The Unbearable Solitude of Honduras’ Attorney General

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Honduras Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla was elected by congress in September 2013, in a controversial process driven largely by the interests of the ruling National Party. But Chinchilla has altered the agenda and found himself between competing powers, leaving him on a political island.

On September 9, 2016, the son of Luis Alonso Valle Valle was captured by Honduran authorities and charged with the murder of three people in the Copan province in northwestern Honduras.

The accused was a minor, so they did not release his name, but his father was a well-known criminal figure in the area. Luis Alonso, along with his brother, Miguel Arnulfo, had been extradited to the United States to face drug trafficking charges in December 2014. Their sister, Digna, was already in a US jail when they arrived, also facing drug trafficking charges.

Miguel Arnulfo’s daughter, Yosari, was still in Copan, as was Luis Alonso’s son, who, according to investigators, telephoned Yosari to give her a play-by-play of the gruesome massacre of a woman and two brothers. The authorities recorded this call and others, and mounted an operation that led to the capture of Luis Alonso’s son.  

With the intercepts in hand and the accused adolescent assassin in custody, the Attorney General’s Office thought it had struck another blow against the vaunted criminal groups of Honduras.

Since taking office in September 2013, Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla had made a habit of targeting these organizations. Chinchilla’s office assisted with the capture of the Valle Valle brothers, as well as that of Carlos “El Negro” Lobo and Hector Emilio Fernández Rosa, alias “Don H.” All of these figures have since been extradited to face trial in the United States.

However, Chinchilla’s efforts have also hit roadblocks, and often he has shouldered the blame. Such was the case with the son of Luis Alonso Valle Valle. In a surprise decision, the judicial branch moved the case to a judge in the area that handled cases of minors.

The new judge refused to admit the wiretaps, archived the case, and released the son. The Attorney General’s Office protested the decision, but to little avail. Although authorities have since issued another arrest warrant, Luis Alonso Valle Valle’s son remains at large.

The incident was one of many over the last year that made clear just how isolated the Attorney General’s Office has become in its fight against corruption, impunity and organized crime in Honduras.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

In spite of strong backing from the international community, Chinchilla and his colleagues have been bearing the brunt of the battle against organized crime and corruption, and shouldering the blame when anything goes wrong.

Critics come mostly from the entrenched political elites who have for years systematically impoverished the judicial system and used it for their own purposes, but Chinchilla’s enemies are not limited to these rivals. Civil society groups are livid over the prosecutor’s handling of the high-profile murder of the environmental activist Berta Caceres, and international watchdog groups wonder if Chinchilla is a presidential stooge.  

A Presidential Pawn?

When he was picked to be attorney general in 2013, Chinchilla’s critics feared he would be President Juan Orlando Hernández’s pawn. Chinchilla was the only magistrate to survive a congressional purge of the Supreme Court in 2012, which was led by then Congressional President Juan Orlando Hernández.

The purge of the court was a precursor of the battles to come. It centered on efforts to administer polygraphs and other “confidence” tests to the police, so that officials could purge their own ranks. The police and their allies lost the fight, as did four of the five magistrates. (To this day, Chinchilla is still squabbling with the police over his support for these type of tests.)

At the time, support from Congressional President Hernández, who was already revving his engines to run for president, was hardly a guarantee for later success. On September 1, 2013, Chinchilla secured congressional support with just 90 votes — 71 of which came from Hernández’s National Party — only 4 votes over what he needed to get the super-majority and become attorney general. But the vote was plagued by accusations of political manipulation. The previous attorney general had been forced from his post early, and some politicians wanted Chinchilla to simply serve out the remainder of the previous prosecutor’s term.

Despite skepticism, Chinchilla got off to a fast start. On September 19, just weeks after he took control of the prosecutor’s office, the Attorney General’s Office assisted in the government’s seizure of upwards of $500 million in properties and possessions of the Rivera Maradiaga family, the core of the feared Cachiros criminal group.

The Cachiros were a powerful underworld family that coordinated drug trafficking to and from Honduras, and whose political, economic, and social power touched all circles of society in Honduras, including the son of former President Porfirio Lobo, a longtime National Party strongman, and possibly Ramón Lobo, the former president’s brother.

In March 2014, authorities arrested El Negro Lobo. In August and September 2014, after Digna Valle Valle was arrested in the United States, the Valle Valle brothers and several of their associates were arrested. In October, Don H was arrested.

These suspects were all later extradited to the United States, but the arrests led to increasing seizures of assets in Honduras. Property seizures went up ten-fold between 2013 and 2015, according to the Attorney General’s Office.

These led to threats. Chinchilla’s own family received a series of death threats, for instance, after an operative was deployed to seize the assets and property of the Valle Valle drug trafficking organization. These were hardly idle matters. The former head of the financial crimes unit, Orlán Arturo Chávez, had been assassinated in April 2013.

Chinchilla also began to upend the official support networks that had long protected these drug trafficking networks. Shortly after he took control, he restructured the Directorate of the Fight Against Drug Trafficking (Dirección de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – DLCN) within the Attorney General’s Office after that it was connected to a case that involved millions of dollars smuggled into Panama.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Judicial Reform

Chinchilla later added 38 prosecutors to the anti-corruption unit and designated another 24 from a newly created special unit — the Technical Agency for Criminal Investigation (Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal – ATIC) — to work on corruption cases. By 2015, the number of cases of public official corruption had doubled, including cases against 3 judges and 42 police, the Attorney General’s Office reported.   

The cases had huge political implications, but Chinchilla seemed unfazed and increasingly critical of the politicians and judicial authorities who facilitated criminal activities.

“The drug traffickers who we have seized properties from, who we have taken to prison and others who we have extradited, they weren’t born a month after we took over the Attorney General’s Office,” he told the press. “They have been here for 20 years, which leads me to ask myself: Why didn’t anyone notice they were doing this before?”

Targeting Elites?

In November 2013, Hernández won the presidency, but his hand-picked attorney general was already on the loose. In addition to the moves to corral high level drug trafficking suspects and to reform his own office, Chinchilla pushed hard an ongoing investigation into the Honduras Social Security Institute (Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social – IHSS).

The IHSS is one of the largest government agencies in Honduras, with medicine, construction and transport contracts with various service providers across the country. The movement of government money and contracts has long made these types of institutes a ripe place for corruption in places like El Salvador and Guatemala.

The IHSS was no different than its counterparts, and by late 2013, the Attorney General’s Office was investigating widespread allegations of fraud, misuse of funds and corruption. In April 2014, Chinchilla’s office charged Mario Zelaya, the head of the IHSS between 2010 – 2014, along with several others with corruption, money laundering and numerous other crimes. Zelaya fled but was captured in September 2014.  

President Hernández praised his functionaries for the capture — mostly the military police — but the case was a time bomb for him and his National Party. Zelaya was a party operative who, although he was a one-time supporter of Hernández’s rival campaign, had worked with the party since 2005, and was a close associate of former President Porfirio Lobo.

Eventually, the case spread from Zelaya to other parts of the IHSS. The investigations ranged from kickbacks to unauthorized travel to campaign contributions, which allegedly went into the coffers of the National Party during the 2013 presidential campaign. In total, there are 29 different cases; the various embezzlement schemes cost the government an estimated $330 million.

After a strong initial push, however, the case has dragged through the system, and the rumblings and threats around it have increased. In May 2015, the lead prosecutor fled the country due to threats, further delaying the investigations.

There have been more than 15 convictions in IHSS-related cases, and Zelaya has been sentenced for a parallel case of arms trafficking. Still, his IHSS-related case has not gone to court yet, and other cases against top-level participants are also languishing in the system.

The critiques have followed.

“The Honduran attorney general, Oscar Chinchilla, has so far failed to investigate or prosecute National Party leaders in the diversion of health care funds to party accounts,” guest columnist Alexander Main noted in a New York Times editorial from February 2016, entitled “An Anti-corruption Charade in Honduras.” 

Purging the Police

The IHSS case is one of many that critics say illustrate Chinchilla’s window dressing, his inability to finish what he started. These critics note that the biggest cases are not even driven by Chinchilla.

In October 2015, for instance, the US Department of Justice charged four members of the powerful Rosenthal clan of money laundering and other corruption-related charges. Three of the four accused are in the US to face the charges. Chinchilla’s office followed this by seizing numerous Rosenthal assets. But no criminal charges have been filed against the family patriarch, Jaime Rosenthal, who is the last remaining person on the US indictment still in Honduras.

Other powerful cases against elites are also in motion but moving slowly. The Attorney General’s Office under Chinchilla has arrested 12 mayors who are under investigation for crimes ranging from money laundering to corruption to murder, several of them from Hernández’s National Party. However, of those 12 only Arnaldo Urbina Soto, the former mayor of Yoro, has been been sentenced; he was convicted of money laundering on February 27, 2017.

Some of the most notable of the cases are the murders of former drug czar Julian Aristides González and Alfredo Landaverde. But while the initial boom in press coverage served to launch a special police commission, the cases themselves appear to be terribly flawed.   

The efforts to purge and prosecute the police have placed Chinchilla and the Attorney General’s Office in an impossible political position and illustrate, in part, why he is in such a tenuous spot now.

The president’s loyalties lie with the military. He was schooled in a military school. His brother and close adviser is a colonel in the military, and he has placed numerous members of the army into traditionally civilian-held posts. And as a means to fill the security gap presented by the police’s chronic corruption and ineptitude, President Hernández deployed the military police. He also tried, and failed, to codify the military police into the country’s constitution.

To the police, Chinchilla is seen as Hernández’s attack dog. As part of the aforementioned case against the former officers, for example, Chinchilla’s prosecutors raided a police unit and excavated files. The police struck back: when Chinchilla sent prosecutors on a raid against a drug trafficker in cars without license plates, the police stopped their vehicles and later justified the decision by saying they were obliged to stop cars without plates.

Berta Caceres and a Paltry Budget

On the afternoon of September 29, 2016, a Honduran appellate court judge piled Berta Caceres’ case file into her bag, got into her car and started home. On her way, her car was cut off by another vehicle. Armed men piled out, hijacked the judge’s car and the case file, and sped off. 

Although the theft of the file was clearly the court system’s responsibility, the suspicious act — which has since elicited any number of conspiracy theories — dropped like a bomb on Chinchilla’s office. The Caceres’ murder case had already greatly eroded the substantial capital that the Attorney General’s Office had built up under Chinchilla. After her murder, prosecutors had arrested six suspects (they have since arrested two more), including an active and a retired member of the military and a manager of the Agua Zarca energy company. 

But the case has nearly roiled US-Honduras relations. Some US congressmen were calling for a halt to Honduran aid until the case was resolved to their satisfaction. Just what satisfaction meant in this instance is not known. Civil society groups want the attorney general to charge and arrest the owners of the company that was developing the dam that Caceres and others had blocked with their protests. Those owners are part of one of the wealthiest families in the country, who are also staunch supporters of Hernández and the National Party. Furthermore, leaked court documents recently accessed by The Guardian show that the murder may have been planned by military intelligence specialists who received training in the United States.

As it was with the police, the Caceres case put Chinchilla squarely between numerous power brokers: in this case it was the president and his powerful backers on the one side, and the United States, civil society groups and activists on the other. And, although the attorney general insists that the case continues apace, a group of international lawyers have launched a parallel inquiry.

The impact has been devastating on a political and a financial level. The Attorney General’s Office current budget of $71 million is the lowest in the region. In the last decade, Honduras has allocated more than 115 billion lempiras (about $5 billion) to the country’s security and justice systems, of which the judicial system has gotten 17.3 percent and the Attorney General’s Office only 9.3 percent. In comparison, the Security Ministry has received 36.2 percent and the Defense Ministry 37.2 percent.

The deficit is apparent in other ways as well. An ATIC pilot project allowed for 50 prosecutors in San Pedro Sula and 50 in Tegucigalpa. In contrast, the newly minted Investigative Police Directorate (DPI), a special unit created six months after the ATIC, began with 1,000 agents and had an initial outlay of 200 million lempiras (about $8.5 million).

In 2016, Chinchilla, along with several civil society organizations, called for an increase of 580 million lempiras (roughly $25 million) for the Attorney General’s Office budget, which would be earmarked for the hiring of at least 400 new prosecutors, 400 investigative agents, 100 forensic doctors and another 100 financial crime analysts. Instead, the presidency asked congress for an increase of 29 million lempiras ($1.23 million).

As the Alliance for Peace and Justice (Alianza por la Paz y Justicia – APJ), a group of civil society and religious organizations working for justice reform, recently pointed out, “In order to continue demanding results from the different special prosecutors’ offices, criminal investigation agencies, forensic medicine units and other units of the Attorney General’s Office, it is necessary to equip them with sufficient human, logistical and financial resources.”

Chinchilla’s current political isolation may also be worsening. He reportedly does not always attend the executive branch’s National Security Council meetings. And when he does, he does not always sign in, preferring rather to be a spectator.

Chinchilla’s term goes until 2018, but he may not make it that long. One of the most recent drug trafficking cases headed by the Attorney General’s Office involves the so-called Atlantic Cartel, a disparate network connected to army officials, judges and others.

When faced down by US interrogators, one of those accused of facilitating the cartel’s activities said President Hernández’s brother, a congressman for the National Party, was involved. Hernández’s brother denied the claims, but a US official at the embassy told InSight Crime that he remains a “person of interest.”

*This article is part of an ongoing series on judicial and police reform in Honduras. 

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