Will Justice Finally Be Done?
In a country where justice has always functioned as a serpent that bites only the shoeless, the courageous action of the Public Ministry offers hope of change. Will justice be carried out? Will it be capable of biting those who wear military boots?
The Office of the Attorney General, also known as the Public Ministry, began its functions in July 1994 under the competent direction of lawyer Edmundo Orellana. Today, both it and the judicial system as a whole are playing an unexpected leadership role in Honduras. This is quite a positive change for a society in which justice has traditionally acted like a serpent that only bites the barefoot, never those with shoes.
High level public officials, accused by the Attorney General and tried by the corresponding judges, have already been sent to prison or are hiding to avoid capture and jail.
Jailed and AccusedErnesto Paz Aguilar, the current government's first foreign minister, is now in prison due to Public Ministry actions, as are other lower level Foreign Ministry officials. Also in prison are Mario Luciano Coello and José Segovia Inestroza, both former directors of the para state Honduran Forestry Development Corporation, created to protect national forests. Coello headed it during the Callejas government and Segovia during the Azcona Hoyo government. Detention orders are pending against two other Callejas government officials as well: Jaime Martínez Guzmán, his Minister of Education, and Tomás Guillén Williams, then director of the National Agrarian Institute. All these men are accused of corruption and abuse of authority to commit illegal acts.
In 1994, the Attorney General accused several of Callejas' ministers and even the former President himself of abuse of authority in the illegal and underpriced sale of state equipment. Despite the national scandal this generated, none of those indicted have been sent to prison. The Callejas case is the most difficult, since he enjoys immunity as a representative to the Central American parliament.
The "Passport Scandal"The highest official imprisoned so far is Ernesto Paz Aguilar. Never in Honduran history has a politician of ministerial rank been sent to jail.
Paz Aguilar's odyssey began on December 30, 1994, when US immigration authorities detained and deported a Honduran traveling with an official Honduran passport. The young man was interrogated by INTERPOL and US Embassy officials, who put out an alert about false "official passports." On January 11, 1995, two more youths carrying fake official passports were detained at the Tegucigalpa airport. It was discovered that the passports had been sold by Marielos Paz Aguilar, the foreign minister's sister. Though she did not work in the ministry, she spent a lot of time there designing and selling official passports. She was picked up and sent to the women's jail.
Opposition politicians took advantage of the situation to discredit Paz Aguilar. He retaliated by accusing some of his liberal colleagues, the US Embassy and mercenary journalists of mounting a campaign to push him out of his post, noting that the US Embassy had not forgiven him for seeking closer diplomatic ties to Cuba. In May, he was forced to resign his post. He was replaced by Minister of the Economy Delmer Urbizo Panting.
In mid August, the court subpoenaed Paz Aguilar to testify in the passport case. The judge ordered him jailed, on accusations of falsifying public documents, embezzling public funds, continued fraud, abuse of authority and cover up. Existing laws do not permit bail for these crimes, so Paz Aguilar will have to remain in prison until his lawyer can prove that the charges are false.
Ten Officers to the StandOn July 25 the Attorney General's Office went a step farther, embarking on one of the broadest judicial and political actions in the country's history. It accused 10 high level military officers of the "illegal detention and attempted murder" of six university students in 1982. The youths were "disappeared" by the infamous Battalion 3 16 for several days, during which they were submitted to brutal torture.
Among the accused officers are Colonel Alexander Hernández, General Inspector of the Public Security Forces; Colonel Juan Blas Salazar, former head of the National Investigation Offices; Colonel Juan López Grijalba, former head of Military Intelligence and Colonel Amílcar Zelaya, ex Commander of the Public Security Forces. Zelaya was identified as the owner of the rural house where the youths were tortured. Salazar was already in prison in La Ceiba, for illegal cocaine possession.
The Public Ministry's decision to pursue this case has generated confusion in the military High Command, which initially opted to put tanks in the streets on the pretext of a supposed military exercise. Everyone interpreted the action as an arrogant move to intimidate the population and representatives of justice. Once it got a better grip, the High Command called on the Armed Forces Superior Council (CONSUFA) a sort of military parliament of 60 high level officers to deliberate on the actions to be taken to protect their military companions. CONSUFA decided that the armed forces should take on the legal defense of the accused when they are called before the courts.
Some high level officers who resent the increasing loss of army protagonism apparently suggested challenging judicial authority by protecting the accused military members in military barracks, but found neither the consensus nor the political space to do so. The High Command has since tried to get the indictments against the officers dropped, arguing that the crimes they are accused of were pardoned in an amnesty decree issued by President Callejas in June 1991.
The accusation against these officers has rekindled the painful debate about 184 "disappeared" people from the 1980s. The issue first became the subject of massive and public debate in June of last year, when Honduran newspapers reprinted an extensive report first published in The Baltimore Sun, based on declassified State Department reports and extensive interviews with three members of Battalion 3 16 exiled in Canada. The report opened a wound which, though covered up, was never secret. The issue has been on the front burner of national debate ever since.
Some light may be shed on it before this year is up, when three tombs are excavated in search of the remains of union leaders Rolando Vindel and Gustavo Morales Fúnez and of Hans Albert Madison, a young man detained while walking along a road in a Tegucigalpa residential neighborhood where the 3 16 was carrying out an operation against a guerrilla group entrenched there.
Get the Big Fish! The Public Ministry's actions are having an effect. Not only has the judicial body's image improved considerably, but most officials are now much more careful in managing state affairs. Many former officials who did not take the law very seriously while in power have even begun to fear that the Public Ministry might go after them.
Up to now, the majority of Public Ministry cases turned over to judges are related to corruption and abuse of power, previously so common and institutionalized as to be thought untouchable. Most Hondurans applaud the audacity of confronting these deeply rooted vices, but are now demanding that justice also get the "big fish," who have made fortunes from pillaging state funds, influence peddling, contraband and drug trafficking. There is a general clamor that the crime of "illicit enrichment" be brought to justice once and for all, so that the group of privileged Hondurans enjoying unjustly gained wealth be put behind bars.
Questioned EconomyWhile the administration of justice is beginning to receive cheers, criticisms of the neoliberal economic policy have not abated.
Cumulative inflation for 1995 was already 18.5% by August, even though the government promised the international financial institutions that it would only reach 12% by the end of December. The increase of between 100% and 250% in state water rates in October will substantially contribute to inflation as will the galloping increases in electric energy service, continued raises in fuel costs and the expected increase in urban transport.
The business sector lays the blame on the Central Bank, which has not reduced bank reserves from 34% to 30% in the second half of this year, as it had promised. Every point that bank reserves are reduced means the circulation of some 60 million lempiras more in the banking system. According to the business sector, the Central Bank's current restrictive policy is seriously affecting private investment and bankrupting small and medium industry due to lack of credit. The Central Bank says its policy is one more effort to halt the lempira's slide against the dollar. Today almost 10 lempiras are needed to buy a dollar in the official bank market or the black market. Grassroots and medium urban sectors are questioning this and all other aspects of economic policy, which affect them through inflation, monetary devaluation, speculation and wage freezes.
To the international financial organizations, the Honduran government's most important achievement has been the fiscal deficit, which is expected to reach the agreed upon 4.5% reduction level by the end of 1995. These organizations are now pressuring to cut back the state apparatus in 1996 and make it more modern and efficient. State reduction is also an unnegotiable condition if Honduras is to obtain new international bank loans and be eligible for the Club of Paris to pardon some $600 million of its foreign debt.
Armando Aguilar Cruz, executive secretary of the World Bank financed Presidential Commission for State Modernization, says that modernization, which means laying off some 6,550 officials, will save 800 million lempiras annually. The layoffs will swell the already sizable ranks of the unemployed, but are not significant to the state, which employs roughly 103,000 civil workers. Of these, about 25,000 are "protected" by military statutes.
The international financial institutions are also pressuring the government to speed up the privatization of the Honduran Telecommunications Institute (HONDUTEL), currently on hold due to opposition in the National Congress and broad sectors of civil society.
Finally, Civilian PoliceApplause has also been heard for the decision to shift the police from military to civilian jurisdiction, a demand that enjoyed broad consensus among political parties and society. The Congress unanimously approved this historic step on September 6.
The police have been under army jurisdiction since October 3, 1963, when the officers who unseated President Villeda Morales in a coup decided to dissolve the Civil Guard and create a police force under military control. The expectation is that the new civilian status of the police will help break down citizens' insecurity and provide minimal guarantees for their lives and property.
The move is part of the overall demilitarization of the state. Other important steps in this direction have already been taken: the Merchant Marine, Criminal Investigation Police and Migration Policy Office have moved from military to civilian jurisdiction and voluntary and educational military service has replaced obligatory service.
The military accepted the change as an irreversible given. The special congressional commission that reviewed the police transfer bill made reference to "the intelligent attitude of the Armed Forces, which, acting in accord with the modernizing rhythm of the new times, has added its comprehension and the support of its experience to the efforts for unity, inspired by the best national interests."
This intelligent attitude does not appear to be shared by all military leaders. Colonels Cristóbal Simón, Julio César Chávez and Alexander Hernández, who made their careers as police officers, are demanding that the new civil police be put under their command. Hernández has been consistently questioned by human rights organizations for his participation in the disappearances in the 1980s. Simón has publicly demanded to be named chief of the new civil police as the most experienced of the career officers.
A Convergence at Last? Ever since Carlos Roberto Reina came to power, diverse organizations of civil society have tried to get all social and political forces to unite in the search for solutions to major national problems. The government recognized this necessity, but took no serious steps to implement the demand at first. It has leaned toward "convergence" rather than concertación, or negotiated agreement, a concept the Callejas government discredited by only showing interest in "negotiating" with those already in agreement with the extreme neoliberalism it preached and practiced.
Reina finally began to actively seek convergence with opposition political parties. Four accords came out of a meeting he had on July 25 with leaders from the National Party, the Innovation and Unity Party and the Christian Democrat Party of Honduras:
1) Give firm support to the President's project to create a new convergence forum to discuss political, institutional, economic, social and citizen security issues.
2) Seek mechanisms to make viable the domiciliary vote and separate ballots for electing mayors, representatives and the President in the November 1997 elections.
3) Renew identity cards.
4) Cleanse the electoral census and the National Elections Tribunal and make any changes to the Electoral Law and the Political Organizations Law by consensus.
The parties met again on August 17 and 25. At the end, President Reina announced the creation of the National Convergence Council (CONACON), an organization charged with designing a national project of broad, pluralistic and long term development. CONACON, which Reina will chair, was officially inaugurated on September 13 in the auditorium of the National Autonomous University. In a speech to introduce the organization, Reina emotionally proclaimed that "together we will begin to overcome underdevelopment, injustice and corruption; together we will fight for food security, for citizen security and against criminality; together we will welcome in the new millennium, perfect democracy, strengthen national identity and overcome the poverty that steals smiles from children and hope from adults."
Most of CONACON's 24 members represent political parties, business and unions. Others include the presidents of the National Congress and the Supreme Court of Justice and Oscar Andrés Rodríguez, archbishop of Tegucigalpa, in his capacity as president of the Ad Hoc Commission on Delinquency and Social Violence. The National Convergence Forum created by the Congress in 1994 to seek consensus on laws and the Presidential Commission for State Modernization are both considered auxiliary organizations to CONACON.
CONACON's agenda will be set by President Reina, but all members can propose other issues they consider relevant. CONACON is empowered to promote forums, seminars or round tables where these issues will be amply addressed.
Legitimize the GovernmentCONACON's first work meeting, on September 20, was dominated by the issue of citizens' safety. President Reina promised to set up mechanisms to provide the police force with the 25 million lempiras the Ad Hoc Commission on Delinquency and Social Violence recommended as a way to increase its ability to respond. Some CONACON members proposed that the army help guarantee the citizenry's security, but no definitive decision was made.
The relatively small Democratic Unity Party (PUD) the now legal political party of the Honduran left and important sectors of civil society rejected having been excluded from CONACON. This is evidently a legitimizing initiative by a government that some see as having little light and lots of shadows while others see it as having a lot of light and few shadows.