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Honduras: How a surge of corruption scandals has fueled political crisis

Andreas Daugaard

Ever since the Corruption Perceptions Index started measuring public sector corruption, Honduras has not been able to escape the category of a highly corrupt country.

More recently, systemic corruption at the highest levels of state has severely affected the population, and has challenged their hopes and expectations that the solutions to their problems can be found in Honduras. So desperate is the situation for many that hundreds of thousands of citizens have chosen to migrate.

Little trust in government

The Global Corruption Barometer – Latin America and the Caribbean points towards a worsening situation, particularly the decreasing trust in the government and its anti–corruption efforts.

Since the last survey in 2017, the percentage of Hondurans who believe the president is involved in acts of corruption has increased from 50 per cent to 65 per cent; and the number of Hondurans that believe the government is handling the fight against corruption poorly swelled from 37 per cent to 62 per cent.

A lack of political integrity

In 2019, more than half of Hondurans agree that the government is run by a few big interests looking out for themselves. Fewer than 2 out of 5 agree that government officials use their power to improve people’s lives, and fewer than 1 out of 2 agree that the government takes the views of people into account. These are extremely alarming trends, especially considering the dramatic changes that have taken place in only two years.


Why have perceptions of the President and his government’s efforts to fight corruption plummeted?

The last two years have seen Honduras struggling with almost constant social unrest, institutional crisis and political instability. A “multi-crisis” has enveloped Honduras since the general election of 2017.

The reelection of President Juan Orlando Hernandez (2014-present), under accusations of blatant and widespread fraud, exploded into violent social protests that left at least 23 dead, most at the hands of security forces, including two women and two children.

The role of MACCIH in Honduras

In parallel to the constitutional and social crisis, a wave of high-level corruption scandals have come to light, both fueled by and contributing to the political instability.

Severe national and international pressure forced the Government to sign an agreement with the Organization of American States (OAS) in 2016, establishing the Mission to Fight Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).

The MACCIH has since investigated 12 high-profile corruption cases involving dozens of members of congress and a former first lady, along with many other influential members of the Honduran business elite.

Currently, the MACCIH is in limbo, as its mandate expires in January 2020. A broad coalition of civil society organizations have called for the renewal of its mandate, which is also supported by the UN Special Rapporteur on Judicial Independence and the US Embassy.

Yet, many political leaders remain silent on MACCIH’s renewal, while some even appear to stifle its efforts. For example, the President of the Supreme Court in Honduras has argued that the judicial system is ready to work without the MACCIH, a remark that seems alarming when the impunity rate is 87 per cent.

Recent corruption scandals

MACCIH’s first case was named “Red de Diputados”, in which members of congress were found to have funneled over US$300,000 of public funds through an NGO to their own bank accounts.

In a clear attempt to avoid justice, members of congress stopped the judicial process by introducing articles into the annual budget law, transferring jurisdiction to another organ, and forcing the judge to close and file the case.

MACCIH has since tried to prosecute this fraudulent act as “Pacto de Impunidad” — or Impunity Pact — one of the clearest cases of high-level state officials actively working to undermine anti-corruption efforts for their own benefit.

Trouble at the top

The Honduran people had a major success recently when former first lady Rosa Elena de Lobo was found guilty of embezzlement and fraud, and has been sentenced to 58 years in prison.

Yet, that win was bittersweet. On the same day, former Vice-President of Congress, Lena Gutierrez, was absolved of corruption charges, in a case involving an allegedly fraudulent procurement process for medicines.

Some speculate that the verdict was purposefully delivered on the same day as the case against Rosa Elena, in the hope that the verdict would slip from public attention.

An increasing number of high-ranking Honduran officials are facing criminal indictment in the US, including Juan Antonio Hernández, the President´s brother, who the US Department of Justice describes as a ¨large scale drug trafficker¨.

Recently, the President himself has been implicated, allegedly colluding with a former mayor in a transfer of drug proceeds to his 2013 presidential campaign.

Former Honduran First Lady was sentenced to 58 years in prison for fraud. Source: Processo Digital

Is there still hope for the fight against corruption in Honduras?

In spite of the many corruption scandals at the highest levels of government, the number of Hondurans who believe they can make a difference in the fight against corruption is 78 per cent.

The information age has increased exposure of corruption at the highest levels of government, and Honduras has started seeing some of these untrusted and historically “untouchable” leaders being brought to justice.

The road is, however, far from linear. Political leaders are fighting vigorously to maintain the status quo through impunity pacts and regressive legislation that halts anti-corruption efforts.

Meanwhile, the Honduran people will continue suffering, protesting and fleeing.