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Honduras holds 2 ex-officials on pandemic-tied fraud charges

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — One year after the Honduran government paid $47 million for seven mobile hospitals to expand its bed space for the COVID-19 pandemic, only two are in use and two former government officials involved in their purchase are jailed on fraud charges.

The purchase of the hospitals — shipping containers outfitted for medical use that can be connected and configured to operate as field hospitals — has became Honduras’ greatest pandemic-related scandal.

Experts determined the purchase price was far inflated, the entire cost was paid up front without guarantees for delivery, which was delayed for months, and the government used an unnecessary intermediary. When they did arrive, they didn’t meet the requirements to safely house COIVD-19 patients and most were in such bad shape as to be unusable. And this in a country struggling to obtain doses of COVID-19 vaccine for its people.

It was a glaring case of at best wasteful spending and at worst another example of the deep-seated corruption that touches nearly all aspects of Honduran life. The administration of U.S. President Joe Biden has made addressing the root causes of migration from the three so-called Northern Triangle countries a priority.

Biden’s special envoy to the region, Ricardo Zúniga, said Friday that corruption “is something that we have to deal with and we are going to deal with it.”

A Honduran judge ordered Marco Antonio Bográn and Alex Alberto Moraes, the former executive director and former administrative manager respectively of Invest-H, the government’s development project agency, to be jailed Friday. Preliminary hearings were scheduled to continue Saturday. The men asked to be held on a military base, because they said they had received death threats. They have denied any wrongdoing.

They were removed from their positions last year.

The Attorney General’s Office had called both men in to provide statements on Thursday. Before they had even finished, the prosecutor in charge of the case called for them to be held pending charges that were brought formally on Friday. They are accused of fraud and violating official duties. The judge determined Friday they posed a flight risk.

Authorities are also seeking Axel Gamaliel López, a Guatemalan citizen, who was the intermediary on the purchase of the hospitals from Turkey. Prosecutors say he pocketed more than $20 million on the deal and an international arrest order was issued.

Invest-H “bought seven mobile hospitals in a direct and fraudulent manner,” the Attorney General’s Office said in a statement. Prosecutors said the former officials paid “in advance 100% of the price without the provider having the required technical and financial capacity, without stipulating the execution of corresponding guarantees to protect the economic interests of the state and without prior authorization of the board of directors of Invest-H.”

The National Anticorruption Council, a nongovernmental auditor, has provided 14 reports on irregularities in the hospitals’ purchase to prosecutors.

Gabriela Castellanos, the organization’s director, said the real value of the hospitals was closer to $15 million.

“That investment has resulted in nothing, because they are not functioning,” she said. She applauded the charges against the two former officials, but believes that the responsibility reaches above them.

“Right now the accused have an enormous responsibility for the purchase of the those hospitals, but the Attorney General’s Office has the constitutional obligation to continue investigating to arrive at other authorities in the executive branch that we believe could be involved,” she said.

By MARLON GONZÁLEZ
Associated Press

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