- Gerardo Lissardy
- BBC News World, New York
The brother of the president of Honduras heard his conviction for drug trafficking in a New York court on Tuesday in silence and wearing a blue prison suit: life imprisonment
Judge Kevin Castel’s decision is the outcome of the trial in which Tony Hernández, a 42-year-old former Honduran congressman, was found guilty of participating in the importation of 185,000 kilos of cocaine into the United States and other charges.
But the conviction is also a new sign of the questions facing his brother, President Juan Orlando Hernández.
When reading the sentence on Tuesday, Judge Castel himself said that the drug trafficking in which the defendant participated “was in fact sponsored by the state.”
The magistrate also indicated that Tony Hernández, in addition to being responsible for murders, “acted as a facilitator in bribes to politicians, including his brother” the Honduran president, from drug traffickers like Joaquín.El Chapo“Guzmán, leader of the Sinaloa cartel, to protect the cocaine trade.
No formal charges have been filed so far against the president, who denies having ties to drug trafficking and claims to fight it.
But US prosecutors have revealed that they opened an investigation into President Hernández, whom they named as a co-conspirator in the trial of his brother and another Honduran found guilty of drug trafficking in the same Manhattan court last week, Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez.
All of this occurs just as US President Joe Biden plans to send up to US $ 4 billion to Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador to attack the causes of emigration, such as poverty or violence, an issue that is gaining political relevance. in Washington.
However, the condemnation of the Honduran president’s brother reflects that “drug trafficking is very close to politics” in that country, says Juan Jiménez Mayor, a lawyer and former Peruvian Minister of Justice who headed the Mission to Support Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH) between 2016 and 2018.
“I think Honduras is going to be the worst crisis in the penetration of drug trafficking in politics in Latin America,” Jiménez Mayor tells BBC Mundo.
“Look the other way”
Since taking office in 2014, the Honduran president, known by his initials JOH, sought to show himself as an ally of Washington on security and migration issues, despite growing suspicions and accusations against him.
His brother was arrested at the Miami airport and, days before the start of the trial in 2019, Hernández signed a controversial immigration pact with the predecessor of Biden, Donald Trump, to allow the US to send asylum seekers to Honduras, despite having one of the highest murder rates in the world.
When testimonies that compromised him emerged in the trials, the president rejected them as coming from criminals who wanted to take revenge for their actions against drug trafficking and reduce their own sentences in the United States.
“Any narrative about the battle against drug trafficking in Honduras that omits the unprecedented reduction of 95% (official US data) that we achieved, is generally just a vehicle for dramatic headlines to promote the false testimony of the drug traffickers we defeat,” he tweeted Hernández last week, as Fuentes Ramírez’s trial ended.
However, one of the witnesses in that case was a former accountant from a Honduran rice company who said he had seen how the current president received briefcases with drug money, with whom he sought to partner in a cocaine lab and spoke quietly about “drug protection and trafficking.”
“We are going to put the drug into the gringos in their own noses and they will not realize it,” said JOH, according to that accountant, a protected witness from the US prosecutor’s office presented with the pseudonym José Sánchez.
For years, Washington supported President Honduras politically despite accusations of government corruption and human rights abuses by the security forces.
The Trump administration sent economic aid to Honduras and in 2017 accepted Hernández’s re-election in elections that, according to international observers, were plagued with irregularities and that the Organization of American States (OAS) wanted to be repeated.
While Trump was president, Hernández also avoided renewing the mandate of the MACCIH in 2020, which had been created with the support of the US and the OAS, and contributed to investigating dozens of Honduran government officials.
Now the revelations about drug trafficking that have emerged in the US courts create new pressure for the Biden administration to review Washington’s strategy of support for Honduras.
A group of eight influential Democratic senators introduced a bill last month to cut financial aid to Honduras, ammunition exports to the country and sanction JOH on the evidence that “it has been involved in a pattern of criminal activity and use of the state apparatus to protect and facilitate drug trafficking.”
But that has not happened until now.
When Biden asked his vice president, Kamala Harris, to spearhead his government’s response to the migration phenomenon last week, she said she hoped to involve “leaders in El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras to strengthen democracy and the rule of law, and ensure shared prosperity in the region. “
The White House has also indicated that it plans to condition aid to Central America on the fight against corruption in each country, and that the dollars will go to NGOs that seek to improve the situation on the ground instead of going directly to government officials.
However, some observers note that the Biden administration has for the moment avoided openly questioning or criticizing Hernández.
The sentencing of Tony Hernández this Tuesday “is a clear challenge for the Biden administration because it wants to look the other way. They will not yet say that President Juan Orlando Hernández is so deeply linked to the drug traffickers,” says Dana Frank, an emeritus professor of history at the University of California expert in Honduras, to BBC Mundo.
In addition to life imprisonment, Judge Castel ordered on Tuesday the seizure of US $ 138 million in property of Tony Hernández, who plans to appeal.
Natalie Guevara, a Honduran immigrant 52-year-old who heard the sentence in the Manhattan court wrapped in the flag of his country with one of his six children, tells BBC Mundo to be “super happy.”
“My people are beginning to breathe a little after so many deaths and repression,” says Guevara, who works as a house cleaner as an undocumented immigrant in the US “A lot is being investigated about (JOH’s) brother, I hope to that (the situation in Honduras) is going to change. “
Drug trafficking trials in the US have splashed several Honduran figures, in addition to the president.
In the hearings, testimonies have been heard from ex-narcos such as Devis leonel rivera, a former leader of the Honduran drug group Los Cachiros who is serving a life sentence in the US, over alleged bribes paid to former presidents Porfirio Lobo and Manuel Zelaya, who like Hernández deny the accusations.
There were also accounts of the participation of members of the Police and the Armed Forces in drug trafficking, and the accountant Sánchez said he had heard JOH tell a drug dealer that Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla would protect him.
At the level of the candidates for the November presidential elections, Yani Rosenthal of the Liberal Party last year served a sentence in the US for laundering drug money.
And Nasry Asfura, from the National Party of JOH, is under investigation for the diversion of funds as mayor of Tegucigalpa.
Hernández has ruled out seeking a new reelection, but Frank believes a possible scenario is that Asfura be disqualified as a candidate for facing trial and the president then assumes the nomination of his party.
Asked about the role the US would play in this possibility, Ricardo Zúñiga, a US career diplomat born in Honduras and recently appointed by Biden as special envoy for the Central American Northern Triangle, offered a limited response.
“We cannot answer a hypothetical question,” Zúñiga said in a conference call with the press on Friday. “What we know is that we are going to continue promoting cooperation with partners who are committed to the rule of law and the effort against organized crime.”
Jiménez Mayor, the former head of the MACCIH, believes it possible that Honduras seek “constitutional solutions to the problem they have.”
“In politics, nothing can be ruled out. Although it is true that President Hernández has built a very strong political architecture within the country with great support, he has control of the Supreme Court and Congress, it is also necessary to take into account which has many political adversaries, has carried out a very polarizing administration in the country, “he warns.
“Political scenarios can change rapidly. Let’s imagine, saving distances, how dictatorships end up that after extensive control collapse. And that is not unlikely to happen in Honduras“, he adds.
He also maintains that the US was wrong and needs to make a “mea culpa” for its recent strategy towards Honduras, which in the Trump administration prioritized cutting emigration from that country, betting on political stability.
“The great challenge for the Biden administration is going to be how to face this problem that is clearly being uncovered in the North American courts, which are not handled by the Executive,” says Jiménez Mayor. “The North American justice system is placing the Executive in relation to one of its partners in the region.”
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.