A prosecutor made gains against graft in Honduras. As probes got ever closer to President Juan Orlando Hernández, though, the government fought back. Reuters looks at the corruption and impunity leading record numbers of Hondurans to migrate north.
A corruption-busting Honduran prosecutor took on the president. It didn’t end well.
On June 24, 2019, Luis Javier Santos, an anti-corruption prosecutor, led a team of eight investigators in unmarked cars for an audacious morning raid. Their target: Honduras’ presidential palace.
The investigators already had evidence suggesting people close to President Juan Orlando Hernández had stolen government funds, according to Santos. Now, they wanted to know how close to the core of the administration their digging would take them. Government documents at the palace, they believed, could show whether senior officials, including the president, were involved in graft and might point to other schemes yet to be discovered.
The operation, details of which haven’t previously been reported, became a standoff. At the palace door, Santos told Reuters, presidential staff blocked most of the investigators, allowing just him and two deputies to enter. But over the next 12 hours, as government officials phoned repeatedly asking that he stand down, Santos obtained documents that would lead him to draw up criminal charges against 11 administration figures, including one of the president’s sisters, for alleged crimes related to the diversion of $5 million in government cash.
The charges, detailed in a document Santos filed in February with the Supreme Court, haven’t yet progressed to trials, and it’s unclear whether they will. The court, dominated by Hernández allies, must grant permission before prosecutors can indict public officials.
Honduras’ presidency didn’t respond to requests from Reuters to discuss the raid, the charges sought by prosecutors, or their allegations regarding Hernández, his family members and aides.
The raid, and the struggle by Santos to prosecute those he seeks to charge, is central to an ongoing battle between elites and a nascent, possibly short-lived, anti-graft movement in Honduras. Corruption and impunity for a powerful ruling class have long helped make this Central American country one of the world’s poorest, most unequal societies.
Hope for change emerged recently when Honduras pioneered an experiment giving a team of high-profile investigators and prosecutors ample autonomy to probe graft. For the past four years, Santos’ team formed a central part of that movement, successfully jailing lawmakers, a former first lady and others once considered untouchable.
But as investigators clawed closer to the pinnacle of power, a backlash ensued.
“They are progressively dismantling more and more of the tools to combat corruption.”
Last year, President Hernández ousted a team of international investigators, assembled by the Organization of American States and financed by the United States and other partners, that did much of the digging for Santos and other prosecutors. Lawmakers passed bills that reduced penalties for corruption convictions and added bureaucracy to procedures for prosecuting government officials. Hernández’s attorney general recently shunted Santos’ team down the prosecutorial hierarchy, tasking it with new responsibilities that include searching supermarkets for expired food products.
The government is “progressively dismantling more and more of the tools to combat corruption,” said Jose Dimas Agüero, a veteran former judge in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.
At a time of soaring migration from Central America, the reversals have consequences beyond Honduras and neighboring countries, where similar efforts to curb corruption have faced setbacks. Guatemala also ousted a respected team of international investigators. Protests erupted there in July after the attorney general fired a high-profile prosecutor who was probing the president. Guatemala’s government said the firing was justified, alleging the prosecutor leaked confidential information to journalists.
Because corruption leeches economies of vitality and public treasuries of revenue, it is cited by economists, social scientists, and migrants themselves as one of the main reasons people emigrate. When locals see the privileged and powerful get away with graft, it creates a sense that the game is rigged.
“Those dynamics continue to affect the economy’s growth potential and the economic opportunities available for Hondurans and trigger the migration of many people,” wrote a United Nations special rapporteur last year, following a visit to the country. One prominent non-governmental organization, the Social Forum on Foreign Debt and Development in Honduras, estimated that graft in 2018 siphoned as much as $2.7 billion, an amount equivalent to about 12% of the national economy.
In San Pedro Sula, the business capital and second-biggest city, a group of women and children recently camped on sparse grass alongside a major thoroughfare. Several told Reuters they had moved there after hurricanes last year destroyed their homes in the countryside. They said they had received no assistance from the government and have little faith they can improve their lot without leaving Honduras.
“If I get an opportunity, I’m off to the United States,” said Sara Zúñiga, 18 years old, alongside their tarp shelter.
In the United States, migrants from Honduras this year are on track to outpace all other arrivals at the southern border except those from Mexico. In the 12 months ending on Sept. 30, U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents apprehended Hondurans trying to cross without permission more than 308,000 times, an annual record. President Joe Biden, alarmed by the crush and citing the link between corruption and poverty, plans to target much of a $4 billion aid package for Central America toward fighting graft.
Buy-in from Central American governments may be elusive.
“If I get an opportunity, I’m off to the United States.”
President Hernández is the target of a U.S. federal narcotics probe, according to a court filing by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York. Hernández’s brother, a former lawmaker and aide, was convicted of drug trafficking by a U.S. court and sentenced to life in federal prison earlier this year. The president has denied any wrongdoing, but warned in public comments that the U.S. accusations of his alleged ties to drug traffickers could hinder cooperation between the countries.
The odds of cooperation don’t look good to Santos. He once staged a hunger strike over stalled investigations and barely survived an assassination attempt after probing elites early in his career. Today, Hernández enjoys the support of a political majority and an allied judiciary, including a hand-picked Supreme Court.
“We were optimistic,” Santos told Reuters, recalling hope in Honduras after a corruption scandal, related to alleged irregularities in Hernández’s first election as president, in 2015 forced the administration to heed calls for anti-graft measures. “But now I’m tired.”
In September, Reuters detailed how local officials’ involvement in organized crime, and complicity among those at the highest echelons of the Honduran government, are ravaging rural economies. Santos’ long and lonely struggle illustrates how pervasive corruption, and an institutional inability to tackle it, hobble Honduras and propel many of its citizens to seek their fortunes abroad.
“Corruption has a name and surname”
Santos, 49 years old, grew up in an industrial district of Tegucigalpa. As a boy, he said, he would rise before dawn to help his mother cook beans and plantains to sell to nearby factory employees. The workers, on lunch break, ate under a tree in the family’s yard. Even while studying law at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, Santos still woke at 5 a.m. to make the meals.
In 1993, his father, a transport worker, fell ill. The family, unable to pay private healthcare, took him to a public hospital, where his condition worsened. With more patients, and insufficient supplies, nurses moved him from a bed onto a stretcher on the ground. Also taking his bedsheets, they covered him with plastic bags instead.
He died shortly afterward, leaving Santos indignant about the lack of resources. The pilfering of public coffers, he told Reuters, immediately became a personal issue. “The day my father died was the starting point,” he said.
After earning his law degree, Santos became a lower-court judge. Early on, an accused murderer placed a bag of cash before him, suggesting Santos take it instead of sending him to jail. Although Santos rejected the offer, he was surprised shortly thereafter when the same man approached him on the street, gloating that another official accepted the money and set him free.
Two years later, Santos joined the Public Ministry, as the prosecutor’s office is known.
Prosecuting cases nationwide the next decade, he said he witnessed more deprivation. In 2007, a group of citizens from northwest Honduras complained that money, allocated by Congress to wire their village for electricity, had disappeared. Santos traced the funds to a local mayor, who had used it to buy cars for himself. The mayor was convicted and sentenced to prison.
By 2008, Santos had earned respect. But he was disillusioned, frustrated by a backlog of investigations that higher-ups refused to pursue, often at the behest of politicians and government officials. He and a group of colleagues, through the local press, demanded the attorney general’s office move forward on more than 100 stalled corruption cases. When they got no response, Santos and three of the colleagues staged a 38-day hunger strike in front of the Congress building. He shed 17 kg (37 pounds), a fifth of his weight.
The strike made headlines, but the cases went unprosecuted.
A few months later, Santos and colleagues distributed handbills for a public assembly where they planned to name officials they alleged were taking kickbacks for municipal construction contracts in San Pedro Sula. “Corruption has a name and surname,” the leaflet read.
The next morning, as he drove the 7-year-old son of his former girlfriend to soccer practice, assailants barraged his car with 9 mm rounds. Santos shielded the boy, but took four bullets, losing a kidney, his gallbladder and part of his liver.
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.
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.
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.”
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
By Drazen Jorgic
Art direction and photo editing: John Emerson
Edited by Paulo Prada