Talks between President Xiomara Castro and the U.N. to create an International Commission against Impunity in Honduras (CICIH) are underway. Will Castro swim against the current —as she has promised— in a region whose courts and top prosecutors, from Guatemala City to Managua, have become subservient to the sitting governments?
In correspondence with the U.N. released by the administration on August 23, she called for a “new, independent and impartial justice system.” If she strikes a months-out agreement with the U.N., a corps of seasoned attorneys from Honduras and abroad would work high-stakes prosecutions in a country whose corrupted leaders, money movers, and drugrunners have for decades rarely seen the inside of Tegucigalpa courtrooms.
The sides agree on toughening laws against white collar crimes and striking down others, including one passed in 2019 to delay some embezzlement trials by up to seven years. But neither broached an amnesty law approved in March by Castro’s party, Liberty and Refoundation (Libre), to grant immunity to former officials from the administration of her husband and former president Mel Zelaya, now the government’s shadow power broker.
Still undefined is whether the commission would have the independence to pursue leads wherever it finds them — like allegations in a Brooklyn trial that Zelaya, as well as his successors Pepe Lobo and Juan Orlando Hernández, took money from the Cachiros cartel
The U.N. is also calling for party finance regulations and new laws to permit cooperation agreements with the subjects of criminal probes. The latter, replicating an everyday practice in the U.S., was key to major prosecutions by the famous and now-defunct Guatemalan predecessor, CICIG, allowing them to leverage underlings’ testimony to go after the heads of corruption schemes: politicians, ex-military officials, and businesspeople.
But the question of staff could pose a major challenge to the negotiations: the administration asserts that it wants to hand-pick them. That would be a far cry from the selection process of the famous and now-defunct Guatemalan predecessor CICIG, whose commissioners were confirmed by the U.N. and picked their own team.
The U.N. wrote that the commission should independently investigate cases and file suits as a non-state private plaintiff, as is common in Central American law. This would require the Public Prosecutor’s Office to first press charges. Another optionwould be for the CICIH to jointly press charges with Honduran state attorneys, similar to in Guatemala, a change that would require a two-thirds congressional vote to amend the constitution.
The Castro government, on the other hand, has limited its description of the commission’s role to “accompanying the Public Prosecutor’s Office,” an ambiguity that may skew toward El Salvador, where President Nayib Bukele chose a less demanding proposal from the Organization of American States so that the CICIES would only offer technical advisement.
Both the CICIG and CICIES were expelled in 2021 and 2019, respectively, amid major investigations into the sitting governments and those close to them.
In Honduras the CICIH has a forerunner of its own. The MACCIH, an OAS-backed commission founded in 2015, was expelled from the country, too, in January, 2020, after showing how weak institutions allowed organized crime to co-opt the Honduran state. But it failed to bring to court the most pressing issue of its tenure: drug trafficking allegations touching the inner circle of President Hernández, who in April was extradited to Brooklyn.
Castro asked for U.N. support in creating the CICIH two weeks after inauguration in February, in keeping with a main campaign pledge. Multiple U.N. offices then visited Honduras in May.
Some Hondurans distrust Castro. Gabriela Castellanos, the head of the National Anti-Corruption Council who was initially close to the administration, argued on Tuesday —in a blistering column called “All or Nothing!”— that the administration’s CICIH proposal is “half-hearted” and accused Castro of “prolonging the agony” of Honduras with “populism.” “The judicial bureaucracy, bent to the will of the Executive branch, confuses transparency with appearances,” she added.
The Castro administration has carefully balanced its insistence on national sovereignty with reaffirmations of its interest in hosting the U.N.-backed commission — similar to its juggling of closeness to the governments of Cuba, Nicaragua, and Venezuela with the promise of a strategic relationship with Washington.
But there are elements in her party that could look to hamper the commission, and even thwart the promise of a new course. A law approved in July allows officials covered under the March amnesty, as well as political party activists, to be nominated to the Supreme Court (CSJ), the institution to rule on the constitutionality of the CICIH. Nominations for CSJ magistrates and the attorney general election, both due next year, could skew the commission’s eventual impact.
Former Guatemalan anti-impunity prosecutor Juan Francisco Sandoval, who worked alongside the CICIG, worries that a Honduran commission will face backlash like the kind that forced him into exile last year: “’You’re going to hear the famous talking point that ‘we can do this alone,’ and that ‘they’re infringing on the sovereignty of this country,’” he said in a ContraCorriente Twitter Space. “Really, what is being protected is sovereign corruption.””
Others seem to believe that any marginal improvement in Honduras is, in a backsliding Central America, cause to hold out hope. The country’s top U.N. official singled out that part of the Supreme Court nomination bill as a negative, but added that “it’s better to have a new law than to have none.”
Castro’s challenge lies in keeping Libre’s nose out of the judiciary and overriding the voices who will insist that those investigating her government or party are coup-mongers. Otherwise, she may have to convince Hondurans that some CICIH is better than none.
Editor's Note: This article was updated on September 1 at 1 p.m. ET to include the Honduran state's counter-proposal to hand-pick CICIH staff.