Members of US Congress Ask for Sanctions Against LatAm Elites

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A bipartisan group of members of the US Congress has asked President Donald Trump to investigate and sanction six individuals who have been accused of corruption and possible links to organized crime and drug trafficking in Latin America, putting added pressure on elites in the region. On August 2, Democratic Congressman Eliot Engel and Republican Congresswoman Ileana Ros-Lehtinen — both senior officials in the House Foreign Affairs Committee — as well as three other members of Congress, announced they had signed a letter requesting the US State and Treasury Departments to determine if six individuals from El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico meet the criteria to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act The Global Magnitsky Act allows the United States to sanction government officials implicated in human rights abuses and corruption. This includes economic sanctions, the suspension of visas and restricting access to the US financial system. The individuals singled out in the letter are Enrique Rais and José Luis Merino from El Salvador, Gustavo Alejos and Luis Mendizábal from Guatemala, Óscar Nájera from Honduras and Remigio Ángel González from Mexico.

InSight Crime Analysis

The letter is the latest political hammer from US Congress on the Northern Triangle. It comes just days after the passage of a law that will require the State Department to share the identities of government officials from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras who are involved in corruption and drug trafficking with Congress. While targeted at six individuals, the letter sends a widespread message. The only official from the letter that is currently in office is Merino, who serves as deputy minister of foreign affairs in the administration of El Salvador’s President Salvador Sánchez Cerén. The country’s Attorney General’s Office is investigating Merino for possible links with Colombia’s now largely demobilized Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia – FARC). He is also accused of favoring corruption and money laundering schemes related to the Venezuelan government. These investigations are currently stalled as Merino, also known as “Comandante Ramiro,” has immunity because of his government post. The other Salvadoran, Enrique Rais, is a businessman accused in El Salvador of being part of a corruption network that worked with former Attorney General Luis Martínez, who is currently in prison on charges of corruption related to his activities with Rais. In the letter’s description of Rais, legislators mention a court document in which local authorities in  Florida requested the seizure of an aircraft linked to Rais where anti-narcotics dogs found traces of drugs. Rais is a fugitive in El Salvador and has lived in Switzerland since 2017. An Interpol red notice has been issued for his arrest.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

In Guatemala, Gustavo Alejos was one of the main political operators in the country during the administrations of former presidents Álvaro Colom and Otto Pérez Molina. His name appears in multiple investigations carried out by the Attorney General’s Office and the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) into corruption networks that involved government contracts in return for bribes. Specifically, Alejos was implicated in a corruption scheme in Guatemala’s Social Security Institute that “favored certain pharmaceutical suppliers in exchange for bribes.” Mendizábal has also been implicated in corruption networks in Guatemala. In particular, the members of US Congress write that he played a role in the “La Linea” customs fraud network allegedly headed by then-President Pérez Molina and then-Vice President Roxana Baldetti. Mendizábal allegedly owned a company that was used to coordinate bribes, while he also allegedly paid bribes to a judge to secure “substitute measures” for defendants involved in the case. The Mexican-born Remigio Ángel González was implicated in a different corruption network in Guatemala. Baptized as the “Capture of the State” (“Cooptación del Estado“) case, which was used to illegally finance the presidential campaign of Pérez Molina and Baldetti. According to the letter, two companies owned by González funneled some $2.3 million into their campaign between 2008 and 2011. Lastly, Honduran Congressman Nájera has been linked to drug trafficking activities and the powerful Cachiros criminal organization. In testimony given to a US court in New York, former Cachiros leader Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga implicated Nájera — among other elites — as a collaborator of the criminal group. According to the letter, Nájera was allegedly paid to provide the group with information regarding accounts and properties that authorities seized.

Extortion Drives Displacement of Victims and Perpetrators Alike in Honduras

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Extortion, and the violence connected to it, is one of the main drivers forcing Hondurans to leave their homes and even the country in search of safety. Victims and perpetrators alike are being forced to flee if they want out. The first threat arrived via a “friend” who lived in the same neighborhood as José*, in the northern city of San Pedro Sula, Honduras. “Look, this mara guy [member of the Barrio 18] says that if you don’t cooperate you’re going to have problems. They’ve noticed you’re earning good money,” José, aged 45, remembers his acquaintance saying in reference to the modest living he made buying, repairing and selling used cars. José migrated to the city from western Santa Bárbara department to the south of San Pedro Sula in 2012 to escape poverty and find work. “I was really poor, I had no means by which to live – so when I came here I struggled a lot to buy a small car,” he told us. Business went well, and he soon found he could repair and sell cars for a living. But soon the Barrio 18 gang — which controlled the part of the neighbourhood where José lived — came knocking for a share of his earnings, or what is often called “the war tax” in Honduras. Extortion is now one of the primary sources of income for both the Barrio 18 and MS13 gangs in the three Northern Triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. Victims range from public transport workers, taxi drivers and residents to large and small business owners and even sex workers.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Extortion

José began by paying 2,000 lempiras (around $83) to the gang, but over the course of a year and a half that rose to 3,000 lempiras (around $125). A member of the gang collected the money every month, and the amount kept on rising. “It eventually rose to 12,000 lempiras (just over $500) a month,” José said. “’If you don’t pay it tomorrow at 9am,’ they told me one day, ‘we know where your children go to school, we know where you work, where you walk, where you live and your daily movements … we have where you walk every day very well-controlled, so if you want to live you’d better pay.’” José says that he left the neighborhood with his family before dawn the next day, and returned to his former home in Santa Bárbara, abandoning his house in San Pedro Sula. He and his family took what they could fit in the car.

Forced to Flee

More than 1,400 Hondurans were internally displaced in 2017, fleeing death threats, violence, extortion and gang recruitment, according to the National Human Rights Commission (Comisión Nacional de Derechos Humanos – CONADEH). This compares to 757 reported cases in 2016. But in reality, the true number of Hondurans displaced directly by extortion — which human rights defenders say is now almost ubiquitous — remains unknown. The figure from CONADEH also doesn’t account for those Hondurans who fled the country to migrate to other nations such as Mexico and the United States due to extortion and related violence from the gangs.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

Yet it isn’t just victims who are forced to flee – participants in these extortion schemes who later want out are also effectively forced out of their homes if they wish to survive. Karla*, a 20-year-old mother living in San Pedro Sula, worked for some years collecting extortion payments and packaging up drugs for the Barrio 18 gang in the notorious Rivera Hernández neighborhood. “I got to a point in my life when I wanted to enjoy the ‘crazy life’ as they call it: gang life. Well yes it’s risky, very, but at the same time it looked like fun,” she told us. She described how payment amounts and victims — shop owners, market stalls, houses — were listed in notebooks and that the “tax” was collected weekly, twice a month or once a month. “They were big amounts,” Karla said. “Between 5,000 and 7,000 lempiras (around $208 and $290).” She would collect the extortion money, often going out a number of times a day and always handing the proceeds over to the head of the clique, who would pay her a monthly wage of some 12,000 lempiras (around $500) for her work. Per week, she said she could collect up to as much as 500,000 lempiras (just under $30,000). She started working with the gang when she was nine years old, and collected extortion proceeds on and off during her time with them. But now she’s out of that life, she says.

SEE ALSO: Barrio 18 News and Profile

“I made a mistake one day and they wanted to do me harm, and hurt my family as well, so I moved my family away and then myself,” she said. She refused to kill a gang rival – a prerequisite to move up the hierarchy – and her superiors didn’t take her rebellion well. She said that she now works as a waitress in another part of the city but lives in fear of stumbling upon someone she knows. “I don’t know if when I am working who I might bump into, who might know me and want to … who might see I was from that gang and want to kidnap me or do something else to me.”

Extortion and Displacement

Alexandre Formisano, who works for the International Red Cross in Tegucigalpa, said that extortion is present in nearly all cases of displacement, but that it isn’t always the root cause. There are no figures to show the proportion of displacements that are provoked by the extortion schemes levied by gangs, he said, but experiences such as those of José and Karla are common. “People want to become invisible. They try to stop existing – to disappear – because they know that the gangs have the ability to find them in every corner of the country. And they know that if the gangs don’t find them they will find their children, and they fear for their kids’ lives … so for a lot of these people it is unthinkable that they would go to the authorities [to report a gang problem],” Formisano said. “They would rather disappear and start a life in a new place.” * Names have been changed to protect people’s safety.

US State Dept to Create Central America Corruption ‘Blacklist’

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On July 26, the US House and Senate approved a bill that will require the Secretary of State to share the identities of government officials in Central America’s Northern Triangle countries who are involved in corruption and drug trafficking with Congress. The bill specifies that the secretary must submit a report that includes “the names of senior government officials in Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador who are known to have committed or facilitated acts of grand corruption or narcotics trafficking.” This week’s vote ended in favor of modifying an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) originally introduced by Representative Norma Torres (D-CA), which was approved by the House of Representatives in May. In the first version, the Pentagon and the Director of National Intelligence were to deliver the information required by the amendment to Congress, but the modification shifts that responsibility to the Secretary of State. The bill requires the Secretary of State, in coordination with his counterpart at the Defense Department, to present three lists of names to the appropriations, foreign relations and defense committees of both congressional chambers. The lists are to be part of a report on “narcotics trafficking, corruption and illicit campaign finance” in the three countries that make up the Northern Triangle region of Central America: Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador. The state and defense secretaries will be required to list, for example, the individuals who have donated to political campaigns in the Northern Triangle “with the proceeds of narco-trafficking or other illicit activities” over the past two years. They will also have to list the political candidates who have received such funds as campaign donations. The congressional committees must receive the report within 180 days of the amendment’s publication. Given that negotiators from both the House and Senate have now agreed to the amendment this week, and that a legislative official with first-hand knowledge of conversations about this bill said it could be enacted this September, the first report could be expected in Congress by the end of 2018. “The expectation is that both chambers [of Congress] will pass the bill in the coming days and will send it on to the president’s desk. Once the president signs it, the Secretary of State will be required by law to produce the report,” another legislative source in Washington told InSight Crime.

InSight Crime Analysis

If the bill becomes law, which seems likely, it will create an uncomfortable situation for many Northern Triangle politicians who have been haunted by corruption, illicit campaign financing and even drug trafficking. The lists the law will require could include presidents, ministers and legislators. If the US government complies with the approved amendment once it is enacted, the first of the three required lists the Secretary of State will produce could theoretically feature names like that of Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales. The Attorney General’s Office of Guatemala has accused Morales of participating in an illicit campaign financing scheme during his 2015 bid for president.

SEE ALSO: InDepth: Elites and Organized Crime

In Honduras, President Juan Orlando Hernández admitted that during his first term, from 2014 to 2018, his political party received funds from supposed acts of corruption in his country’s social security system. At least part of that money was allegedly used to finance his election campaign. Meanwhile, El Salvador’s three most recent presidents have either been investigated, convicted or jailed for possible acts of corruption. In the cases of Antonio Saca and Mauricio Funes, the investigations have expanded to include charges against dozens of collaborators and former government officials for crimes such as corruption, illicit enrichment and even money laundering. These political leaders and others could appear on the lists. When it comes to Guatemala and Honduras, however, the US government’s position has been ambivalent at best. Washington has admittedly been tough on businesspeople and lower-level politicians involved in financing political campaigns with potentially illegal funds. But it seems to be significantly more lenient in dealing with heads of state such as Morales and Hernández, whom it considers regional allies. While the sitting presidents go unpunished, in Guatemala, the US embassy has focused on withdrawing the visas of dozens of people, among them government officials and private campaign financers, for suspected crimes or acts of corruption. And in Honduras, the US diplomatic representatives in Tegucigalpa did not hesitate to congratulate Honduran authorities for the Pandora Case that accuses former government officials and legislators of fraud, corruption, illicit enrichment and money laundering. A blacklist like the one proposed by US Congress could have important consequences for anti-graft efforts in Central America’s Northern Triangle. But it remains to be seen how the United States’ political and diplomatic priorities in the region will affect whose names are added.

5 Ways To Fight Corruption in Latin America

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Corruption has solidified its place at the top of the agenda for policymakers and citizens across Latin America and the Caribbean. Below, InSight Crime explores five proposals that could boost the ability of countries to achieve lasting advances in the fight against graft.

1. Increase Judicial Independence

Achieving judicial independence is crucial for governments in the region that are working to tackle corruption. And the issue has come to the fore recently in Central America, where Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador are all set to choose new attorneys general this year. In Guatemala, as a recent InSight Crime investigation showed, the process of selecting the country’s next top prosecutor was fraught with political manipulation. Corrupt elites maneuvered to advance candidates who seemed unlikely to pursue prosecutions against those who put them in power. In cases like this, experts say, the process for choosing top judicial officials needs to be reformed to eliminate undue influence from powerful interests. Crooked elites usually have little incentive to advocate for more judicial independence, since unleashing prosecutors from political constraints could upend graft schemes from which they benefit. In situations like these, one potentially effective workaround is to establish internationally-supported, independent judicial support missions. Two prominent examples include the United Nations-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG) and the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), supported by the Organization of American States (OAS). Both of these bodies have achieved important advances by supporting investigations and prosecutions of powerful figures. However, this has generated strong backlash from broad swaths of the elite class. And as CICIG head Iván Velásquez has repeatedly pointed out, such commissions are not a substitute for enacting structural reforms aimed at improving judicial impartiality and efficiency.

2. Emphasize Multilateral Cooperation

Many corruption schemes in Latin America and the Caribbean occur at the local level. But some of the biggest, like the scandal involving Brazilian construction giant Odebrecht, have an international scope. In such cases, it is important for countries to share evidence and coordinate their investigative and prosecutorial efforts. One of the most dramatic examples of the power of this type of cooperation came earlier this year, when Peru’s then-President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski resigned under pressure stemming from evidence of ties to the Odebrecht scandal. The South American nation is also seeking the arrest of another former president, Alejandro Toledo, on similar charges.

SEE ALSO: InDepth Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Beyond cooperating on specific cases, authorities can benefit from exchanging information about best practices for tackling corruption. Many graft schemes in Latin America and the Caribbean share similar features and confront similar obstacles. Rather than working from scratch, investigators, prosecutors, judges and other officials can share tips on what works. There has been some movement on this front. In April, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) launched a “Global Judicial Integrity Network” that aims to “provide a platform for judges to share good practices and lessons learned, and to support each other and join forces in developing new tools and guidelines for strengthening integrity and preventing corruption in the judicial system.”

3. Bring Transparency to Public Contracting

Public contracting is a common vehicle for corruption in Latin America and the Caribbean, in part due to the lack of transparency surrounding bidding processes and the disbursement of public funds. Opening these aspects of government to public scrutiny could help identify and discourage malfeasance. The principle of openness was included in the anti-corruption framework adopted at this year’s Summit of the Americas. The so-called Lima Commitment calls for “the establishment of an Inter-American Open Data Program … in order to strengthen open information policies and increase the capacity of governments and citizens to prevent and fight corruption.” But, according to Georg Neumann of the Open Contracting Partnership, increased transparency alone is not a silver bullet. “Open contracting is not only about publishing the open data and putting it out there, but really finding ways of engaging with citizens and engaging with businesses in how to use this data,” Neumann said at an April event hosted by the Inter-American Dialogue. To complicate things further, many elites in the region are working to ensure that details about public contracting stay in the shadows. For example, a reform passed earlier this year in Honduras essentially stripped the MACCIH of its ability to investigate the management of public funds. Still, there are many civil society members and political leaders who believe in the importance of opening the books. At the Inter-American Dialogue event, Paraguayan Finance Minister Lea Giménez said one key way “to improve the management of public finances in the fiscal sense of a country is looking into transparency.”

4. Get Dirty Money Out of Politics

Campaign financing has been at the center of some of the most explosive corruption scandals the region has seen in recent years. And in countries like Mexico, where most political contributions are never reported, it’s virtually certain that equally alarming graft schemes have yet to come to light. Sometimes dirty campaign cash comes from crime groups seeking to curry favor with decision-makers. Other times it serves as a down payment from elite interests who want public money to flow into their pockets. But in every case, illicit campaign financing undermines democracy and the rule of law. As with other proposals that could help root out corruption, implementing tighter scrutiny of campaign funding is not something most politicians are likely to favor. Last year in Paraguay, lawmakers even tried to tear down what little regulation existed before public outcry forced them to drop the proposal.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of What Works

Neighboring Brazil, on the other hand, has taken some initial steps to try to clean up its electoral process. In 2016, the top court banned corporations from funding any campaigns, in the wake of revelations that some of the country’s biggest companies had for years used political contributions to systematically buy off officials at home and abroad. There are loopholes that could allow corrupt interests to skirt the ban, since candidates can still receive money from individuals. But the move is a step in the right direction and could serve as a building block for further reforms down the road.

5. Reform Parliamentary and Presidential Immunity

Many countries in Latin America and the Caribbean offer legal protections for government officials accused of crimes. Although these laws are intended to prevent politically motivated witch hunts, in practice they have often helped shield political figures from legitimate investigations and prosecutions. In Brazil, for example, Congress voted twice to spare President Michel Temer from prosecution on charges that he led a network of corrupt politicians who took bribes in exchange for helping funnel public contracts to a cartel of companies. Similarly, in Guatemala, congressional allies of President Jimmy Morales blocked the advancement of a probe into allegations that his 2015 campaign took half a million dollars from a drug dealer. Presidential and parliamentary immunity are not ironclad. In 2015, for example, former Guatemala President Otto Pérez Molina had his immunity stripped, forcing him to resign before he was arrested and put on trial for allegedly leading a massive, mafia-like corruption scheme. However, the other cases mentioned above show how the privilege can stop justice from running its course. An April vote by Mexico’s Congress to reform the country’s political immunity laws shows that progress is possible, even in countries with deep-seated corruption. But in a sign of how slow-paced further progress will be, the new law says the president can only be tried after a vote in Congress.

Why the Cachiros Liked Working With Honduras Politicians

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Authorities in the United States charged a Honduras congressman and several members of a powerful political family with drug trafficking and related weapons crimes, illustrating yet again how the Cachiros criminal organization integrated politicians into its modus operandi. On July 17, US authorities in New York filed criminal charges against Honduran Congressman Midence Oquelí Martínez Turcios. Criminal charges were also filed against family members Arnaldo, Carlos Fernando, and Miguel Angel Urbina Soto in a separate criminal indictment. The four individuals face charges of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and related weapons charges. According to the indictments, the notorious Cachiros criminal organization allegedly worked with Martínez Turcios and the Urbina Soto family from at least 2004 until 2014, to receive cocaine shipments sent to Honduras using air and maritime routes from Venezuela and Colombia. The shipments were then transported west — often under the custody of these very officials — to the Honduras-Guatemala border before being sent to the United States in coordination with Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

The Urbina Soto family, the indictment adds, “capitalized on their power” in northern Yoro department and worked with the Cachiros to receive “cocaine-laden aircraft” at “clandestine airstrips” and “public roads” in Yoro. The three family members also coordinated and at times joined security details overseeing the unloading and transportation of drug shipments, the accusation says. For his part, Martínez Turcios was an active member of the Cachiros criminal organization, US prosecutors say. The indictment alleges he “personally escorted” cocaine shipments through Honduras, “managed heavily armed security teams” designed to protect drug shipments and “participated in weapons training” given to hired assassins recruited from the Mara Salvatrucha (MS13) gang, in addition to acting at one point as a part-owner of a front company the Cachiros used to launder their criminal proceeds. The latest charges come after a person described by local media as a Cachiros’ successor, Hernán Natarén, was murdered along with his wife July 16, in the city of La Ceiba in Honduras’ northern Caribbean department of Atlántida. The following day, Honduran authorities arrested Hernán’s brother Saúl in the city of El Progreso in Yoro department on drug trafficking charges. Authorities in Honduras arrested both brothers in September 2016, for coordinating the landing of drug planes, according to La Tribuna. Martínez Turcios has denied these accusations. He is the second Honduran congressman to be charged by US authorities this year for drug trafficking and weapons crimes. The United States is seeking the extradition of all five individuals charged in the indictments from Honduras. Only Arnaldo Urbina Soto is in jail, after being sentenced to 36 years in jail for money laundering in 2017.

InSight Crime Analysis

The criminal charges filed against another Honduran congressman and a former mayor and his family illustrates what was a clear part of the Cachiros’ modus operandi: using politicians — who have immunity, armed guards and won’t get stopped at checkpoints — to move drug shipments. This method also came up in the case against former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo Sosa’s son, who had links to the Cachiros and pleaded guilty to US drug charges in 2016. However, politicians offer more than just safe transport. They are also conduits to the halls of power, helping criminals get government contracts for their companies, steering judicial investigations away from them, and keeping regulatory agencies at bay. As InSight Crime detailed in one part of a three-part investigation on mayors and organized crime in Central America’s Northern Triangle, the Urbina Soto family’s “political tentacles reached to the highest levels,” and they “held a tight rein on local police and judicial matters,” which allowed them to consolidate their “hold on political and underworld power” in and around the Yoro department.

SEE ALSO: A Honduras Political Clan and Its Criminal Fiefdom

The Urbina Soto clan also controlled the local notaries, so they could legalize land they stole from others, and the office that regulated the wood industry. When InSight Crime visited Yoro, locals said they exerted some indirect control over the police as well. It is in this context that the family struck a deal with the Cachiros. Government investigators told InSight Crime that the criminal group paid the Urbina Soto family “to receive planes loaded with cocaine in their area of influence, store the drugs, and transport them to their next drop-point.” The Cachiros also allegedly used their lucrative criminal proceeds to pay Martínez Turcios for his services. According to the indictment, the criminal group paid him more than $1 million in bribes, which he used to fund political campaigns and enrich himself, among other things. Authorities allege his political position helped provide an “appearance of legitimacy” to the Cachiros who eventually made contact with the then-President of Honduras, Porfirio Lobo. (See photo below)

Fabio Lobo (far left), Porfirio Lobo (fourth from left), Javier Rivera Maradiaga (fifth from left), Juan Gómez (sixth from left). (Source: US Courts)

Cachiros leaders Javier Eriberto Rivera Maradiaga, alias “Javier Cachiro,” and his brother Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga both turned themselves in to US authorities in 2015. Rivera Maradiaga’s testimony has since implicated a number of Honduran elites, including current Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández and his brother. The Cachiros’ testimony was clearly the driver behind these latest indictments. Porfirio Lobo and his brother, Ramón, have also come under scrutiny for their contacts with the brothers, as has Diana Urbina Soto — the sister of Arnaldo, Carlos and Mario — who is currently the mayor of Yoro. 

Is Honduras Losing the Fight Against Aerial Drug Trafficking?

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Honduras authorities recently seized five airplanes thought to have been used to transport drugs through a remote region of the country where dozens of clandestine landing strips have been destroyed this year. But the long-running strategy of seizures and demolitions has done little to identify suspects, routes and suppliers, allowing the so-called “narco flights” to continue. Honduran officials announced on July 10 that they had found three light airplanes that had been incinerated and buried in the remote Mosquitia region that runs along the country’s eastern Caribbean coastline. Authorities also seized more than 30 containers of airplane fuel at a makeshift camp site, and located a clandestine landing strip. The search of the far-flung forested area was prompted by the July 8 discovery of two functioning airplanes and another illegal landing site nearby. Authorities say that the aircraft and landing strips are suspected to have been used by local crime groups to traffic South American cocaine through Honduras for transport to the United States.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

José Domingo Meza, the spokesman for Honduras’ armed forces, told Proceso authorities have not yet determined the exact source of the airplane fuel, which may have been purchased on the black market or from legal sellers. José Coello, another security force spokesman, told the news outlet that it is easy for criminal groups to obtain the fuel because its sale is not regulated. No suspects were arrested during the operation, which Coello says is common in the rural region because the sound of security force airplanes monitoring overhead tips off those involved to hide in the dense rainforest surrounding their secret landing sites. So far in 2018, Honduran authorities say they have seized a total of ten airplanes, most of them in destroyed condition, and have demolished 34 clandestine air strips, including the two found this month. Since 2014, authorities say they have destroyed more than 160 landing strips.

InSight Crime Analysis

Drug flights are expected to account for a relatively small proportion of trafficking into Honduras.* And in recent years, Honduran security officials have claimed to have nearly eliminated aerial drug trafficking in the country thanks in large part to the use of radar systems, fly-over surveillance and demolitions of landing strips. However, those assertions are undermined by the continued discovery of aircraft and landing sites suspected of being used for drug flights. After 2014, when Honduras acquired radar systems and passed a law permitting the shooting down of planes suspected of transporting drugs — a policy which spurred the United States to temporarily stop sharing intelligence on drug flights — many criminal actors have simply adopted new methods. For example, planes flying below a certain altitude are not easily detected by the radar systems, and reports indicate that some Honduran security officials may have accepted bribes to turn a blind eye and let shipments through. Moreover, while Honduras has scaled up its destruction of clandestine landing strips, the practice is unlikely to have any significant impact on traffickers, who can easily and quickly rebuild them or construct new sites. * This article has been updated to clarify that aerial drug trafficking is less common than other forms of trafficking, and to clarify that the suspension of US intelligence-sharing was temporary.

Honduras AG Reelection: A Pyrrhic Victory for the Status Quo?

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Honduras’ Congress rejected its own commission’s proposal for a replacement for the current attorney general, which could signal a temporary triumph for powerful political and economic forces intent on maintaining impunity for elite corruption. The reelection of Óscar Chinchilla as attorney general of Honduras and the appointment of Daniel Sibrián as deputy attorney general comes after a special congressional commission evaluated the profiles of five finalists, but failed to secure any of them the 86 confirmation votes they needed from Congress. The selection process for attorney general in Honduras began in March with the formation of the proposal commission. However, the panel was criticized for its exclusion of civil society groups, lack of transparency and noncompliance with international standards. Sources in Honduras told InSight Crime that the process was marked by interference both from members of Congress was well as by President Juan Orlando Hernández’s administration. Many of those involved in the interference are currently under investigation for corruption by the Attorney General’s Office and the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), an international body backed by Organization of American States (OAS) to support anti-impunity and anti-corruption efforts. Even though the deadline for choosing Honduras’ attorney general was not until September, Congress decided to call a session during its recess to conduct the vote. According to the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA), the process was too hurried to ensure “the necessary public scrutiny regarding the criteria that led them to choose between the names that were announced.”

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

There were also clear conflicts of interest throughout the process. Civil society organizations belonging to the Alliance for Peace and Justice (Alianza por la Paz y la Justicia – APJ) said in a press release that the participation of people currently under investigation in the selection of the country’s top prosecutorial officials “will strip credibility and legitimacy from the decision on whether or not the fight against organized crime groups and corruption networks will continue in Honduras.” International organizations such as the United Nations expressed similar concerns. UN Special Rapporteur on the Independence of Judges and Lawyers Diego García-Sayán reported that the commission that evaluated the profiles of the five finalists included legislators who “have been publicly questioned, or even prosecuted, for corruption.” In what could be interpreted as an attempt by Congress to give the appearance of legitimacy and transparency to the process, some legislators under investigation sat out the vote. Soon after the list of attorney general candidates was published, Gabriela Castellanos, the director of Honduras’ National Anti-Corruption Council (Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción – CNA), stated that three of the five finalists have a total of 14 allegations against them. Castellanos did not mention the names of those accused.

InSight Crime Analysis

Although it is true that Chinchilla’s reelection keeps the status quo, it does not necessarily mean a victory for corrupt forces. During his previous term, the attorney general oversaw positive results in the fight against graft and organized crime in Honduras, despite a series of obstacles put in his way in large part by the very elites he was investigating. During that period, and with the support of the MACCIH, the Attorney General’s Office strengthened its investigative capacities, partly through the creation of new entities like the Technical Criminal Investigation Agency (Agencia Técnica de Investigación Criminal – ATIC) and the Special Prosecution Unit Against Impunity for Corruption (Unidad Fiscal Especial Contra la Impunidad de la Corruption – UFECIC). They built high-impact cases against members of corruption networks and captured powerful members of criminal organizations. The tense relationship between these organizations and Honduras’ leadership reached a fever pitch a few months ago after news broke of several cases that threatened to change the country’s power dynamics. One such case is the alleged corruption network in Congress in which five legislators were initially under investigation. That number has now grown by almost 800 present and former lawmakers. In another case, former first lady Rosa Bonilla de Lobo was arrested on charges of misappropriation of public funds, money laundering and illicit association. The progress in these cases represents some success for Chinchilla and the Attorney General’s Office in their effort to combat graft. However, the failure to secure convictions highlights how limited that success has been thus far. Moveover, Chinchilla has other high-level cases competing for his attention, such as the alleged abuses committed by government forces during demonstrations following President Hernández’s reelection, the murder of environmental activist Berta Cáceres and other investigations involving members of the Honduran elite. Amid the many investigations, lawmakers took aim at the MACCIH with an attempt to have its creation ruled unconstitutional. At the time, the organization’s outlook did not look promising. MACCIH head Juan Jiménez Mayor had resigned, and it seemed almost certain that corruption groups with ties to Honduran power structures were going to ensure they had an attorney general who shared their interests. But after two months in a state of limbo, the MACCIH was declared constitutional, and the government approved Brazilian lawyer Luiz Antonio Marrey Guimarães as the new head of the international body. In mid-June the Attorney General’s Office and the MACCIH presented a case to the Supreme Court linking 38 government officials and others to the alleged misappropriation of approximately $12 million in public funds.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Elites and Organized Crime

Chinchilla will now have to work hand in hand with Guimarães, who will start his new post this week in a more capable and experienced MACCIH with at least nine high-impact cases underway. These cases will be Chinchilla’s chance to prove whether or not he can take independent and technical actions to combat graft and organized crime, and to ensure his decisions are legally — not politically — motivated, despite potential costs to those who reelected him. While the members of Honduras’ corrupt networks believe they scored a victory in reelecting Chinchilla as attorney general, recent investigations carried out with the MACCIH are beginning to reveal the extent to which they and other organized crime groups are entrenched in the government.

Honduras Corruption Scandal Casts Doubt on Attorney General Selection

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The announcement of a graft investigation against almost 800 legislators in Honduras raises further questions about the legitimacy of the congressionally led process for selecting a new attorney general who will be in charge of this and other investigations into high-level corruption. On June 22, the president of Honduras’ Superior Accounts Tribunal (Tribunal Superior de Cuentas – TSC), Ricardo Rodríguez, announced that the Attorney General’s Office is investigating the nearly 800 legislators who have served over the last three legislative cycles for irregularities in their management of the Departmental Development Fund, according to a report from El País. The Special Prosecution Unit Against Impunity for Corruption (Unidad Fiscal Especial Contra la Impunidad de la Corruption – UFECIC), a unit within the Attorney General’s Office, is leading the investigation. Honduras’ 128 current legislators are included, as are their alternate representatives and those who served in Congress during the two previous legislative periods under presidents Manuel Zelaya and Porfirio Lobo. This means the UFECIC is investigating current President Juan Orlando Hernández and current Solicitor General Abraham Alvarenga Urbina. One of the five finalists for the new attorney general post is also a target of the investigation because he served as an alternate for the current congressional president. Moreover, the new attorney general must be chosen before September by a multi-party commission, and its members are on the investigation’s list. One congressman under scrutiny is Mario Pérez of the National Party. A report by Honduras’ National Directorate for the Fight Against Drugs (Dirección Nacional de Lucha Contra el Narcotráfico – DNLCN) accuses him of having drug trafficking connections. The National Anti-Corruption Council (Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción – CNA) accused another National Party representative, David Chávez, of corruption when he led the National Institute for Vocational Training (Instituto Nacional de Formación Profesional – INFOP). The investigation into the Honduran legislators dates back to the end of 2017, when Juan Jiménez Mayor, the then-head of the internationally-backed Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH), and current Attorney General Óscar Chinchilla uncovered a network of legislators alleged to have illegally appropriated public funds. The money was destined for social programs through a non-governmental organization called the National Association of Producers and Industry Workers of the Neighborhoods and Communities of Honduras (Asociación Nacional de Productores e Industriales de Barrios y Colonias de Honduras – ANPIBCH). The investigations found that the ANPIBCH received 8.3 million lempiras (approximately $350,000) from the Honduran government. The MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office made a formal request to begin criminal proceedings against the legislators in the network for the alleged embezzlement of public funds. Congressional Vice President Augusto Cruz Asencio is among those suspected of the crime. In response, Congress approved a questionable reform to the country’s budget law removing the ability of the Attorney General’s Office to conduct criminal investigations on public spending, thus halting the investigation against the network of legislators. The MACCIH and international observers denounced the maneuver as an “impunity pact” that sought to stop current and future investigations into high-ranking officials and their management of public funds. In addition to the investigation into the alleged corruption network in Congress, the MACCIH and UFECIC undertook the “Pandora Case,” which connected 38 government representatives and others with the embezzlement of 282 million lempiras (approximately $12 million) in government funds. According to the MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office, a large part of that money was looted from the Agriculture Ministry (Secretaría de Agricultura y Ganadería – SAG) and financed President Hernández’s 2013 campaign as well as those of politicians in other parties.

InSight Crime Analysis

The emerging scandal raises the possibility that the congressionally appointed commission to select a new attorney general will pick a candidate who will ensure impunity for the accused legislators. Indeed, Congress has had a rocky relationship with the MACCIH since the 2016 creation of the anti-graft body. As evidenced by the impunity pact and other roadblocks, Congress has proven to be a thorn in the side of the MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office. The Honduran government even cut the budget of the latter, which could be interpreted as an attempt to weaken it.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profile

More recently, in the midst of the power struggle between the government and the team formed by the Attorney General’s Office and the MACCIH, Honduras’ Supreme Court (Corte Suprema de Justicia – CSJ) struck a legal blow against the UFECIC. The president of the CSJ is also the head of the attorney general proposal group. The selection process for Honduras’ new attorney general has been tainted by the proposal group’s lack of transparency, which was highlighted recently by the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). The international body called on the Honduran government to ensure its selection is “unaffected by personal or political party interests that would interfere with the chosen candidate being the best and most capable for the job.”

How Honduras’ MACCIH Loses, Even When It Wins

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A new report says that the OAS-backed international judicial mission in Honduras has survived, even succeeded at times, despite numerous efforts by its enemies and proponents alike. The report — published on June 21 by American University’s Center for Latin American and Latino Studies (CLALS)* and written by political science professor Charles “Chuck” Call — chronicles the origins and subsequent travails of the Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) at the body’s two-year mark. After a tortuous negotiation with the government that eventually placed it under the aegis of the Organization of American States (OAS), the MACCIH began operating in April 2016. But from the beginning, it was hamstrung by both its host government, which was “dragging its feet” in finding a place to house it, and the OAS, which wouldn’t commit to giving its employees contracts longer than six months and meddled in the mission’s staffing decisions. The difficulties have continued. Unlike a similar body operating in Guatemala, the United Nations-backed International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional Contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), the MACCIH had to fundraise on the fly, its Honduras-based leaders did not have total control over the staffing decisions, and it was “highly dependent” on its relationship with the attorney general, the report says.

SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles

These were ominous signs. The MACCIH had arrived with high expectations, in large part because of the CICIG, whose investigations had led to the dramatic resignations and charges against a sitting president, his vice president and numerous other officials in 2015. The MACCIH itself had begun on the heels of an investigation into the ruling party’s connections to a vast corruption scheme in the Honduran Social Security Institute (Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social – IHSS) that had helped fund its victorious 2013 campaign. Protests erupted around the IHSS probe, calling for President Juan Orlando Hernández’s resignation and the creation of what the protestors called CICIH, in honor of their Guatemala-based heroes. The compromise solution to that crisis was, in essence, the creation of the MACCIH. However, from that moment on, the MACCIH was set up for failure. For the protestors, nothing less than Hernández’s head on a platter will suffice. But Hernández, who was elected to a second term in November under dubious circumstances, and his allies are never going to let that happen. The result, as the report says, has been a game of cat and mouse. Just when it appears that the MACCIH is about to have a breakthrough on a big case, opposition forces snatch the cheese and scramble into the hole, and the would-be proponents of the mission bemoan its toothless nature. Call and his colleagues at CLALS chronicle numerous examples of this, most notably a case against several congressmen. Just weeks after the MACCIH and the Attorney General’s Office announced charges against five members of Congress for embezzlement (MACCIH Special Representative Juan Jiménez later blurted out in a press conference that dozens and possibly hundreds of other congressmen were under investigation), Congress passed a law effectively taking the probe out of the prosecutors’ hands and placing it in the hands of an entity the legislators controlled. The events that followed, which included a strange public exchange between Jiménez and the head of the OAS, led to Jiménez’s resignation. Other cases played out in similar, frustrating fashion. One involved former first lady Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, whose son Fabio pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges in the United States in 2016. Bonilla de Lobo was indicted and later arrested in February 2018, for embezzling public funds, money laundering and illicit association. Some of her assets were seized. However, Congress and the courts intervened again, the report says. After several dubious decisions and congressional legislation regarding asset seizures, most of the heaviest charges against Bonilla de Lobo have been dropped and her properties have been returned. Even when the MACCIH won, it lost. In the IHSS case, 12 people were convicted for money laundering and bribery, including the former head of the institute, Mario Zelaya, and two former vice ministers. Zelaya was sentenced to 56 years in prison. But MACCIH critics, many of whom were part of those initial protests that led to its formation, were not satisfied. “It has been a source of frustration for MACCIH officials at the underappreciation of what they consider to be speedy and relatively successful work at trying some senior officials,” the report says. “A wide gap seems apparent between popular expectations and the ability of investigators, prosecutors and courts to investigate and try cases involving corrupt networks.”

InSight Crime Analysis

The MACCIH cannot win. Between the meddling by the government and the OAS, congressional and courtroom manipulation, and the impossible standard set by its cousin, the CICIG, the mission has been set up to fail. That is not to say it has not had success. Despite these obstacles, the report illustrates that without the MACCIH, numerous cases would not have gone forward, suspects would have been released, and important laws — especially those regarding campaign financing — would not have been written. More recently, it launched perhaps its most ambitious case, charging dozens for illegal diversions of funds in Hernandez’s 2013 campaign.

SEE ALSO: Coverage of Judicial Reform

The MACCIH is also young. It took the CICIG, which has been in Guatemala for over a decade, a long time to get its feet under it and eight years to reach a point where it could bring a case against a sitting president. And as the report says, the MACCIH has actually gotten more convictions than the CICIG had in its first two years. But therein lies the trap. The Hondurans who clamored for the MACCIH want the mission to do cases, and they won’t be satisfied with just anyone in jail. Trying to meet that expectation is a recipe for failure every time, especially with all the inherent obstacles in Honduras. The challenge for the MACCIH is not just to dodge efforts to get rid of it or debilitate it, but to shift expectations away from big, splashy cases and get down to the hard work of building resilient independent judicial institutions that can do the work when it eventually leaves. *The author is a Senior Fellow at CLALS. He participated in the early planning stages of the research but did not do any of the investigation, writing or editing of the report.