Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Hondurans get their international anti-corruption team -- will it be enough? (Jan. 20, 2016)

Honduras and the Organization of American States (OAS) signed an agreement yesterday for an international team of experts to assist the Honduran legal system's fight against corruption.

The Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, which will start next month, will be made up of international judges, prosecutors and legal experts who will work with a specially selected group of Honduran professionals to investigate cases of corruption.

MACCIH by its Spanish initials (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras) has a mandate of four years and $32 million from the regional organization. Led by the former Peruvian prime minister Juan Jiménez, it will have powers to independently investigate politicians, judges and members of the security forces.

Honduras has one of the world's highest homicide rates and an extremely high rate of impunity.

The group's creation was spurred by massive protests beginning in May of last year, demanding accountability and an international, independent prosecutorial team, after news of embezzlement of $300 million from its social security system. (See the post for June 8, 2015.) Some estimate that the the fraud killed thousands as a result of medical shortages and tattered the public health system. President Juan Orlando Hernández was forced to admit that some of the stolen funds went to his 2013 election campaign.

Demonstrators specifically demanded a group like the International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), the U.N. backed group which has investigated key cases despite a weak judicial system, including a customs kick-back scheme that put the former Guatemalan president and vice president in jail.

The MACCIH follows the CICIG model in many aspects: it will have full access to official documents and public records to help with the investigation and prosecution of cases involving corrupt networks. It will also select the cases in which it will cooperate, explains the Wall Street Journal. (Full OAS press release.)

The MACCIH could also take over anti-corruption purges in the police and military, according to El Heraldo

And it will answer directly to OAS president Luis Almagro, who committed himself to "guaranteeing" that the MACCIH "will not be another formality." In an op-ed in El País he promised personal periodic involvement in a venture that "could transform the country in the correct direction."

But the Honduran group will not match the power of the CICIG in Guatemala. The MACCIH can't act as co-plaintiff before local courts and promote disciplinary processes against government or judicial officials who refuse to collaborate. And it cannot carry out its own investigations, according to the WSJ.

While the Guatemalan commission operates independently from the prosecutor's office and the judicial system (although they cooperate), the Honduran mission with work under the prosecutor and Supreme Court, which are close to the president, reports the Associated Press.

The protest group wants the MACCIH to tackle the social security scandal first. But they are concerned the new mission won't have enough teeth, according to the AP.

And the MACCIH could face additional complications, notes InSight Crime, such limited and poorly organized public information. Additionally, Honduran elites involved in corruption may well have taken note of the Guatemalan example already and taken measures to avoid similar high-profile anti-corruption takedowns.

Yet to have such a body at all is already a success for the protest movement, according to Omar Rivera, the head of Alianza por la Paz y la Justicia, a local nonprofit government-accountability group quoted in the Wall Street Journal. "The step president Hernández took was unthinkable just six months ago," he said.

And the MACCIH is stronger than Hernández's initial proposal, noted Eric Olson, of the Woodrow Wilson Center, in the Guardian's piece. "While MACCIH still isn’t perfect, it has a tremendous opportunity to make an impact in Honduras like CICIG in Guatemala. It's incumbent on its jurists to go wherever the evidence leads them, even if it takes them to the highest levels of the Honduras government."

The Guardian also quotes Steven Dudley, co-director of InSight Crime, who questioned the utility of an international group at this time. "There are many, many signs that the [Honduran] attorney general’s office is doing its job better all the time. This is the time to support that office, not undermine it with outside entities."

News Briefs

  • Argentina's government declared a public security emergency yesterday, which, among other things, permits the army to "identify, warn, intimidate and use force" against drug flights, reports Reuters. The measure is aimed at fighting complex crime, specifically illicit drug production and trafficking, reports La Nación. Though polemic, similar policies towards planes transporting drugs are in place in Bolivia, Brazil and Venezuela, notes La Nación. Peru, which suspended its policy of shooting down small planes in 2001, after a missionary and her baby were killed in a mistaken shoot-down, recently passed a similar measure. (See briefs for Oct. 14, 2015.) But the issue of shooting down planes is worrisome as it can mix national defense with interior security, according to CELS expert Paula Litvachky, quoted in Página 12.
  • Amnesty International Argentina called for the immediate liberation of a political activist who was arrested this weekend in Argentina, on charges of leading occupation of public places and restricting the circulation of vehicles. Milgaro Sala was carrying out a protest in a central plaza in the northern Jujuy province. CELS called her detention arbitrary and said it was part of a process of harassment and penal prosecution of social protests in the province. CELS said that, along with other human rights groups, including Amnesty, it had requested the Inter-American Human Rights Commission grant injunctions guaranteeing "Milagro Sala's freedom, and the exercise of freedom of expression and the right to social protest in Jujuy," reports Página 12.
  • Not all protests are the same: A piece in Foreign Policy from earlier this month celebrates that the Argentine government under Mauricio Macri will have a significant human rights impact in the region, specifically because of his willingness to go to the mat with Venezuela over the liberation of opposition political leader Leopoldo López, who was convicted of inciting violence in street protests in Venezuela nearly two years ago.
  • Yesterday Colombia's government and leftist FARC rebels agreed to ask the United Nations Security Council to help monitor and verify a rebel disarmament should the two sides reach a final peace deal to end their 50-year-old war, reports Reuters.
  • Venezuela's new opposition-led Congress plans to investigate state-run oil company PDVSA's financial health and hefty Chinese loans, according to Reuters.
  • Meanwhile hundreds of Uruguayan farmers are protesting, as they demand their government force payment of debts they say they're owed by Venezuela for about $100 million for shipments made under a deal between the two governments, reports the Associated Press.
  • Brazil's central bank will have a meeting today to determine whether it will raise interest rates -- battling inflation, recession and suspicions that the body is politically influenced, according to the Wall Street Journal. In a statement yesterday, the bank "scrambled market expectations" lowering economic forecasts for the next two years and saying the IMF would play a role in the bank’s decision on whether to raise rates.
  • The war against Zika goes high-tech: Brazil is deploying genetically modified mosquitos to help reduce the spread of Zika and other dangerous diseases in the country. The males of the self-limiting strain of the Aedes aegypti mosquito are modified so their offspring will die before reaching adulthood and being able to reproduce, report Reuters. (See yesterday's and Monday's briefs.)
  • Meanwhile authorities confirmed the presence of Zika, which experts believe is linked to birth defects in Brazil, in Haiti, reports the Miami Herald.
  • With less than a week until Haiti's presidential run-off elections, opposition protesters took to the streets for the second day in a row. A few thousand people joined the demonstration in downtown Port-au-Prince, marching through narrow streets and occasionally chanting: "The revolution has started, get your gun ready," reports the Associated Press.
  • Guatemala risks entering a public state of calamity due to a worsening malnutrition crisis, according to Vice President Jafeth Cabrera. Guatemala has one of the highest malnutrition rates in the world: about 55 percent in rural areas — 69 percent among Indigenous peoples — and 47 percent of children under five — about twice as high for Indigenous children, reports TeleSur.
  • Chile formally inaugurated the region's largest medical marijuana farm, another step in Latin America's growing acceptance of therapeutic uses for the formerly illegal plant, reports Reuters. Organizers say the 6,900-stalk plantation will help treat some 4,000 patients from across Chile. Chile's Congress is debating the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana for personal use and cultivation.
  • Legal cannabis businesses are eying Mexico as a tempting new business possibility, after a Supreme Court ruling last year that could potentially open the door to legal recreational and medical marijuana, reports Reuters. (See the post for Nov. 17, 2015.)
  • Mexican authorities are seeking to interrogate actress Kate del Castillo to determine whether she accepted money from then fugitive drug kingpin Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán in order to finance a tequila brand, reports the Wall Street Journal
  • An innovative crime-prevention strategy in Apatzingán in Mexico involves setting up a highbrow publishing house and book retailer in the gang and vigilante besieged city in Michoacán, reports the Guardian.
  • "It used to be said that when the U.S. caught a cold, Latin America caught the flu. Nowadays, China has supplanted the U.S. as the main driver of economic fortunes (or misfortune) across much of the region. When China sneezes, South America runs a fever," according to the Wall Street Journal in a piece on the economic difficulties facing the region this year. 

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