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Contradictory signals undermine U.S. credibility in Honduras and Central America

The United States would be prudent to avoid sharing counter narcotics intelligence with the President of Honduras, someone who could be tied to drug traffickers, according to prosecutors in New York.
24 Jun 2020 – 10:40 AM EDT
President JUan Orlando Hernandez (left) and President Donald Trump. September 26, 2019. Crédito: Courtesy of the Honduran Presidency.

In normal times, sharing U.S. drug intelligence with a foreign government led by a president tainted by drug trafficking corruption would be a non-starter. But these seem to be anything but normal times.

An innocuous sounding tweet last month from the U.S. Embassy in Honduras congratulating the government on an amended “aerial sovereignty law” barely registered in either country. But this law, combined with revelations published by Univision on June 15 th about alleged senior Honduran government involvement in cocaine trafficking, including the Honduran President – Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH) - should set our hair on fire. The President denies any involvement in the scheme.

The innocent sounding changes to the Law for Protection of Aerial Sovereignty will facilitate renewed counter-narcotics cooperation between the U.S. and Honduran security forces. This implies the United States would share intelligence, likely including radar tracking of possible drug flights, with a foreign government headed by an unindicted co-conspirator in a drug trafficking case under investigation by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York.

The latest revelations from Univision involved the indictment of two people who allegedly witnessed a $1 million bribe destined for the Honduran President to protect drug shipments.

By way of background, the allegations against Hernández are not new. They are just the latest revelations in a drug case involving the President’s brother, Tony Hernandez, or 'T.H.' as he is sometimes known. (That's how he allegedly initialed his cocaine shipments)

T.H. was found guilty in a federal court last October for among other things conspiring to import to the U.S. up to 200,000 kilograms of cocaine and coordinating two murders. During the trial his brother, the President, was directly implicated in the scheme.

President Hernández was widely respected by U.S. officials in the lead up to his first election in 2013. He was praised for being tough on organized crime and for his willingness to extradite powerful leaders from Honduras’s underworld.

The one wrinkle in this narrative came with the passage of a 2014 law that among other things authorized Honduran security forces to intercept and destroy unidentified aircraft passing through Honduran airspace. Honduran security forces depended heavily on U.S. radar tracking information generated by an intelligence fusion center located in Key West and known as the Joint Interagency Task Force South, or JIATF South.

But for Honduras to rely on U.S.-based intelligence to potentially shoot down unidentified aircraft put the U.S. squarely on the hook for any miscalculations or tragic mistakes made by Honduran security forces.

U.S. officials made clear to JOH in 2014 that if he persisted in implementing the shoot-down policy access to U.S. intelligence from JIATIF-South would end. And this is where things remained until May 2020 when the Honduran Congress removed the provisions that impeded access to U.S. aerial tracking information.

The Honduran political landscape has changed significantly since 2014. JOH and his party were deeply mired in corruption scandals from early 2013 when it was revealed that the sacking of the nation’s public health system had benefited, in part, the president’s own campaign coffers.

President Hernández stood for reelection in 2017 on dubious legal grounds after the country’s Supreme Court ruled that the Constitutional prohibition against re-election was itself unconstitutional.

The most troubling revelations emerged from the case against the president’s brother in New York. Among other things, the indictment that resulted in T.H.’s conviction stated, “HERNÁNDEZ made millions of dollars through his cocaine trafficking, and he funneled millions of dollars of drug proceeds to National Party campaigns to impact Honduran presidential elections in 2009, 2013, and 2017.”

As reported by Univision last week, two Guatemalan cousins have surrendered to U.S. authorities and are expected to confirm they witnessed Mexico’s notorious drug lord, 'El Chapo' Guzman, give T.H. a million-dollar bribe to ensure his brother, President Hernández, would guarantee safe passage of cocaine through Honduras.

It is incredibly important to not get ahead of the prosecution at this point. United States Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman won a conviction against T.H. but he has not indicted the sitting president. Generally, the Justice Department does not indict sitting presidents to avoid intervening in the political affairs of another country. But it seems reasonable to assume that once Hernández’s term ends in January 2022, he will face an indictment in New York unless he attempts to orchestrate another ill-advised attempt to stand for re-election.

President Hernández denies all allegations. He has also taken numerous steps to ingratiate himself with Trump by signing on to the president’s immigration policy; by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and traveling there to personally inaugurate a diplomatic office; and assuring the U.S. that Honduras will not recognize China diplomatically like neighboring El Salvador did in 2018. Agreeing to drop the shoot down policy and reviving counter narcotics cooperation with the U.S is likely another example.

Even though the President is innocent until proven guilty, wouldn’t it be prudent for the United States to avoid sharing counter narcotics intelligence with someone who could be tied to drug traffickers? How can the U.S. guarantee this information will not be misused? Maybe they've persuaded him to cooperate against other traffickers, but they are undermining their credibility and causing great injury to Hondurans in the process. How is this in the U.S. national interest?

In the process, the U.S. signals that it is not serious about upholding the rule of law and fighting corruption. These should be the pillars of U.S. policy in the region but especially in Honduras and throughout Central America.