In an American courtroom, he was described as an untouchable crime boss who teamed up with a cocaine trafficker for “Stuff drugs in the noses of the gringos”, took a million dollar bribe from the notorious leader of the Sinaloa cartel and had his name inscribed on a machine gun.
The man nicknamed “Co-conspirator 4 (CC-4)” or “Juancho”, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has never set foot in the federal courthouse in New York where his brother Tony, a former congressman, was convicted in 2019 of smuggling narcotics into the United States and faces life in prison when convicted next week.
He nevertheless played an important role in the case of his brother, as well as that of Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, described by American lawyer Audrey Strauss as a “ruthless, powerful and murderous cocaine trafficker” and an “intermediary” for officials, including Hernández. Ramírez was convicted this week on trafficking and weapons charges.
Hernández, president of Honduras since 2014, has denied the allegations of complicity in the crimes of either of the men. U.S. prosecutors say the president, one of Washington’s staunchest regional allies, is under investigation. But he has not been charged, despite testimonies that he took tens of thousands of dollars, some in briefcases filled with cash, to ensure the protection of the drug lords.
Details emerging of federal affairs in New York complicate a growing political crisis for US President Joe Biden, whose administration is grappling with growing number of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
He is committed to working with these countries to tackle the root causes of migration. This includes funneling $ 4 billion in aid to the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America, where analysts say rampant government corruption, in addition to violence and poverty, is pushing people from.
“Biden faces a real challenge,” said James Bosworth, founder of risk consultancy Hxagon, calling Honduras “a country captured by a criminal group posing as a political party.”
Hernández’s decision National Party and authoritarian governments have long been accused of corruption and close links to drug trafficking. He admitted that his 2013 campaign received funds companies linked to a $ 200 million social security fraud, but denied that he or his party had any knowledge of it.
In 2017, he ran for a second term after loyal Supreme Court justices overturned the ban on his re-election. Analysts generally believe he stole that election – the Organization of American States said at the time that the ballot was so flawed there should be a new one. Washington approved the result and circulate aid money.
Since then, a series of investigations and prosecutions have drawn detailed links between senior Honduran officials and drug traffickers, even as officials swear they are reducing the flow of illegal substances.
In addition to Ramírez and Tony Hernández, a former the chief of police has been charged with drug trafficking in the United States, and the Minister of Security, Attorney General and other officials have been implicated in investigations in the United States and Honduras. Fabio Lobo, son of Hernández’s predecessor as president, was sentenced in the United States to 24 years in prison in 2017.
Hernández controls Congress, the Supreme Court and state bodies. Last year he scrapped an independent anti-corruption investigative body backed by the United States known as MACCIH.
“What there is in Honduras is a pact promoted by political parties so as not to touch each other,” said Juan Jiménez Mayor, who led MACCIH from 2016 to 2018.
“The situation is really ugly,” said Bosworth.
Biden faces pressure from his own party to take a tougher line. In February, eight Democratic senators presented a bill to impose sanctions on Hernández for “significant corruption and human rights violations” and to stop US aid to the Honduran police and military.
“The United States cannot remain silent in the face of the deeply alarming corruption and human rights violations at the highest levels of the Honduran government,” said the sponsor of the bill, Jeff Merkley, a US senator. Oregon.
Hernández, 52, a suave lawyer from the rural west of the country and the 15th of 17 children, hit back at what he called “offensive” and “perverse” accusations and “vile lies” spread in court .
Two days after Ramírez’s conviction, Hernández appeared in a 47 minute TV broadcast of the presidential palace. He said the United States Drug Enforcement Administration secretly registered members of the Honduran cartel in 2013, calling him “a man we cannot buy.”
He boasted that US data showed a 95% drop in drug flows through his country since his election in 2013. “We saved the country from narcotics. Honduras is the opposite of a narco-state, ”Hernández said. “The United States is an ally, one of our partners. . . We will not change our relationship with the United States. “
As vice president in 2015, Biden promised “Systemic change” in the Northern Triangle. He has now entrusted US Vice President Kamala Harris with the task of restarting relations to tackle the poverty, corruption and violence that have forced thousands of migrants to flee.
The US State Department said, “We take any allegation of criminal activity very seriously. . . Any leader who is not ready to fight corruption will not be able to have a close partnership with the United States. “
Dana Frank, a Honduran expert at the University of California at Santa Cruz, said the Biden administration “should take responsibility for this. [the US] made to create this monster ”.
The United States has taken action against other authoritarian regimes – Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. In a Senate hearing Last week, the region’s main US military leader, Admiral Craig Faller, head of US Southern Command, spoke of the “scourge” of drug trafficking, but did not criticize Honduras.
“It’s very clear [the US] always look the other way, ”Frank said.
Hernández, who is leaving office in January, has witnessed protests calling for his resignation in the past and has kept an eye on the reaction to the latest allegations. In January, Congress rejected an opposition attempt to oust him.
Meanwhile, the outlook, both for him and for Honduras, is uncertain.
The candidates in the next elections “do not promise much of a solution,” said Jiménez Mayor, the former head of MACCIH. He noted that opposition Liberal Party candidate Yani Rosenthal was an avowed launderer who had just spent three years in a US prison.
As for Hernández, he added: “I don’t know how well he will sleep when he leaves office. . . but it is difficult to foresee a bright future for him.
Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington