Prosecutor struggles as Honduras abandons ambitious anti-transplant campaign
He couldn’t walk for months. Those responsible for the attack have never been found.
Santos decided to flee. With the help of a prominent Jesuit priest, he found asylum in Spain, where he obtained a master’s degree in human rights. “I wanted to forget the legal profession,” he recalls.
The political landscape in Honduras has changed. In June 2009, a coup toppled left-wing President Manuel Zelaya. Porfirio Lobo, a conservative, won the presidency in November.
Lawmakers elected Hernández, an ally of Lobo, to chair the assembly. In this post, Hernández prepared his own candidacy for the presidency and consolidated the power of the National Party, still in power today despite controversial machinations to control the judiciary, repeated corruption scandals and alleged links between senior officials. and drug trafficking.
Catching up on technical details still in dispute, Hernández urged Congress to overthrow four Supreme Court justices who opposed the National Party’s initiatives and replace them with Allied judges. The move foreshadowed steps Hernández later took to further realign the court and circumvent the constitutional limits of his second and current term as president.
“I wanted to forget the legal profession.
“He wielded almost absolute power,” said Raúl Pineda Alvarado, political commentator and former member of the National Party Congress.
Santos returned in 2012. “I was missing something,” he said. “I had to come back. ”
The prosecution gave him a job to prosecute small-scale crimes in a remote town. In less than a year, he was investigating corruption again. Among other cases, he successfully sued a National Party deputy and his associates over the 2013 collapse of 150 new homes built without a permit.
In 2015, Honduran media reported that government officials took over $ 200 million from social security coffers and used part of it to fund Hernández’s presidential victory in 2013. Hernández and other leaders in the party denied knowing the origin of the funds and said they would investigate. Mass protests erupted. Protesters demanded Hernández’s resignation and called for the creation of an international panel of investigators similar to the UN-backed one operating in Guatemala.
The protests raised hopes that even the country’s political class had woken up to the pervasiveness of corruption and its consequences. “Corruption itself was the system,” James D. Nealon, the US ambassador to the country at the time, told Reuters. “Anyone who achieves a certain status or a certain stature in Honduras has gone through a corrupt system. ”
Hernández agreed to set up the anti-graft working group.
With initial funding of US $ 5.2 million, the Organization of American States, or OAS, assembled a team of approximately 40 international investigators and related staff starting in January 2016. Juan Jiménez Mayor, former Minister of Justice of Peru, has become its coordinator. .
Known by its Spanish initials of MACCIH, the organization immediately worked to form special courts and legal teams, made up of locals, to navigate the notoriously corrupt justice system. To screen the candidates, they performed background checks and polygraph tests.
Investigators quickly launched investigations and needed experienced prosecutors.
Santos, still a regular prosecutor in the prosecution, was again in the sights 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 an armored car.
Jiménez Mayor, the MACCIH coordinator, asked Santos to lead a new prosecution unit. Santos agreed. He easily passed the polygraph tests and additional checks, according to three officials involved in the process.
In 2018, the MACCIH probes gave results. Santos’ team indicted the first of what would ultimately be more than two dozen lawmakers and former lawmakers. They jailed Rosa Elena Bonilla, wife of former President Lobo, on charges of embezzling more than $ 700,000 in public funds. Bonilla denied the charges and appealed his 2019 conviction. His lawyer, Juan Carlos Berganza, told Reuters “there have been no irregularities” in his finances.
Together, investigators from Santos and MACCIH for the first time allowed Honduran courts to seize the assets of powerful targets, including various properties of Bonilla. “It was a bomb,” said Mayor Jiménez, the former coordinator of MACCIH.
Then came the backlash.
“The judiciary is practically subordinated to the wishes and political interests of the presidency. “
Congress passed a law that requires prosecutors, before indicting a government official, to seek the prior approval of a special tribunal widely seen as administration-controlled. Another law shortened the penalties for corruption convictions. Yet another caused delays in prosecuting lawmakers, allowing them to prolong corruption cases for years.
The Supreme Court, controlled by those appointed by Hernández, has also ruled against the corruption prosecutions. In 2018, he dismissed the most serious charges Santos brought against 24 defendants, including a brother-in-law of the president, freeing most of them from prison. He later freed Bonilla, ordering a new trial for the former first lady, and upheld the law passed to reduce the sentences for corruption convictions.
“The judiciary is practically subordinate to the wishes and political interests of the presidency,” said Victor Meza, former justice minister and founder of the Honduran Documentation Center, a think tank in Tegucigalpa.
In a statement, the Supreme Court told Reuters that its operations and decision-making “depend solely on the judiciary and its staff.” He did not respond to questions about specific rulings or allegations that he favors the Hernández administration and its allies.
Santos said the pushback was like “hitting a wall”. But he held on.
The searches carried out by MACCIH investigators led them to question Hilda Hernández, a sister of the president who was previously Minister of Communications. She died in a helicopter crash in 2017. But in 2019, the MACCIH team suspected that she had illegally used government funds for election purposes, according to the Supreme Court file filed by prosecutors after the raid on palace.
Hilda’s activities led Santos to launch the raid, he said.
That morning, few people outside of Santos’ team knew about the operation. Trying to keep things under wraps, the team approached the back entrance to the palace. Presidential staff barred all but Santos and two assistants from entering.
“I’m not leaving without the documents,” Santos told them.
Presidential staff, Santos said, told him they could retrieve the files he requested, but that he would not be allowed to enter the offices further himself. It is not known whether Hernández was in the building or who was deciding the reaction of assistants.
As their round trips progressed, Santos and a MACCIH investigator told Reuters that several ministers sought to dissuade him. Phones nearby rang often, they said, as senior officials called to try to stop the raid. Santos and the investigator did not want to reveal the identity of these callers.
During the day, Santos said, his team obtained copies of contracts, checks and other documents that led them this year to file complaints against 11 administration officials.
Led by Hilda, they alleged, Hernández’s aides embezzled $ 5 million in government cash and then used it to illegally fund his 2017 re-election bid. Among other expenses, according to the court record, the funds financed the transport of pro-government activists to rallies and paid more than 70 journalists for “favorable press articles”.
One of the people Santos seeks to indict is another assistant and sister of Hernández: Gloria Margarita Vargas. Prosecutors say Vargas used funds from a shell company that allegedly stole government funds to build a house in El Sauce, an upscale neighborhood in Tegucigalpa. Vargas did not respond to Reuters phone calls or texts.
In January 2020, Hernández refused to renew the mandate allowing MACCIH to operate, effectively expelling its investigators from Honduras. The OAS, in a statement, called this a “negative step in the fight against corruption and impunity.”
Santos’ team of prosecutors remained intact, but to a lesser extent, now reporting to mid-level public prosecutors. The managers gave them additional tasks and deprived them of a monthly bonus which amounted to almost half a salary for some. A ministry spokesperson said prosecutors still have full support in tackling corruption. The bonus, he added, was specifically for the work of MACCIH and was removed as the group was disbanded.
“The conclusion of MACCIH’s work in Honduras is a negative step in the fight against corruption and impunity.
Last February, shortly before Santos files the indictment request with the Supreme Court, he returned to the palace to take a statement from the president. Hernández, Santos said, denied knowing about his sisters’ alleged plans and said he delegated decisions to assistants. A second person familiar with the meeting confirmed the meeting to Reuters.
Santos is still seeking permission to continue the indictments. The Supreme Court sought in June to dismiss some of the charges, including those against Vargas, and Santos appealed. His team, he said, continues to look for leads. But without the help of MACCIH investigators, he struggles.
“There are many serious lines of inquiry, but we don’t have financial analysts to investigate,” Santos told Reuters. “We collapsed.”
Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa
By Drazen Jorgic
Artistic direction and photo editing: John Emerson
Edited by Paulo Prada