The announcement of a graft investigation against almost 800 legislators in Honduras raises further questions about the legitimacy of the congressionally led process for selecting a new attorney general who will be in charge of this and other investigations into high-level corruption.
On June 22, the president of Honduras’ Superior Accounts Tribunal (Tribunal Superior de Cuentas – TSC), Ricardo Rodríguez, announced that the Attorney General’s Office is investigating the nearly 800 legislators who have served over the last three legislative cycles for irregularities in their management of the Departmental Development Fund, according to a report from El País. The Special Prosecution Unit Against Impunity for Corruption (Unidad Fiscal Especial Contra la Impunidad de la Corruption – UFECIC), a unit within the Attorney General’s Office, is leading the investigation.
Honduras’ 128 current legislators are included, as are their alternate representatives and those who served in Congress during the two previous legislative periods under presidents Manuel Zelaya and Porfirio Lobo.
This means the UFECIC is investigating current President Juan Orlando Hernández and current Solicitor General Abraham Alvarenga Urbina. One of the five finalists for the new attorney general post is also a target of the investigation because he served as an alternate for the current congressional president.
Moreover, the new attorney general must be chosen before September by a multi-party commission, and its members are on the investigation’s list.
One congressman under scrutiny is Mario Pérez of the National Party. A report by Honduras’ National Directorate for the Fight Against Drugs (Dirección Nacional de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – DNLCN) accuses him of having drug trafficking connections.
The National Anti-Corruption Council (Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción – CNA) accused another National Party representative, David Chávez, of corruption when he led the National Institute for Vocational Training (Instituto Nacional de Formación Profesional – INFOP).
The investigation into the Honduran legislators dates back to the end of 2017, when Juan Jiménez Mayor, the then-head of the internationally-backed Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), and current Attorney General Óscar Chinchilla uncovered a network of legislators alleged to have illegally appropriated public funds.
The money was destined for social programs through a non-governmental organization called the National Association of Producers and Industry Workers of the Neighborhoods and Communities of Honduras (Asociación Nacional de Productores e Industriales de Barrios y Colonias de Honduras – ANPIBCH).
The investigations found that the ANPIBCH received 8.3 million lempiras (approximately $350,000) from the Honduran government.
The MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office made a formal request to begin criminal proceedings against the legislators in the network for the alleged embezzlement of public funds. Congressional Vice President Augusto Cruz Asencio is among those suspected of the crime.
In response, Congress approved a questionable reform to the country’s budget law removing the ability of the Attorney General’s Office to conduct criminal investigations on public spending, thus halting the investigation against the network of legislators.
The MACCIH and international observers denounced the maneuver as an “impunity pact” that sought to stop current and future investigations into high-ranking officials and their management of public funds.
In addition to the investigation into the alleged corruption network in Congress, the MACCIH and UFECIC undertook the “Pandora Case,” which connected 38 government representatives and others with the embezzlement of 282 million lempiras (approximately $12 million) in government funds.
According to the MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office, a large part of that money was looted from the Agriculture Ministry (Secretaría de Agricultura y Ganadería – SAG) and financed President Hernández’s 2013 campaign as well as those of politicians in other parties.
InSight Crime Analysis
The emerging scandal raises the possibility that the congressionally appointed commission to select a new attorney general will pick a candidate who will ensure impunity for the accused legislators. Indeed, Congress has had a rocky relationship with the MACCIH since the 2016 creation of the anti-graft body.
As evidenced by the impunity pact and other roadblocks, Congress has proven to be a thorn in the side of the MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office. The Honduran government even cut the budget of the latter, which could be interpreted as an attempt to weaken it.
SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profile
More recently, in the midst of the power struggle between the government and the team formed by the Attorney General’s Office and the MACCIH, Honduras’ Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia – CSJ) struck a legal blow against the UFECIC. The president of the CSJ is also the head of the attorney general proposal group.
The selection process for Honduras’ new attorney general has been tainted by the proposal group’s lack of transparency, which was highlighted recently by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The international body called on the Honduran government to ensure its selection is “unaffected by personal or political party interests that would interfere with the chosen candidate being the best and most capable for the job.”