Honduras rocked by hurricane of narco-politics

The confessions of two drug lords during their trial in New York have damaged the presidency of Juan Orlando Hernández amid claims the political elite accepted bribes to provide protection

Jacobo García
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa, January 2020.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in Tegucigalpa, January 2020.Jorge Cabrera (Reuters)

The president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, was elected to a four-year term in January 2018 and began his mandate amid violent protests against his controversial reelection. Now he is nearing the end of that tenure against the backdrop of a New York trial of two powerful drug lords who have described in excruciating detail how Hernández offered them protection in exchange for envelopes stuffed with thousands of dollars.

With eight months remaining until he relinquishes power, the name of Juan Orlando Hernández has become linked with the cartel that over the course of the last decade has controlled the drug trade in Honduras: Los Cachiros. Two of its bosses, Geovanny Fuentes and Devis Leonel Rivera Madariaga, are at the center of the New York trial and their testimony has the president on the ropes. Their revelations not only implicate Hernández, but also his vice president, the army, the police and his two predecessors in office, Porfirio Lobo Sosa and Manuel Zelaya, all of whom stand accused of turning a blind eye to the drug trade in exchange for bribes. It is yet another hurricane to hit a country already at breaking point.

What the narcos in New York are saying is plausible because the power of the drug trade is uncomfortably close to the center of power in Honduras
Juan Jiménez Mayor, former minister of justice and human rights in Peru

Fuentes and Rivera have both testified that Los Cachiros handed Hilda Hernández, the president’s late sister, $250,000 (€210,000) in cash in 2012 when Hernández was serving as president of the National Congress and was the leading candidate to assume the presidency of the country. In exchange, Los Cachiros wanted “protection so that the military and the police could not arrest [members] or have them extradited to the United States,” Rivera, his feet cuffed, told the court.

The New York trial has served to implicate the president and several of his closest confidants: his sister, who died in a helicopter crash in December 2017, his brother Tony Hernández, currently serving a prison sentence in the US after being found guilty of drug trafficking, and Vice President Ricardo Álvarez, who allegedly received $500,000 (€420,000) from Los Cachiros in exchange for a promise to expunge the extradition treaty between Honduras and the US if he was elected president.

Rivera and Fuentes have also said Manuel Zelaya was paid $500,000 in 2006 to name his cousin minister of national security, an appointment that did not materialize. Those named by Los Cachiros have denied the accusations, with Hernández saying that they are nothing more than two informants for the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) and repentant traffickers seeking to reduce their own sentences.

“Irrefutable proof that I never received a bribe was that I never named a minister from organized crime or under pressure from the US embassy,” Zelaya stated on Twitter.

However, the United States justice system has been keeping a close eye on the president of Honduras for some time and even more so after the arrest of his brother on federal charges of importing tons of cocaine into the country. During the trial, his name – identified as CC4 – appeared in evidence 104 times. A witness even testified that Tony Hernández attended a meeting in 2013 during which Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán Loera, the former head of the Sinaloa cartel, handed him $1 million (€840,000) for his brother’s presidential campaign.

Hernández has, thus far, remained relatively unscathed due to his close relationship with former US president Donald Trump and his willingness to bend to Washington’s will. In a macabre twist, Honduras – one of the most violent countries in the world – accepted a US invitation to become a “Safe Third Country” and host asylum seekers from around the world while they wait for their applications to be accepted. Joe Biden’s administration, however, suspended Trump’s Asylum Cooperative Agreements (ACAs) with Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador in February.

Honduras is controlled by organized crime and all of the seats of power are controlled by the same mafia
Salvador Nasralla, Honduran presidential candidate

Cartel bosses were occasionally extradited to Honduras and although the migrant caravans have become a problem for the US, the security agenda has taken priority over the human rights agenda. With Biden’s election and the cascade of confessions in New York, Honduras’ standing with the US is coming under fresh scrutiny.

Beyond the president, the New York trial has also shone a light on the decay that extends throughout Honduras’ institutions like the judiciary, the army and the National Assembly. The former minister of justice and human rights in Peru, Juan Jiménez Mayor, was handed a remit by the Organization of American States (OEA) in 2013 to head up the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption in Honduras (MACCIH), which represented the first time the OEA had established an anti-corruption commission. During his three years in the role, he opened an investigation into 70 elected officials accused of diverting public funds from construction projects that were never carried out. According to his report, two-thirds of the National Congress received undeclared bonuses but when his investigation started to point higher up the ladder, things became more difficult. Eventually, Hernández ordered he be removed from the country with the approval of Luis Almagro, the secretary general of the OEA.

“What the narcos in New York are saying is plausible because the power of the drug trade is uncomfortably close to the center of power in Honduras. But it should also be noted that Juan Orlando Hernández extradited cartel members despite a constitutional ban on doing so and the importance of that has to be taken into account. In Colombia doing the same led to a war and caused a shift from drug trafficking to terrorism. At the same time, he has extradited around 15 major cartel bosses and it’s possible this is revenge being exacted. The quality of the evidence will be decisive,” Jiménez Mayor told EL PAÍS in an interview.

According to one estimate, around 80 tons of cocaine pass through Honduras every month

The idea that Honduras is a “narco-state” was posited during the ongoing trial by the prosecutor. It is a theory that Salvador Nasralla, twice a presidential candidate, shares: “Honduras is controlled by organized crime and all of the seats of power are controlled by the same mafia.” In Nasralla’s view, Hernández could face the same fate as Manuel Antonio Noriega, the former president of Panama who was arrested after the US invasion in 1989. “The Americans don’t have friends, they have interests. And this man has got out of hand. What the narcos in New York are saying has been backed by records, phone calls, notebooks… and they all agree on the same methodology,” Nasralla told EL PAÍS from Tegucigalpa, the capital city of Honduras. “The army safeguarded his illegal reelection and at the same time it is the army that guarantees the safe passage of drugs.”

According to Nasralla’s estimate, around 80 tons of cocaine pass through Honduras every month, a strategic stop on a route that runs through the Caribbean from Colombia and Venezuela.

Hours before last Sunday’s primary elections among the National, Libre and Liberal parties, writer and analyst Víctor Meza noted the tension present in the streets and the disturbing rumors circulating around the country. “In an electoral context Juan Orlando is going to find himself more and more isolated and nobody can rule out a self-coup or that he may decide to run for another term. There are meetings, messages and very worrying rumors. There is an atmosphere similar to that preceding the 2009 coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya, which also took place on a Sunday in the middle of elections. Juan Orlando’s weakening grip is evident; he came to power lacking legitimacy and the trial has finished him,” Meza said.

“The drug lords hand out large sums of money to the police, politicians, government officials, the military, judges… their implantation has been gradual but they have ended up controlling all of the organs of power.”

Two months ago, Juan Orlando Hernández cited General Morazán, the liberator of Central America, as a paragon of courage and zeal. With a microphone in his hand, he attempted to rouse a populace ground down by Hurricanes Eta and Iota, which have left tens of thousands of people destitute, by alluding to the hero of 1830. Hernández asked Hondurans for yet another sacrifice eight weeks before his name was splashed across front pages worldwide over his alleged links to drug trafficking. Among the people, however, the feeling was that of all the hurricanes that have buffeted their country, this was the easiest to predict.

English version by Rob Train.

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