Alleged Narco President Hires GOP Lobbyists to Sing His Praises in Washington

Despite the mounting evidence against Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, Republican legislators have yet to drop their support for him.
April 8, 2021, 4:41pm
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Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (L) and US Republican Senator Marco Rubio attend a press conference following a meeting at the presidential house in Tegucigalpa in 2016. Photo: ORLANDO SIERRA/AFP via Getty Images.

In April 2018, Florida Senator Marco Rubio tweeted out thanks to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández for "targeting drug traffickers" below a photo of the two men together.  

But one drug trafficker the Honduran President never pursued was his own brother, Juan Antonio Hernández, who was sentenced to life in prison March 30 in New York for trafficking tons of cocaine to the United States over 14 years. 

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Testimony during the 2019 trial suggested that the president did more than simply turn a blind eye to his brother’s criminal enterprise. Witnesses alleged that he was an essential part of it, accepting bribes to support his campaigns for congress and the presidency in exchange for protecting drug traffickers.  

President Hernández has always denied the allegations, arguing that criminal witnesses invented testimony against him in exchange for lighter sentences. When his brother was convicted in October 2019, he tweeted that the verdict was based on the “testimonies of confessed murderers.”

But he has also turned to friends of Republican Rubio for help. Early last year, he signed a deal with a Washington lobbying firm called BGR Group to buttress his image as a dedicated ally and an implacable foe of organized crime. 

Although BGR presents itself as a bipartisan firm, it has inextricable ties to the Republican Party. The company was co-founded by former Mississippi Governor Haley Barbour. Its current team includes prominent Republicans, such as former Representative Sean Duffy, a Wisconsin Republican, and  Trump Administration State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert, who is on the firm’s advisory board.  

BGR has also given more than $1 million to candidates for federal office in each of the last three election cycles, with roughly 90 percent of its  contributions going to Republicans. Rubio is among the top beneficiaries of BGR generosity, and he has benefited from the company's largesse throughout his career, including BGR-hosted fundraisers during both his 2010 and 2016 Senate campaigns and his short-lived presidential bid. 

Immediately after taking on Honduras as a client -a contract which earned BGR $660,000 last year -  according to mandated disclosures, BGR Group reached out to 11 Congressional staffers. Three of them worked or had worked for Rubio. Later in the year, BGR lobbied the Development Finance Corporation, an arm of the U.S. government that connects developing countries with private investors. And throughout the year, the company attempted to improve the President’s image by circulating press releases to journalists from dozens of different news outlets, including VICE, detailing the head of state's activities. BGR sent out three different press releases in October about Hernández: two about a trip he took to the United States, and one about joint U.S.-Honduras counternarcotics operations.

“I arrived in the presidency with a clear commitment to go on a frontal fight to regain peace and tranquility in Honduras,” Hernández said in the press release heralding the drug bust. “One of the great issues was to confront organized crime, maras and gangs and other groups of actors.” 

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The BGR press release quoted Admiral Craig S. Faller, the head of U.S. Southern Command, who offered praise for Hernández and his government’s response to “narco-terrorism.” I want to congratulate you for an excellent operation,” he was quoted as saying during a visit to Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, adding that the mission was “so successful because of the trust of both of us working together.”

But as BGR was making the rounds on Capitol Hill and pushing positive news about Hernández, U.S. prosecutors appeared to be building a case against the president, whose term ends in January 2022.  

In January, the U.S. Justice Department filed a motion in the trial of one of Juan Antonio Hernández's alleged accomplices outlining details which implicated Hernández further. The President allegedlyHe said that he wanted to “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos,” and that he intended to deceive U.S. officials about Honduran counternarcotics efforts while simultaneously aiming to “eliminate extradition,” according to the documents. Prosecutors said that the Honduran President even offered to connect traffickers with Honduran military forces and the country's attorney general to help move cocaine northward. 

The allegations emerged at the trial of Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, a Honduran drug trafficker arrested in Florida in March 2020 on drug and weapons charges, after BGR lobbying efforts on behalf of Honduras had already kicked into full swing. The Justice Department describes Hernández as a co-conspirator of Fuentes Ramírez, who was found guilty on March 22 on all counts. 

Despite the mounting evidence against the Honduran President, Republican legislators have yet to drop their support for Hernández. Legislation was introduced in the Senate in February to suspend certain aid to Honduras “until corruption, impunity, and human rights violations are no longer systemic.” It currently has eight cosponsors. None of them are Republican. 

Hernández also appears to have maintained the confidence of the Pentagon. On March 16, Faller was pressed at a Senate hearing about the allegations facing President Hernández.  Faller did not respond directly, answering instead that he “can trust elements of the Honduran and Guatemalan forces. We vet them.” 

He also urged lawmakers to look at all the crimes that Honduran forces do not commit. “In the past year, when there was a lot of opportunity for our partners to commit human rights violations because they were deeply involved in helping with internal security, they stayed on the field in a professional manner,” Faller said.

While its executives socialize with Rubio and other Republicans, BGR represents several other foreign state clients who need help burnishing their image in Washington. The despotic government of Azerbaijan hired BGR in 2017 and kept it on the payroll when it renewed its long-simmering conflict with Armenia last year in a brutal six-week war. BGR also represents the repressive Bahraini monarchy and used to count the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia as a client until it was pressured by The Washington Post to drop the account after Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman ordered the gruesome killing of Post columnist Jamal Kashogghi. 

But priorities are changing in Washington. Hernández may find that his Republican allies offer little help against prosecutors who have repeatedly called him a co-conspirator in schemes to ship cocaine into the United States. No matter how much money he pays to lobbyists.