The death of the MACCIH and CC-4’s uncertain future
The Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption
and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH)
grew out of the very pact that four years later
would be responsible for its demise.
After killing it, Juan Orlando Hernández,
creator of Honduras’ most unshakeable impunity pact
and Co-Conspirator-4 (CC-4) in drug trafficking operations,
now finds his own future—and life—at risk.
Ismael Moreno, SJ
“MACCIH is doomed. It has become part of the problem due to an impunity pact between Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the OAS, and Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.”
With these uncompromising words, Juan Jiménez Mayor left Honduras and his post as director of that anti-corruption mission in February 2018. Two years later, after having lost its initial dynamism, MACCIH itself was forced to close up shop.
A product of social pressure
Back in mid-2015, in what became known as “the Indignant Movement,” tens of thousands of torch-bearing Hondurans took to the streets for several weeks to demand that President Hernández be investigated and tried for purportedly embezzling funds from the Honduran social security system. That movement was the catalyst for the creation of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH).
Despite the evidence pointing to his involvement, none of the demonstrators believed the national justice system could act against him because public officials in Honduras have always enjoyed impunity for their misdeeds. A master of impunity and gall such as JOH, as Hernández is commonly known, was untouchable.
The Indignant Movement looked to Guatemala, where the Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG) had been functioning effectively with United Nations support since 2002. During what was called the “Chapina Spring” of 2015, grassroots protests and the CICIG had combined to bring about the resignation of President Otto Pérez Molina and Vice President Roxana Baldetti, who were later arrested, tried and found guilty. The CICIG has since also tried other well-known corruption cases.
Why couldn’t Honduras have something like CICIG? While pressuring for an investigation into President Hernández, the Indignant Movement also demanded the setting up of an agency like the CICIG in Honduras, also under UN auspices.
There was considerable pressure in the streets of Honduras’ main cities that year. Sources with access to government channels revealed that JOH was also under pressure from the Obama Administration, which had supported CICIG both financially and politically.
Moreover, the US ambassador in Guatemala, Todd Robinson, had joined the Indignants who were in the streets demanding justice and punishment for the corruption. Many believe the Indignants had US government backing to finally chip away at the impunity of Honduras’ political class.
It was like an unwanted child
Given the Obama government’s interest in investigating corruption cases related to public institutions, Hernández turned to OAS Secretary General Almagro to help him put together something that would satisfy the gringos and undercut the pressure from the Indignants. Almagro and JOH entered into a direct relationship in which they negotiated the creation of MACCIH.
Its charter was signed in early 2016. The US government agreed to provide generous funding: US$5.2 million upon its creation so it could “get to work without delay.” Washington also obtained the commitment of Canada, Germany and Switzerland to finance its work.
To neutralize society’s distrust of the OAS and preference for UN support instead, the Honduran government obtained the backing of certain sectors of civil society, self-described as bridges between public institutions and Honduran society. Led by the Association for a More Just Society, these sectors quickly became MACCIH apologists.
At the same time, JOH called for a “National Dialogue.” Once MACCIH and this negotiating table had been created, into which he inserted diverse groups that suited him,. he was able not only to neutralize civic discontent, but also lay the foundation for his reelection strategy, which culminated in the alleged fraud of November 2017.
This was the context in which MACCIH was born, like an unwanted child, accepted only because there was no alternative. Very few decent people in the country approved its parentage. Many considered it the fruit of a union between two shady characters, both experts in trickery: Juan Orlando Hernández and Luis Almagro.
The infant inspires trust
The OAS named Peruvian diplomat Juan Jiménez Mayor to head the MACCIH. He in turn brought on board Julio Arbizú of Peru and Daniel Urrutia of Chile. The three formed a solid and dynamic team. In its first quarter, MACCIH established its institutional foundation and the team got to work listening closely and attentively to representatives of diverse sectors of society, ranging from individuals in the highest levels of government to human rights activists, defenders of ethnic groups, environmentalists, professionals, businesspeople, academics and the religious community.
Trusted sources confirm that Jiménez Mayor made no important decisions without first discussing them with his closest team members and also listening to the voices of Honduran society.
Despite its lackluster birth, MACCIH team vindicated itself between April 2016 and February 2018. Soon, many forgot the imperfect nature of its origin and even believed that, despite being under the aegis of the OAS and having been created as a “support mission,” thus lacking the power to do serious investigations much less issue accusations of corruption, MACCIH proved to be the longed-for CICIG.
In a short period of time, Juan Jiménez Mayor managed to create an institutional structure committed to an authentic fight against corruption and impunity. By the end of its first year, the MACCIH had gained the confidence of those who had mistrusted it. And for that same reason, it had engendered the total distrust of those who had initially welcomed it.
A public prosecutor
sent by God
The MACCIH team began by asking Honduras’ Congress to approve what was called the Effective Collaboration Law. “We must have this legal instrument if we truly desire to catch big fish,” Jiménez Mayor said in private.
The team simultaneously demanded that Congress overturn the State Secrets Law, which protected all corrupt individuals in public institutions by mandating that none of their illicit acts could be revealed for at least 25 years after being committed.
Without waiting for Congress to act, the MACCIH team continued laying the groundwork for fulfilling its mission. It created the Special Prosecutor’s Unit against Impunity and Corruption (UFECIC), under the direction of prosecuting attorney Luis Javier Santos, who had an impeccable track record in the Public Ministry, where the bew unit was set up.
In 2008, as special prosecutor for the fight against corruption in the Public Prosecutor’s Office, Santos had issued indictments against officials in Honduras’ north coast region who were involved in acts of corruption. Seeing that the attorney general boycotted these and all prosecutorial processes against high- level state officials as well as members
of big business, Santos and three other prosecutors went on a hunger strike in April 2008 that lasted 38 days. https://www.envio.org.ni/articulo/3839
In September of that same year, following an assassination attempt he miraculously survived, Santos was forced into exile in Spain where he resided for four years. When he returned to Honduras, he kept a low profile in the Consumer Protection Office, until Jiménez Mayor discovered him and proposed him to head up the UFECIC.
In short order, the UFECIC under Santos’ leadership began to issue indictments against congresspeople and public officials. Realizing that MACCIH meant business, the top officials shuddered in their offices and hangouts. It was clear that MACCIH’s leadership team was in fact determined to catch not only the small fry but also the big fish of Honduran politics, considered up until that moment untouchable.
“If this continues…”
As of 2017, two simultaneous and contradictory dynamics had emerged. On the one side was the appreciation and support for the MACCIH team’s early results. And on the other was a smear campaign against the team and a boycott of its indictments, which endangered the JOH-Almagro pact that had given birth to MACCIH.
Once Juan Jiménez Mayor made public his commitment to help with the investigations into the murder of Berta Cáceres (March 4, 2016) and bring to trial those responsible for financing, organizing and executing the crime, the smear campaign evolved into a strategy for replacing MACCIH leadership.
Pressure by public officials and politicians implicated in well-known acts of corruption being investigated by MACCIH always conveyed underlying threats that “if this continues” MACCIH would be cancelled.
No other recourse but to resign
Juan Orlando Hernández’s illegal reelection in November 2017, followed by a period of intense repression, brought a tragic change of scene. In February 2018, Almagro withdrew his support for the MACCIH leadership team, leaving Jiménez Mayor, Arbizú and Urrutia no choice but to resign.
The immediate cause of Jiménez Mayor’s resignation/firing was his public charges of corruption in the OAS hiring of MACCIH personnel. In addition, he had begun to open files of corruption cases linked to JOH’s wife. Hence Jiménez Mayor’s emphatic words when saying goodbye to Honduras and to his post, denouncing an impunity pact between the OAS secretary general and the Honduran President.
The Almagro-JOH Pact
Luiz Antonio Guimarães of Brazil replaced Jiménez Mayor, but despite a new person in the driver’s seat the pressure against MACCIH continued because both the countries funding MACCIH and Honduran civil society wanted follow-through on the investigations into blatant corruption scandals. Guimarães was forced to wrap up two of the cases: one involving the wife of ex-President Porfirio Lobo Sosa, and one involving embezzlement within the Secretariat of Agriculture and Livestock, which became known as “Pandora’s Box”. Rosa Elena Bonilla, Lobo’s wife, was tried and sentenced to more than 60 years in prison; but when indictments became arrest warrants in Pandora’s Box, the biggest fish were able to get them dismissed or simply shelved.
The decision to only go after corrupt officials in the Lobo Administration revealed the existence of the Almagro-JOH pact. In exchange for Almagro’s interest in protecting the work of people he had hired for MACCIH and those close to it , the “new” MACCIH wouldn’t touch corruption cases directly linked to JOH, and Almagro would stop questioning the legitimacy of elections JOH had won and, proposing that they be re-held because “the results were uncertain.”
February 2020: The infant is dead
and UFECIC’s death is foretold
After Jiménez Mayor’s departure, leaving MACCIH toothless, Almagro and corrupt Honduran allies took aim at MACCIH as an institution. In November 2019, Congress voted against the MACCIH’s presence in Honduras and Hernández didn’t renew the four-year contract with the OAS.
On February 19, 2020, MACCIH died, not of natural causes. The impunity pact and powerful interests killed it, thus eliminating the entire anti-corruption system that had only functioned its first two years.
When MACCIH’s first leadership team was decapitated in February 2018, UFECIC had continued under the leadership of Luis Javier Santos, whom no one had been able to corrupt through either threats or financial enticements. Although UFECIC was an agency within the Public Ministry under the public prosecutor general, Santos, suspicious of being fettered to the will of the executive branch, had managed to create an independent workspace.
As was to be expected, once it had been announced that MACCIH’s contract had not been renewed, the next step was to eliminate UFECIC and camouflage both deaths. With ostentatious triumphalism, JOH turned to announcing that a new anti-corruption system had been launched that would be pioneering and exemplary for all Latin America. More quietly, it became known that UFECIC would be replaced by what was to be called the Specialized Prosecutorial Unit against Corruption Networks (UFERCO), a bête noire without a work plan. To put the diplomatic corps and international community at ease, Prosecutor Luis Javier Santos would head the new entity.
Shortly thereafter , a lawyer who some months previously had accused protestors against JOH’s reelection and against the election fraud in 2017, was named Santos’ adjunct special prosecutor. This person has been so closely linked to official decision-making that he’s known as the “military’s prosecutor” for his zealous defense of the Armed Forces and for going after anyone opposed to the current regime.
The circle of impunity
After MACCIH’s demise and UFECIC’s dismantling, the impunity pact that protected Juan Orlando Hernández was reestablished. It is made up of the most radical members of the so-called chachurequismo, the inner circle of those loyal to JOH and to his project to get reelected yet again in 2021.
Operating within this circle are the prosecutor general; Supreme Court justices; the National Human Rights Commission; high-level officers in the Armed Forces and National Police; leaders of private enterprise, especially those with headquarters in Tegucigalpa; the 60 National Party congressional representatives; a few representatives of ex-President Carlos Flores Facussé’s ignominious faction of the Liberal Party; also a few from the dregs of other parties; and the owners of major media outlets, with lists of journalists on the President’s payroll all.. None of its members will allow anyone to question them or put their interests at risk, as MACCIH tried to do.
Shock waves from
Tony Hernández’s trial
At the same time that JOH was still maneuvering to rid himself of any danger MACCIH might still pose, he was also working urgently to consolidate even more power and protect himself from further surveillance due to the shock waves emanating from his brother’s trial in the Southern District Court of New York. On October 18, 2019, Tony Hernández was found guilty on four counts: conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, using and carrying machine guns and destructive devices, conspiring to introduce weapons into US territory and making false statements.
Those shock waves put JOH at physical, legal and political risk, and put his 25 years of success in Honduran politics in grave danger. His continuous need for physical protection has given the military greater influence within his inner circle. He has given them so much power one can no longer doubt that Honduras has a military dictatorship camouflaged by the semblance of a rule of law.
Those close to the government say Tony’s trial prompted JOH to think seriously about having an escape route to leave the country, and that he sounded out the governments of Israel and Columbia. Following Tony’s conviction, however, Juan Orlando began to regain strength and consolidate his political and financial plans,
Vengeance and clean-up
Honduras doesn’t have a government influenced by drug trafficking. It has a government run by a drug trafficking cartel that, after some years, has gained control of various groups dedicated to narcotics and acts within that identity and that function.
After Tony’s sentencing, there were signs in Honduras of a regrouping of forces to seek vengeance and “clean up” witnesses or threats that might lead to accusations against JOH himself.
The man with “drug ledgers”
Let’s look at some of these signs. On October 26, one week after Tony was found guilty, 35-year-old Magdaleno Gómez Fúnez, a drug trafficker whose real name was Nery Orlando Sanabria López, was murdered by six men in the hallways of El Pozo, one of the country’s maximum-security prisons.
Sanabria assumed the name Magdaleno Gómez after staging his own “death” in 2015, circulating a photo of his body in a coffin with his mouth filled with cotton. Once the National Registry of Persons had recorded his death, he went to Colombia, where he changed every detail of his physical appearance. He then returned to Honduras as Magdaleno Gómez, a name he registered in the National Registry.
After all this effort, he was captured in June 2018, together with his wife, in possession of weapons, drugs and a lot of money. After a thorough investigation, his true identity was discovered, as was his relationship to the Valle Valle clan, the most important drug trafficking organization in western Honduras. The operation that led to his capture was directed by the DEA, and among the many items seized were three ledgers with names, dates, and tallies of money and drugs distributed to various individuals. The data reflected Magdaleno Gómez’s close relationship to Tony Hernández.
Evidence against CC-4
The drug ledgers were used in the trial as evidence against Tony. According to testimony shown on Univision, Magdaleno Gómez, while held in one of Honduras’ maximum security prisons, confessed that he had made a deal with the DEA and the New York district attorney, accepting extradition to the US to serve as a witness in an eventual trial against Juan Orlando Hernández himself. During his brother’s trial (October 2-18, 2019), he was named almost 200 times as a co-conspirator (identified asCC-4) in Tony’s criminal activities.
Gómez’s testimony was devastating for JOH. Eight days after Tony’s sentencing, Gómez was killed with a high-caliber weapon. To make the intended message even clearer, his murderers cut off his hands and feet and immediately posted the terrifying images on all social media.. Magdaleno/Nery Orlando had ceased to represent a risk.
Two dys after his murder, the headless body of the guard who had opened the cell doors for the six hitmen appeared in a vacant lot in the municipality of Choloma, on Honduras’ Atlantic coast. He had ceased to be an inconvenient witness.
The “clean-up” continues
Then a little over a month later, on December 8, one of Gómez’s attorneys was murdered. He had also represented the Valle Valle brothers who had been extradited to the US and were awaiting trial for trafficking drugs to US territory. One witness less.
Four days lafter that, Pedro Ildefonso Armas, the director of El Pozo prison, was riddled with bullets while driving on a highway in southern Honduras, having been suspended from his job during investigations into Gómez’s murder.
Dring this same period, congresssional representatives of the ruling National Party launched a fierce campaign resulting in a vote asking JOH to cancel the MACCIH contract. They argued that MACCIH had sullied the reputation of those it had labeled as corrupt; and had invested large sums on salaries for foreigners who were in positions that should have been filled by national professionals.
The final link in the chain?
Scarcely had MACCIH’s exit been announced when on February 13 an operation by 20 Public Order Military Police agents appeared in El Progreso’s court building. While some agents controlled those present on the first floor, others went to the second floor where the sentencing hearing of Alexander Mendoza had begun. Mendoza, also known as “El Porky,” was the leader of the gang known as Mara 13, or Mara Salvatrucha
The operation allowed the gang leader to escape and resulted in the deaths of three armed officers, as well as one Military Police agent. All analyses concluded that an operation of this kind wasn’t possible without the involvement of state agencies, in this case, the Armed Forces, and in particular, the Public Order Military Police, in coordination with judges, prosecutors and politicians. It was later learned that while in prison in Támara, close to the capital, El Porky had been responsible for organizing, coordinating and directing the operations that led to the murder of Magdaleno/Nery Orlando.
These events are all links in the chain presumably forged by Juan Orlando Hernández, a.k.a. CC-4, to recover after his brother Tony’s sentencing.
Although much remains unknown, few people doubt that connections exist between the case against Tony in New York in October 2018 and these bloody events and adjustments in the nation’s institutional sphere that suggerst a strategy of cleaning up witnesses who might provide evidence against JOH himself. The clean-up also lays the foundation for his continuation as President, which is his main protection against prison or death at the hands of old colleagues who might want to even the score between them
Why were there no protests?
Beyond social media posts, there were no demonstrations in Honduras decrying MACCIH’s departure, despite the tens of thousands demonstrating in 2015 to demand an agency that would fight against corruption and impunity. Many factors explain this passivity. The “pacification” strategy of repression following the 2017 electoral fraud instilled a lot of fear in the populace. There is fear among the more than 300,000 families receiving remittances from abroad that prefer the status quo to any possible threats. There is fear among the hundreds of families who benefit from the regime’s Vida Mejor (A Better Life) program and don’t want to risk losing that support. The current election season is yet another factor, as the debate absorbs energy and distracts the public.
The harsh reality is that, being fearful, influenced by religious tendencies that instill passivism, and with many sectors linked to NGOs whose projects envelop them and make them lose their national perspective, the population didn’t protest MACCIH’s exit.
The shaky Hernández cartel
All these social factors contribute to keeping the impunity pact active and continuing to evolve. But for how much longer?
The pact is on shaky ground. Honduras is immersed in systemic instability that could result in a social explosion at any moment and for any reason. The President’s own administration is now showing signs of instability. JOH himself is now publicly and officially recognized as Co-Conspirator 4 of a major drug trafficker. And that means that not only does he run the risk of being indicted by the US justice system at any moment, but he is now in the sights of the drug cartel bosses, who are determined to exact revenge for betrayal by what is now called the “Hernández cartel.”
CC-4’s present and future stability is based on the loyalty of the military and his family and political inner circle. It’s a mercenary loyalty, bought with cold, hard cash that could disappear when least expected. Within that inner circle, Juan Orlando Hernández has “friends” such as the ministers of security and of defense, who must also watch their own backs. They’ll abandon JOH when they sense that their loyalty puts their own safety at risk due to abundant involvement in illicit activities.
That’s why Juan Orlando is constantly rebuilding loyalties with his closest collaborators and forming new loyalty circles, passing out economic incentives left and right. His future and his very life depend on being able to sustain this policy of mercenary loyalties indefinitely. They will also depend on those in Washington who determine almost everything in Central America: the Southern Command and the White House more than the State Department.
CC-4’s life hangs by a thread that at times appears strong and many other times very weak. In such an unstable situation, anything might happen. That’s why, in Honduras, a country with so little planetary relevance, we can expect all kinds of surprises.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is envío’s correspondent in Honduras.