The Supreme Court of Honduras has thrown out an historic anti-corruption conviction against a former first lady, laying bare the uphill battle the country faces after the dismantling of its internationally-backed anti-graft body.
The announcement that fraud and embezzlement charges against former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo would be dropped came on March 13, when the Supreme Court also ordered that a new trial be held.
The wife of disgraced former President Porfirio Lobo, Bonilla de Lobo was first arrested in February 2018 in the capital Tegucigalpa before being convicted in August 2019 in connection to the “first lady’s petty cash” (Caja Chica de la Primera Dama) case.
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The investigation carried out by the National Anti-Corruption Council (Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción – CNA) with assistance from the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) and an anti-corruption unit of the Attorney General’s Office known as UFECIC (Unidad Fiscal Especial Contra la Impunidad de la Corrupción – UFECIC) accused the former first lady and others of diverting around 16 million lempiras (around $650,000) and creating a money laundering network to cover up stolen government funds meant for social projects.
The conviction marked a historic point for the anti-corruption body MACCIH, which was created in 2015 with the backing of the Organization of American States (OAS) before President Juan Orlando Hernández refused to extend its mandate in January 2020. The Honduran Congress, which is controlled by the ruling National Party, had also voiced its support for the decision.
InSight Crime Analysis
The conviction of former first lady Bonilla was arguably the most emblematic conviction that MACCIH secured before being shut down in Honduras. Its reversal should serve as a real warning sign.
The MACCIH faced its fair share of obstacles from the start, but the anti-corruption body played an important role in combating corruption in a country that has become accustomed to business and political elites pilfering state institutions and stealing public funds.
One high-profile investigation dubbed the Pandora Case, for example, singled out dozens of officials from both the National and Liberal parties for diverting some $12 million from the Honduran treasury. Some of this cash stolen from government coffers went directly to funding efforts for President Hernández’s first successful bid for the presidency in 2013.
In its four years in operation, MACCIH members helped prosecute 133 people and investigate 14 cases, according to information from the OAS. President Hernández has said his government remains committed to combating corruption, but Bonilla de Lobo’s release and his own refusal to put any meaningful support behind the MACCIH’s renewal or broader anti-graft measures suggests otherwise.
The creation of the MACCIH was a much-needed step towards moving away from corruption as the “operating system” in Honduras, but the smirk on Bonilla de Lobo’s face as she left jail earlier this month makes clear the elites have fired back.