Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Callejas Lauded for Pleading Not Guilty in FIFAgate

Rafael Leonardo Callejas Romero, National Party member and former president of Honduras (1990-1994), pleaded "not guilty" in a Federal Court in Miami, Florida to charges of money laundering racketeering, and bribery.

Honduran news paper La Tribuna labeled that a "master strategy". The reason why tells us a lot about justice in Honduras.

On December 3, 2015, the US Department of Justice unveiled charges against 16 more defendants in its on-going investigation into corruption in international soccer in the criminal investigation that is known as FIFAgate.  FIFA is the Federación Internacional de Futbol Asociacion.

The 16 new defendants were charged with 92 counts, including money laundering, racketeering, and wire fraud conspiracies.  The charges were announced after the overnight arrest in Switzerland that morning of the FIFA vice president, Alfredo Hawit, a Honduran citizen charged in the same indictment as Callejas.

Rafael Callejas, a member of the FIFA Television and Marketing committee, learned through the Justice Department release that he had been named in the indictment.

Subsequently the US government filed formal paperwork with the government of Honduras to extradite him to the United States.

Callejas originally decided to remain in Honduras and fight extradition, but on December 14 he boarded a private plane on a flight for Miami to turn himself in and face the charges.  The Honduran press later revealed that US Ambassador James Nealon had helped negotiate Callejas's return to the US.

On his arrival in Miami, Callejas was formally arrested and transferred to a holding cell.  Callejas was arraigned the next morning and pleaded not guilty to all charges.  Some Honduran press accounts had him returned to a holding cell. La Tribuna indicated that he traveled with a briefcase full of documents that name names as part of his proposed defense strategy.

Which brings us to the "master strategy" that La Tribuna announced in its December 21 edition.  We quote:
The defense of the ex-president, Rafael Leonardo Callejas, is resorting to a “master strategy”, legally speaking, by advising him that he declare himself not guilty, because now the US government must present its evidence, an expert told LA TRIBUNA.

At first glance this may not make sense to readers. In the Honduran legal system, despite judicial reforms, there is still an understanding that those charged with a crime who claim to be innocent must prove their innocence. The idea that the government always has to prove the guilt of the accused, fundamental to the US legal system, is thus not the norm, but rather, something that La Tribuna is seeing as the result of a great strategic move: pleading "not guilty" rather than "innocent".

In fact, La Tribuna helpfully expands on this understanding of the US legal system, seen through this peculiar Honduran lens:
The difference between the declaration of innocent and "not guilty" rests in the fact that in the first case, the accused has to present evidence to show directly his innocence; while in the second, the burden of proof is transferred to those who accuse him, according to the source.
Under the scenario of "not guilty”, it will be the federal attorneys of New York and the US Department of Justice that must provide sufficient evidence to demonstrate the guilt of the ex-leader, he added.

Think for a moment of the understanding of court procedure that this flawed explanation is reinforcing. Cleverly, Callejas is moving, not to prove his own innocence, but to challenge the accusers to come up with enough evidence to prove he is guilty. And it gets worse:
If they do not succeed in proving the charges, the judge will have no other alternative than to absolve him... although the case could remain open if in the future new evidence were to emerge, the interviewed expert specified.
The fact that bail has been accepted is a sign that the strategy worked, initially, but the decisive hearing will be the 16th of March, when the government attorneys will formally present the charges with the evidence of guilt, the source added.

There you have it: a Honduran vision of justice. The rest of the article offers the "information" that Callejas won't have to wear an orange jumpsuit because those are reserved for terrorists and violent criminals; and emphasizes how expensive the legal defense will be. But don't worry: his excellent legal team has come up with the brilliant strategy of pleading "not guilty", so now the prosecution is on the ropes...

Monday, December 21, 2015

Can Honduras meet the certification goals of the Alliance for Prosperity?

Tiempo reported today that the newly passed US budget bill includes money for, and suggests the implementation of, a Comision Internacional Contra la Impunidad y la Corupción en Honduras (CICIH), something the indignados have been calling for since they began marching in May of this year.

Tiempo did not get it quite right. The bill does contain authorization of funding for a CICIH, should Honduras implement it, but does not suggest or mandate that Honduras do so nor does it set a cap on support for one, if implemented. It provides that if Honduras or El Salvador establishes an International Commission against corruption and impunity, funds from the Central American Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) can be used to support them if the House Appropriations Committee agrees after consultation.

Which is not to say that the bill has no policy implications for Honduras, and for US relations with it. House Bill 2029, which passed and was signed by President Obama, establishes the appropriations for the State Department, including the authorization language regarding the Alliance for Prosperity in the Northern Triangle of Central America.

In reaction to concerns about continuing migration from these countries, Congress bars the disbursement of 25% of the approved funds to the Northern Triangle countries unless the Secretary of State can certify that these governments are informing their population of the dangers of traveling to the southwestern border of the United States; are combating human trafficking and smuggling; have improved their border security; and are cooperating with the US government and governments in the region to facilitate the return, repatriation, and reintegration of those that do not qualify for refugee status under International law. 

A further 50% of the funds for the Alliance are embargoed until and unless the Secretary of Sate can certify that each government meets twelve other criteria. In the case of Honduras, we think the State Department has its work cut out for it.

First the Secretary of State must certify in writing that each government is taking effective steps to
"establish an autonomous public accountability entity to provide oversight of the Plan". Honduras does not currently have such an entity that we can identify.

Next the Secretary of State must certify that each government is combating corruption "including investigating and prosecuting government officials credibly alleged to be corrupt."

In Honduras, there are far more identified cases of corruption than the Public Prosecutor's office has chosen to prosecute, and it has not prosecuted the most flagrant cases involving high status individuals in the National Party (the current ruling party in Honduras).

The Secretary of State is also charged to certify that these governments, including Honduras, has taken steps to "implement reforms, policies, and programs to improve transparency and strengthen public institutions, including increasing the capacity and independence of the judiciary and the Office of the Attorney General".

Honduras has recently been signatory to an agreement with Transparency International and the Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa (ASJ) to promote and encourage transparency in the Honduran government.

There's a conflict between what Honduras agreed to do with Transparency International, and what it is doing with the Ley de Secretos Oficiales, which allows the Honduran government to arbitrarily and unilaterally make anything it wants unavailable to the public for up to 25 years, an action taken despite strong opposition from groups like the ASJ and its own government transparency watchdog, the Instituto de Acceso a la Información Publica. In June of 2015 the Instituto de Acceso a la Información Publica issued a resolution ordering the Honduran Congress to reform the law to follow Article 72 of the constitution and other laws related to human rights and other agreements Honduras has entered into regarding transparency. To date, the Honduran Congress has refused to amend the law.

Honduras has taken baby steps towards training the judiciary and the office of the Public Prosecutor to better be able to do their jobs. While there's been a large financial investment in training, there is little to show for it. The Honduran government has agreed to implement the OAS sponsored MACCIH, but it largely shaped this program into yet another advisory group that will propose changes to the judiciary and Public Prosecutor's office. The current President and Congress have ignored at least four sets of recommendations for changes to the judiciary since the 2009 coup and we don't see any reason to expect the outcome this time will be different.

The Secretary must further certify that civil society organizations and local communities are consulted during the design of projects, and participate in the implementation of them. The lack of such consultation has been a constant concern for indigenous and rural communities faced with mining, hydroelectric, and other government approved projects.

Another certification required by the bill is that the Honduran government is taking effective steps to "counter the activities of criminal gangs, drug traffickers, and organized crime." 

Here the government of Honduras has a mixed record.  On the one hand, it has somewhat improved the national homicide rate, bringing it down to about 60 homicides per 100,00 population this year.  It has made numerous arrests of gang members and members of organized crime, but has successfully prosecuted none of them to date.  All high level members of organized crime in Honduras have been extradited to the United States for trial on charges here.  Extortion is rampant, kidnapping for ransom is on the rise, and mass murder, in which four or more people are killed in a single incident, is on the rise. Drug use within Honduras is increasing as well.

Another certification deals with the government taking effective steps to "investigate and prosecute in the civilian justice system members of military and police forces who are credibly alleged to have violated human rights, and ensure that the military and police are cooperating in such cases".

In theory this is already true under the Ley del Ministerio Publico of 1993.  However, the Public Prosecutor's office has to choose to prosecute the case, and has a miserable success record in court.

The Secretary of State will have to certify that the Northern Triangle governments are taking effective steps to "cooperate with commissions against impunity, as appropriate, and with regional human rights entities."  In Guatemala, the Public Prosecutor's office was slow to accept the help and guidance of its Comisión Internacional Contra la Corrupcion y la Impunidad (CICIG).  Honduras and El Salvador currently don't have such International commissions. Although there is sentiment in both places to establish them, that sentiment is just not in either current government.

Honduras recently boycotted a series of InterAmerican Human Rights hearings on judicial independence and the corruption of government institutions (see the videos of the hearings from October 22, 2015 on the linked page). Its absence was notable, and noted by the court.  It has, to date, ignored the finding of the InterAmerican Court that Honduras violated due process in dismissing three justices and a magistrate in 2010 for having opposed the 2009 coup.  In October, the court ordered two of the judges and the magistrate reinstated or paid lost wages. The Honduran government has done nothing to date, not even acknowledge the finding.  Ignoring and boycotting are not evidence of cooperation with regional human rights organizations.

The Secretary of State must also certify that the government will "support programs to reduce poverty, create jobs, and promote equitable economic growth in areas contributing to large numbers of migrants."

The Honduran Congress is barely moving here. Historically National Party governments, like the current one, have increased, rather than decreased poverty in Honduras. This is visible both in the percentage of the population living in poverty, and in the GINI index recorded each year for Honduras. We've written about this trend before (here and here).

The Secretary of State will have to certify that the Honduran government is taking effective steps to "create a professional, accountable civilian police force and curtail the role of the military in internal policing".

One could not certify that for Honduras today.  Not only is there no viable mechanism for removing corrupt, crime-linked police officers (everything done to date has been inconsequential), and no will to do so, but the current government is expressly in favor of militarizing the police and abolishing the civilian police force by progressively defunding it in favor of increased funding to the militarized police force it is building up from scratch.  Honduras is therefore unlikely to take steps under its current government to comply with this condition of funding.

The Secretary of State will have to certify that the government of Honduras is taking effective steps to "protect the rights of political opposition parties, journalists, trade unionists, human rights defenders, and other civil society activists to operate without interference".

In the Honduras of today, reporters, trade unionists, human rights defenders, and members of the opposition party all regularly receive death threats via text messages.  Many of those threatened either quit, or get killed.  The Honduran police don't have the staff to pursue something as high tech as tracing a text message source. The Honduran military intelligence group probably could do this, since they effectively have a tap on all Internet and telephone connections in the country, but haven't done anything about it.  Opposition parties in Congress are shut out of the public debate of bills by the leadership.

The Secretary of State must certify that the governments of these countries, including Honduras, are  taking steps to "increase government revenues, including by implementing tax reforms and strengthening customs agencies". 

Finally, the Secretary must certify the government of Honduras is taking effective steps to "resolve commercial disputes, including the confiscation of real property, between United States entities and such government."

Given the situation on the ground, it should be difficult for the Secretary of State to certify the Honduras of today is taking effective steps to meet these criteria. Unless it makes changes, Honduras might not have access to the funding it thinks it is going to receive under this program.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Keeping the US border safe...in Honduras?

On November 18, five individuals were detained by Honduran authorities when they tried to enter Honduras with questionable Greek passports.  Given the timing, in the wake of terrorist attacks in Paris, the story was widely reported in US media.

The passports contained inconsistencies that raised the concern of Honduran immigration officials who ordered their detention.  While it was widely reported from the first that they were Syrians, it was only on the 19th of November that Honduran officials were able to confirm their identities: four college students and a professor, all hoping to seek asylum in the United States.

The group arrived on an Avianca flight from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Tegucigalpa, on the evening of November 17. Some of the biometric data in the passports did not match the individuals, raising the concern of Honduran immigration officials, who then detained them. Greek officials reported that passports for people with those names had been stolen in Athens. Representatives of the Greek embassy of Honduras confirmed that none of the five spoke a word of Greek.

After these five were detained, Honduran immigration officials reported that one other individual, who tried to enter Honduras with a false Greek passport the previous Friday, had been denied entry and deported. Three days after the group of five were detained, three more people, reportedly a Syrian woman and two Pakistani men, were arrested after entering Honduras without proper documents, arriving over land from Nicaragua.

All this made it seem for a short while as if Honduras was a weak point in potential terrorism in the US, invoking fears that ISIS was sending people to infiltrate the US via the border with Mexico.

Never mind that getting to the US-Mexican border from Honduras is a daunting prospect, with Mexico responding strongly to US persuasion to stop refugees coming from Central America from reaching the US border. Even without the recent crack down, the route from Honduras to the US over land was hardly ever easy.

Within a week of the detentions in Honduras, it became clear to most international media that these five men were not the first wave of some subtle terrorist strategy.

Most English media dropped the story entirely. In an exception to this rule, the BBC reported on November 24 that the Syrians arrested at the Tegucigalpa airport had applied for asylum, "because their lives were at risk in their home country".

On December 1, Reuters reported that the men had been freed, and charges dropped, after they paid a fine equal to $450 each for falsifying documents, and that they were expected to be granted permanent refugee status on February 22, quoting a Honduran official saying
they had been warmly received by Honduras' Arab community, and were planning to stay in the Central American country.

How the group reached Honduras is a fascinating illustration of the routes taken by those fleeing Syria.

Authorities said that the group that reached Honduras traveled from Syria to Lebanon, Turkey, Brazil, Argentina, and Costa Rica before trying to enter Honduras.  Honduras' El Heraldo reported that the five fake Greek passports were acquired in Brazil, specifically because Greeks do no need a visa to enter Honduras, but Syrians do.

At least six people traveling on Greek passports, including the five detained in Honduras, entered Costa Rica on a flight from Argentina on November 11.  The sixth person, a woman, was detained  in San Jose, Costa Rica for questioning. 

Costa Rica and Honduras worked with Interpol to identify these individuals.

A check with Interpol found none of them had a criminal background.

On December 1, a Honduran court ordered their release after a plea bargain was reached.  The five Syrians signed a document in which they admitted to the crime of forging government documents (their fake passports) and were fined.  They were freed from prison, and the government of Honduras agreed to rule within the next 90 days on their application for refugee status. 

The Syrian and Lebanese Christian community in Honduras that is supporting their application are descendants of immigrants who themselves came to Honduras as refugees from the Ottoman empire in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

None of these developments have been enough to stop the exploitation of the story, minus the actual outcome and the exoneration of the Syrians held in Honduras from any terrorist ties, by right wing media and politicians in the US.

Arguing against accepting any Syrian refugees in the US, just this week one state senator wrote
Throw in the five Syrian nationals on their way to the U.S. that were apprehended two weeks ago in Honduras with fraudulent passports and we have a clear picture of imminent danger.

"Imminent danger". 

From students and a professor fleeing violence, welcomed as refugees by one of the poorest nations in our hemisphere.

Separation of Church and State?

The Honduran constitution establishes Honduras as a secular nation, and calls for its elected and high government officials to be secular. 

So why are candidates for the Honduran Supreme Court using religious, not secular, grounds to make legal arguments in their public job interviews?

The Honduran Constitution is quite clear about the separation of Church and State.  It states in Article 77 that
"[The Constitution] guarantees the free exercise of all religions and beliefs without the pre-eminence of any one of them, when not contravening the laws and public order.  Ministers of the various religions may not hold public office or engage in any form of political propaganda by invoking religious motives or basing themselves in it, to the religious beliefs of the people.

Artículo 77. Se garantiza el libre ejercicio de todas las religiones y cultos sin preeminencia alguna, siempre que no contravengan las leyes y el orden público.
Los ministros de las diversas religiones, no podrán ejercer cargos públicos ni hacer en ninguna forma propaganda política, invocando motivos de religión o valiéndose, como medio para tal fin, de las creencias religiosas del pueblo."

Leonidas Rosa Suazo points out in his essay "Religion and the Contemporary Judicial System" that this principle has thus been encoded in a variety of Honduran laws, including the Ley de Codigo Penal (articles 210-213), the Ley de Policia y Convivencia Social (especially article 145, 149).

Likewise, there is clear juricial prohibition on the interaction of political parties and religion.  Parties or movements within them cannot advocate for a particular form of religion. 

There's clearly a tension between law and practice here.  The Lobo Sosa government established, and later was forced to abolish, a Ministro de Culto as a cabinet level position.  Lobo Sosa appointed the pastor of a specific evangelical church, Carlos Portillo, to the post.  The Honduran Supreme Court ruled unconstitutional both that position, and an associated rule establishing what a "religion" was to be. Lobo Sosa was forced to fire his Minister.

As Rosa Sauzo points out, the Honduran state fails spectacularly when it comes to refraining from placing religious obligations on its citizens.  The state assumes at times, that everyone is Catholic, or at least Christian, in the establishment of government holidays like Holy Week, and in the constant benedictions given at government and especially military ceremonies.  Public national prayer meetings are common, both in the government, and in the military. 

What Rosa Suazo doesn't address is the degree to which religion is the template and justification for legal reasoning, as manifest in the candidate interviews held this week.

The Nominating Commission, which will eventually give 45 names to the Honduran Congress to select 15 new Supreme Court Justices, held public hearings where it, and members of the public, questioned candidates for 20 minutes each on their ties to political parties and a variety of legal issues.  

The list of candidates currently stands at 97 candidates.  That list of 97 was whittled down from a larger list. Many didn't pass the lie detector and financial investigation portion of the preliminary investigation into candidates. Surprisingly, 10 candidates who failed that portion still are on the 97 person list.  Of the 11 current members of the Honduran Supreme Court who are seeking re-election to the court, only 4 passed the first stage of screening.

The US government has intervened heavily in the selection process.  

During the first phase, the US gave Honduras a list of 20 of the candidates that it argued needed to be eliminated from the list.  They were.  

During the current phase of candidate evaluation, the US government gave Honduras a list of 24 candidates that needed further investigation. The Nominating Committee has not decided what, if anything, it will do about the latest US intervention.  Those candidates will be interviewed with the others remaining on the list.

In this context the public 20 minute interviews began. On the first day, 11 candidates were interviewed. The interviews were structured so that the candidate was given 3 minutes for an opening statement, 12 minutes to hear and answer questions from the Nominating Committee, and 5 minutes to hear and answer questions from the sparse audience.  

First up was Celino Aguilera, currently a member of the Judiciary Committee, the committee that reviews judicial behavior and punishes Justices and Magistrates.  Asked about same sex marriage, he replied that religious and juridical precedents establish that marriage is between a man and a woman.

Candidate Servando Alcerro Saravia, a lawyer with a masters degree in theology and a doctorate in divinity, was asked how he would resolve a hypothetical case in which the Honduran Congress had approved same sex marriage and it was being challenged in court.  

He replied that the Honduran constitution doesn't allow same sex marriage, which is true.  Article 112 establishes that a man and a woman have the right to contract marriage and be equal under the law.  It specifically prohibits same sex marriages and excludes recognizing such marriages legally constituted in other jurisdictions that allow them.

However, he also said that he would have to take into account the universal guide that God established that marriage is between a man and a woman.  Asked if being a minister was compatible with being a judge, he replied that "Jesus Christ was chief lawyer (abogado de los abogados)" and "Lawyering comes out of Christian principles".

We don't know how many of the other candidates were, or will be, asked about same sex marriage.
The prohibition was only put into the constitution in 2004-2005, so this is an issue that seems to have emerged in parallel with the global move towards legalizing marriage equality. 

In the two cases where testimony was published in Honduran media, however, questioning about the issue is more illuminating the degree to which separation of church and state, called for in the Honduran constitution, has been eroded. It's one thing to cite Honduran law in support of a hypothetical legal decision. It is quite another thing to cite religion as the basis for possible action as a future Supreme Court justice.

And no matter what Servando Saravia thinks, the practice of the law in Honduras is not supposed to be based on "Christian principles". It is supposed to be based on legal precedent.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Why the OAS MACCIH Will Likely Fail

Multiple articles (here and here, for example) appeared in the press Wednesday echoing what we have been saying in for some time: that the OAS proposal for a Mission de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH) seems designed to fail, given Honduras's, and more particularly Juan Orlando Hernández's, history of meddling in the judicial system.

The indignados marches formed the context and motivation when Juan Orlando Hernández proposed the Sistema Integral Hondureño de Combate a la Impunidad y Corrupcion (SIHCIC).  He made the proposal as an attempt to shut the indignados protests down.

At the same time he proposed a "national dialogue" to open up the process to improvement, but no part of the SIHCIC process involved actually generating concrete suggestions from the dialogues, and there was no actual legislative proposal or even a report resulting from them. 

Hernández chaired the first several meetings, with groups usually allied politically with him, then turned the entire process over to a congressman to oversee.

The SIHCIC proposal has five basic components:
  • first, a support committee for the Public Prosecutor's office to include both Honduran and international jurists that would audit the actions of the Public Prosecutor's office and aid in the pursuit of corruption
  • second, a similar support committee to oversee the Consejo de la Judicatura, the group that disciplines judicial misbehavior
  • third, a group responsible for the security of judges and their families
  • fourth, an observatory of the judicial system involving academic and civil society members
  • fifth, a business integrity group that would promote transparency and ethical standards for businesses and could propose rules and legislation to support them.

The proposal suggests nothing about judicial independence. It keeps the existing balance of power, tilted extraordinarily strongly towards the executive branch, and in fact, would reinforce it. 

The indignados rejected this proposal precisely because it did nothing to further judicial independence.  They continued to call for the establishment of a CICIH along the lines of the CICIG which has been successful in Guatemala. 

However, some of the indignados, including a leader, Tomás Andino, believe that even a CICIH might not work.  Andino said:
Guatemala has a relatively greater independence of powers than Honduras, which does not function as a democratic state...Here, a U.N. commission would be embedded in a corrupt system.

Because the indignados and other groups refused to participate in Hernández' dialogue, given its closed nature and lack of a mechanism for incorporating any results of the dialogues into legislation, Hernández eventually asked both the OAS and UN for mediators and facilitators. 

The OAS sent John Biehl del Rio who met with many of the same groups that Hernández had, then met in turn with the indignados and other groups that had not participated in the dialogues.  However, he was partisan from the start.  He openly rejected the indignados' call for a CICIH and dismissed the opposition in Honduras in inappropriate ways. 

As a result of his recommendations the OAS instead proposed, and Juan Orlando Hernández accepted, the Mission de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras (MACCIH), designed to take another two years to perform studies and make recommendations.

MACCIH, not unsurprisingly given John Biehl's antipathy for the indignados, parallels and expands on the SIHCIC proposal of Hernández.  It calls for the formation of a set of international judges and lawyers to advise the Public Prosecutor's office and provide technical support to the investigative services.  It uses the Centro de Estudios de Justicia de las Americas (CEJA) to write a series of reports and recommendations on the justice system in Honduras.  It invokes the OAS's Mecanismo de Seguimiento del Implementación del Convención InterAmericana contra la Corrupción (MESICIC) to evaluate and recommend legal changes necessary to fight corruption and bring Honduras into line with the Inter-American Convention against Corruption.  It also calls for the establishment of an observatory of the judicial system to monitor its progress.

A Woodrow Wilson Center report authored by Eric Olsen and Katherine Hyde pointed out nine weaknesses of the MACCIH proposal that, they say, "must be addressed if this and other efforts are to be more than mere window dressing".

For us the most relevant and pressing of their questions is this one, which we also have been asking:
The priority of the MACCIH seems to be assessment and recommendations for institutional reform.  There is little question that institutional reforms are needed, but I know of at least two internationally sanctioned, highly credible assessments of Honduras's law enforcement institutions and justice system in the last four years, and their findings and recommendations are very sound.  Yet the government of Honduras (both current and previous) failed to act on the vast majority of these recommendations.  The question is whether it is really necessary at this point to carry out additional costly assessments and evaluations and again develop reform proposals when much of the work has already been done.  Why not adopt the recommendations that have already been made by international bodies -- including ironically, the OAS just six months ago -- and get to work now.

We would go further and suggest that Juan Orlando Hernández himself, while head of the Honduran Congress, was one of those who "failed to act on the vast majority of recommendations" for judicial reforms. While head of Congress he initiated questionable procedures to remove four sitting Supreme Court justices because he didn't like their ruling on Model Cities. Why does anyone, including the OAS, think that suddenly this will change, that the Honduran government will now act to implement the suggestions?

The MACCIH proposal has won support from James Nealon, US Ambassador to Honduras, who immediately after its announcement tweeted his approval.  But Foreign Policy magazine called it "more like a tool to appease the masses rather than an effective tool for reform."  Carlos Ponce of Freedom House said recently:
"The solution is not making more reports, but bringing change to Honduras.  We’re not talking about India or Brazil but a small country with lots of potential — but a lack of will to change. The families in power are in bed with factions in the government that also control the media. Corruption is linked directly to political parties, so you have to change the power structure."

Nothing in MACCIH even seeks to addresses this fundamental problem.  Without a demonstrated "will to change" there is no reason to expect MACCIH to bring about meaningful change in Honduras and more than previous studies cited in the Wilson Center report have.

 Meanwhile, Judicial independence in Honduras and Corruption in Honduras were the topics of two hearings last week at the Inter American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR in English and CIDH in Spanish). 

The government of Honduras boycotted the hearings. That should give those supporting the MACCIH pause; is there any will to examine these basic questions?

Yani Rosenthal Voluntarily Surrenders to DEA

Noti Cortos de Honduras reports that yesterday Yani Rosenthal voluntarily surrendered to the US Drug Enforcement Agency.

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Drug Planes: They're Back!

After an interlude of almost 18 months, drug planes are again using illicit landing strips in central Honduras, even as Honduras completes is radar coverage.

In February 2014, Willaim Brownfield,  US State Department Assistant Secretary of the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs, told El Heraldo that drug flights had dropped off precipitously:
"In the last 12-18 months the number of traces, flights, that go to Honduras have enormously been reduced.  We are talking about a reduction of more than 80%."
That trend was still true as of May, 2015 when General Kelly of US Southern Command said drug flights in general were down all over, and that Honduras had dropped from first to fifth place as a destination for drug flights.

However, there were signs earlier that 2015 was not going to be like 2014.

In February, long before General Kelly's speech, the Honduran military allowed as how they were having trouble keeping up with clandestine landing strips in the Mosquitia.  As fast as the Honduran military would blow deep holes in them to stop planes from landing, the drug runners would fix them up.  One clandestine strip was destroyed on January 28, only to be usable again when visited on February 3 of this year.

In April of this year, a Brazilian newspaper revealed a new drug ring that was buying drugs from the FARC in Colombia, and loading it onto planes in Venezuela and flying it to Honduras.  From Honduras it was flown to Mexico for the Sinaloa cartel.  This seemed to be confirmed in May, when Honduran authorities found a Brazilian pilot with severe third degree burns in a hospital in Tocoa, Olancho the day after they found a crashed and burned drug plane in the Mosquitia.

But its not just the landing strips being renewed.  After a long absence, drug planes are crashing and being abandoned in Honduras again.  The crash in May was just the start.

On September 14, authorities found a burned plane in El Jobo, San Esteban, Olancho.  There was no landing strip here, just a broad expanse of flat land.  The plane was completely burned except for the tail section, and so far no identifying numbers were recovered from the crash.  Local residents reported hearing the plane crash the previous day.

On September 25, a plane with two pilots from Olancho, crashed and burned in Tripoli, La Masica, Atlantida, killing both pilots.  No drugs were found but a Mexican bank book, extra gas cans, and a satellite phone were found at the crash site.

Finally, on October 22, a plane crashed in La Cuarenta, Progreso, Yoro.  The plane, a US registered (N40212) Piper Aztec from 1973, is currently registered to an owner in Miami, Florida but will probably turn out to have been recently sold.  Locals said the plane attempted to land around 2 or 3 am that morning, but crashed.  Several vehicles were observed around the plane.  The crash was not reported to authorities until 6 am, by which time the pilot(s) and any cargo were long gone.  Found inside the plane were buoys, colored lanterns for a landing strip, gas cans, a portable pump, and an inflatable raft.

All this activity comes as Honduras prepares to install its third and final radar bought from Israel for $30 million.  Honduras bought these 3 radar systems explaining that they would put an aerial shield over Honduras.  Two were supposed to be small, directional radar systems and this new one, a mobile system that does full 360 degree scans.  In April, the military's commander, General Freddy Diaz said:
"With this equipment we will complete the oversight system which Honduras should have.  This radar is part of a system of equipment with capacity to cover all of the national territory and parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans."
But now he's saying its not enough:
"Its not sufficient, we need more radars for us to do a strict watch over all the airspace."

Friday, October 23, 2015

Yoro Mayors Lead Drug Gangs

Since 2014 three different Mayors in the Honduran department of Yoro have been identified as criminals participating in murder for hire and the drug trade in Honduras.

The Department of Yoro, readers will remember, is important to the Zetas.  It's where their drug planes historically have landed, both in clandestine airstrips and along established paved roads.

In July 2014, the Mayor of the town of Yoro, Arnulfo Urbina Soto, was arrested for drug trafficking, murder, rape, money laundering, and the possession of illegal weapons.  After a two year long investigation, the National Police alleged that Urbina Soto led a drug trafficking gang of 37 people that had been operating at least since 2009.  The National Police allege that Urbina Soto expropriated land in the small towns of Rio Nance and Rio Abajo, Locomapa, Yoro and converted them to landing strips for drug planes.

At the time of his arrest Urbina Soto, in addition to being Mayor, was a National Party operative, having coordinated the Presidential campaign of Juan Orlando Hernandez in 2013 in Yoro.  His daughter, Diana, is a member of the Honduran Congress.

Urbina Soto is not alone.

In August 2015 the Fuerza de Seguridad Interinstitutional (FUSINA) went to Jocon, Yoro, to arrest members of Los Solis, wanted for being hit men, murderers, and cattle thieves, among other crimes.  They captured five alleged members of Los Solis, but failed to capture the alleged leader, Mayor Santos Gabriel Elvir Arteaga.  Los Solis was established around 2000 by the Solis family, but when Elvir Arteaga became Mayor in 2009 he also gained control of Los Solis, according to Police, and only two Solis family members are thought to be still part of the group.  Mayor Santos Elvir is a member of the Liberal Party and still at large.

Thursday the Mayor of Sulaco, Yoro, was arrested on charges of homicide, murder, illicit association, and carrying illegal weapons.  Mayor José Adalid Gonzalez Morales is alleged to be the leader of Los Banegas, a group operating in and around Sulaco, Yoro, consisting of 30-40 members.  They are wanted for cattle theft, extortion, robbing buses and trucks, murder, and distribution of narcotics in Sulaco.  The investigation into Gonzales Morales began three months ago when police arrested seven members of the group.

Los Banegas are alleged to have killed eight people in and around Sulaco.  Gonzalez Morales is accused of killing peasant activist Secundino Orellana, who previously had been arrested and shot during peasant land protests.

In the 2013 elections, Gonzales Morales, a member of the National Party, received a verbal endorsement at a National Party rally by then Presidential Candidate Juan Orlando Hernandez, who called him "one of the best Mayors Honduras has ever had."

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Honduras Allegedly Bugs Telephones of Supreme Court Justices?

The Honduran Public Prosecutor's office is alleged to have tapped the telephones of its Supreme Court Justices in an apparent violation of its own laws.  So said one of the defense lawyers of Teodoro Bonilla in court yesterday.

Teodoro Bonilla is the Vice President of the Judicial Counsel, the group which oversees the performance of Judges in Honduras.  He is accused of getting two different judges to change guilty rulings against two of his relatives for money laundering and having illegal weapons among other charges.

Yesterday in court, the Public Prosecutor's office made a motion for Justice Victor Manual Lozano Urbina to recuse himself from hearing the case because of his manifest friendship with the accused, Bonilla.  They introduced as supporting evidence of that friendship a recording of a phone call, from a tapped telephone, between Justice Lozano and Bonilla.

Justice Lozano, in all fairness, had attempted to recuse himself from the case precisely because of his friendship with Bonilla at the beginning of October, but the Justices of the Supreme Court denied his motion to recuse himself and ordered him to hear the case.

The Defense argued:
"They have a phone intercept on the communications of Justice Victor Manuel Lozano.  We assume that they have intercepts on the telephones of all of the Justices of the Supreme Court, for which the defense alleges that this is an illegal piece of evidence that violates the Constitution of the Republic, treaties and human rights agreements of which Honduras is a part."

Never-the-less the defense argued that Justice Lozano should hear the case.

We have to remember that it was the defendant's lawyer who concluded that it was Justice Lozano's phone, and not Bonilla's phone that was tapped.  Other statements, including by another defense lawyer, suggest it was Bonilla's phone that was tapped.  Furthermore, they argue that the date of the phone call is from prior to the opening of an investigation of Bonilla and therefore was illegally obtained and used.

Honduran law is clear on the collection and use of wiretaps.  To legally listen in on phone calls in Honduras requires an active investigation against the person by the Public Prosecutor's office, and a judge's signed order authorizing the wiretap.

To get a wiretap warrant, the Prosecutor's Office must present to the Judge in writing, the full name of the person(s) whose communications are to be tapped, a description of the illegal activities that warrant the wiretap, the legal code being violated, what communications are to be intercepted (eg, phone carries, IMEI number of phone, etc), the duration of the tap, the name and title of the person requesting the wiretap, and most importantly, the number of the open investigation.  Wiretaps are related to a particular investigation and may not be used in another case.

To use wiretap information in a legal case in Honduras, the Public Prosecutor must request judicial approval to use the wiretap data.  It does not appear that the Public Prosecutor did so in this case.  Instead he introduced wiretap information in a pre-trial motion.

The law says a wiretap may not be used in any other case other than the specific investigation that made it necessary.  This becomes relevant because the defense has argued that it dates from before the investigation of Bonilla began and therefore is not legally admissible. 

Bonilla's lawyer has requested the judicial order authorizing the phone tap on Bonilla in order to make it public.

Justice Lozano admitted the prosecutor's motion to recuse himself and denied the motion by the defense to remain on the case.  The motion to recuse now goes to the named appeals court, consisting of 3 other Supreme Court Justices:  Silvia Santos, German Garcia, and Elmer Lizardo.

Friday, October 16, 2015

CONATEL attempts to shut down Cholusat Sur

(updated to link to image of CONATEL order)
The government of Honduras, in the form of the Comision Nacional de Telecommunicaciones (CONATEL), has issued an order to close the opposition TV station, Cholusat Sur, Channel 36 in Tegucigalpa in 4 days.

Why? you might ask.

For an "attempt against the economy" of Honduras. 

It all begins in June of this year, with Channel 36 covering the news story that the Banco Ficohsa and more importantly, its Honduran owner, Camilo Atala, have been charged in Panama with money laundering.

This is not speculation.  This is not rumor.  It's a fact.

Atala is head of the Honduran branch of the Consejo Empresarial de America Latina (CEAL). This was the group that hired Lanny Davis in 2009 to lobby then- Secretary of State Hillary Clinton not to declare the Honduran coup a military coup. Atala is a powerful member of the Honduran elite.

In the current news coverage, Esdras Amado López has been reporting how Banco Ficohsa in Honduras moved $1.5 million dollars (about 33 million lempiras) as part of the IHSS scandal, without fulfilling the CNBS paperwork requirements for the transfer. The IHSS scandal is what initially fueled and continues to inspire the torchlit marches against corruption that also include demands for the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

The money moved by Banco Ficohsa, Amado Lopez reports, was requested by IHSS head Mario Zelaya to pay bribes to facilitate payment of the Compania de Servicios Multiples and its subsidiary, Central American Technologies. These were payments for goods and services that were never delivered.

Amado Lopez says that both the US Department of Justice and the Fiscalia de Chile have documentation linking the Banco Ficohsa to the illegal movement of IHSS monies.

Chile is where one of Mario Zelaya's mistresses lives and she is charged in the IHSS scandal.

The US Department of Justice allegedly knows about the money sent from Honduras to Panama by the Banco Ficohsa, then deposited in MultiBank in Panama. Reportedly, the funds were then transferred to a bank in Louisiana where Mario Zelaya used them to buy real estate, property now confiscated for the government of Honduras by the US Department of Justice.

Other news sources have reported on this story, both inside of and outside of Honduras, citing court papers in Louisiana as the source of their information.

CONATEL, in its notification to Cholusat Sur that it was beginning procedures to shut down the station, said that this reporting was "an attempt against the economy" of Honduras in violation of the Constitution, the Telecommunications regulations, and the Administrative regulations.

So, it is now officially an "attempt against the economy" to report facts in Honduras.

Monday, October 12, 2015

Deconstructing the Grupo Continental?

Jaime Rosenthal Oliva wants to take steps that will preserve the business of the Grupo Continental while his family contests charges brought against them.

Honduras' Comisión Nacional de Bancos y Seguros (CNBS) has other ideas. On Saturday, it voted to force liquidation of the Banco Continental.

In response, the Rosenthal family issued its third public statement, calling for a voluntary liquidation that would
safeguard the interests of thousands of families employed by the Grupo, and maintain other enterprises such as the newspaper Tiempo and Channel 11.

The Rosenthal family proposed that they would voluntarily liquidate the Grupo Continental:
the family would give a bond to increase the capital in the bank to 100 million lempiras, in order to reach the index of capital adequacy demanded by the CNBS at 6% (currently, it is at 5.2%).

In proposing this action, the Rosenthal family is directly addressing the technical weakness that allowed the CNBS to propose forced liquidation. They argue that this action would directly affect 11,000 employees and 25,000 more people indirectly, as well as cutting off access to account holders, estimated to number 220,000.

The CNBS did not agree to the plan offered by the Rosenthal family. In his statement acknowledging this decision, calling again for its reconsideration, Jaime Rosenthal noted that the Grupo Continental is responsible for 5% of the Gross National Product of Honduras.

It is probably worth noting that at this point, no one has been convicted of a crime. What have been alleged is not drug trafficking itself (although some Honduran media are happily applying that term to the charges) but money laundering.

Basically, this could happen through the bank accepting deposits from people who the US prosecutor thinks the bank should have suspected produced their income through illegal activities. Under US law, deposits of more than $10,000 a day need to be reported, so someone could deposit amounts under that ceiling, repeatedly, creating a suspicious pattern of activities that a bank might ignore. Another option to launder money is to use a business that can bring in cash of varying amounts without suspicion-- antiquities and art, for example. Deposits from front businesses would not necessarily be questioned by a bank.

Banks also are used in money laundering through "layering":

Layering involves the wire transfer of funds through a series of accounts in an attempt to hide the funds' true origins. This often means transferring funds to countries outside the United States that have strict bank-secrecy laws. Such countries include the Cayman Islands, the Bahamas, and Panama. Once deposited in a foreign bank, the funds can be moved through accounts of "shell" corporations, which exist solely for laundering purposes. The high daily volume of wire transfers makes it difficult for law enforcement agencies to trace these transactions.

The details of the charges are not available, so we do not know precisely how the alleged money laundering took place. (A charge of suborning a public official is also mentioned in Honduras press coverage, but until further details are available, it is difficult to be certain what the basis of that charge might be.)

Honduran media are reporting that it was the Banco Continental's relationship with the Rivera Maradiaga family, which was swept up in drug trafficking investigations in 2013, that is the basis of the money laundering charges. Jaime Rosenthal is quoted as saying "no bank in the world has the ability to investigate all its clients". Yani Rosenthal noted that the Empacadora Continental had bought cattle from the River Maradiaga ranching enterprise ("as I think all the packers in Honduras did"), and Jaime Rosenthal admitted that the bank had made business loans for some of the Rivera Maradiaga companies.

It would have been hard for a major bank in Honduras to avoid doing business with them: reportedly, they owned gas stations, shopping malls, palm oil processing plants, cattle ranches, hotels, and transport businesses-- not to mention their private zoo.

The meat-packing deals of the Grupo Continental with the Rivera Maradiaga family date back to the 1970s and 1980s, which appears to predate the Rivera family move into drug trafficking. More recent loans described by Rosenthal provided funding for the agricultural businesses.

And then there is that zoo, also financed with a loan from the Banco Continental, seized in the drug raids. Jaime Rosenthal explained that loan as part of his philosophy of improving public goods:
“When we did the analysis of that loan we realized that it was a very good loan, not just for them but for the country. The loan would be paid by them and would promote a part of the country for tourism where normally people do not go. They would do a great job because it would begin to bring people from throughout Central America”.

There is a lot yet to learn about this case. That it will be consequential in Honduran culture and politics is already evident on the front page of Tiempo, which emerged during the coup of 2009 as the only newspaper in Honduras that reported factually what was happening, and which now has an uncertain future, due to a prosecution that Tiempo today links to their continued support for opposition to the current government:

Neither the president of Editorial Honduras, nor the director, nor the editor in chief, editors or reporters were clear until last night if DIARIO TIEMPO would circulate today because a rumor emerged that the OABI would interrupt the offices at any moment.

As if it were the last time, and under a dense cloud of uncertainty, the journalistic team of  DIARIO TIEMPO closed the edition corresponding to today last night.
This Monday, the employees of Editorial Honduras and the whole journalistic team will return to the offices, nonetheless, last night they left believing that today they would encounter it taken over by the security and police that the government of Juan Orlando Hernández would send.
The Plataforma de Indignados, in a communique last night, has characterized the government of Juan Orlando Hernández as “an authoritarian regime”.
“We call upon the regime to free itself from foreign interference in this case and place the human element before diplomatic or financial interests of external and internal agents”, the communique asks.

Rosenthals Accused of Money Laundering

Thursday while we were traveling back to California, the Department of the Treasury identified three members of the powerful Rosenthal family as Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers.

Accused are Jaime Rosenthal Oliva, his son, Yani Rosenthal Hidalgo, his nephew, Yankel Rosenthal Coello, and the family lawyer, Andres Acosta Garcia.  Each has been charged "in connection with a multi-year scheme to launder the proceeds of narcotics trafficking offenses and foreign bribery offenses through accounts located in the United States".

Thursday night Yankel Rosenthal Coello was arrested as he got off a flight in Miami, and Friday he was charged in court.

The Rosenthal family is one of the richest in Honduras.  Together they form Inversiones Continental, better known as Grupo Continental, an amalgamation of some 35 companies run largely as a family business.

As a result of this action, the Office of Foreign Assets Control of the US Treasury has designated Inversiones Continental, chartered in Panama, and three of its Honduran businesses, Inversiones Continental SA de CV, Empacadora Continental SA de CV, and the Banco Continental as companies that US businesses and citizens may not do business with.  Also included in the list were three companies they owned chartered in the British Virgin Islands, and three more in Florida.  The Florida companies were in real estate and investment.  Any US assets of these individuals and these companies are now frozen.

Oscar Chinchilla, the Honduran Public Prosecutor, said on Friday that he had no knowledge of the US investigation. The Rosenthal family has hired a US lawyer to defend themselves.

Yankel Rosenthal, whose arrest made the indictment known publicly, is a soccer executive in Honduras and runs the popular Marathon soccer team.  Yani Rosenthal is a Liberal Party activist who has tried to run for President.  He is Vice President of Grupo Continental and runs Alimentos Continental and was an adviser to President Juan Orlando Hernandez on investment until June of this year.  He was Chief of Staff of the Executive branch for President Jose Manuel Zelaya Rosales, and a Congressman from 2010 to 2014.  Jaime Rosenthal Oliva is an MIT educated civil engineer who was greatly affected by the economics of Paul Samuelson while at MIT.  He is President of Grupo Continental.  He has been a Vice President of Honduras and is still active in politics in the Liberal Party.

Yani Rosenthal gave an interview Thursday on the Honduran television program Frente y Frente in which he said that to his knowledge, they have had no dealings with the Valle Valle family or any of its businesses. In two cases his Empacadora bought cattle from a company owned by the Rivera Maradiaga family, and loaned money to some of their businesses.

This news will have major political effects in Honduras.  The Rosenthal family and money fuels a major faction within the Liberal Party, where Jaime has been, until recently, a perpetual candidate for President.  This is the current of the Liberal Party that has maintained opposition to the ultra-conservative wing of the party headed by Roberto Micheletti Bain, which rose to power as a result of the 2009 coup against Zelaya and still controls the party Central Committee. Jaime Rosenthal has been widely seen as preparing his son, Yani, to both take his place in the party, and to run for President from the Liberal party.

The Rosenthal family also owns the opposition newspaper, El Tiempo, and one of the opposition Television broadcasters, Channel 11.

In his first response to the developments, Jaime Rosenthal issued a statement thanking people for trusting his family with their bank deposits and assuring them that all deposits, loans, etc. will be honored.  He continued:  "The Rosenthal Hidalgo family has decided to sell whatever business or investment that they own so that anyone who has had confidence in us can feel secure  that they will never have a loss because of our responsibility. All deposits and investments made with us will be supported by the family with all that we have."

Since then, however, the Honduran banking commission has announced its own plans to address the situation. These plans, and their potential impacts, are the subject of a our next blog post.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Mediating The Status Quo

Yesterday John Biehl del Rio, the Chilean diplomat designated by the Organization of American States to be their representative to the National Dialogue in Honduras, with the title of "mediator", called the indignados and LIBRE "pig-headed" and "imbeciles".

That's not how you mediate a dialogue, that's how you end one.

The job of a facilitator or mediator is to listen to both sides of an issue and to try to bring them into conversation about their common ground.  It's not the role of a mediator to publicly insult one side in the process they are mediating.

By his words, Biehl has been showing all along that he isn't really a mediator.

Gentle readers will recall that in June, in response to the marchas de antorchas, with their demand for an international commission against impunity and corruption, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández unilaterally announced a Sistema Integral Contra la Impunidad (SICA, "Integrated System against Impunity") and called for a "National Dialogue" whose participants the government would designate.

The proposal, not immediately available to the Honduran press at the time, called for the establishment of several oversight committees for the Honduran judiciary, all of the committee members appointed by the Executive Branch.  It specified no procedures or reporting mechanisms by which the "National Dialogue" would provide any input or revision to the proposed SICA process or composition.

Hernández presided over the first few meetings himself, meeting with jurists and business, before turning the whole process over to a Congress member to organize and oversee.

Some parts of civil society saw the National Dialogue as a government show, with no stated objective, and refused to participate.

Those not participating include the indignados, who for the last 16 weeks have marched every Friday calling for a Comision Internacional Contra de la Impunidad (CICIH) and for President Hernandez to resign. The two opposition political parties that were first on the ballot this last election (LIBRE and PAC) have refused to participate for much the same reasons: the control of the process by the current government and the lack of any connection between the "dialogue" and possible reforms.

Hernández's proposal "reforms" the Judicial Branch by making it responsible to committees for judicial oversight and review established and appointed by the Executive Branch.  This further erodes judicial independence.

This was the official response of the government to the indignados, and it was hoped that it would weaken support for their calls for a CICIH, and silence their calls for Hernández's resignation.

When that didn't work, Hernández formally asked the OAS and UN for facilitators or mediators to help bring all of Honduran civil society to participate in the National Dialogue.  Enter John Biehl del Rio.

Biehl del Rio has a fairly long history of engagement with Honduras.

As a chief adviser to Costa Rican President Oscar Arias, he was the principal mediator for the San Jose Accords intended to return José Manuel Zelaya to office after the 2009 coup.  Before that he spent 4 years in and around Tocoa in the Bajo Aguan, teaching peasants about cooperatives.

It may be that in Honduras, Biehl del Rio sees similarities to how he described his native Chile in 2010:
"There is a political world that needs to go.  When the national task fundamentally consists in practicing the art of disagreeing to thereby gain power, there prevails a will and ambitions that destabilize the possibility of a good government.  The culture of confrontation which we inherit from the past, severely limits the ways to satisfy the necessities of the people.  To use and supply yourself with stereotypes from another historical epoch to exercise opposition or to govern is to deliberately damage the country....If the opposition looks for the failure of the government to rise to power, it is jointly responsible for restarting one of the worst nightmares of the country."

The nightmare Biehl del Rio was referring to in Chile was the rise of the military which overthrew Salvador Allende. While Biehl del Rio was not a supporter of Allende, he went into exile after Pinochet took power.

In Honduras, however, it seems the place of the military in his critique is taken by the indignados and political parties opposed to the current president. Much of what Biehl del Rio has said about the opposition in Honduras echos the sentiments about Chile quoted above.

Biehl told the Honduran press that
There are many people who have taken this hard time for Honduras as a kind of political pre-campaign, and this crisis as an opportunity to kill their possible rivals.  This I have noted in conversations. With these people it is very difficult to make advances because they only have one thing in mind.  Hondurans are very political, at least in Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula.  They give the impression that everyone wants to be president and as such their positions are very sharp and cutting because they see that this is a weak moment."

So for Biehl, the indignados are merely pre-campaign presidential politicking.

But Honduras isn't Chile, and there are indications that Biehl del Rio may not completely understand Honduran politics.

Among his other pronouncements he called the Honduran Congress "representative of the people (or Nation) and a transversal cut through society", suggesting it should play a leading role in the National Dialogue.

Now the Honduran Congress is many things, but it does not represent Honduran society, directly or indirectly.  Congress members are loyal and answerable to the political party that ensures their election, and do not represent a local constituency. There is really no way to consider these political insiders a "transversal cut" through society-- nothing in the Honduran political system works that way. This is part of the problem that has brought so many people out on the streets.

Biehl del Rio may see similarities to his Chile in 2010, but in the intervening years, he's lost his ability to say this diplomatically, and is reduced to calling the Honduran opposition names.

That means instead of mediating, he has adopted a side-- with a president elected by a minority of voters in an intensely split election, whose party is wrapped in a scandal over the financing of that very election, and who is trying to insist that he knew nothing of the money moving around. It's a bad side to be on, and it is unfortunate that it has led him to dismiss the largest show of public engagement in governance in modern Honduran history.

Friday, September 11, 2015

Who Pays for the Infrastructure Needs of ZEDEs?

Potential ZEDE developers seem to be risk-averse when it comes to developing the infrastructure needed for them to succeed.

Juan Orlando Hernandez recently traveled to Asia, picking up the slightly overdue feasibility report for a ZEDE in southern Honduras from the Korean International Cooperation Agency, (KOICA).  The project being studied is to develop a deep water port in the city of Amapala, on El Tigre island two km off the Honduran Pacific coast, as well as a logistics center in the municipality of Alianza on the adjacent mainland.

Why develop a port at Amapala?

For years the Panama Canal has been a bottleneck to shipping from Asia to the Atlantic coast ports of the US and Europe.  The largest ships today cannot fit in the locks, and the canal simply has insufficient capacity, even for existing ships which do fit in the locks. There's often a one to three day wait to go through.

The delay and size restrictions have prompted three projects along the Pacific coast of Central America.

The Panama Canal authority itself is building a new set of locks that can accept larger ships, but its overall capacity is limited by the amount of fresh water available in drought years, as at present.  Under current conditions only 17 cargo ships a day can transit the canal.

There is a separate Chinese project to build a new sea level canal across Nicaragua underway.

Honduras' southern ZEDE is yet another alternative, in which container ships would dock in Amapala and unload their cargo to be transported and sorted and stored in the logistics area. It would then get trucked over a new road from Nacaome to Puerto Cortés where it would be matched with container ships docked there for delivery to Atlantic ports.

Hernández says the feasibility report was entirely positive. Despite this, there was no announcement of the proposed ZEDE being formed.

Instead, Hernandez announced an agreement for cooperation between the port of Busan in South Korea and the port of Amapala to improve their training and port procedures.

At Hernández's very next stop, in Japan, he solicited something never before discussed as a Honduran government infrastructure project.  He asked the Japanese International Cooperation Agency (JICA) to finance the building of a bridge from the island of Zacate Grande to Amapala.

Zacate Grande is itself connected via a bridge to the mainland, and houses many vacation ranches owned by wealthy Hondurans.

There's no reason to develop the port at Amapala without also connecting it to the mainland to take advantage of the port facilities.  Previous discussions of the Amapala port had always included development of the bridge as part of the ZEDE development.

Now the government of Honduras is seeking to get someone else to pay for the development of this critical piece of infrastructure for the ZEDE, rather than have the ZEDE itself fund it.  Was this change dictated by the feasibility report?  Did that report separate the bridge from the port development and say Honduras should provide it as part of the infrastructure?  JICA did not commit to building the bridge, but agreed to study the project.

On his return from his Asian trip, Hernández signed contracts with Mexican companies for development of two more sections of the new highway to connect the south coast of Honduras with the Caribbean coast port of Puerto Cortés. The funds for this construction are borrowed from Mexico.

This roadway is also a strategic piece of infrastructure to enable planned ZEDEs in the south of Honduras.  Without easy transport between the Pacific and Caribbean coasts there is no reason to develop the port of Amapala.  This new roadway is scheduled to open in 2017.

For all the hype of a ZEDE as a way to develop Honduras, the current proposal seems to be requiring a large outlay in infrastructure development from the host country before there is even a commitment  of ZEDE development.

Hernández promises ZEDE announcements soon...

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Shake Up In Control of the Christian Democrat Party of Honduras

The Honduran Partido Democráta Cristiano (PDCH) has split into two factions with two different leadership councils. Now it's up to the Tribunal Supremo Electoral (TSE) to decide which faction legitimately represents the party.

The PDCH was founded in 1968 but not recognized by the TSE until 1981.  It historically garnered between one and five Congressional Representatives in elections.

Since the coup in 2009 it has aligned itself with the ruling party.

In the last election, however, its presidential candidate received about 5000 votes or 0.17 % of the vote, and the party received only one Congressional seat. They gained a second Congressional representative in 2014 when Eduardo Coto joined the party, defecting from LIBRE.

By law, the TSE should have ceased to recognize the PDCH for failing to obtain enough votes to be considered a viable political party (set at 5%). Viability as a party has defined legal criteria because recognized parties receive funding from the TSE.

Other parties that received more presidential votes, such as Romeo Vasquez Velasquez's Partido Alianza Patriotica were disbanded by the TSE after their poor election showing in 2013. But that has not happened to the PDCH, perhaps because one of the three senior judges on its leadership panel, Saul Escobar, is a member. 

Coming out of the 2013 Elections, the PDCH, despite its small electoral constituency, had three factions attempting to gain power. One was controlled by Arturo Cruz Asensio, one by Nieves Fernando Perez and the third by Carlos Manzanares and Felicito Avila. This resulted in three different slates being nominated to compete for the party leadership, one headed by Cruz Asensio, a second by Carlos Manzanares, and a third by Nieves Fernando Perez.

Just before the party election, Manzanares and Fernando Perez stepped aside in the name of party unity.  Cruz Asensio was elected party President, and Manzanares Vice President. They replaced Felicito Avila and Lucas Aguilera in those posts. Cruz Asensio promised to be more questioning towards the ruling National Party, although there is no indication that he has been.

But all is not well.

A rift that developed between the current leadership and a faction led by Manzanares manifested in a violent meeting where people were throwing chairs and punches at each other. Disguised by rhetoric about old guard versus new guard, the attack on the party leadership turned out to be a long-planned attempt to co-opt this minor party in Honduras for personal gain, allegedly fomented by Arturo Corrales, the current Chancellor of the country.

Gissel Villanueva, an aide to Cruz Asensio said
“People paid by Arturo Corrales and his helpers, Felicito Avila, Carlos Romero and Jorge Bogran were the ones who started this fight and this they did because they are people who have already left the party but don't want to let go of power.....
The only thing that interests Arturo Corrales is power; what he wants is to have control over the three congressmen which this party has in the National Congress and which he doesn’t control; he wants these positions.”

Corrales has played a prominent role in both the Liberal Party and National Party governments that have ruled Honduras since the coup of 2009. He has held the cabinet posts of Security Minister and Head of Foreign Relations under both of the last two National Party Administrations. But his political career was made as a member of the minority Partido Democráta Cristiano, for which he was a presidential candidate in 1997.

On September 5th, a group claiming to be PDCH party leadership delegates met in Tegucigalpa and stripped Cruz Asensio of his party leadership role and elected Carlos Manzanares to that position.  In the very same meeting the disciplinary committee suspended the party membership of Arturo Corrales because of the attack at the youth meeting.  This appears to be a resurgence of the factionalism evident in 2014, with the Manzanares faction claiming control of the party leadership.

Cruz Asensio contests his demotion.  He called the meeting illegal because he neither convened it nor was present at it. He notes that the delegates who convened it were not the delegates registered with the TSE as the party's official delegates. David Aguilera, the party executive secretary called the suspension of Arturo Corrales illegal though he didn't state why. Luis Aguilera, who is part of the Manzanares faction, said that the 200 legal delegates were convened, conveying his position that the meeting was legal.

Now, the group that seized the leadership of the party has submitted to the TSE a leadership council headed by Manzanares with a replacement disciplinary committee, and with a new political committee headed by Arturo Corrales, and staffed by Felicito Avila, Ramon Velasquez Nazar, and Lucas Aguilera.

Augusto Cruz Asensio has submitted an appeal attempting to dismiss the other group's submission, arguing that the delegates that met were not those listed with the TSE as the law demands.

The TSE said that after combing its archives, it can find no filings listing the delegates for 2013, 2015, or 2015 for the PDCH. That greatly weakens Cruz Asensio's position, and the failure happened under this leadership.

At stake is more than control of a moribund electoral party: there is also the matter of control of votes for the upcoming selection of candidates for the Supreme Court.

Monday, August 31, 2015

"Central American Spring"?

The Economist published an article  that provocatively asks in the headline if the 12 weeks of torchlight marches in Honduras is "A Central American Spring".

The paper quickly repudiates that idea in the body of the article. The Arab Spring was rapid and violent.  Rather than a violent uprising, the Economist quotes Central American Business Intelligence as expecting slow, gradual change in Central America.

Slow, gradual change is not what the people protesting want: they are asking for the current president to resign.

For 14 weeks in Honduras the indignados, those upset with corruption and impunity in Honduras, have taken to the streets in all the major cities, carrying bamboo torches (not unlike the patio torches one can buy here in the US), seeking a Honduran International Commission against Impunity (CICIH in Spanish) and the removal of Juan Orlando Hernandez. 

While there are no official crowd estimates, the marches clearly mobilize tens of thousands of people in both Tegucigalpa and San Pedro Sula alone. Also remarkable is the range of cities and towns where marches are taking place. They are substantial and peaceful.

In an attempt to defuse the crowds, Hernandez has called for facilitators and mediators from the Organization of American States and the UN to oversee what he calls "dialogue".  This is in lieu of asking for a CICIH, which would be appointed by the UN to independently investigate corruption and impunity in Honduras. 

Hernandez alleges his government's efforts to reform the government are sufficient if people just give the institutions a chance to operate.

But the institutions he wants the Honduran people to trust aren't operating.

A snail's pace would be fast compared to the Public Prosecutor's office, for example. 

A trail of checks document the movement of money from the Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social (IHSS) through at least three front companies in Honduras into the National Party bank accounts including those of the Hernandez Presidential Campaign. When journalists made this public in May, they used copies of the checks from the actual prosecutorial case file shared with them.  Despite this financial trail, no one has been charged, and no one even questioned, about these checks, checks that implicate the leadership of the National Party in corruption. 

There are actually indications that the Assistant Public Prosecutor, Rigoberto Cuellar, may himself be linked to an influence-pedaling scandal, but he is not as yet the target of any investigation.

This is the face of impunity in Honduras. It is why the indignados are marching. And they are marching for a specific remedy that exists in action in their neighbor to the north, Guatemala.

In Guatemala, people are also marching weekly. Here, there is already an International Commission against Corruption and Impunity (CICIG in Spanish), sponsored by the UN at Guatemala's request, and funded by voluntary contributions from a number of different countries. 

This unit, as noted in the Economist article, has been instrumental in uncovering and prosecuting corruption in the Guatemalan governments past and present. The transparency of these investigations served to mobilize the populace of Guatemala tired of corruption. 

The CICIG has in fact, sought to bring charges against the President and Vice President of Guatemala for corruption. Over 100,000 people gathered last week in central Guatemala City to call for the President to resign. Their demands have now been endorsed by the country's Roman Catholic bishops.

In Honduras, at least for now, President Hernandez is not only rejecting the idea of an independent CICIH, he's actively working to discredit the idea through the public pronouncements of his advisor Ebal Diaz, who has made up "facts" to discredit the CICIG.  Officially the National Party Congressional delegation is against the proposal as well.  Mauricio Oliva, President of Congress, called it "foreign intervention".

Almost every other political party in Honduras supports the call for the CICIH. LIBRE supports it; the AntitCorruption Party (PAC) does too. 

The Liberal Party recently held a "unification" meeting to align its congressional delegation with the thinking of its directorate. The idea of a CICIH was a key source of difference. The Liberals in Congress recently voted against legislation that would have put the call for a CICIH to a public referendum, legislation sponsored by LIBRE.  At the time they said they voted against it because they thought it would delay prosecution, particularly of former Zelaya government officials. The directorate of the Liberal Party was in favor of a referendum, making the defection of its Congressional delegation a major issue. In the unification meeting, the party members agreed to vote for a CICIH if it comes up again.  But it is unclear that the Congressional leadership will allow another vote.

Last Wednesday, the indignados held a national strike, calling for businesses to shut down and main traffic arteries in the country to be blocked. Roads were blocked for a time until the police broke up the protests, and some businesses shut down, but not most. 

Last Friday's march ended at the Consejo Hondureño de Empresa Privada (COHEP) building where marchers met with business leaders. Whether this will result in businessmen supporting the marchers' goals is an open question, but the fact that talks were entertained is significant. COHEP  supports the government; any change in support here would likely destabilize it.

Slow change indeed.