Honduras: New Ministry of Transparency as an obstacle to the fight against corruption

AP photo/Moises Castillo, File

Mario Sorto*

Versión en español aquí

In 2020, corruption once again ranked as one of the country’s leading problems. Although corruption perception is on the rise, government efforts have focused not on resolving the problem, but rather on confronting corruption scandals with communication strategies and the creation of institutions that lack legitimacy.

The fight against corruption continues to be one of the main challenges facing Honduran society. But it also continues to be one of the main issues around which the efforts, actions, and resources of broad sectors of society can coalesce to find a solution to the multidimensional crisis the country is facing. However, the role of the authorities within the country’s institutional framework complicates this fight, as [many] of the [public] institutions are controlled by corruption networks that include actors from the public and private sectors and organized crime, as evidenced by the corruption cases unearthed by the MACCIH-UFECIC.[i]

Similarly, state elites also maintain a system that guarantees impunity and blocks all actions brought by citizens. Some strategies these groups use include amending and creating laws, shielding elites accused of corruption offenses from criminal action, weakening or dismantling institutions—as with the MACCIH-UFECIC—and creating new institutions that foster an environment of corruption or lead to uncertainty in the fight against corruption. One such recently created entity that has prompted many questions in Honduran society is the Office of the Secretary of Transparency [Secretaría de Estado en el Despacho de Transparencia],[ii] created by Executive Decree PCM-111-2020.

Challenges to the Secretary of Transparency notably include those raised by the Honduran Council of Private Enterprise (COHEP). The Council issued a statement expressing its disagreement with the ministry’s creation, arguing that it is “unlawful and inconsistent with the country’s economic circumstances” and that “the new institution’s resources should be used to stimulate the economy for the Honduran people.” COHEP also pointed out that the State of Honduras already has enough institutions specifically tasked with ensuring transparency, such as the Superior Court of Auditors and the Institute for Access to Public Information (IAIP).

The National Anti-Corruption Council (CNA), a civil society body, contends that the new Office of the Secretary of Transparency does not represent a step forward in the fight against corruption, but is a body created to hinder the fight against impunity, with the intention of financially suffocating institutions such as the IAIP, the TSC, and the CNA. The CNA has also questioned whether the new entity is part of a strategy by state authorities to minimize the indicators obtained in Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.[iii]   

What is the role of the Secretary of Transparency? What has been the role of this Office of the Secretary since its creation in late 2020? Is this an obstacle to the fight against corruption? As a starting point, Executive Decree PCM-111-2020 establishes that this entity will coordinate, facilitate, promote, and institutionalize the proper implementation of the National Policy on Transparency, Probity, Integrity, and Corruption Prevention, as well as the Transparency and Anticorruption Strategy.[iv]

These functions contrast with the latest statements of Transparency Minister María Matamoros on the results of the most recent Corruption Perceptions Index prepared by Transparency International, which ranked Honduras 157th out of 180 countries evaluated.[v] According to this study, Honduras received its lowest score of the last eight years of President Juan Hernández’s administration. Nevertheless, the Minister dismissed the report, suggesting that it “is based solely and exclusively on perception,” adding that “a study is carried out to ask people whether they believe there is corruption in Honduras; if the person answers yes, obviously this increases the perception of corruption in our country.”[vi]

We can thus infer that the main objective of the Office of the Secretary of Transparency will be a public relations strategy to enhance the government’s image in terms of its performance on transparency and anti-corruption issues, i.e., its work will aim to “project” an image of transparency. This is evidenced by the official’s own statements, which, while highlighting the need for a study that “truly measures all the efforts made in terms of transparency and the fight against corruption,” suggest that her office would prepare a report “containing tangible information rather than one based exclusively on a matter of perception.”

How tangible can the data included in such a report be? In other words, is it possible to objectively measure corruption in specific areas of political activity? To answer these questions, Transparency International points out that despite advances in the methodology for investigating corruption, there is no indicator that can objectively, directly, and exhaustively measure this type of crime, which is why perception indicators are so important.

It is also difficult to uncover an indicator because corruption involves a set of unlawful activities that are deliberately concealed, and can only come to light through scandals, investigations, or indictments.[vii] The objective study with tangible information that the Office of the Secretary of Transparency intends to carry out will not be possible, and therefore, whatever it does will be part of its public relations strategy to promote the government’s image in the area of corruption and transparency.

That the Office of the Secretary of Transparency will protect the government’s image as it relates to corruption is confirmed by another piece of information provided by Secretary of Transparency María Matamoros on a radio station, in which she specifically mentioned the negative impacts of the results of Transparency International’s Corruption Index on the government’s image. Matamoros said that this issue tarnishes the country’s image in two areas, “not only at the national level but also at the international level, with economic and other repercussions.” She also presented data she considered tangible, such as the fact that “40% of corruption in the country is attributed to organized crime, 31% to the private sector, and 24% to the public sector.”[viii]

The Secretary’s statements are controversial and debatable, and although the intention is not to refute her assertions, there is sufficient evidence in Honduras to conclude that corruption is the main source of capital accumulation for the corruption networks made up of the three sectors mentioned above, i.e., organized crime, the private sector, and the public sector.[ix]

Although Transparency International’s Corruption Index reflects the evaluation and perception of corruption by experts, and is based on a methodology that uses perception indicators on a variety of corrupt behaviors in the public sector, this rating can be checked against the numerous cases of large-scale corruption that are public knowledge in Honduras—particularly in the management of COVID-19 (crimes involving abuse of authority and fraud in connection with mobile hospitals)[x] and the administrative mishandling of resources allocated for the disasters caused by hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020.   

Corruption has an enormous impact on the human rights of the people living within a country’s borders, as well as on its political system and the consolidation of democracy and the rule of law. The situation in Honduras is very complex if we consider that public policies and budgets are aimed not at solving the country’s most pressing problems, but at favoring the elites we mentioned at the outset, who often collude with organized crime and drug trafficking organizations. Honduras is a paradigmatic case that warrants special attention from the IACHR and the application of the standards and principles established in its recent report on Corruption and Human Rights.[xi]

This publication is part of the CESPAD project: “Citizen Anti-Corruption Oversight and the Legacy of the MACCIH,” supported by Lawyers Without Borders-Canada (ASFC). However, CESPAD is solely responsible for the ideas expressed herein.

*Sociologist and CESPAD Researcher

[i] CESPAD, 2020 ¿Qué lecciones dejó la MACCIH? Perspectivas actuales y probables escenarios en la lucha anti-corrupción en Honduras [What lessons did the MACCIH teach? Current perspectives and likely scenarios in the fight against corruption in Honduras] http://cespad.org.hn/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/InformeFinal-MACCIHCESPAD.pdf

[ii] David Zapata “COHEP rechaza creación de Ministerio de Transparencia” [COHEP rejects creation of Ministry of Transparency], La Prensa, November 10, 2020 https://www.laprensa.hn/honduras/1421355-410/honduras-cohep-rechaza-creacion-ministerio-transparencia

[iii]  Redacción Criterio.HN Nueva secretaria de transparencia nace con los antecedentes del gobierno actual [New Office of the Secretary of Transparency comes with the current administration’s baggage], November 10, 2020 https://criterio.hn/nueva-secretaria-de-transparencia-nace-con-los-antecedentes-del-gobierno-actual-cna/

[iv] La Gaceta. Official Gazette of the Republic of Honduras, November 6, 2020 https://www.tsc.gob.hn/web/leyes/PCM-111-2020.pdf

[v]Transparency International, 2020 https://www.transparency.org/en/cpi/2020/index/nzl

[vi] Foro Canal 10, interview with Secretary of Transparency Maria Matamoros, January 28, 2020 https://twitter.com/mariandreamc/status/1354990871427616768?s=21   

[vii]Transparency International, Corruption Perception Index 2020, Frequently Asked Questions https://images.transparencycdn.org/images/2020_CPI_FAQs_EN_2021-01-27-165709.pdf

[viii]La Tarde, HRN, interview with Secretary of Transparency Maria Matamoros, January 29, 2020 https://twitter.com/mariandreamc/status/1354990871427616768?s=21

[ix] Sarah Chayes, When Corruption is the Operating System: The Case of Honduras. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2017 https://carnegieendowment.org/files/Chayes_Corruption_Final_updated.pdf

[x] CNA, “El CNA interpone fuerte denuncia identificando delitos de abuso de autoridad y fraude en el caso de los supuestos hospitales móviles” [CNA files strong complaint identifying crimes of abuse of authority and fraud in the case of so-called mobile hospitals], August 3, 2020   https://www.cna.hn/2020/08/03/el-cna-interpone-fuerte-denuncia-identificando-delitos-de-abuso-de-autoridad-y-fraude-en-el-caso-de-los-supuestos-hospitales-moviles/

[xi] IACHR. Corruption and Human Rights: Inter-American Standards. OEA/Ser.L/V/II. Doc.236/19. December 6, 2019. Available at: http://www.oas.org/en/iachr/reports/pdfs/CorruptionHR.pdf

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