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Honduras' Anti-Corruption Struggle and U.S. Foreign Policy

Written by Christopher López, LAS MA 2022


Over the past 25 years, Honduras' fight against government corruption has undergone many watershed moments that have challenged its democratic development. The anti-corruption struggle has intensified in recent years due to interventions of international actors and the arrest and extradition of Honduran presidential family members. The galvanizing efforts of civil society and social movements to denounce and reveal corrupt political networks operating in Honduras has also challenged the United States to reassess bilateral priorities. 

Considering that institutional impunity is now defined as a root cause of Central American immigration, the U.S. government has articulated and applied anti-corruption conditionalities to its foreign relations with this region. However, in the case of Honduras, there have been contradicting results because different U.S. presidents have used inconsistent approaches. Now with a new president in each of these two countries, Honduras has a new opportunity to collaborate with international partners in dismantling government corruption. 

After eight years in office and less than two weeks after exiting the presidency, the U.S. Secretary of State declassified and publicized the inclusion of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) on the United States’ Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors list.1 His extradition to the United States this past April was only possible because the former president and his political party are no longer in power and because the United States is currently governed by an administration willing to hold corrupt Honduran politicians accountable. Despite the accusations of graft against JOH’s wife and his younger brother’s life sentence in U.S. prison for drug trafficking, the Trump administration remained silent.The different treatment the former Honduran president received in the past five years reveals how the progress of Honduras’ anti-corruption initiatives is not contingent upon but crucially influenced by the United States’ diplomatic approach. 

Combating corruption did not become a conditionality of the U.S.-Honduras relation until the end of 2014 when it was codified as one of four pillars of the Alliance for Prosperity Plan in the Northern Triangle of Central America (APP).3 This was ex-President Obama and then-Vice-President Joe Biden’s landmark regional plan to stem irregular migration with large-scale development aid. Despite international assistance, Honduras officials continued to corrupt the justice system and rule of law. Thousands of Hondurans mobilized across the country to denounce the embezzlement of over $200 million lempiras (approximately $8.1 million USD) from the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS) less than a year into the implementation of the APP.4 Hondurans became resentful when it became public that some of this stolen money ended up in the electoral coffers of the National Party during the 2013 election. During a press conference held in 2015, President Hernández “admitted that the National Party received around ten checks amounting to $147,783 dollars to finance his political campaign.”No condemnation came from the White House nor the Secretary of State when this was publicized, but the U.S. Embassy in Tegucigalpa did cancel the visas of officials managing the IHSS. 

This indifference is attributed to the diplomatic commitments Hernández’s administration made towards mitigating irregular migration and drug trafficking coming from his country. In late 2014, the U.S. Southern Command General John Kelly, praised the Honduran president for his fight against drug trafficking.6 In addition, Honduras approved a new extradition law the same year that saw three of the biggest drug traffickers arrested and turned over to U.S. authorities in a matter of months.7 These actions drew attention away from organized crime’s influence in the Honduran political system that would soon prove difficult to conceal. It was the massive mobilizations of Honduran constituents that pressured the government and international community to facilitate the creation of an independent commission to investigate corruption and impunity.

Honduran protestors demanded an independent criminal investigative body because government mismanagement undermined trust in public institutions. Despite initial resistance, the government eventually drafted their own proposal for this agency, which conflicted with the policy recommendations outlined by civil society, and international organizations such as the Organization of American States (OAS).Under negotiated conditions, the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) arrived in April 2016 and their mandate ended in January 2020. From the beginning, the Honduran government was reluctant to grant this regional anti-corruption entity too much power because the efforts of its regional antecedent, the International Commission Against Corruption and Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), was able to force a Guatemalan president and vice-president to resign.In its four years of operation, the MACCIH assisted in the prosecution of over 130 people and carried out 14 cases. During the Trump administration, the MACCIH helped secure the conviction of the former First Lady, Rosa Elena Bonilla de Lobo, on charges of embezzlement. A couple months before her arrest, her husband’s son, the former Honduran president Porfirio Lobo, pleaded guilty for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.10 The Lobo presidential family came into power after the country’s devastating military coup d’etat in 2009 and was never investigated by authorities in either the United States or Honduras until the MACCIH and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) intervened.

Like the fate of the CICIG, the MACCIH’s term was not renewed as it proved all too effective uncovering corruption in Honduras. Investigations such as the infamous “Caso Pandora” exposed legislative officials’ misappropriation of public funds, while the case “Narcopolitica” identified politicians who laundered money on behalf of notorious Honduran drug traffickers.11 The Trump administration did not protest Hernández’s refusal to extend the mandate of this international commission as long as Honduras continued to cooperate stopping migration with measures such as the Asylum Cooperative Agreements.12

Corruption is not a new issue in the relationship between the United States and Honduras. In April 1975, The Wall Street Journal denounced the United Fruit Company´s (now Chiquita Brands International) bribing of Honduran public officials. The resulting lawsuit, Security Exchange Commission v. United Brands, “was the first case concerning multinational bribery” brought by this governmental agency.”13 It is no coincidence that the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (FCPA) was enacted two years later. This unfortunate event, dubbed “Bananagate,” not only resulted in a military coup d’etat, but also demonstrated how the Honduran state’s struggle against corruption has been aided by cases in the U.S. justice system.  

Historically, Honduras’ modern anti-corruption struggle has been largely shaped by national laws and international treaties the state has signed. In April 1998, the Honduran National Congress approved a motion to become a signatory of the Inter-American Convention Against Corruption, the same year it became rated the third-most corrupt country in the world after Cameroon and Paraguay by Transparency International’s corruption index.14 It was not until 2005 that the National Congress authorized the creation of the Consejo Nacional Anticorrupción. In 2015, under new leadership, this agency finally began to initiate groundbreaking investigations and gain international attention and assistance. And while the Trump administration ignored Honduras’ institutional corruption, the CNA, MACCIH. and other civil society organizations continued challenging impunity.

Recent U.S. administrations held a close relationship with ex-Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, failing to push hard enough for investigations and justice on the killings of activists and against widespread political corruption. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris’ coming to power signaled a new chapter in the bilateral relationship. In their strategy to address the root causes of migration from Central America, they have announced the creation of a new Department of Justice Anti-Corruption Task Force to prioritize prosecutions against corrupt actors in the region.15 This administration has so far delivered on this promise, not only with JOH’s extradition request, but also with their publicized list of corrupt and undemocratic actors from the region known as the “Engel List,” which named 21 Honduran officials.16

  Institutional corruption endangers the relationship between Honduras and the United States because it is a root cause for democratic backsliding and transnational migration. A case-study approach towards Honduras’ combat against corruption provides an in-depth understanding of how its success can either be strengthened or weakened depending on the regional interests of the United States. A month after being inaugurated as the first female president of Honduras, Xiomara Castro requested assistance from the United States and United Nations to help create the International Commission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (CICIH).17 As a former first lady forcibly removed from office by her country’s political elite and military, President Castro is exemplifying that past political grudges should not discourage relaunching bilateral efforts dedicated to fight political corruption in Honduras.




1. Antony Blinken, Secretary of State. U.S. Actions Against Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for Corruption. U.S. Department of State. February 7, 2022: 

2. Vienna Herrera y Jennifer Ávila. Los expedientes perdidos de la primera dama. ContraCorriente. 2 de agosto de 2019. 

3. Elizabeth Gonzalez. Update: Central America and the Alliance for Prosperity. Americas Society/Council of the Americas. February 25, 2016: 

4. Elisabeth Malkin. Wave of Protests Spreads to Scandal-Weary Honduras and Guatemala. New York Times. June 12, 2015: honduras.html 

5. Reacción BBC. El presidente de Honduras reconoce financiación fraudulenta. 4 de junio de 2015: 

6. Reacción. ‘Lucha de Honduras contra el narcotráfico es impresionante’. La Prensa. 3 de junio de 2014: 

7. Seth Robbins. How His Own Extradition Policy Exposed the Honduras President. InsightCrime. September 17, 2019: 

8.  Charles Call. Fleeting Success: The Legacy of Honduras’ International Anti-Corruption Mission. CLALS Working Paper Series No. 27. June 2020: Call, Charles, Fleeting Success: The Legacy of Honduras’ International Anti-Corruption Mission (June 2020). CLALS Working Paper Series No. 27, Available at SSRN: or 

9. Héctor Silva Ávalos and Seth Robbins. A Death Foretold: MACCIH Shuts Down in Honduras. InsightCrime. January 22, 2020: 

10. U.S. Attorney’s Office. Southern District of New York. Son of Former President of Honduras Sentenced to 24 Years in Prison for Conspiring to Import Cocaine Into the United States. U.S. Department of Justice. September 5, 2017: 

11. Organization of American States. UFECIC-MP/MACCIH-OAS Team Presents Twelfth Case of Integrated Criminal Investigation, entitled: “Narco-politics”. OAS. May 24, 2019: 

12. Michael Camilleri and Catharine Christie. How the ‘Art of the Deal’ Hurt Latin America’s Corruption Fight. Americas Quarterly. January 30, 2020: 

13. Russell B. Stevenson. “The Sec and Foreign Bribery”. The Business Lawyer, Vol. 32, No. 1, 1976, pp. 53-73: 

14. Ronny Chang Rodríguez y Luis A. Vásquez Castro. Los Poderes Legislativos Centroamérica en la Lucha Contra la Corrupción. Unidad para la Promoción de la Democracia de la O.E.A, 2001. 

15. White House Communications. Report on the U.S. Strategy for Addressing the Root Causes of Migration in Central America. WH.GOV. April 19, 2022: 

16. Antony Blinken, Secretary of State. U.S. Releases Section 353 List of Corrupt and Undemocratic Actors for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador. U.S. Department of State. July 1, 2021: 

17. Senator Patrick Leahy. Ahead of U.S.-Honduras Strategic Dialogue, Kaine & Leahy Push State Dept. To Urge New Honduran Government To Ramp Up Its Anti-corruption Efforts. April 8, 2022: 



The opinions expressed in this blog post represent the views of the author and not of the UCLA Latin American Institute.