TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — With just days remaining before the mandate of a regional anti-corruption mission in Honduras is set to expire, backers fear the four-year-old effort could be in its death throes.
The resignation of its interim leader, Ana María Calderón, was announced Tuesday amid negotiations between the Honduran government and its sponsor, the Organization of American States, to extend the mission beyond its Jan. 19 end date.
But even if an agreement is hammered out by the end of the week, there's no guarantee the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras will continue to function.
Any change to the agreement between Honduras and the OAS would require approval by Honduras' Congress, which in a December vote recommended that the mission be discontinued. It could continue as-is with just an exchange of letters between the government and OAS, but the delay suggests Honduras is trying to get changes.
Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández invited the OAS to form the group in 2015 as public demands for his resignation arose from revelations that the country's social security system had been bilked of millions of dollars. The group of international lawyers and investigators set out to strengthen Honduras' justice institutions and help them carry out investigations of public corruption.
But the mission known by its Spanish initials, Maccih, never had the clout or resources of the U.N.-sponsored effort in neighboring Guatemala that brought three former presidents to trial. Still, it uncovered multiple networks of corruption implicating a number of current and former Honduran lawmakers.
The lawmakers, however, worked to impede its investigations and threw up hurdles to prevent the country's prosecutors from advancing the cases. They have reduced legal sentences for corruption-related crimes and essentially blocked the Attorney General's Office from investigating improper use of public funds for up to seven years.
“What happens is they have collided with a pack of corrupt (politicians) whose interests they've touched and that's why now we're waiting to see if it continues or not,” said Henry Gomez, a 48-year-old auditor.
Raúl Pineda Alvarado, a former three-term congressman from Hernández’s National Party, wasn't optimistic. “If there isn't international pressure they're going to do the Maccih's autopsy,” he said.
He said Hernández may try to appear as the mission's savior and pin its demise on the Congress, but his party and its allies control the legislature.
The end to the mission would be “a total triumph for the corrupt,” he said.
The U.S. government had been an outspoken supporter of the Maccih, and the State Department has called for the mission to continue as is.
But when a delegation of U.S. lawmakers visited Honduras in August, Honduran officials were noncommittal on renewing the mandate and there are indications that at least in the White House, priorities have changed.
Weeks of large street demonstrations against the government had Hernández in a more tenuous position then. And in October, his brother Tony Hernández was found guilty of cocaine trafficking in a U.S. federal court. U.S. prosecutors named Juan Orlando Hernández a co-conspirator in the case, though the president denied any involvement.
But the street protests subsided and Hernández signed an asylum cooperation agreement with the U.S. that would allow asylum seekers from other countries who arrive at the U.S. border to be sent to Honduras to seek protection there — a measure sought by the Trump administration to ease migration pressure.
The migrant caravans that had originated in Honduras also stopped, though a new one was leaving San Pedro Sula Wednesday.
From the U.S. perspective, “focus on corruption and rule of law is no longer a priority because of the focus on migration," said Adriana Beltran, director of citizen security at the Washington Office on Latin America, an advocacy organization for human rights in Latin America. "It basically gave the green light to corrupt government officials to reverse all the gains made in anti-corruption efforts.”
Before Calderón's resignation, even some Maccih supporters criticized it for not going directly after Hernández and his inner circle.
Jorge Cálix, an opposition lawmaker who has declared himself a candidate for the 2021 presidential election, suggested Calderon had quit because she realized she wouldn't be allowed to really go after high-level corruption.
Calderón said via Twitter that she was leaving for personal reasons, and didn't elaborate.
Juan Jiménez, the Maccih's first leader, said he understood that Calderón, who had been working as an interim chief, had wanted to be named permanently to the position and it became clear that wouldn't happen.
But Jiménez said the Maccih's future could have as much to do with March elections for the OAS secretary-general as anything happening in Honduras. He resigned in early 2018, complaining that the OAS did not provide sufficient resources for the mission to be effective.
He said Tuesday that because Almagro is running for re-election against two challengers, Honduras could ask for anything in exchange for its support.
“Maccih would be collateral damage from this process,” he said.
Among the Honduran public, the mission remains popular.
Camilo Bendeck, a 63-year-old lawyer, said the little accountability there's been in recent years is due to the mission.
“The institutions have failed and we have seen for so long how they've committed acts of corruption and haven't taken those responsible to the courts,” he said. “If they extend the agreement with the OAS, at least we will have the assurance that they're going to take into account some investigations that they still haven't touched.”
Sherman reported from Mexico City.