Systematic Murder and Corruption in the Honduran Social Security Institute

On May 8, 2015, Honduran journalist David Romero of TV Globo published evidence of a huge corruption scandal in Honduras. Confirming what many already speculated, Romero displayed copies of bank checks that had been written in 2012 to the National Party of Honduras, the political party currently in power. The checks had been signed by shell companies created to launder over $300 million dollars from the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS) via fraudulent contracts and overvalued services. The blatant robbery of millions of dollars from the IHSS had left the national healthcare service in shambles with fewer diagnostic abilities, equipment, and little or no medication.

Photo caption: Lighting 3,000 candles in memory of Doña Teresa and those that died because of the corruption in the IHSS. Tegucigalpa. Photo by: Unknown

Photo caption: Lighting 3,000 candles in memory of Doña Teresa and those that died because of the corruption in the IHSS. Tegucigalpa. Photo by: Unknown

The IHSS was privatized in May 2015 as a result of its intentionally depleted condition and services in its hospitals and clinics around the country, and under the strong recommendations of the International Monetary Fund (IMF). Its suspected that the stolen money was used by the National Party to win the 2013 elections that both the U.S. government, Organization of American States, and the European Union had deemed fair, clean, and democratic.

When Romero broke the story about the corruption scandal in May 2015, many sectors of Honduran society and the political opposition came together to form the indignados [outraged peoples] movement. Carrying torches in the streets during weekly marches, the indignados movement show their outrage for the high levels of corruption in the government, and are demanding the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernandez and the formation of an International Commission against Impunity (CICIH).

Photo caption: In the torchlight march in Tegucigalpa. Sign reads, "New IHSS law made with faith of a rat." Photo by Luis Mendez

Photo caption: In the torchlight march in Tegucigalpa. Sign reads, "New IHSS law made with faith of a rat." Photo by Luis Mendez

It is estimated (albeit by a U.S. State Department-funded organization), Association for a More Just Society (ASJ) that approximately 3,000 Hondurans died in the IHSS as a result of the corruption. This number has not been verified or investigated by a government institution but the Honduran media have consistently reported the alarming conditions of the IHSS, once one of the best series of hospitals in the country. Family members of people that have passed away in the IHSS have given testimony to national and international media outlets describing the sickening way in which their family members were not attended to, lied to, or sent home to die.

MARCH 9th, 2015

We got the news of her death around eight o’clock in the evening as Edwin, her son, and I were reading the newspaper and relaxing. When Edwin answered the phone, he wasn’t told what was happening, just that he needed to get to the IHSS hospital.

Earlier that same afternoon, we stood beside Doña Teresa’s bedside in the IHSS hospital in Tegucigalpa. Doña Teresa’s spirits were up, and she seemed much livelier than previous days. We took turns feeding her soup broth and juice, rotating every 5 to 10 minutes since we were only given 30 minutes, twice a day, one person at a time to see her. The doctors and nurses told us she was stable – her blood pressure and heartbeat were back to normal. She had not been diagnosed with anything. Her family had brought her to the hospital because she had been fainting and refusing food.

The doctors told us that her condition had improved and that she would stay in the observation room only until a bed was available on the fifth floor where she could fully recuperate before being sent home. The nurses had tied her down to her bed – both wrists and ankles – telling us that she attempted throughout the day and night to leave the hospital. It hurt a lot seeing the red pieces of cloth around her arms and legs, but trusting foolishly in the advice of the doctors, we allowed it, not realizing until later, that maybe she had been trying to escape for her own reasons.

The hardest part about Doña Teresa’s death was how the doctors lied and misled us. Thinking back to the week that she was in the hospital is tormenting and painful. A list of maybes run through my head, followed by a deep, unsettling feeling of regret. Maybe we should have drilled the doctors more with questions. Maybe we should have taken her somewhere else. Or even physically picking her up off of the bed and taking her home to protect her to whatever they did or didn’t do for her in the hospital. Doña Teresa was 69 years of age with no diagnosed condition.

Photo caption: Doña Teresa

Photo caption: Doña Teresa

After unexpectedly receiving the call from the hospital that night, we went directly to the hospital. The doors of the emergency trauma unit were open when we arrived. Edwin’s sister was already there, standing at the nurses’ station in the middle of the unit, slouched over, head down, screaming and sobbing loudly. “I just saw her …. my God … I cannot believe it.”

Edwin, who I went to the hospital with, rushed over to his sister, drawing the conclusion about what had happened to his mother. He stood beside her, head down, holding his sister who was crying and screaming between breaths. For a few minutes, he froze and stared at the wall until anger and outrage hit him.

“Nobody says anything – they steal millions of lempiras from us .. from the hospitals, and no one says anything”, Edwin yelled out loud, in the middle of the emergency and observation rooms in the hospital. I didn’t know what to say. I looked around the large area where the nursing station was located, and into parts of the attached rooms where people were on hospital beds and stretchers. It felt wrong being there, and worse as everyone looked up to stare at Edwin yelling and his sister wailing. He was right, but no one had anything to say. The whole scene was awful, unfair, painful, and unforgettable.

After about 5 minutes, the security guard directed us out to the front of the hospital. We stood outside for a while, making phone calls, crying, and figuring out what to do. Edwin and I left together to buy a coffin and prepare for the funeral. His nephews waited at the hospital and gathered their grandmother’s belongings from the staff.

When we returned to the hospital with the casket, we were taken to the morgue. Doña Teresa’s body had been wrapped in a white sheet and her body lay on a metal table inside one of the small rooms along a long corridor. The security guard accompanied us.Edwin went first into the room, his nephews and I followed. The men from the funeral parlor rolled the casket on the right side of the metal table. With one at each end, they began lifting her body using the ends of the sheet, into the casket when the security guard stopped them.

“You cannot take the sheet” he said. “What?” responded Edwin, “how are we supposed to lift her?” And then spit out “How is it possible that the cachurecos [National Party] can rob millions of dollars from this hospital but we cannot even take one sheet to wrap my mother’s body in?”

“I’m sorry,” said the guard, “it’s the rules. We aren’t permitted to let people take the sheets.” Pissed off at his response and upset, Edwin, his nephews and I used the sheet to cover his mother’s body while we lifted it into the coffin in the presence of the security guard, and the two guys from the funeral parlor. We gently unwrapped the sheet from her body and left it on the metal table. The coffin was then wheeled out to the car.

The wake began two hours later and lasted two nights and one full day straight, as per Honduran customs, until we took Doña Teresa to be buried next to her youngest son that had been killed the previous year. It was an incredibly sad few days reflecting on her life and the way that she had died in the IHSS hospital. Her treatment and death inside the IHSS was one of thousands of mostly poor and middle class, affected by the intentional and malicious ransacking of the social security system.

Less than two months later, the huge corruption scandal hit the media but Hondurans like Edwin were already indignado or outraged. They had experienced the impact of the scandal first hand either by losing a family member or being turned away and told that there were no medications in the hospital’s pharmacies. Two months after Doña Teresa died, the Honduran National Congress approved the Social Protection Law that privatized the entire IHSS system. Working class women like Doña Teresa in the future will likely have to make co-payments to receive medical attention of lesser quality than what existed before the IHSS was deliberately depleted.

For me, its hard to blame the hospital staff and the doctors in the IHSS for her death, even though I know that we were lied to and misled. Other families have given public testimonies outlining similar experiences, lies, and false information they received in the IHSS about the health status of their loved ones. For me, so much of what happened to Doña Teresa was a consequence of deep inequity, corruption, and impunity entrenched by powerful national and international interests. Standing by her bedside, I also came face to face with a settled and firm conviction and understanding of the deep unsustainable nature of what is happening in Honduras, and in a more general sense the global economic system. For some reason that feeling although painful in the moment, gives me hope for the future.

Photo by Luis Mendez

Photo by Luis Mendez