EXCLUSIVE: Ousted Honduran leader accused of theft
Honduran officials are investigating allegations that President Manuel Zelaya and his chief of staff stole millions of dollars from the central bank before the military ousted Mr. Zelaya last month, according to a senior Honduran official, government documents and other evidence.
A security video from the Central Bank of Honduras made available to The Washington Times shows officials entering the bank June 24 and withdrawing large amounts of Honduran currency. The money was driven to the office of Mr. Zelaya’s chief of staff, Enrique Flores Lanza, according to depositions by three witnesses to Honduran prosecutors.
Government documents and testimony by the three say that about $2.2 million was taken.
The video, originally aired in Honduras, has not been previously reported by U.S. media.
An additional $550,000 was withdrawn hours later from the central bank by order of Mr. Lanza, according to bank documents obtained by The Times.
Two Honduran political opponents of Mr. Zelaya with knowledge of the transactions said Mr. Zelaya planned to use the money in connection with a referendum that if successful would have permitted him to serve a second term as president. The Honduran Supreme Court and Congress ruled the referendum illegal because the constitution limits presidents to a single term.
The military removed Mr. Zelaya and flew him to Costa Rica on June 28. Roberto Micheletti became interim president.
The two Zelaya opponents, who include a senior Honduran official, spoke to The Times on the condition of anonymity because of concerns for their safety amid a fluid situation in their country.
Attempts to reach Mr. Zelaya and Mr. Lanza were not successful.
In Washington, Mr. Zelaya and his ousted government continue to be represented by the Honduran Embassy, where Juan Carlos Montoya is acting as a spokesman on behalf of the deposed president.
“There are no checks and balances,” Mr. Montoya said. Leaders of the interim government “control the media and own the three branches of the state. The day of the coup d’etat, they sent Mr. Zelaya away instead of holding him for a trial. Nothing that comes out of the de facto government has credibility.”
Mr. Montoya also charged that the interim administration “has entered into people homes without warrants and seized bank accounts because they don’t support [the interim government]. They can say whatever they want about that video, and they could easily be manipulating it for their own gain.”
The coup has been denounced by the United Nations, the Organization of American States, the Obama administration and especially the governments of Venezuela and Cuba, which had backed the populist Honduran president.
Costa Rican President Oscar Arias has been trying to mediate between Mr. Zelaya and Mr. Micheletti. The Arias plan would allow Mr. Zelaya to serve out the final months of his term, hold elections in October, provide amnesty to political opponents and include their representatives in a reconciliation government.
Several Honduran officials, analysts and Honduran citizens close to the investigation of the missing money vouched for the validity of the documents obtained by The Times. However, the investigation was initiated under the interim regime, which bitterly opposes Mr. Zelaya.
Michael Shifter, a Latin America specialist at the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington think tank, said “mud is going back and forth” on both sides.
“Some of these allegations may be true, and some may not be,” Mr. Shifter said. “I don’t think anybody has any illusions that the Zelaya government was made up of saints.”
Mr. Shifter said the future of Honduras is “anyone’s guess” and a resolution would require a clear guarantee by the U.S. and the international community that if Mr. Zelaya returns to Honduras “he would be reined in and not do the same power grab he did that provoked the coup.”
However, Mr. Shifter said, there are no guarantees at this time.
The Honduran citizen who vouched for the allegations against Mr. Zelaya said “the order to withdraw the money was given by Mr. Lanza through Mr. Zelaya.”
“It was withdrawn in cash, and that is not a usual transaction for the amount of that caliber, which is mainly issued in check form. The attorney general’s office has been given a court order to proceed for the arrest of Lanza.”
Fred Lash, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, said the charges against Mr. Lanza and Mr. Zelaya are “an internal matter that can only be handled by the Honduran government.”
Three witnesses have come forward to give depositions against Mr. Lanza and Mr. Zelaya. They told prosecutors that Mr. Lanza requested $2.7 million above an approved budget of $10.5 million.
“The national prosecutor’s office based on the investigations and the testimonies rendered by witness A established that on Tuesday, June 23, the minister of the presidency summoned by Mr. Enrique Flores Lanzaon orders of the president that they had increased the budget from 190 million to 230 million [lempiras] and the same minister called later to say that the boss [ Mr. Zelaya] to please help them by withdrawing 40 million lempiras to help the Ministry of the Presidency,” said the Honduran document, which was in Spanish.
According to the documents, Mr. Lanza demanded that the funds be in cash. The three witnesses, referred to in the documents only as “A,” “B” and “C,” told prosecutors that the cash was taken to the office of Mr. Lanza and has not been returned.
Jaime Daremblum, who served as ambassador to Costa Rica from 1998 to 2004 and is now a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, said the charges are credible.
“It’s really remarkable how corruption has become a trademark for the Chavez model in Latin America,” Mr. Daremblum said, referring to Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez. “You find corruption in Venezuela, Nicaragua and obviously it has been found in Honduras. It’s big-time corruption. I feel that the country is highly polarized now, and both parties have established positions that are very difficult to reconcile at this stage of mediation.”
Mr. Daremblum said the worst outcome for Honduras “is that it takes time to arrive at an agreement for both parties” and that “Mr. Zelaya has had an increasingly belligerent tone cheered on by Chavez and Fidel Castro. Now he’s threatening to go back to Honduras next Friday and set up base camp to cause an insurrection.”
Mr. Zelaya has said repeatedly that he would return to Honduras even if mediation fails.
Mr. Michelleti said Mr. Zelaya would be arrested if he returns. Military officials used vehicles to block a runway July 5, when Mr. Zelaya last attempted to return to Honduras. One Honduran was killed in clashes at the airport.