On November 27, 2015, Vidal Leiva was shot by three hitmen who had been waiting for him outside his home. He dropped to the floor and took several bullets to the torso. The shooters scattered; Leiva was taken to hospital. Family and friends went to the police, who said that “they didn’t have the staff” to deal with the situation. Members of his community took up in arms. “They ransacked several buildings trying to find the culprits... There were more injuries, more raided houses, more fights... It was an utter disaster.”
Leiva is a leading figure in the Garifuna community of Honduras and an outspoken defender of his community’s land rights against foreign investors. Leiva had received various death threats for his community activism. But the attack in November was the first time the threats had translated into violence.
Leiva spent six days recovering in hospital. Concerned for his safety, and hugely skeptical of the police, several indigenous communities in the region took it upon themselves to defend Leiva from further attacks. “They guarded the hospital. Morning, afternoon, evening, night; in shifts. Each shift had over 50 people, men and women, looking after me until I recovered.”
Eight months on, this reporter asked Leiva if the police ever found the gunmen. He said no. “Here justice is only served to the pies descalzos [the barefooted]... not the wealthy.”
A new international mission has been set up by the Organization of American States (OAS) to tackle such injustice in Honduras. The Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) aims to “capture the most corrupt individuals in the country.” But the MACCIH, as it is known in its Spanish initials, has an enormous task ahead.
More than 90% of murder cases in Honduras go unsolved. Police are routinely accused of taking part in targeted killings. Mario Díaz, judge and President of the Association of Judges for Democracy in Honduras, explained recently that “judicial independence is a chimera.” Journalists are silenced, activists assassinated. The killing of human rights defender Berta Cáceres provoked ripples of outrage in the international community in March, but the intellectual authors of her crime have yet to be found.
Thousands of protesters took to the streets last year after reports emerged alleging that up to $350 million had been embezzled from the social security system, much of which was reportedly funneled to the ruling National Party. The protesters, known as the Indignados, called for the resignation of current President Juan Orlando Hernández, as well as an independent investigation into government-level corruption based on the successful mission against impunity in Guatemala.
More than 90% of murder cases in Honduras go unsolved, and police are routinely accused of taking part in targeted killings
Juan Jiménez Mayor, chief of the MACCIH and former prime minister of Peru, is quietly confident about its potential for success: “We want the mission to leave behind a big legacy in the country,” he said. The MACCIH will work with the Honduran government, civil society, the OAS and a team of international judges and prosecutors. Among its targets, the mission aims to rid the justice system of chronic corruption, radically reform the transparency of political parties and uncover the officials at the heart of the social security scandal.
But the MACCIH got off to a shaky start. The assassination of Berta Cáceres dulled the appetite of the international community to cooperate with Honduras and the mission initially struggled to secure funding. It also failed to win over many of the activists who had participated in the Indignados movement. The MACCIH cannot prosecute and has to rely on the General Attorney’s Office to take any allegedly corrupt individuals to court. Tomás Gómez, who replaced Berta Cáceres as leader of the land-rights organization COPINH, says the voices of many activists have been ignored and calls the mission a “joke to the Indignados who went out and protested.”
Jiménez refutes complaints that the MACCIH has excluded sections of the public, pointing out that the mission carried out “140 meetings with organizations from civil society” in its first three months. According to Jiménez, much of the resentment from some members of the Indignados movement stemmed from a “lack of understanding” of the MACCIH’s potential to effect change. He claims it has the same capacity to investigate as the Guatemalan mission. But without local commitment to judicial independence, plans to tackle corruption will fall at the first hurdle.
And corruption in Honduras goes to the very top. The Honduran Supreme Court is a striking portrayal of the difficulties facing the MACCIH. On December 12, 2012, four judges were dismissed from their positions on the Supreme Court by the National Congress, in a flagrant violation of the Honduran Constitution. Rosalinda Cruz de Williams, one of the sacked judges, called their dismissal a “judicial monstrosity.” They were replaced in the early hours of the morning by four new judges, hand-picked by the National Party.
In the months leading up to the sacking, the judges had ruled against several bills that were favored by the government. Among the proposed laws, they rejected a Charter Cities Bill that aimed to create small autonomous zones in the country controlled by foreign investors. José Antonio Gutiérrez Navas, another of the sacked judges, claims that Hernández, president of Congress at the time, approached the judges in August 2012 “to intimidate us to pass the bill.” The judges ignored the political pressure and ruled the project unconstitutional by four votes to one. They lost their jobs within two months.
Ignacio Boulín, President of the Latin American Centre for Human Rights (CLADH), pinpoints the sacking as the final blow to judicial independence in Honduras: “If it’s possible to sack the judges of the highest court of justice at the stroke of a pen, what can’t the authorities do?”
Gutiérrez claims that the judges’ protests against their dismissal were quickly silenced after their families received death threats: "There's been constant intimidation against us."
The newly stacked Supreme Court later passed the Charter Cities Bill under a new name. For Dana Frank, expert on Honduras and professor of History at the University of California, Santa Cruz, “it all fell into place around the Supreme Court.” She calls the sackings a “technical coup,” the ultimate power play for Hernández.
The dismissals sparked a shakeup in the judicial branch. Marcia Aguíluz, of the Center of Studies for Justice and International Law, describes how the single Supreme Court judge who voted in favor of the original Charter Cities bill, Óscar Chinchilla, was “rewarded with the position of attorney general” the following year. The selection process for the role was marred with controversy; some allege Chinchilla was not on the original eight-strong shortlist of candidates. He is now in charge of the investigation into the social security scandal and shows no signs of pursuing those at the top.
Chinchilla is the main figure with whom the MACCIH has to work to strengthen democracy in the country. While Jiménez recognizes that political influence over Honduran institutions is “one of the biggest problems facing the country,” he describes his relationship with the attorney general as a positive one. “He opened the doors of the attorney general’s office to us; we don’t have any restrictions to information whatsoever.” On August 22, the MACCIH released a call for applications for a new panel of anti-corruption judges tasked with taking on high-level white-collar crimes in the country. Jiménez hopes the panel will be the first step toward judicial independence in the country.
Any party found guilty of illegal activities will face sanctions that could lead to the banning of the party itself
But the mission does not have long to make its impact felt. Elections are on the horizon, with primaries set to be held in March 2017. Hernández’s camp appears to be making moves to run for a second term, despite the fact that re-election is prohibited by the Honduran constitution.
The MACCIH recently announced a bill to clean up Honduran politics. The new law, which Jiménez calls “highly advanced for Latin America,” would introduce caps on spending during electoral campaigns and ensure transparency over party financing with the creation of an independent auditing body. Significantly, any party found guilty of illegal activities will face sanctions that could lead to the banning of the party itself.
Dana Frank agrees the law would be a “step forward”, but argues that “its implementation in the coming election season would depend on the very government that has thrown out the rule of law and is documented to have stolen millions of dollars from the National Health Service to fund its 2013 campaigns.
“Who, then,” she continues, “would enforce the law?”
The MACCIH is under immense pressure to ensure the next elections are free and democratic. The “Clean Politics” bill and the social security investigation will give strong indications of the mission’s potential to effect real change. Following the example of the Guatemalan mission would set a striking precedent for democracies in the region. However, its success will be defined by its willingness to take on figures who see the mission as a PR exercise. The MACCIH has a long way to go. But if it wants to get the job done, it will have to confront some powerful enemies.