By Chuck Call*
The OAS “Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras” (MACCIH) approaches its first anniversary in April with some gains and many challenges. Launched after months of negotiations with the government of President Juan Orlando Hernández, MACCIH was created partly in response to widespread street protests by the Indignados (the “Outraged”), angered that the president’s campaign had benefitted from $300 million embezzled by officials of the Social Security Institute (IHSS). Hernández was widely believed to accept the mission only because his tenure in office – and a possible second term – were in danger.
- MACCIH was inspired by Guatemala’s CICIG, the UN-backed commission supporting that country’s judicial institutions, but Hernández insisted on major differences. He consented only to a mission of the OAS, generally seen as weaker than the United Nations. MACCIH is weaker than CICIG in that it cannot initiate its own case investigations and must channel all its investigative and prosecutorial work through Honduran authorities. (CICIG enjoys full investigative police powers and can initiate its own wiretaps and surveillance.) MACCIH is headed in-country by a “spokesman” for the OAS Secretary-General, who nominally leads the mission from Washington, and its $2 million first-year budget has been only about one-sixth that of CICIG’s annual budget.
As a result, MACCIH opened to skepticism that its slow start hasn’t dispelled. Its investigations have produced virtually no corruption-related arrests or prosecutions. Setting up the office took much of 2016. The head of criminal investigations only arrived in the summer, and the public security office only opened this month. In contrast, a Honduran Police Reform Commission has sacked over 3,000 police officers. Civil society organizations complain of MACCIH’s lack of impact, and a novel “observatory” comprising academic institutions and civil society groups remains ill-defined. MACCIH’s decision not take up the investigation of the high-profile murder of environmental rights activist Berta Cáceres has seemed to sideline the mission from a case that emblemizes impunity, even if it seems not to involve far-reaching corruption.
- However, MACCIH has scored some wins. It has embarked on a handful of complex corruption cases, including the IHSS case that sparked its creation. The mission helped Honduran prosecutors prepare charges of arms possession against Mario Zelaya, the highest-profile suspect in the IHSS case, which kept him in jail long enough for more serious charges to be brought. It helped secure two laws – to regulate campaign financing and to create a nationwide anti-corruption jurisdiction with its own selected judges and prosecutors. MACCIH’s in-country leader, former Peruvian Prime Minister Juan Jiménez Mayor, has been forward-leaning in acting on his mandate.
- MACCIH gained support in an early test late last year. In November, its concerns about several Hernández nominees to the Tribunal Superior de Cuentas, an audit court with special powers over corruption investigations, earned the ire of Honduran senior officials who complained to Secretary General Almagro. The appointments were not altered, laying bare the mission’s limitations. But Almagro stood by his organization’s analysis and role, with Jiménez Mayor emerging stronger as his special representative, not just his spokesman.
- That same month, the board chair of Transparency International, José Ugaz, visited Honduras and urged civil society organizations to help ensure MACCIH’s success. Since then, they have showed a more positive attitude toward MACCIH, and more witnesses are now cooperating with the mission.
Comparisons between MACCIH with CICIG may arguably be unfair just one year out. Observers recall that CICIG had difficulty showing impact in its initial investigations and was criticized as ineffectual. Delivering on its ambitious mission to help curb corruption and impunity – in a country notorious for both – will be even harder. However, the mission has accomplished as much as CICIG did in its first year in case investigations and legal reform. Despite its limitations and slow start, MACCIH’s performance does not preclude obtaining far-reaching corruption convictions and strengthening the Honduran judicial system in coming years. As civil society groups seem to be getting past their disappointment that their country did not get a CICIG, their collaboration will be crucial to the mission’s success.
March 13, 2017
* Chuck Call teaches International Peace and Conflict Resolution at American University.