Over the past two weeks, thousands of protesters in Honduras have marched through the capital city to demand the resignation of President Juan Orlando Hernández, catalyzed by accusations from U.S. prosecutors that he conspired with drug traffickers and used drug money to bribe his way to the presidency.
In a lengthy court document filed in New York earlier this month, prosecutors said Hernandez conspired with his brother and the country’s former president “to use drug trafficking to help assert power and control in Honduras.” They also alleged that Hernández used $1.5 million in drug proceeds to bribe local politicians to support his 2013 presidential bid.
The accusations are notable not just for their scope but also for their timing: They come as the Trump administration is pursuing a “safe third country” agreement with Honduras, similar to the one signed with Guatemala last month. Such a deal would require migrants traveling through Honduras en route to the U.S. to apply for asylum there first.
In essence, the Trump administration is making the case that Honduras is a safe place for migrants to seek refuge, at the same time that federal prosecutors are portraying a country so corrupt that even the president is named as a “co-conspirator” in the drug trade. It’s an extraordinary disconnect that experts say has defined U.S. policy toward the region.
“The big question Hondurans have right now is whether the U.S. will keep supporting and sustaining a government that is involved in corruption, that has deep ties to drug trafficking, and when it’s apparent that the president committed electoral fraud,” said Eugenio Sosa, a political analyst at the National Autonomous University of Honduras.
Hernández has vehemently denied the accusations against him, insisting they were based on drug dealers trying to take revenge on him for supporting their extradition to the U.S. “The drug traffickers are looking for revenge against the only president who’s done what he’s needed to do,” he said at a news conference in Honduras following the court filing. Prosecutors haven’t charged Hernández with a crime.
The allegations arose in a drug-trafficking and money-laundering case prosecutors have brought against Hernández’s younger brother, Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a former Honduran lawmaker described as a “violent, multi-ton drug trafficker.”
Prosecutors allege that Tony Hernández helped arrange the murders of drug-trafficking rivals, and that one of the hitmen included a member of the national police who was later promoted to chief of police. They also say he brazenly shipped cocaine and believed he operated “with total impunity.” Tony Hernández is awaiting trial in the U.S. and has pleaded not guilty.
Blow to credibility
For many in Honduras, the U.S. prosecutors’ claims confirmed what they already believed: that the country’s elite are closely tied to organized crime, in effect fueling impunity and poverty and pushing tens of thousands of Hondurans to flee to the U.S. The protests in recent weeks have turned violent, with riot police attempting to disperse the crowds with tear gas and water cannons and demonstrators launching rocks back.
“This is something that has produced a big, big blow to [Hernández’s] already very low credibility,” said Lester Ramírez, director of investigations at the Association for a More Just Society, a good-governance organization in Honduras.
Hernández won re-election in 2017 amid widespread allegations of fraud. The U.S. played a key role, recognizing his victory despite calls from the Organization of American States for a new vote.
The U.S. may be reluctant to turn its back on Hernández, experts said, because he has proven a valuable ally to the U.S. on drug trafficking — the very issue now tainting him.
In 2012, as president of the Congress, Hernández signed off on a deal with the U.S. that allowed for the extradition of people charged with drug-related crimes. And since becoming president in 2013, dozens of alleged drug traffickers have been extradited to the U.S.
But critics speculate that Hernández has protected his allies while going after rival drug operations. The allegations made by U.S. prosecutors “clearly demonstrate the collusion between politics and organized crime,” said Adriana Beltrán, an analyst at the Washington Office on Latin America who tracks anti-crime efforts in Central America.
Even so, the international community has largely stayed on the sidelines, despite the damning allegations. Experts said they believe the Trump administration will continue to back Hernández, so long as it can get a deal to curb migration.
“It’s like a one-issue foreign policy,” said Charles Call, a professor at American University who studies anti-corruption efforts in Central America. “What we have seen from the Trump administration is a willingness to back off from impunity and anti-corruption measures if the country is willing to take measures against migration.”
In a surreal twist, Hernández flew to Washington, D.C., last week and met with officials from the Organization of American States about a plan to stop drug trafficking in Honduras. A top official with the organization told the Associated Press that the charges against Hernández did not “come into our calculation.”
As for what’s next, the protests in Honduras are waning. Many Hondurans believe little will change without international pressure, said Ismael Zepeda Galo, an economist with the Honduran think tank Fosdeh.
“We have to wait until a court in New York, a prosecutor in the U.S., does the work that should be done in Honduras,” he said. “Narco-trafficking here is so advanced in Honduras that it has captured a big part of the government.”
Cover: A demonstrator wearing a Honduran national flag as a cape adds dried branches to a burning barricade during a protest in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Tuesday, Aug. 6, 2019. AP Photo/Elmer Martinez)