Honduras’ Search for Corruption Antidote Might be Fatally Flawed

Seizing upon what some are proclaiming as the “Central American Spring,” outraged Hondurans are calling for the creation of an international body to put an immediate end to long-standing impunity for the country’s political elite. But are their demands unrealistic, and their call for a quick fix counterproductive?

Honduras is not known for having a strong tradition in eastern religions. As of late, however, the country’s political elites have channeled their inner Buddha: faced with two extremes, Honduras politicians have chosen the Middle Path. Since then, there has been little inner peace in this small Central American nation.

That is a perhaps silly yet useful metaphor to understand the government’s approach to combating corruption and its decision to allow for an international body with seemingly little bite to clean up the powerful forces behind that corruption.

The country’s path to this point was not a straight line. Dissatisfaction has been simmering just below the surface for years in Honduras as a result of the huge wealth inequality and soaring murder rates that have made the country one of the world’s most violent.

Tensions boiled over in June, when President Juan Orlando Hernandez admitted that his 2013 presidential campaign was financed in part by funds linked to a $200 million scandal within the country’s social security institute. Although Hernandez denied prior knowledge of the money’s illicit origins, the revelation set off a wave of protests across the country, as thousands took to the streets to demand an end to the corruption and the resignation of President Hernandez.

Hernandez resisted but even larger demonstrations in neighboring Guatemala over a massive corruption scandal involving President Otto Perez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti fanned the flames of discontent in Honduras, eventually giving rise to a group known as the “Indignados,” or “The Outraged.”

This group, which reportedly includes members of grass-roots organizations and political parties loyal to ousted President Manuel Zelaya as well as ordinary citizens and a host of independent non-governmental organizations, called for the creation of an anti-impunity body similar to the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG).

The CICIG had been instrumental in uncovering multiple fraud rings within the Guatemalan government, including the one allegedly run by Perez Molina and Baldetti, which eventually led to the two officials’ dramatic resignations and subsequent incarcerations while they go through trial.

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As the pressure to take action mounted, Honduras was presented with two options. Option A was the outright refusal of an international anti-corruption body, on the grounds that it violated national sovereignty and that it was not necessary. Option B was agreeing to establish a CICIG-like body that was equipped with broad investigative powers, a strong mandate and a large budget. Guatemala chose Option B a decade ago, while Honduras’ other neighbor, El Salvador, recently chose Option A.

Instead of taking decisive action one way or the other, Honduras chose Option C. At the request of the Honduran government, in late September the Organization of American States (OAS) announced they were creating an anti-corruption and impunity body in Honduras. Among other duties, the so-called Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Mision de Apoyo Contra la Corrupcion y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) will be led by an international panel of judges and prosecutors tasked with overseeing investigations into corruption being carried out by Honduran authorities (see description here in pdf).

Although the protesters got what they had been clamoring for in an international anti-corruption body, they did not feel much like celebrating. Many observers felt the MACCIH was simply a thinly-veiled attempt by the government to placate those calling for a CICIG in Honduras without actually providing the body sufficient powers to investigate malfeasance and corruption. 

“We didn’t accept [the MACCIH]… since it lacked important functions, [such as] a politically and financially independent investigative body that will investigate all of these cases of corruption,” Marcela Ortega, a representative of the Indignados, told InSight Crime via Skype. 

Although the Buddha surely would have approved of the decision, it only left the Indignados even more outraged.

Evaluating the One-Sided Rivalry

Fair or not, the MACCIH in Honduras will forever be measured up against the CICIG. The CICIG’s string of high-profile investigations has created an expectation that its embryonic cousin in Honduras must produce tangible results, and quickly.

“Our mission as citizens is to pressure the body to provide results as soon as possible,” Ariel Varela, the spokesperson for the Indignados, told InSight Crime via Skype. “We don’t want results seven years from now.” 

Ortega told InSight Crime that the Indignados movement “is not against a political party. It is against a corrupt system.”

In the past, Varela has been more direct

“We are going to have our own spring [in Honduras] the moment we force the president to resign,” he has said.

The Indignados are not alone in their demands for swift action. The Alliance for Justice and Peace (APJ) — a broad coalition of religious and civil society groups — has also called for the MACCIH to yield “immediate results” in the fight against corruption (pdf).

The clamor for a CICIG-like body (or what some have termed a CICIH, substituting the ‘G’ of Guatemala for the ‘H’ of Honduras in its acronym) to immediately begin investigating and prosecuting Honduran politicians for corruption is understandable. But for a host of reasons, the chances of this happening are extremely small. 

1. There are Huge Political Obstacles

While the perception is that the CICIG has been a lone wolf of sorts, fiercely hunting down corruption on its own, the reality is more complicated. In all of its investigations, the CICIG has worked in lockstep with a rejuvenated Attorney General’s Office. Although the Attorney General’s Office (or Public Ministry, as it is known in Guatemala) has been an invaluable ally to the CICIG, the May 2014 appointment of Thelma Aldana as head prosecutor was widely considered at the time to be a major blow to the anti-impunity campaign waged by former Attorney General Claudia Paz y Paz, who was essentially forced from office before her term had ended.

There’s no reason to think politicians in Honduras won’t make similar attempts to slow MACCIH’s progress. The MACCIH could in fact face even greater political obstacles, now that Honduran elites know what an international anti-impunity body is capable of accomplishing.

2. It Takes a Long Time 

Although it is easy to forget now, the CICIG did not always seem to possess superpowers at investigating corruption. 

Created in 2007, the CICIG operated for years in Guatemala with decidedly mixed results before achieving its break-through with the investigations that implicated Perez Molina and Baldetti for customs fraud. As late as last year, seven years after the CICIG’s formation, Guatemala was considered to be essentially a mafia state.

This past April, the CICIG’s mandate was on the verge of expiration. Without significant international pressure and the — perhaps serendipitous, perhaps strategic — timing of the customs scandal, it’s likely the CICIG would no longer be in existence, and the avalanche of corruption scandals that followed would not have occurred.

It’s no fluke that it took so long. The CICIG was a completely new body; it had no institutional memory and had to learn how to operate within the confines of Guatemala’s judicial system. This is a complex, arduous process that requires ample amounts of both time and political will. As such, those calling for “immediate results” and the ouster of President Hernandez in Honduras are not just calling for CICIH — they are calling for CICIG on steroids.

3. Guatemala’s History

In spite of the CICIG’s achievements, its mere existence is what makes it truly remarkable. The investigative powers invested in the CICIG are unprecedented for an international body, and the commission really only came about, as the former Guatemalan Vice President Eduardo Stein has said, “under very specific conditions that came together at that moment.” 

Part of those conditions were related to Guatemala’s long-standing relationship with the United Nations. As Latin America Goes Global has pointed out, the UN was involved in the country’s post-war transition period. Latin America Goes Global also noted that Guatemalan authorities were coming under increasing pressure by the international community to root out so-called “parallel structures” within the government that had operated with impunity for decades.

In contrast, Honduras — which did not experience a civil war and has not had a large UN presence — does not have the same historical familiarity with a UN-operated body, and parallel structures have never been as prominent as they were in Guatemala. In essence, Honduras has been spared some of the painful experiences that eventually facilitated the creation of the CICIG in Guatemala.

The Problem with Great Expectations

There is nothing inherently wrong with demanding swift action against corruption in a country that badly needs government reform. The problems start once the expectations are not met, which is almost inevitable due to how high the bar has been set. Varela told InSight Crime that the Indignados would not support any mission, whether it be backed by the UN or the OAS, if it did not bring tangible results quickly. 

“Our job as citizens is to pressure [the mission] to bring immediate results,” Varela said. “If there are no results, we will start asking that society reject the mission, and that it be removed from the country.”  

If the public were to lose its enthusiasm for the MACCIH, that would seriously weaken the body’s chances for success. Politicians already wary of increased transparency could be emboldened to obstruct or weaken the body, and would face less political backlash if they decide not to renew its mandate. As the CICIG demonstrated in Guatemala, the success — and survival — of an international investigative body relies heavily on sustained support from a broad cross-section of society and political actors, even if the results are not immediately apparent. 

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Putting too much stock in an international body to solve Honduras’ corruption problems also has the potential to take the wind out of the sails of an Attorney General’s Office that has quietly made real progress in cutting down on impunity in recent years. A total of 20 suspects have been charged in connection to the fraud ring at the social security institute, and authorities have dismantled several drug trafficking networks once believed to be untouchable due to their discreet links to political and economic elites. 

Whether these positive developments represent a fundamental change in how Honduras investigates politically-sensitive cases remains to be seen. But given this momentum, it could be argued that Honduran authorities should at least be given the chance to prove what else they can accomplish before calling for international backup and that international pressure should be at least as focused on sustaining these gains as it is on presenting the country with an international support agency like the MACCIH.

No one doubts that corruption can and should be addressed in Honduras. But using hyperbolic rhetoric is not without its consequences. Instead of trying to follow a scripted formula, Honduras should search for realistic and country-specific ways to combat corruption. In the meantime, let’s acknowledge and appreciate the CICIG for what it really is — a miracle.