May 17, 2016
After many weeks of fits and starts, the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras—known by its Spanish initials MACCIH — slowly began to sputter into motion late last month, with an initial series of meetings between MACCIH personnel and members of Honduras’ judicial institutions. On April 28, the Coalition Against Impunity — made up of many of Honduras’ leading human rights and anti-impunity advocacy groups — released a statement [here in English] lamenting MACCIH’s limited powers and noting that the only way for the mission to “generate some degree of credibility and lay the foundations for its legitimacy, is by producing immediate results with regards to the cases of corruption that have had the most impact on citizens, such as that of the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS) in which the governing party is involved.”
As Americas Blog readers are well aware, a major corruption scandal involving the ruling National Party and the IHSS —which administers a state healthcare fund —led to massive protests against the Honduran government from May to September of 2015. As I described in a New York Times op-ed back in February, protesters called for the creation of a United Nations–backed commission modeled on Guatemala’s International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala. Instead, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and the General Secretariat of the Organization of American States (OAS) came up with MACCIH, a body that lacks the far-reaching mandate and autonomy of the Guatemalan commission.
Despite the objections of the Coalition Against Impunity and the “indignados” protest movement, the Honduran government and the OAS went ahead and signed an agreement creating MACCIH on January 19 of this year. Various hurdles — including opposition from the National Party in the Honduran congress — delayed implementation of the agreement for several months. When MACCIH finally began to show signs of life in early April, it very quickly careened off in a strange and inauspicious direction.
First, on April 3, the Honduran foreign ministry requested that the MACCIH be involved in the investigation into the murder of the Honduran social leader Berta Cáceres — a proposal quickly rejected by Cáceres’ family given that the MACCIH has neither the mandate nor the capacity to provide effective help with a murder investigation. Instead, Cáceres’ family has consistently asked that the Honduran government allow an independent group of experts, supported by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), to carry out an investigation of the murder.
Then, on April 6, members of Cáceres’ family and of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras (COPINH, the indigenous organization co-founded by Cáceres) met with OAS Secretary General Luis Almagro to discuss their concerns regarding the flawed investigation into Cáceres’ assassination. The meeting grew increasingly uncomfortable as Almagro, who has been a major promoter of MACCIH, insisted that Honduras’s new anticorruption mission should be involved in the investigation. Though Cáceres’ family strongly rejected this possibility, Almagro’s office issued a Tweet shortly after the meeting with a picture of the meeting participants together with the announcement that MACCIH would “investigate sources of political/economic corruption in the crime.”
The Cáceres family and the Center for Justice and International Law (CEJIL) quickly issued a statement refuting Almagro’s announcement that included a strong quote from Cáceres’ daughter Bertha Zúñiga Cáceres:
This morning we made our desire very clear that we do not want the MACCIH to investigate my mother’s murder, but somehow the opposite has been understood. This concerns me because it creates confusion within a community that is waiting to hear what will happen with regards to this case.
In the days that followed, Almagro backed down and then ended up throwing his support behind the family’s request for an IACHR-backed investigation into the murder of Berta Cáceres. But the fact that both the Honduran government and the OAS Secretary General had tried to involve MACCIH in an investigation that had nothing to with the body’s mandate, and had attempted to do so before MACCIH had even come into existence, left a very bad taste in the mouths of Honduran human rights defenders and anticorruption advocates.In their April 28 statement, the Coalition Against Impunity noted:
We believe that the MACCIH does not have the power to intervene in the investigation related to the prosecution of those responsible for this assassination. Consequently, attention should be given to the family and COPINH’s objections, so that the MACCIH does notintervene in these proceedings, because by doing so they impede the request for an international commission under the auspices of the IACHR that would contribute to the clarification of the case.
Again, MACCIH originated as a response to the IHSS corruption scandal and, as the Coalition has stated, its first priority should be ensuring an exhaustive investigation of what has occurred at the IHSS and identifying and prosecuting all those in the government and the National Party implicated in kickback or bribery schemes. Recently, the head of MACCIH, the Peruvian former minister Juan Jiménez Mayor, stated that they will indeed focus first on the IHSS case. He also announced that their team of forensic experts would not be in place until sometime in August, dampening hope of “immediate results.”
Even if the MACCIH team has the best of intentions, which remains to be seen, they will face some very tall hurdles.
For starters, any corruption investigation requires the cooperation and support of the attorney general’s office, which remains firmly under the thumb of President Hernández. Current Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla is a close ally of Hernández and his appointment was hotly contested and considered to be illegal due to glaring procedural violations. Following Chinchilla’s appointment, former supreme court judge Ivis Discua Barrillas declared the ruling party “isn’t interested in Honduras, they just want to protect themselves and have people [in the judiciary] who are allies and permit them to carry out acts of corruption.” Days later, Discua fled Honduras after receiving a series of death threats.
Unsurprisingly, Chinchilla has only taken very limited action in the IHSS case, and failed to investigate allegations of graft involving National Party officials, despite abundant revelations of the diversion of IHSS funds to National Party accounts through shell companies. Last summer’s anticorruption protests demanded that Chinchilla and President Hernández resign, but neither appear to be going anywhere for the time being.
More generally, impunity in Honduras is more rampant than ever, and the government’s “tough-on-crime” rhetoric doesn’t mask the lack of political will to tackle criminal activity, especially when it potentially involves state agents and/or government allies. There have been various attempts at police reform and judicial reform that have gone nowhere. Now, with Honduran authorities facing unprecedented international pressure, the government is trying hard to give the impression that it’s taking decisive action in the Berta Cáceres assassination case (though the Cáceres family has been denied all access to the investigation as is their right under Honduran law) with the arrest of five suspects, more than two months after the murder. But even in the very doubtful event that the Cáceres murder investigation produces credible results, this doesn’t affect the broader reality:In recent years hundreds of Honduran activists have been murdered, but the authorities consistently fail to investigate these crimes, let alone prosecute those responsible.
Despite the very long odds, the Coalition Against Impunity is committed to trying to make the MACCIH work:
We regret that the MACCIH is an organ with restricted powers, limited to supporting, strengthening, contributing, proposing reforms and actively collaborating with the discredited institutions of the Honduran state that are tasked with preventing, investigating and sanctioning acts of corruption. Despite these limitations, we welcome the fact that these tasks are in the hands of a group of judges, prosecutors, policeand other international specialists who will supervise the work and provide technical support to the judicial institutions.
Beyond the thorough investigation of the IHSS corruption allegations, the Coalition hopes that MACCIH will be involved in the selection and supervision of anticorruption judges (though it laments that the attorney general’s office may be involved in a pre-selection of these judges); that it will investigate the current scandal in the National Police, in which senior officials were allegedly assassinated by other police agents; and that it will seek to weed out corruption within the judiciary.
Finally, the Coalition sees its role going forward as a watchdog of the MACCIH, and hopes to be able to help make it an effective anticorruption body (despite the long odds):
As the Coalition Against Impunity, we declare ourselves watchdogs and reiterate our commitment to society at large to become a space for monitoring, questioning and making demands, publicly noting the actions and omissions of the MACCIH that call into question its theoretical independence, impartiality, and effectiveness, as well as recognizing its successes, when there are some, and making concrete and viable proposals that can be implemented.