Honduras Sacrifices Allies for Legitimacy With Arrest of Former First Lady

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The arrest of the former first lady of Honduras is another nail in the coffin for the Lobo family, the scapegoat of Honduras’ elites, as President Juan Orlando Hernández attempts to legitimize his government, ingratiate himself with US President Donald Trump and demonstrate his commitment to the fight against corruption.

Authorities in Honduras arrested former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, the wife of former President Porfirio Lobo, on February 28 at her home in the capital city of Tegucigalpa.

The former first lady’s arrest followed an investigation by the internationally-backed Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) with the Attorney General’s Office. She is accused of misappropriating public funds, money laundering and illicit association. Interim MACCIH spokeswoman Ana María Calderón explained that the arrest was the result of four months of investigative work on a case that has since been dubbed the “first lady’s cash register” (Caja chica de la Primera Dama).

“An indictment was filed against Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, who, along with other former public officials, committed the crimes of misappropriation of public funds, money laundering and conspiracy for having seized more than 16 million lempiras [around $600,000] and created a money laundering network to conceal government funds intended for social works,” Calderón said during a MACCIH press conference.

The investigation showed that between 2011 and 2014, Bonilla de Lobo “formed a network that appropriated public funds through 70 checks issued by nine individuals,” Calderón said. The network allegedly withdrew money from a government account that was then deposited into a personal account of the former first lady.

Bonilla de Lobo’s arrest also coincides with a visit to Honduras by US Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley. Haley met with President Hernández to discuss security issues, the fight against drug trafficking, migration and gangs.

Haley thanked Hernández on behalf of President Trump for the work he has been doing to fight drug trafficking and gangs, while Hernández pledged to support the work of the MACCIH and appeared to demonstrate his willingness to fight corruption.

However, Hernández’s supposed willingness to tackle graft came under question recently after congress passed a reform to Honduras’ budget law that effectively sidelined the country’s anti-graft body and its efforts to tackle corruption.

SEE ALSO: Honduras Elites and Organized Crime

Bonilla de Lobo’s arrest makes her the most recent of the Lobo clan to face accusations of criminal activities. In 2017, a convicted drug trafficker from Honduras’ Cachiros criminal network alleged that former President Lobo, who governed Honduras following the 2009 coup d’etat from 2010 until 2014, had repeatedly accepted bribes from the group. And a recent report alleged that Lobo and the governing National Party helped the Cachiros obtain state contracts for hydroelectric power projects.

Moreover, Lobo’s son Fabio was sentenced to 24 years in a US prison in September 2017 after pleading guilty to conspiring to traffic cocaine into the United States. All of these crimes were allegedly committed during Lobo’s time as president.

InSight Crime Analysis

With the capture of Bonilla de Lobo, President Hernández’s administration killed three birds with one stone.

First, the former first lady’s arrest could be a way to reward the Trump administration for the support it has provided Hernández, mainly in terms of security and the fight against organized crime. The Lobo family’s ties to organized crime seem to stretch far beyond Fabio Lobo and his connection with the Cachiros.

On the other hand, it also fits very well with the Organization of American States (OAS), the body responsible for the MACCIH’s creation, and its Secretary General Luis Almagro, who was forced to meet with Hernández after some recent upheaval at the MACCIH. The capture of Bonilla de Lobo could help quell recent problems and be seen as a show of goodwill, while also potentially showing a willingness from state institutions to work together in the fight against graft.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

“This joint arrest demonstrates the commitment of the MACCIH–OAS to continue working together to fight corruption through state institutions,” a February 28 joint MACCIH-OAS press release read.

At the same time, President Hernández continues to look for ways to legitimize his administration after an election that raised strong allegations of fraud. The detention of the former first lady also adds to the Hernández administration’s recent announcements that it was strengthening the fight against drugs, organized crime and the country’s gangs.

This could mean that Hernández is taking a hard line on fighting insecurity and organized crime, which offered him some results during his first term as president, to gain the respect and achieve the stability his government needs while using the Lobo family, former allies of his and the United States, as a scapegoat.

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