduras would be difficult. CICIG had been working in Guatemala for nine years before it won the emblematic victory against the president and vice-president.  It is also a particularly expensive program, ranging from $12 to 15 million per year. Protesters demanding a copy of CICIG for Honduras, but also hoping for decisive and immediate results in the lack of a clear funding source, were bound to be disappointed. Furthermore, many observers say that a CICIG-equivalent, instead of strengthening the legal institutions of Honduras, could actually create dependency on a foreign unit of investigators and lawyers.

Another proposal emerged. At the end of September, the secretary general of the Organization for American States (OAS) announced a new initiative – MACCIH, La Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras).

The announcement of the initiative, made in Washington D.C. with President Hernandez in attendance, showed the real will of international organizations to partner with Honduras against corruption. It was also notably different from the CICIG.

The initial proposal for the creation of the MACCIH gave it a limited scope in the prosecution of specific cases, instead installing it in a supporting role for the Honduran justice system. An international body would, like the CICIG, support in the investigation and prosecution of corruption cases. Unlike the CICIG, this body would be composed of both national and international actors. The MACCIH would also create a “diagnosis” of the state of the justice system in partnership with the Center for the Study of Justice in Americas (CEJA), first offering recommendations for improvement, and then acting as an international observer for their implementation[2].

Proponents of the draft praised a proposal that could support the Attorney General’s office in obtaining immediate results, and for a much lower price than the CICIG ($1-2 million per year). Opponents called the MACCIH a face-saving effort of the President to get out of a stricter CICIG- like proposal.

The Alliance for Peace and Justice (APJ) sees the MACCIH as an overall positive movement, as long as it has real autonomy and access to government information – provisions that are left vague in the current draft. Statements published by organizations including APJ, the Wilson Center, and representatives of the Indignados movement requested that a final draft contain language that explicitly grants the MACCIH independence in its investigations and full access to government information and personnel, as well as specifies that MACCIH be led by a Head of Mission above reproach and with real authority.

“To squander this opportunity by failing to put in place a meaningful body with teeth would be a mistake,” wrote Eric L. Olsen and Katherine Hyde in a report for the Wilson Center, “Simply signing a vague agreement in the hope of some future payoff is no longer a viable alternative.”

The MACCIH proposal has been through various revisions as OAS delegates met with various stakeholders in the Honduran government and civil society. Nonetheless, a scheduled December 10th signing of the agreement – set to happen in Washington – was abruptly canceled to a later date in January.

This could be a sign of political “cold feet” or the workings of further revision processes, but civil society has committed to not letting the Mission be forgotten. By continuing to discuss the needs of the Honduran people, there is hope that a proposal could further the work that has already begun of chipping away the corruption within Honduran systems.

[1] Wilson Center report
[2] InSight Crime

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