Lawmakers in Honduras are deadlocked over the selection of a new attorney general, underscoring the political obstacles to constructing an effective approach to fighting organized crime and corruption.
Legislators appear no closer to agreeing on a candidate to be the country’s new top prosecutor after missing a September 1 deadline for the selection.
The president of Congress, Luis Redondo, said in the days following the missed deadline that lawmakers implicated in corruption investigations are hindering the selection and should recuse themselves from the process.
“There are many who have a conflict of interest,” Redondo said. “They should announce that they abstain from participating.”
The governing Libre party of President Xiomara Castro had backed Johel Zelaya, a lawyer working for a national government agency, for attorney general, and Marcio Cabañas, a prosecutor with experience in tax crime, organized crime, and drug trafficking, for his deputy.
However, lawmakers affiliated with the Citizen Opposition Block (Bloque de Oposición Ciudadana – BOC) objected to Zelaya, who faces allegations that he had secretly taken up a second government job and claimed double salaries. The opposition bloc proposed Cabañas as attorney general and human rights lawyer Jenny Almendares, the only woman candidate, as deputy.
Traditionally, the ruling party has dictated Congress’ attorney general selection. But the Libre party only controls 50 seats in Congress while the opposition bloc controls 76. The final selection process requires the candidate to receive a total of at least 86 votes. Outgoing deputy attorney general, Daniel Sibrián, is acting as interim head of the Attorney General’s Office. But his authority is murky and he is under investigation by a new special commission formed to investigate former prosecutors for failing to prosecute corruption and drug trafficking.
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The stalled attorney general selection process highlights how political interests influence the application of justice in Honduras, and how political figures maneuver to shape the country’s anti-corruption policies.
“Traditionally, the role of the attorney general protected the strategically placed interests of the political party in power, not the people,” Carlos Hernández, the executive director at the Association for a Fairer Society (Asociación para una Sociedad más Justa – ASJ), told InSight Crime.
“I do not doubt that drug trafficking and organized crime interests have mobilized to try to corrupt the selection process and the candidates,” he added.
Despite the lack of visible negotiations characterizing the week after the failed vote, Libre promised that an agreement would be reached this week.
“The parties are negotiating in the shadows. They are negotiating for impunity, and if they can’t find someone on the list who will deliver it, they will try to name someone off the list who can,” ASJ’s legal director Kenneth Madrid said.
Corie Welch, a Central America analyst who has been in touch with civil society groups monitoring the process, said that many of them share Madrid’s fear.
“Unfortunately, Honduras doesn’t have clear guidelines around selecting an attorney general,” Welch told InSight Crime. “This leaves leeway for partisan power grabs.”
The selection of a new attorney general could determine the future of a planned United Nations anti-corruption mission known as the International Commission against Corruption and Impunity (Comisión Internacional contra la Corrupción e Impunidad en Honduras – CICIH).
The proposed anti-graft initiative is modeled on the UN-backed International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala – CICIG), which supported that country’s Attorney General’s Office in investigating and prosecuting high-level corruption cases before it was systematically dismantled by elites opposed to its work.
To function properly, the CICIH will need an attorney general disposed to take on corruption, not one beholden to corrupt political interests.
“I think it’s impossible to look at the attorney general election without also looking at the process of re-establishing the CICIH,” Welch told InSight Crime, “The attorney general will play a very important role in prosecuting crimes of corruption.”
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