Honduras’ Congress rejected its own commission’s proposal for a replacement for the current attorney general, which could signal a temporary triumph for powerful political and economic forces intent on maintaining impunity for elite corruption.
The reelection of Óscar Chinchilla as attorney general of Honduras and the appointment of Daniel Sibrián as deputy attorney general comes after a special congressional commission evaluated the profiles of five finalists, but failed to secure any of them the 86 confirmation votes they needed from Congress.
The selection process for attorney general in Honduras began in March with the formation of the proposal commission. However, the panel was criticized for its exclusion of civil society groups, lack of transparency and noncompliance with international standards.
Sources in Honduras told InSight Crime that the process was marked by interference both from members of Congress was well as by President Juan Orlando Hernández’s administration. Many of those involved in the interference are currently under investigation for corruption by the Attorney General’s Office and the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), an international body backed by Organization of American States (OAS) to support anti-impunity and anti-corruption efforts.
Even though the deadline for choosing Honduras’ attorney general was not until September, Congress decided to call a session during its recess to conduct the vote. According to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the process was too hurried to ensure “the necessary public scrutiny regarding the criteria that led them to choose between the names that were announced.”
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There were also clear conflicts of interest throughout the process. Civil society organizations belonging to the Alliance for Peace and Justice (Alianza por la Paz y la Justicia – APJ) said in a press release that the participation of people currently under investigation in the selection of the country’s top prosecutorial officials “will strip credibility and legitimacy from the decision on whether or not the fight against organized crime groups and corruption networks will continue in Honduras.”
International organizations such as the United Nations expressed similar concerns. UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Diego García-Sayán reported that the commission that evaluated the profiles of the five finalists included legislators who “have been publicly questioned, or even prosecuted, for corruption.”
In what could be interpreted as an attempt by Congress to give the appearance of legitimacy and transparency to the process, some legislators under investigation sat out the vote.
Soon after the list of attorney general candidates was published, Gabriela Castellanos, the director of Honduras’ National Anti-Corruption Council (Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción – CNA), stated that three of the five finalists have a total of 14 allegations against them. Castellanos did not mention the names of those accused.
InSight Crime Analysis
Although it is true that Chinchilla’s reelection keeps the status quo, it does not necessarily mean a victory for corrupt forces. During his previous term, the attorney general oversaw positive results in the fight against graft and organized crime in Honduras, despite a series of obstacles put in his way in large part by the very elites he was investigating.
During that period, and with the support of the MACCIH, the Attorney General’s Office strengthened its investigative capacities, partly through the creation of new entities like the Technical Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal – ATIC) and the Special Prosecution Unit Against Impunity for Corruption (Unidad Fiscal Especial Contra la Impunidad de la Corruption – UFECIC). They built high-impact cases against members of corruption networks and captured powerful members of criminal organizations.
The tense relationship between these organizations and Honduras’ leadership reached a fever pitch a few months ago after news broke of several cases that threatened to change the country’s power dynamics. One such case is the alleged corruption network in Congress in which five legislators were initially under investigation. That number has now grown by almost 800 present and former lawmakers.
In another case, former first lady Rosa Bonilla de Lobo was arrested on charges of misappropriation of public funds, money laundering and illicit association.
The progress in these cases represents some success for Chinchilla and the Attorney General’s Office in their effort to combat graft. However, the failure to secure convictions highlights how limited that success has been thus far.
Moveover, Chinchilla has other high-level cases competing for his attention, such as the alleged abuses committed by government forces during demonstrations following President Hernández’s reelection, the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres and other investigations involving members of the Honduran elite.
Amid the many investigations, lawmakers took aim at the MACCIH with an attempt to have its creation ruled unconstitutional. At the time, the organization’s outlook did not look promising. MACCIH head Juan Jiménez Mayor had resigned, and it seemed almost certain that corruption groups with ties to Honduran power structures were going to ensure they had an attorney general who shared their interests.
But after two months in a state of limbo, the MACCIH was declared constitutional, and the government approved Brazilian lawyer Luiz Antonio Marrey Guimarães as the new head of the international body. In mid-June the Attorney General’s Office and the MACCIH presented a case to the Supreme Court linking 38 government officials and others to the alleged misappropriation of approximately $12 million in public funds.
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Chinchilla will now have to work hand in hand with Guimarães, who will start his new post this week in a more capable and experienced MACCIH with at least nine high-impact cases underway.
These cases will be Chinchilla’s chance to prove whether or not he can take independent and technical actions to combat graft and organized crime, and to ensure his decisions are legally — not politically — motivated, despite potential costs to those who reelected him.
While the members of Honduras’ corrupt networks believe they scored a victory in reelecting Chinchilla as attorney general, recent investigations carried out with the MACCIH are beginning to reveal the extent to which they and other organized crime groups are entrenched in the government.