With Honduras' Narco Allegations, Pressure Rises To Sanction Its Leader
Editor's update: On Feb. 16, former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández appeared in court in Tegucigalpa, having been arrested the day before following an extradition request from the United States, where he faces drug traffic-related charges. The news analysis that follows was published in March 2021.
MEXICO CITY — The case made in the U.S. Senate's Honduras bill sounds straightforward: Washington should cut security aid to Honduras and sanction its president over "deeply alarming corruption" and human rights abuses, its authors say.
And in the U.S. House, members recently reintroduced the Berta Cáceres Human Rights in Honduras Act, named for the Indigenous environmental activist murdered in 2016, which also calls for withholding U.S. funds from Honduras' military and police over corruption.
Accusations have piled up against President Juan Orlando Hernández, other Honduran officials and security forces, ranging from organized crime collusion to civil society repression. U.S. prosecutors even accuse Hernández of taking bribes to help an alleged drug trafficker move tons of cocaine into the United States, which he denies.
For Hernández's critics in the Central American country, the sanctions would be welcome punishment at the highest level of government.
"Not even the arrival of a gifted shipment of [COVID-19] vaccines causes as much joy as the introduction of [the Senate bill]," columnist Gabriela Castellanos wrote in El Heraldo, a leading Honduran newspaper that largely supports the president.
But breaking from Hernández won't be easy for the Biden administration. The rising pressure from Democratic lawmakers to punish Honduras' government comes as President Biden seeks $4 billion in aid from Congress to address the root causes of migration in Central America. It also follows years of U.S. training and partnering with the country's security forces.
The FBI, Drug Enforcement Administration and Southern Command, which oversees the U.S. armed forces in Latin America and the Caribbean, all work closely with their Honduran counterparts to bust drug-smuggling networks. Three people arrested for the Cáceres killing were U.S.-trained Honduran special forces.
A U.S.-friendly regime
Looking back, the 2009 coup against Honduras' then-President Manuel Zelaya marked a turning point in U.S relations with the country. Zelaya had been critical of U.S. intervention and was friendly with Venezuela's Hugo Chávez when the Honduran military decided he was abusing his power.
"When that coup happened, the U.S. did everything it could to stabilize the coup regime," says Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and author of The Long Honduran Night: Resistance Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup. "Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton at State and Joe Biden as vice president were all central in recognizing the outcome and stabilizing the government."
In the early Obama years, Southern Command was documenting a major increase in small planes and boats suspected of trafficking cocaine from Venezuela and Colombia onto the Caribbean shores of Honduras. Something had to be done, they said.
"Without thinking enough about corruption, they were using defense money to build new bases all along the coasts, they're training up all these specialized [Honduran] units," explains Adam Isacson, director of defense oversight at the Washington Office on Latin America.
As SOUTHCOM and the DEA built up their presence in Honduras, President Hernández and his predecessor Porfirio Lobo — also accused of working with drug traffickers — welcomed the U.S. forces.
"[U.S. authorities] were delighted to not have a government pushing back," against military presence, says Isacson.
A migration ally
But it wasn't just stopping drugs: In 2014, a sharp rise in Central American child migrants reached the U.S. border, the largest number of them from Honduras. The Obama administration said it needed to collaborate with Central American countries to stop so many vulnerable people from fleeing. Then-Vice President Biden led the efforts.
This came at a key moment for Hernández, who took office in January of that year. An investigation revealed his party had stolen hundreds of millions of dollars from the national health service to finance his 2013 presidential campaign. The public was outraged and protests were ramping up.
In July 2014, Obama and Biden invited Hernández and other Central American leaders to the White House. Months later, they began pushing the Alliance for Prosperity, a $1 billion investment in the region's economic development and security assistance.
"This is the clearest marker of Biden and Obama saying we are going to pour money in and support this regime," says Frank. She claims the administration overlooked evidence of corruption in Central America while pushing this development plan.
Indeed, the Guatemalan leader at the time, Otto Pérez Molina, resigned from the presidency in 2015 for leading a customs bribery scheme and is still in prison today.
U.S. support for Hernández continued under President Donald Trump.
Hernández ran for reelection in 2017 — a controversial move in Honduras. It was Zelaya's intention to seek a second term that coup leaders cited as justification for ousting him. International observers warned of significant inconsistencies and fraud in the vote count, but the Trump administration, after briefly acknowledging those concerns, quickly recognized Hernández as the winner anyway and he was confirmed a second term. U.S. support remained strong even as Honduran police and military used excessive and lethal force against post-election protesters, according to a United Nations report.
In 2019, Trump slashed Central American aid after a rise in Central American migration to the U.S. But he reestablished the assistance once Central American governments agreed to allow asylum-seekers to be sent back to the countries they were fleeing. Working alongside the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, the Honduran military began stopping citizens from leaving the country, despite that being a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
"Everything during the Trump administration flowed from how [Honduras] can help stop immigration," says Frank.
At the same time, Hernández was dismantling internationally backed efforts to tackle corruption in Honduras, and stifling free speech and political opposition. A leaked indictment says he has been bribing journalists for favorable coverage.
Hondurans' anger at American backing peaked in 2019 when protesters set fire to the gate to the U.S. Embassy.
"Hernández has held onto power because he has support from Southern Command, the State Department and the White House," says Ismael Moreno Coto, a Jesuit priest, who goes by Padre Melo, and an outspoken critic of Hernández.
Bilateral cooperation continued to deepen. In December 2020, Reuters reported that a government memo said the U.S. could begin sharing sensitive intelligence on drug flights with Honduras.
This month, pressure on Hernández — and by association, on Biden — is intensifying with the trial of Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, a suspected top Honduran drug trafficker, in federal court in Manhattan. Prosecutors are calling the president of Honduras a co-conspirator. And it's not the first time.
Despite years of working with U.S. forces to stop drug flows, the president's brother Tony Hernández was convicted of drug trafficking in a federal court in 2019. In that trial and others involving Honduran traffickers, witnesses have claimed President Hernández has taken bribes in exchange for letting cocaine pass freely. DEA filings indicate they have been investigating the president's potential ties to traffickers since 2013. Several high-level officials, including police chiefs working directly with U.S. counterparts, have also been charged or accused of similar activities.
This week, New York prosecutors alleged the president has spent years enabling a "violent state sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy," although he has not been charged.
The prosecutors are seeking life in prison for the president's brother, a former congressman, with a sentencing hearing scheduled Tuesday.
Hernández denies the multiple accusations of working with traffickers, saying drug shipments through Honduras have dropped during his presidency.
"What will the future be like if narcos get benefits in the United States for false testimony with obvious lies? With this magic key, the narcos would kill cooperation [between Honduras and the U.S.]," he wrote on Twitter. The president's office did not respond to NPR questions.
Aid for Honduras
The Biden administration "has to do something now, the cat is out of the bag about who Juan Orlando Hernández is," says Frank.
The Biden administration has not specifically denounced the Honduran president but is gently suggesting that the $4 billion in aid it wants for Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador needs to shift priorities so it doesn't fall into the wrong hands.
"The funds we're asking for from Congress don't go to government leaders, they go to communities, to training, to climate mitigation, to violence prevention, to anti-gang programs; in other words, they go to people who migrate in search of hope," said Roberta Jacobson, Biden's Southern border ambassador. She said the funds would also address corruption.
But the history professor Frank has doubts about where the funds actually end up.
"To think that this aid can evade the central government is quite implausible," Frank says. The plan also fails to "address U.S. security cooperation and intelligence sharing with deeply corrupt police and military," she says.
Hernández's term ends in 2022 but some Hondurans are hopeful the bills in U.S. Congress can hasten his departure.
"It's important that the U.S. government denounce and sanction Hernández," says Padre Melo. "But what's important will not happen in the U.S. It must happen inside Honduras."
The priest says U.S.-Honduras relations need a profound reset, enabling more political participation for marginalized groups, ensuring free and fair elections and ending support to repressive police and military forces in his country.
"This is like the U.S. paying the debt it owes to Honduras," Padre Melo says. "It must restore what it has been helping destroy in Honduras for decades."
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