A prosecutor struggles as Honduras scraps ambitious anti-graft push

He couldn’t walk for months. Those responsible for the attack were never found. Santos decided

He couldn’t walk for months. Those responsible for the attack were never found.

Santos decided to flee. With the help of a prominent Jesuit priest, he took asylum in Spain, where he earned a master’s degree in human rights. “I wanted to forget about the legal profession,” he recalls.

Honduras’ political landscape shifted. In June 2009, a coup toppled leftist President Manuel Zelaya. Porfirio Lobo, a conservative, won the presidency that November.

Lawmakers elected Hernández, a Lobo ally, to preside over the assembly. In that position, Hernández prepared his own run for the presidency and consolidated power for the National Party, still in office today despite controversial machinations to control the judiciary, repeated corruption scandals and alleged ties between senior officials and the drug trade.

Seizing on technicalities still in dispute, Hernández steered Congress to unseat four Supreme Court justices who opposed National Party initiatives and replace them with allied judges. The maneuver foreshadowed steps Hernández took later to further realign the court and circumvent constitutional limits against his second and current term as president.

“I wanted to forget about the legal profession.”

“He exercised almost absolute power,” said Raúl Pineda Alvarado, a political commentator and former National Party congressman.

Santos returned in 2012. “I was missing something,” he said. “I had to come back.”

The Public Ministry gave him a job prosecuting small-scale crimes in a remote town. Within a year, he was probing corruption again. Among other cases, he successfully prosecuted a National Party lawmaker and associates for the collapse in 2013 of 150 new homes built without permits.

In 2015, Honduran media reported that government officials had skimmed more than $200 million from social security coffers and used some of it to finance Hernández’s 2013 presidential victory. Hernández and other party leaders denied knowing the origin of the funds and said they would investigate. Mass protests erupted. Demonstrators demanded Hernández resign and called for the creation of an international panel of investigators similar to one, backed by the United Nations, operating in Guatemala.  

The protests kindled hope that even the country’s political class had awoken to the pervasiveness of corruption and its consequences. “Corruption itself was the system,” James D. Nealon, the U.S. ambassador to the country at the time, told Reuters. “Anyone who achieves a certain status or stature in Honduras has come up through a corrupt system.”

Hernández agreed to set up the anti-graft task force.

“We have collapsed”

With initial funding of $5.2 million from the United States, the Organization of American States, or OAS, assembled a team of about 40 international investigators and related staff beginning in January 2016. Juan Jiménez Mayor, a former justice minister of Peru, became its coordinator.

Known by its Spanish-language initials of MACCIH, the body immediately worked to form special courts and legal teams, composed of locals, to navigate the notoriously corrupt judicial system. To vet candidates, they ran background checks and polygraph tests.

FOREIGN SUPPORT: OAS officials, following a corruption scandal during Hernández’s first term, introduced the MACCIH investigative team at a Tegucigalpa ceremony in early 2016. REUTERS/OAS Handout

The investigators quickly launched probes and needed experienced prosecutors.

Santos, still a regular prosecutor within the Public Ministry, by then was again in the crosshairs of powerful enemies. He received regular threats, Santos said. Someone broke into his house and stole a computer. The ministry equipped him with bodyguards and a bulletproof car.  

Jiménez Mayor, the MACCIH coordinator, asked Santos to lead a new prosecutorial unit. Santos agreed. He easily passed the polygraph tests and additional vetting, according to three officials involved in the process.

By 2018, MACCIH probes yielded results. Santos’ team indicted the first of what would ultimately be more than two dozen serving and former lawmakers. They jailed Rosa Elena Bonilla, the wife of former President Lobo, on charges including misappropriation of more than $700,000 in public funds. Bonilla denied the charges and appealed her 2019 conviction. Her attorney, Juan Carlos Berganza, told Reuters “there were no irregularities” in her finances.

Together, Santos and MACCIH investigators enabled Honduran courts for the first time to seize the assets of powerful targets, including various Bonilla properties. “It was a bombshell,” said Jiménez Mayor, the former MACCIH coordinator.

Then came the backlash.

“The judiciary is practically subordinate to the wishes and political interests of the presidency.”

Congress passed legislation that forces prosecutors, before charging any government official, to seek prior approval from a special court widely considered to be controlled by the administration. Another law shortened sentences for corruption convictions. Yet another created delays in the prosecution of lawmakers, allowing them to prolong corruption cases for years.

The Supreme Court, controlled by Hernández appointees, also ruled against graft prosecutions. In 2018, it dismissed the most serious charges Santos had brought against 24 defendants, including a brother-in-law of the president, freeing most of them from prison. Later, it freed Bonilla, ordering a retrial for the former first lady, and upheld the law passed to reduce sentences for corruption convictions.

“The judiciary is practically subordinate to the wishes and political interests of the presidency,” said Victor Meza, a former justice minister and founder of the Honduran Documentation Center, a think tank in Tegucigalpa.

In a statement, the Supreme Court told Reuters its operations and decisionmaking “depend solely on the judiciary and its workforce.” It didn’t respond to questions about specific rulings or allegations that it favors the Hernández administration and its allies.  

Santos said the pushback was like “running into a wall.” But he kept at it.

Digging by MACCIH investigators led them to examine Hilda Hernández, a sister of the president who formerly served as communications minister. She died in a helicopter crash in 2017. But in 2019, the MACCIH team suspected she had illegally used government funds for electoral purposes, according to the Supreme Court filing by prosecutors after the palace raid.

Hilda’s activities were what led Santos to launch the raid, he said.

That morning, few people outside Santos’ team knew of the operation. Trying to keep things low-key, the team approached the palace’s rear entrance. Presidential staff barred all but Santos and two assistants from entering.

“I’m not leaving without the documents,” Santos said he told them.

The presidential staffers, Santos said, told him they could fetch files he requested, but that he wouldn’t be allowed further into the offices himself. It’s unclear whether Hernández was in the building, or who was deciding how the aides responded.

As their back and forth progressed, Santos and a MACCIH investigator told Reuters, several ministers sought to dissuade him. Nearby phones rang often, they said, as senior officials called in efforts to stop the raid. Santos and the investigator wouldn’t disclose the identity of these callers.

Over the course of the day, Santos said, his team obtained copies of contracts, checks and other documents that this year led them to seek the charges against 11 administration officials.

SEEKING CHARGES: After the palace raid, Santos petitioned the Supreme Court to charge 11 administration officials with crimes including diversion of public funds. REUTERS

Led by Hilda, they alleged, Hernández aides diverted $5 million in government cash and later used it to illegally finance his successful 2017 reelection bid. Among other expenditures, according to the court filing, the funds financed transport of pro-government activists to rallies and paid more than 70 journalists for “favorable news articles.”

CAMPAIGN COFFERS: Prosecutors allege presidential staffers used government funds to pay journalists for favorable coverage ahead of Hernández’s successful 2017 bid for reelection. REUTERS

One of the people Santos seeks to charge is another Hernández aide and sister: Gloria Margarita Vargas. Prosecutors say Vargas used funds from a shell company that allegedly stole government funds to build a home in El Sauce, an upscale Tegucigalpa neighborhood. Vargas didn’t respond to phone calls or text messages from Reuters.

In January 2020, Hernández declined to renew the mandate allowing MACCIH to operate, effectively kicking its investigators out of Honduras. The OAS, in a statement, called it “a negative step in the fight against corruption and impunity.”

Santos’ prosecutorial team remained intact, but with lesser scope, now reporting to mid-level officials in the Public Ministry. Managers have given them additional chores and stripped them of a monthly bonus that had totaled nearly half a paycheck for some. A ministry spokesman said the prosecutors still have full support to fight graft. The bonus, he added, was specifically for MACCIH work and cut because the group was dissolved.

“The conclusion of the work of MACCIH in Honduras is a negative step in the fight against corruption and impunity.”

This past February, shortly before Santos filed the request to indict with the Supreme Court, he returned to the palace to take a statement from the president. Hernández, Santos said, denied knowledge of his sisters’ alleged schemes and said he had delegated decisions to aides. A second person familiar with the encounter confirmed the meeting to Reuters.

Santos is still seeking permission to proceed with the indictments. The Supreme Court in June sought to reject some of the charges, including those against Vargas, and Santos has appealed. His team, he said, continues to pursue leads. But without the help of MACCIH investigators, it struggles.

“There are many serious lines of investigations, but we don’t have financial analysts to do the investigating,” Santos told Reuters. “We have collapsed.”

Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa

The Untouchables

By Drazen Jorgic

Art direction and photo editing: John Emerson

Edited by Paulo Prada