A U.S. court sentenced Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, to life in prison on drug trafficking charges today.
During the sentencing hearing, prosecutors and the judge repeatedly called out the Honduran president for his role in the drug trade along with his brother, who will now spend the rest of his life behind bars.
Prosecutors called Tony Hernández “a uniquely bad character. Who, along with his brother, is at the center of years of state sponsored drug trafficking.”
The sentencing comes as relations between Honduras and the U.S. are especially tense. Beyond the sentencing of Tony, a separate U.S. drug trafficking trial for a Honduran named Geovanny Fuentes ended in a guilty verdict last week. That two week trial also saw a litany of new allegations against the embattled president and his alleged role in the Honduran drug trade.
U.S. prosecutors alleged prior to the trial that President Hernández said he wanted to “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos.” Witness after witness made claims of secret meetings between the now president when he was a congressman with drug traffickers, investing in a clandestine cocaine laboratory, and accepting huge bribes.
Although no official charges have been brought against President Hernández, the specter of drug charges against him in the U.S looms large as he prepares to leave office in January 2022. During his brother's 2019 trial the president repeatedly appeared as a clearly recognizable yet unnamed “co-conspirator.” Then, in early-February, a court filing in the Fuentes case said that the president was the target of an investigation, without clarifying the charges. U.S. Democratic senators later introduced a bill aimed at sanctioning Hernández, stating that the president “engaged in a pattern of criminal activity and use of the state apparatus to protect and facilitate drug trafficking.”
The U.S. justice department held no punches against the president when announcing Fuentes' guilty verdict on March 22.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Audrey Strauss said: “Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez was, up until his arrest by the DEA just over a year ago, a ruthless, powerful, and murderous cocaine trafficker in Honduras. He facilitated the shipment of large loads of cocaine by bribing Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado, then president of the Honduran National Congress and now the Honduran president. Hernández Alvarado instructed Fuentes Ramirez to report directly to convicted co-conspirator and former Honduran congressman Tony Hernández, the president’s brother. Now Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, one of the criminal conduits between Honduran officials and drug traffickers, faces a possible life behind bars,” according to a press release around the trial.
Today’s life sentence for Tony Hernández comes at an especially awkward time for the Honduran president. This week U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, who has been tasked with addressing the surge of migration at the southern border since President Joe Biden took office, is set to begin calling Central American leaders - including Hernández.
Biden recently pledged $4 billion in a multi-year investment project in Central America, primarily in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, where the majority of migrants arriving at the U.S. border come from. However, the aid has also seen pushback from his fellow Democrats, who want funds to go towards civil organizations and NGOs in the region, rather than governments, largely due to ongoing corruption problems within government institutions.
Rep. Norma Torres of California, who spearheaded the bill aimed at sanctioning Hernández, sent a public letter requesting that the State Department and White House restrict foreign aid to governments in Central America, mentioning how “Honduras' President, Juan Orlando Hernández, protected drug traffickers while boasting about bringing drugs into the U.S.”
The blatant and repeated mention of Juan Orlando Hernández and his involvement in the drug trade is a far cry from the Donald Trump White House, which mostly turned a blind eye to the snowballing drug trade allegations against him as the governments worked together to stem migration. And while Biden has yet to directly call out Hernández, he’s signalled that he intends to review the relationship between the two countries.
Joaquín Mejia, the deputy coordinator for a Honduras law firm called the Legal Team for Human Rights, said the life sentence given to Tony Hernández was “the last missing piece to drastically change the relationship of alliance and protection that has existed between the U.S. government and the Juan Orlando Hernández regime.”
“Obviously, for the new U.S. administration, it’s impossible to maintain a relationship with someone who has been repeatedly mentioned as a drug trafficker in Honduras,” Mejia told VICE World News.
The Fuentes guilty verdict and the Tony Hernández sentencing took place as Honduras waited for the slow count of votes in the presidential primaries in an election that took place on March 14. Over two weeks later, the results finally arrived today. Two of the three winning candidates also face allegations of connections to the drug trade. Yani Rosenthal, who will represent the Liberal party, recently spent three years in a U.S. prison after pleading guilty to money laundering charges in 2017. Xiomara Castro, who will represent the Liberty and Refoundation party, is married to former president Manuel Zelaya, who's also been accused of accepting bribes from drug traffickers.
But Mejia thinks that regardless who wins the upcoming elections, Hernández is working behind the scenes to try to guarantee his protection once he leaves office, or to perhaps find a way to postpone the election by any means necessary to stay in power.
“Now he obviously knows perfectly well that [his relationship with the U.S. government] is finished, but that makes him even much more dangerous, considering that he has control of all the institutions, especially the Army and the Police.”
Honduras has a recent history of controversial elections and regime change. The country experienced a widely condemned military coup in 2009 that ousted former President Manuel Zelaya. After Hernández entered office in 2014, the Supreme Court of Honduras ruled the following year that presidents could run for re-election for the first time in decades. Hernández would go on to win a second term after a controversial election in 2017 marred with irregularities and allegations of fraud.
With the sitting-president potentially facing upcoming charges in the U.S. related to the allegations against him in the recent trials, Honduras appears posed for a rocky remainder of 2021. As the U.S. Judge explained the sentencing of life imprisonment for Tony Hernández, he made a nod to the ongoing issue of political corruption in Honduras and the uncertainty facing the country.
“This court is under no delusion that the sentence will end narco trafficking through Honduras,” said Judge P. Kevin Castel, although expressing optimism that the strict sentence would deter others from engaging in the drug trade.
“We can hope looking back in years to come, that today was an important step in eliminating the corrupting influence of narco trafficking.”