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Latin America & Caribbean

"Rampant corruption" prompts US bill to sanction Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernandez

US Senators introduce bill to impose sanctions on president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, for alleged drug trafficking ties. The bill also seeks restoration of UN anti-corruption mission in Honduras.
25 Feb 2021 – 12:11 PM EST
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Juan Orlando Hernández logró postularse a un segundo mandato pese a que la Constitución de Honduras lo prohibía. Crédito: Collage David Maris

A group of eight Democratic senators introduced legislation on Tuesday calling on the Biden administration to impose sanctions on the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez for “acts of significant corruption and human rights violations” as well as evidence of drug trafficking raised in U.S. courts.

The Honduras Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act, co-sponsored by Senators Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin, Sheldon Whitehouse and Chris Van Hollen, would ban Hernandez from entering the United States and also suspend US aid to the police and armed forces due to corruption and human rights abuses.

The legislation, introduced in an election year in Honduras, places Hernandez in a rare category of foreign heads of state in Latin America, comparable only with the Castro government in Cuba and Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela. The bill states that Hernández should be considered for official designation as a drug trafficker under the the so-called ‘Kingpin Act’, a status normally reserved for cartel bosses like Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán.

The bill also calls on the government of Honduras to “immediately initiate discussions with the United Nations to negotiate the mandate for a new, independent mechanism to combat corruption and impunity,” similar to a previous body, the MACCIH (Mission of Support against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras) that was dissolved by Hernandez in 2020 after uncovering a stunning pattern of political corruption by members of the ruling National Party in Congress.

If passed, the bill gives the president 180 days to impose the sanctions. The sanctions would only be lifted if “credible evidence exists” that Hernandez did not engage in the activity for which sanctions were imposed, is prosecuted for those crimes or makes a “significant change in behavior.”

Hernandez has been identified as a co-conspirator in several major drug trafficking cases brought by New York prosecutors. President of his country since 2014, Hernandez has not been formally charged with any crime so far, and he vehemently denies all the allegations against him. He insists he is the victim of a witch-hunt based on lies of confessed criminals seeking revenge or to reduce their sentence.


Tony' Hernandez

His name came up most recently in the case of a Honduran drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes, who goes on trial next month in New York. Hernandez’ brother, Juan Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernandez is due to be sentenced in New York on March 23 after he was found guilty of drug trafficking in 2019.

“There is substantial evidence that President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernandez has engaged in a pattern of criminal activity and use of the state apparatus to protect and facilitate drug trafficking, as exemplified by three high-profile corruption and drug trafficking cases that were tried or are being prosecuted in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York, in which the President of Honduras was named as a co-conspirator,” according to the proposed legislation, a copy of which was obtained by Univision.

U.S. prosecutors have accused Hernandez in court of using Honduran law enforcement and military officials to protect drug traffickers as part of a plan “to use drug trafficking to help assert power and control in Honduras.”

Last month, U.S. prosecutors said in a court filing related to the same case that Hernandez had by 2013 “accepted millions of dollars in drug-trafficking proceeds and, in exchange, promised drug traffickers protection from prosecutors, law enforcement, and (later) extradition to the United States.”

The Honduran president served as a key ally of President Donald Trump in his effort to stem the flow of migrants. But critics accused Trump of overlooking Hernandez’s alleged drug ties in order to satisfy U.S. goals.

Hernandez warned Wednesday that antinarcotics cooperation with the United States could “collapse” if U.S. courts continued to air the accusations of traffickers against him. “It would mean, sooner or later, that the systems of effective cooperation that I helped build, that have been recognized and praised repeatedly by Washington, inevitably would collapse — and not only in Honduras, but in several countries of the Americas,” he said in a speech to the Honduran National Assembly.

Warning shot

The Biden administration has taken a radically different strategy, making tackling corruption a key priority, as well as announcing a plan to invest $4 billion in Central America, including Honduras, to address poverty and other causes of migration.

But, it's unclear if the Biden administration will put its weight behind the senators' anti-corruption bill so early in his term, rather than try his hand at some diplomacy first. Even so, the bill serves as a warning shot across the bows of Honduras' ruling National Party, which holds its presidential primary next month, prior to general elections in November.

"The United States cannot remain silent in the face of deeply alarming corruption and human rights abuses being committed at the highest levels n Orlando Hernández, national officials, and members of the police and military accountable for these crimes will fuel widespread poverty and violence and force more families to flee their communities in search of safety,” he added.

“This bill shines a spotlight on glaring problems that have too often been excused by U.S. administration. The rampant corruption and violations of human rights that prevent the people of Honduras from building a safe, prosperous country,” said Senator Leahy.

“The United States cannot remain silent in the face of deeply alarming corruption and human rights abuses being committed at the highest levels of the Honduran government,” said Merkley, who serves on the Senate foreign relations committee. “A failure to hold President Hernández, national officials and the police and military accountable for these crimes will fuel widespread poverty and violence and force more families to flee their communities in search of safety.”