The fight against corruption in Honduras faces critical moments this month. The Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), an Organization of American States (OAS) backed anti-graft commission in place since 2016, is set to expire on January 19. If renewed, it seems unlikely that the MACCIH will continue with a strengthened mandate. The weakening, or perhaps full disappearance of Honduras’ most successful anti-corruption mission, embodies the broader unraveling of checks-and-balances under National Party governments, particularly following the rise of Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH, 2014-present) to the presidency.
Political corruption in Honduras is both historical and widespread. The country’s public officials, particularly those from the incumbent National Party, are hopelessly corrupt, and Hondurans have grown accustomed to living under its burden. Corruption adds yet another layer to the reinforcing relationship between poverty, violence, and impunity that troubles the country. This vicious cycle is detrimental to the prosperity of Hondurans, leaving by the thousands each year seeking a better life abroad—the vast majority in the United States.
MACCIH is born
A brief glimpse of hope in the fight against corruption emerged in late 2014. The press revealed a massive corruption scandal involving Honduras’ Social Security Institute (Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social, or IHSS), in charge of the country’s fragile welfare regime. Public officials, most prominently the head of the IHSS Mario Zelaya, embezzled over $250 million from the IHSS, leaving it bankrupt.
While those involved benefited from extravagant lifestyles, allegedly 3,000 Hondurans lost their lives. Investigations revealed that the sick were given pills made from flour instead of real medicine. The corruption scheme was so pervasive that it even affected the incoming presidency of Juan Orlando Hernández, who, although initially denied any wrongdoing, later admitted that at least $150,000 of IHSS money made it to his election campaign.
The scandal concerning one of the country’s most cherished institutions sent shockwaves across Honduran society. Demonstrations emerged spontaneously, as hundreds of thousands took to the streets to protest. The 2015 marches of the outraged (marchas de los indignados) illuminated the country with tiki torches and Honduran flags. Events in neighboring Guatemala, where the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) grew close to cutting short the corruption-ridden presidency of Otto Pérez Molina and vice president Roxana Baldetti, inspired the Indignados.
While the Indignados demanded a CICIG, the government of Juan Orlando Hernández negotiated the creation of MACCIH. Profound differences existed between both commissions. On the one hand, the CICIG was backed by the United Nations and was independent from the government, allowing it to effectively investigate and prosecute crimes. On the other, the MACCIH was more dependent on the executive branch, only held an advisory role in investigations, and was constrained to four thematic areas: corruption, criminal justice reform, political-electoral reform, and public safety.
Even with its limited mandate, the MACCIH proved essential in the fight against corruption. Its advisory role unmasked pervasive wrongdoings in the ranks of Honduras’ political elite. Perhaps its most famous investigations are the First Lady’s Safe investigation (Caja Chica de la Primera Dama) and the Pandora Case (Caso Pandora). In the first case, Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, Honduras’ first lady during the presidency of Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo (2010-2014), was found guilty of misappropriating close to $500,000 in public funds. As a result of the investigation, Rosa was sentenced to 58 years in jail. In the second case, a MACCIH supported inquiry revealed a network of 38 politicians, including many former and sitting members of congress, who embezzled over $11 million in irregular campaign finance schemes.
Although constrained to an advisory role, the dozen or so corruption cases uncovered with the help of the MACCIH were enough to scare the country’s political elite—an elite that is unaccustomed to being held accountable. Now, the same elite scrutinized by the MACCIH serves as a veto player in renewing its mandate, set to expire soon. The MACCIH’s future hangs by a thread. Two scenarios emerge. None foresee the emergence of a strengthened MACCIH.
In the first scenario, a new government-led agreement decreases the authority given to the anti-graft commission. While the MACCIH remains in place, its role in the fight against corruption would be nominal at best. In the second scenario, the parties involved—the government, the divided opposition, and the OAS—do not renew the MACCIH because they fail to reach an agreement. This outcome would mark the end of Honduras’ brief experiment with the anti-graft commission. In both situations, investigations fall solely upon the country’s partisan institutions, and consequently, corruption grows freely again.
The problems surrounding the renewal of the MACCIH shed light on Honduras’ institutional unraveling. The rise of Juan Orlando Hernández to the presidency in 2013 has been detrimental to the country’s already weak democratic institutions. JOH, who ran again after forcing a questionable reinterpretation of the 1982 constitution—which strictly prohibited presidential reelection—won thanks to extensive fraud, and has worked to dismantled the few checks-and-balances that remained in place.
Although JOH vowed to increase the fight against corruption, this outcome seems unlikely. Those who benefit generously from a broken system will rarely seek to change it. JOH’s ruling National Party (PN) is now a synonym of corruption in Honduras. The case of the president’s younger brother, Juan Antonio Hernández—popularly known as Tony—illustrates how the National Party and the president’s inner-circle benefit from corruption. Tony, a former PN deputy, was recently tried and convicted in New York for conspiring to import cocaine into the U.S., among other federal offenses. During the trial, prosecutors pinpointed JOH and former president Pepe Lobo as co-conspirators of drug-trafficking activities—a witness even accused JOH of allegedly receiving $1.5 million in campaign contributions from infamous El Chapo Guzmán.
The situation in Honduras is full of despair. In the wake of the 2017 election fraud, opposition parties—ranging from the leftist Freedom and Refoundation (LIBRE) party, led by former president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya (2006-2009), to the conservative Liberal Party, led by the uncharismatic Luis Zelaya (no relation to Mel)—have lost their ability to mobilize supporters against government initiatives. Only civil society can pressure the government to renew—and strengthen—the MACCIH’s mandate, as the Indignados did in 2015. However, few have risen to the challenge. The only large-scale mobilization is currently taking place in San Pedro Sula, where a new wave of migrants and refugees is grouping. Their goal is to reach the U.S. to achieve a better life, one marked by safety and economic opportunities, because Honduras, a country beleaguered by corruption and impunity, offers them none.
Lucas Perelló is a Ph.D. candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello