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How strong is the legal evidence of drug trafficking against the president of Honduras?

Following the life sentence given by a New York judge against former Honduran Congressman Tony Hernandez this week, will US prosecutors now turn their attention to President Juan Orlando Hernandez? Legal evidence of his involvement in drug trafficking has been mounting for months, and prosecutors are clearly targeting him.
3 Abr 2021 – 02:53 PM EDT
David Maris /Univision / agencias

In an audio message to his supporters on Tuesday evening, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez, sounded like a defeated man.

“It seems incredible to me that the false testimony of confessed murders is being heard and given so much value,” he said in a pained voice.

He was speaking hours after his brother, Tony Hernandez, was sentenced to life in prison for smuggling 185 tons of cocaine into the United States in a wide-ranging conspiracy.

President Hernandez could be the next to fall after he was named in his brothers’ case, and at least two others, as a co-conspirator.

While he has not formally been indicted, the evidence presented so-far in court appears to highly incriminate him. "If Juan Orlando Hernandez were to be tried today, they would get a conviction," said former DEA agent Mike Vigil who is following the case closely.

The DEA and the Southern District of New York declined to comment on what they say is an ongoing investigation.

President Hernandez professes innocence, claiming that drug traffickers have sought to link him to their illegal activities in order to earn reductions of their own sentences. He also claims that since his election in 2014, drug trafficking in Honduras has fallen 95%, citing US State Department figures.

But experts say the figures don’t provide an accurate picture as they rely on drug seizures.

The United States estimates that approximately 4%, or 120 metric tons, of cocaine shipments from South America made a first stop by air or by sea in Honduras in 2019, which is down from a few years ago, according to the annual report by the International Narcotics Control Strategy Report for 2020.

But the report pointed out that “more is assessed to have transited through Honduras by land after making a first arrival in other countries.” It also added: “corruption is widespread in private and public institutions.”

This week Hernandez revealed what he said were undercover DEA recordings of traffickers which proved they were scared of his election. In one recording a traffickers can be heard saying he was "worried about this gentleman who won." In another tape traffickers can be heard discussing a plot to kill Hernandez.

But the tapes are open to interpreation and could be a double-edged sword. The person who made the tapes, a confessed drug trafficker, Devis leonel Rivera, has already made allegations against Hernández in court.

Lack of cooperation

US federal prosecutors have also complained that the Hernandez government has not cooperated with extradition requests for some key figures in the case against him and his brother.

“Many of the defendant’s co-conspirators who are publicly charged, remain in Honduras and nothing is happening to them. Extradition requests have been sent. They have not been honored, one of the prosecutors in the Tony Hernandez case, Matthew Laroche, told the court at Tuesday’s sentencing.

He said the life sentence would “resonate significantly with officials in Honduras, who are still in Honduras, who are involved in these crimes.”

Biden's dilemma

The legal case against president Hernandez leaves US officials in a dilemma as they seek to stem the flow of Central American migrants at the southern border. Unlike Donald Trump, who made Hernandez an ally in his ‘zero tolerance’ immigration policy, the Biden administration has said it will take a tougher position of public corruption to bolster democracy in the region.

Vice president Kamala Harris has been tasked with speaking to the presidents of the ‘Northern Triangle’ countries, Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras, but it’s not clear if she will call Hernandez.

“They (US officials) are working hard not to give Juan Orlando any lifeline. There is some real care being taken to signal that the US is not going to rescue him, prop him up, in any way,” said Eric Olson, a veteran analyst of Central America with the Seattle International Foundation.

The US is unlikely to seek to prosecute Hernandez this year, respecting a long-standing custom not to indict foreign heads of state while in office.

However, Hernandez could be vulnerable to prosecution, and extradition to the United States, after he leaves office in January 2022. But he has consolidated power in Honduras and his ruling National Party is the favorite to win elections in November. Some experts fear Hernandez could also organize a legislative push to revoke the country’s 2012 extraion law.

“Going backwards on the extradition issue would be very bad for Honduras .... as a country we must finish what we started," one former Hernandez ally told Univision.

"So Honduras must make much more progress in cleaning up the country from drug trafficking and corruption,” he added.

If Juan Orlando Hernandez ever faces trial, here are the most potentially significant pieces of evidence against him: