Mural in Tegucigalpa, Honduras 

Over the past two years, thousands of Hondurans have died due to inadequate medical care in the country’s public hospitals. Crucial supplies like kidney dialysis machines and x-ray plates have been unavailable when urgently needed.

The cause of the shortages is no mystery: in 2013, the director of Honduras’s national health care system embezzled $350 million from the agency’s budget, some of which was subsequently transferred to President Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party. Up to 2,888 people died in the aftermath of this misappropriation; one observer labeled the theft “genocide without parallel in the history of [Honduras].”

Yet the incident was far from Honduras’ only recent struggle with corruption. Human Rights Watch’s 2015 World Report notes “endemic corruption within the police force” and “intimidation” of the judiciary as key problems the country faces. Journalists working in the country are often subject to “violence,” “death threats” and “abusive judicial proceedings.” Transparency International currently ranks Honduras 112th out of 168 countries on its Corruption Perceptions Index.

But not long after the scandal surrounding Honduras’s health care system broke in January 2014, many onlookers saw reasons for optimism. In 2015, a grassroots anti-corruption movement known as Los Indignados, or “The Outraged,” gained broad traction with the Honduran public. After a UN-affiliated anti-corruption commission in neighboring Guatemala known as the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala proved effective in exposing widespread government corruption and eventually led to Guatemalan President Otto Perez Molina’s resignation, momentum grew for Honduras to establish its own version of the CICIG.

Last September, President Hernández announced that an agreement had been reached with the Organization of American States to establish an anti-corruption commission. In a statement, OAS secretary general Luis Almagro said the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras would “seek to make the justice system an effective tool in the fight against impunity, that manages to earn the respect of the people of Honduras.” The OAS granted the MACCIH a budget of $32 million, while the United States and Germany contributed an additional $5.2 million and $2.5 million respectively. Yet 10 months since the MACCIH was announced and two months since it officially began operations, it still faces many obstacles. It will take the cooperation from the Honduran government and a revitalization of public confidence in the country’s governing institutions for the organization to effectively challenge corruption in Honduras.

A Rough Start

In January 2014, Honduras’ National Congress passed the Law of Secrets, which allows the government to withhold information regarding security and defense spending for up to 25 years.

This policy remains in full force, even as President Hernández promises the MACCIH will be granted unrestricted access to government information. While nominally, the MACCIH “will have full access to information, official documents, databases, public records and archives,” the Law of Secrets provides the government with authority to deny the MACCIH information that could prove relevant to its investigations.

If the MACCIH is to be successful, this law must either be eliminated or given urgent reform, says Rodolfo Dumas, a regional vice chairman with the Inter American Press. “Beyond restricting information access to both the population and the MACCIH, this law violates the international human right of access to public information,” he wrote in a local newspaper. Dumas suggested a solution. “The MACCIH should propose to reform the [Law of Secrets], ensuring that it will comply with the minimum standards established by our legislation and the principles recognized by international law.”

However, Norma Iris Coto, a judge in San Pedro Sula who represents the Latin American Federation of Judges on the MACCIH, disagrees with his interpretation of the Law of Secrets’ impact on the MACCIH proceedings. In an interview with the HPR, she argued that “because the MACCIH was established in cooperation with the government, they will have total access to undisclosed information that proves useful to their investigations … for the MACCIH, this law will not have any effect.” However, the mere fact that there is ambiguity surrounding the law’s potential effect on the commission opens the door for disagreements between the government and MACCIH. While members of the MACCIH have stated that they will publicly denounce any obstacles that the government places in the group’s path, it remains to be seen just how feasible that will be.

Another challenge for the newly formed anti-corruption agency involves its own design. The MACCIH does not possess its own investigatory and prosecutory powers, and instead the body will largely be relegated to a technical role in support of existing investigators and prosecutors in Honduras. This is alarming, given ongoing concerns regarding the independence of the country’s judiciary. It’s also a notable departure from the UN-backed CICIG in Guatemala, which had the power to conduct highly sensitive investigations on its own. Many of the Honduran protesters who demanded an anti-corruption commission after seeing the CICIG’s success were, of course, disappointed by the MACCIH’s incomplete structure.

But even if the judiciary fully cooperated with the MACCIH, there would remain difficulties associated with coordinating investigations between various groups. Luis Larach, president of the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise, noted in an interview with the HPR that the MACCIH’S efforts will require time, as the MACCIH will need many months to train the judicial personnel who will assist its efforts.

Some are also worried that the Honduran government may not abide by the agreement negotiated with the OAS to create the MACCIH. The creation of the body was delayed months because the initial draft of the agreement granted the commission power to receive and investigate complaints, which the Honduran government opposed. In its final form, the commission lacks this power as well as the authority to compel legislative action to address corruption. On many occasions, the Honduran government has demonstrated a disinterest in enforcing the country’s anti-corruption laws and has faced a potential loss of U.S. foreign aid numerous times due to its failure to rein in irresponsible public-sector behavior. Given this troubled record, it seems entirely possible that the Honduran government could ignore the commission’s findings or even renege on the agreement with the OAS entirely.

Moreover, the idea of permitting an international organization like the OAS to supervise the national justice system and take legal actions does not appeal to every citizen, with President Hernández himself proposing instead a “Honduran solution” that would see a diminished role for the body’s investigators and consultants. Larach explained why an organization with broad investigatory and prosecutory powers may not be a suitable solution. “Replacing our institutions and our government system with an international organization would be an attack on our sovereignty and our weakened branches of government.” Therefore, the MACCIH’s task is hampered not only by the government’s secrecy and intransigence, but also by some citizens’ skepticism.

Filling in the Gaps

It is clear that the MACCIH’s success hinges on the government’s willingness to cooperate with its efforts and respects the commission’s independent authority. Lester Ramirez, an investigation coordinator for Transparency International, commented in an interview with the HPR that “the government’s obligation is to ensure that there are no voluntary or involuntary obstacles in the investigation and prosecution of corruption cases.” Granting the MACCIH full access to Honduran government records, including those traditionally classified under the Law of Secrets, would allow it to more effectively uncover wrongdoing, as would permitting the commission to assemble its own impartial team of Honduran prosecutors and investigators.

Yet, as Judge Coto highlighted, the government won’t be the only key partner in the MACCIH’s operations. She noted that Chilean representatives from the Justice Studies Center of the Americas would be providing instruction to Honduran members of the MACCIH, which may help insulate the organization from government bias. Aside from protecting the MACCIH’s operations from politicization, this would mitigate bureaucratic complications arising from excess coordination between the MACCIH and Honduran government agencies.

The MACCIH may also benefit from collaboration with Honduras’ civil society. The agreement establishing the MACCIH mandated “the creation of a Criminal Justice System Observatory composed of academic organizations and Honduran civil society to monitor and evaluate the progress of the reform of Honduran justice.” Ramirez emphasized the importance of this body’s collaboration with the mission, saying that “this justice observatory will consolidate monitoring and oversight from civil society, which is crucial to ensure transparent investigations.”

There are indications that Honduras may finally have the momentum and firepower to deal with its corruption problems. The Indignados movement provided the strongest evidence yet that the Honduran public is closely following corruption issues. Hundreds of thousands of citizens, including young people who traditionally participate less in political affairs, protested against corruption in over 50 cities across Honduras last year. Foreign countries like Mexico, the United States, and Canada are providing monetary and technical support to strengthen the MACCIH. At the same time, international pressure is being applied to the Honduran government to root out corruption: earlier this year, the European Union provided funding for an independent study on Honduran corruption.

The MACCIH was born from the demands of Honduran society. And while it may not be a completely effective mission against corruption, it is certainly evidence that Hondurans and others are fed up with the country’s often irresponsible officials and have been able to mobilize political force behind their concerns.

Image Source: Pixabay/disoniador

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