New corruption and impunity allegations emerging on the eve of the inauguration of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández have cast doubt over his supposed security successes and set a deeply troubling tone for the coming term of a president already struggling for legitimacy.
Hernández is set to be sworn in for a second term on January 27, but with his position already questioned after a bitterly contested election marred by allegations of electoral fraud and the deadly repression of protests, his credibility has now been further strained by new developments undermining two of the much-vaunted success stories of his first term: tackling police and political corruption.
The most dramatic blow came on January 26, when the Associated Press published accusations that Honduras’ newly appointed police chief, General José David Aguilar Morán, had colluded with convicted drug lord Wilter Blanco to move millions of dollars of cocaine through the country.
Citing a confidential report by the Honduran Security Ministry’s Inspector General, the AP detailed allegations that Aguilar had intervened after a local tourism police patrol seized a tanker filled with over 700 kilograms of cocaine, then arrested the regional police chief when he threatened to have them fired for seizing the drugs. According to the report, the arrested officer called Aguilar, then head of police intelligence, who demanded the officer be freed and the tanker released.
Aguilar allegedly later blocked the case being sent to prosecutors or the US embassy “with the end goal of letting the case expire,” the report states.
The report also details how Wilter Blanco, who is currently serving a 20-year prison sentence in the United States, held meetings to hand out thousands of dollars in bribes to top police, among them Aguilar, new National Police inspector general, Orlin Javier Cerrato Cruz, and Orbin Alexis Galo Maldonado, the man recently named as Aguilar’s top deputy.
When the AP contacted the Honduran government with the allegations, it received a statement claiming the report is fake and the allegations “lack veracity.”
However, the AP stated four current and former high-ranking police confirmed elements of the report, and reported it had also obtained internal memos and a page from Aguilar’s personal file that confirmed the story.
Following publication of the article, the police reform committee issued a statement claiming the denial was a result of the AP journalist providing an incorrect case number, and stating that Aguilar, Galo and Cerrato would all be subject to re-evaluation in light of the report.
The AP also spoke to Maria Luisa Borjas, an opposition politician who previously ran the police’s internal affairs division, who confirmed the report’s authenticity. According to Borjas, the case is an indicator of the failure of the Hernández administration’s vaunted police reforms to root out corruption.
“The work that the police purging commission did was of no use, a failure,” she told the AP. “It was more of a source of official protection for people who have been tied to drug trafficking.”
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In a separate case, which adds to the growing list of allegations of corruption and impunity during Hernández’s first term in office, a new law approved by congress on January 18 could fatally undermine the other touted success story of Hernández’s first term in office: the launch of the internationally-backed Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH).*
The newly passed reform transfers the power to conduct audits and special investigations related to the management of public funds from MACCIH and the Honduran Prosecutor’s Office to the Superior Accounts Tribunal (Tribunal Superior de Cuentas – TSC).
The new law retroactively applies to any relevant case since 2006 and mandates the suspension of all civil or criminal proceedings against those under investigation for the duration of the TSC audit, a period of up to three years.
The move essentially kills off the MACCIH’s investigations, as investigators will now not have access to key financial information until the audits finish, which will likely be a year after MACCIH’s mandate comes to an end in 2020.
In a press conference, MACCIH spokesperson, Juan Jiménez Mayor, called the budgetary reform an “impunity pact” that “seriously interferes with the autonomy of the judiciary and the prosecutor’s office.”
Congress vehemently denounced Jiménez’s allegations, claiming that the new law was passed in order to promote transparency and accountability.
However, just hours after Jiménez denounced the law, MACCIH’s fears began to be realized when the Honduran Supreme Court transferred an embezzlement case implicating more than 60 current and former government officials, including the president of congress, to the TSC and released five lawmakers being held in association with the case from government custody.
InSight Crime Analysis
Despite his links to the 2009 coup that ousted Honduras President Manuel Zelaya and allegations of ties to organized crime, Hernández’s first term in office boasted some important success stories in a country that had previously been overwhelmed by crime and corruption.
Under his administration, the country’s sky-high murder rate was slashed by over 40 percent, gangs were hit hard and some of the country’s most powerful drug trafficking networks were dismantled.
These successes solidified the international support, above all from the United States, enjoyed by Hernández, which has helped him ride out the storm of protests and damning evidence of fraud following his disputed re-election.
However, the promise for sustained improvement lay not with extradited drug lords or the ever-fluctuating violence statistics, but with rooting out the corruption that has rotted away Honduras’ state institutions and facilitated the spread of organized crime.
SEE ALSO: Coverage of Police Reform
The police reform and the launch of the MACCIH under Hernández were among the most important aspects of the efforts to achieve this, and both had raised hope that some of Honduras’ most damaging and intractable problems were finally being addressed.
However, these hopes are now looking increasingly naïve, with a general allegedly in the pay of drug traffickers running the supposedly reformed police and the MACCIH left toothless by the actions of a defiant elite determined to protect their own.
While it is still to be hoped Hernández’s second term will not see a slide back into the violence and chaos of the years that preceded it, the prospects of a more stable future for Honduras with institutions strengthened, impunity tackled and organized crime weakened are now receding.
* Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the date on which the law was passed.