The Other Americans: Honduras Gives Mixed Signals on Investigating its Own Corruption

Cervecería Centroamericana S.A.

The country’s new president has promised to work with the United Nations to establish an anti-corruption commission, with the United States offering support. But experts have questions.

Like its neighboring countries in Central America, Honduras has suffered for decades from rampant political corruption and impunity. In response, recently elected president Xiomara Castro has sought to establish a United Nations-backed body, as yet officially unnamed but often referred to as the International Commission Against Impunity in Honduras, or CICIH, modeled after the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, commonly known as CICIG, which was closed in 2019.

But as the country has slowly advanced with the establishment of this body, which was among Castro’s key campaign promises, the political will surrounding it has increasingly been questioned by experts.

“It is a bit difficult to read the actions of the Castro government, because they are contradictory,” Ana María Méndez Dardón, Central American director for the Washington Office on Latin America, tells The Progressive.

In February 2022, Castro formally requested the United Nations move forward with the CICIH, Mendez Dardón explains. But that same month, just days after she took office, Castro’s allies in congress approved an amnesty law that granted members of her husband Manuel Zelaya’s government freedom from the accusations of corruption. Zelaya was president of Honduras from 2006 until he was overthrown in a coup in June 2009; his administration was accused of associating with drug traffickers and other acts of corruption.

Castro’s moves have generated concern that her administration is positioning itself to exert more control over what should be an independent body.

“There is political interest from the government, that a commission similar to the one that existed in Guatemala, which was managed by the United Nations, can be established here [in Honduras],” Julio Raudales, a Honduran economist and current rector at the private José Cecilio del Valle University in Comayagua, tells The Progressive. “But they are pressuring [the United Nations] to have more government control over the commission.”

In spite of this, the administration has continued to seek to establish the anti-impunity body. These efforts have also received support from the United States government.

In December 2022, Castro and members of her administration signed a Memorandum of Understanding with representatives of the United Nations. But this is not sufficient for the formation of the body, as U.S. Senator Patrick Leahy, Democrat of Vermont, observed following Castro’s visit to the United Nations.

“Only a convenio [agreement] signed by President Castro and the U.N. Secretary General can accomplish that. So, the focus should now turn promptly to negotiations for a convenio to prevent any further delays in making the CICIH a reality,” Senator Leahy said in a statement.

“Honduras has been down this road before and there are important lessons to be learned,” the Senator wrote. “Partial solutions only resulted in money wasted, time lost, and justice denied. The CICIH must be empowered to carry out its responsibilities independently, free of inappropriate or political interference by any political party, politician, or other interest group.”

The delayed election of the Honduran Supreme Court, which finally was held on February 16 after five failed attempts, is an important step to creating an independent judicial body.

But there’s still a threat that political interests from both sides of the aisle in Honduras could seek to debilitate the ability of any commission to investigate corruption, as neither side desires to be investigated.

“The current [Castro] government doesn’t want to be investigated, rather they want the previous government [of President Juan Orlando Hernández] to be investigated,” Raudales says. “And those of that previous government don’t want to be investigated either.”

According to Méndez Dardón, the establishment of the commission is currently undergoing a country-wide study to see the potential of such a body. But as the slow process moves along, the experience of the CICIG in Guatemala looms large.

“Experiences like that of the CICIG scares any ruler,” Méndez Dardón says, “because it was shown that when there is an independent mechanism of independent justice, the high spheres of power can be brought to justice, and that is their fear.”

It took years to establish what would become the renowned anti-impunity body in Guatemala, and once it was in place, it took another nearly eight years and two commissioners before the body was able to investigate the government at the time.

The CICIG was established in Guatemala in 2007 after the government of Óscar Berger approached the United Nations about creating an independent body that could investigate acts of impunity and the participation of criminal groups that operated within the country.

In the early years, the body successfully investigated a number of high-profile cases, but it wasn’t until 2015 under the leadership of prosecutor Iván Velasquez that the CICIG gained international notoriety. That year, the commission uncovered a graft scheme that involved then-president, Otto Pérez Molona, and his cabinet who had stolen millions of dollars from the country’s tax system.

Following months of protests, Pérez Molina resigned and was arrested to face criminal prosecution for the scheme. He was sentenced to sixteen years in prison in December 2022.

Through the political crisis, presidential candidate Jimmy Morales formed his campaign around the struggle against corruption, promising voters that he was “neither corrupt nor a thief.” He won the election as an outsider candidate, and promised to work with the CICIG despite the fact that the previous candidate for Morales’s far-right FCN-Nación party had campaigned in the 2011 election on limiting the influence of CICIG.

But Morales’s shaky relationship with the CICIG eroded following the investigation into the president’s brother and son for acts of corruption. In addition, the investigation of other high-profile politicians, and other high-profile business leaders, led to blowback against the body. By 2017, Morales began to threaten the commission, declaring Velásquez persona non grata, and suggesting that the CICIG had violated the human rights of those whom they were investigating and that it violated Guatemala’s sovereignty.

The anti-CICIG movement sought out supporters in the United States to spread their narrative. This story of abuses by the CICIG found advocates among Republicans during the Trump Administration.

The CICIG officially closed in September 2019.

As the development of a parallel commission in Honduras advances, a similar narrative around sovereignty is emerging, according to Méndez Dardón.

“We are watching with concern,” she says. “They are framing [things] on sovereignty. So it’s complicated, because this is not about the sovereignty of a country. It is not the sovereignty of a country, but the corruption and organized criminal networks that affect a country more than any international mechanism that would strengthen justice.”


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