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In corruption battle in Honduras, elites hit back

NEW YORK — Ever since an international anticorruption commission in Honduras announced its first case against lawmakers last year, the panel has been under attack from the officials it is supposed to be investigating.

Honduran lawmakers shut down that initial inquiry, and the commission barely survived a court challenge.

Now, another blockbuster investigation shows what the lawmakers were so concerned about. The inquiry, known as the Pandora Case, produced charges against 38 politicians and officials.

It details a scheme to divert government funds to the governing party’s 2013 election campaign. Those named include former government ministers, powerful members of President Juan Orlando Hernández’s National Party, and his brother-in-law.

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The plot was also said to have directed money to the opposition Liberal Party.

At stake is not just the outcome of this investigation, but the survival of what is viewed as the most powerful brake on official misconduct in Honduras, where corruption is deeply entrenched.

By announcing the details of a new investigation last month, prosecutors are laying down a challenge to the government and its allies in Congress: Derail this case like the first one, and Hondurans could be provoked to breaking point.

“It’s very clear that people are fed up,’’ said Melissa Elvir Chávez, a lawyer with the Democracy Without Borders foundation. “I think it would be too big of a political risk if it is not allowed to advance in the anti-corruption court as it should.”

Officials in Washington have supported the anticorruption effort in Honduras, encouraged by the idea that improving the rule of law in the Central American country is a necessary step to overcome the poverty and violence that push thousands of Hondurans to try and enter the United States each month. But in foreign policy, other issues often take priority.

“The Honduran government knows the Trump administration cares a lot more about immigration and drug trafficking than it cares about corruption,” said Charles Call, a professor at American University in Washington who leads an academic team that monitors the Honduran anticorruption commission.

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In recent weeks, the Trump administration brought some pressure to bear on Hernández. After meeting with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in Washington, Hernández agreed to accept the appointment of a Brazilian prosecutor, Luiz Antonio Guimarães Marrey, to head the anticorruption commission, two months after he was first named.

Vice President Mike Pence injected the United States into the contentious battle to pick a new attorney general in Honduras last week during a meeting with Hernández and other Central American presidents in Guatemala City. The vice president called on Hondurans to select an effective top prosecutor.

The next day, Friday, legislators dumped the five candidates under consideration and re-elected Attorney General Óscar Chinchilla to a second term.

In the anticorruption commission’s first case in December, prosecutors accused five former legislators of pocketing money from a special development fund that deputies can tap to spend in their districts. Within weeks, Congress voted to halt any criminal investigation into that fund going all the way back to 2006, and a judge dropped the case.

An appeal of that attempt by Congress to shield itself from prosecution is awaiting resolution from the Honduran Supreme Court.

The head of the anticorruption commission at the time, former prime minister Juan Jiménez Mayor of Peru, resigned, arguing that the Organization of American States, which established the commission, had failed to back him in his confrontation with the government.

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A new twist followed in May, when a confusing Supreme Court decision included language that appeared to restrict the commission’s ability to collaborate with the attorney general’s new anticorruption unit.

An anticorruption activist, Gabriela Castellanos, called the court’s decision “malicious.” She said that Honduran institutions were too weak and needed the support of the international panel to investigate the country’s power brokers.

Castellanos leads the National Anti-Corruption Council, an independent group that researches graft cases and played a crucial role in uncovering the Pandora scheme.