Top Candidates in Honduras' Presidential Race Face Drug Trade Allegations

As the country awaits the results of the vote, new allegations against outgoing President Juan Orlando Hernández and several other politicians loom large.
March 15, 2021, 5:30pm
A drug trafficker has claimed he bribed President Juan Orlando Hernández.
A drug trafficker has claimed he bribed President Juan Orlando Hernández. (Photo: Ullstein Bild/Getty)

Last week, just days before Honduras’ presidential primaries, a drug trafficker in a U.S. court alleged he gave hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes to outgoing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.  

But if Honduras thought a new president might bring an end to a litany of allegations of government collusion with drug traffickers, that doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon, as three candidates in the presidential runoff face similar allegations.

During the ongoing trial of alleged drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the trafficker who alleged that he gave bribes to Hernández, also claimed he bribed former President Manuel Zelaya. One of the leading candidates in the presidential primaries is Xiomara Castro, the spouse of Zelaya.

Both Hernández and Zelaya denied the allegations. Zelaya even offered to travel to New York with Hernández, where the Fuentes trial is taking place, to “clear up” the situation “and we’ll see who comes back.”

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Another presidential candidate, Yani Rosenthal, pleaded guilty to money laundering charges in the same U.S. court that’s hosting the Fuentes trial, and spent three years in prison. Rosenthal was released from U.S. custody in 2020 after serving his bid and returned to Honduras where he jumped right back into politics although he remains a designated narcotics trafficker by the U.S. Treasury.

A third candidate, former President Porfirio Lobo, has also been accused of funding past political campaigns with the proceeds of drug traffickers, although he too denies the allegations. To further complicate matters, U.S. authorities convicted his son on drug trafficking charges in 2017 and sentenced him to 24 years in prison.

Honduras’ electoral institute announced that they would be releasing vote counts every two hours on Monday until the final tally has been reached, although it’s unclear when that may be.

The accusations against President Hernández, who said he will not seek reelection, have loomed large over the presidential primaries. His own party has seen a fierce race between the president of Congress, Mauricio Oliva, and the mayor of the nation’s capital Tegucigalpa, Nasry Asfura, who have had to walk a tightrope between supporting the sitting president and distancing themselves from allegations of corruption.

Hernández’s relationship with the drug trade has been a talking point for years, especially after the conviction of his brother Tony Hernández in 2019, who is alleged to have run the drug trade for the president. Both brothers' names have come up repeatedly in the trial of Geovanny Fuentes and the president is even alleged to have said that he wanted to “shove drugs up the noses of gringos,” according to U.S. prosecutors.

Once the primaries are decided and Honduras begins preparing for its November elections, the new U.S. administration of Joe Biden will have some tough decisions to make in regards to the Central American nation. 

During the presidency of Donald Trump, the U.S. mostly remained silent about the allegations against Hernández, instead working with the beleaguered Honduran president to focus on slowing down migration. Biden has signaled that he intends to review the relationship between the U.S. and Honduras.

In late-February, Democratic senators introduced a bill that would sanction Hernández over the drug trafficking and corruption allegations, stating that he has “engaged in a pattern of criminal activity and use of the state apparatus to protect and facilitate drug trafficking.”

Beyond the recent allegations in the Fuentes trial, witnesses alleged during his brother Tony’s trial in 2019 that the president accepted over $1 million in bribes from notorious Mexican kingpin Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.