The US government’s recent accusations against several alleged drug traffickers, among them military officials, have placed Honduras’ President Juan Orlando Hernández in an impossible position: between some of his staunchest local allies, including his own family, and his most important international backer.
The incredible week of accusations and counteraccusations began on October 7 with a US government press release of a list of suspects who allegedly have some connection to the Atlantic Cartel, a loose transport network operating from the Mosquitia province in northeastern Honduras.
The spark for the unusual public dump of sensitive information by the US Embassy is not clear, but it came just days after an attack on a car allegedly carrying US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents in San Pedro Sula. The event led US authorities to beef up US Ambassador James Nealon’s security detail amidst reported threats against Nealon.
The list seems to be a mix of both clear cut suspects and “persons of interest,” according to a US embassy official who spoke to InSight Crime on condition of anonymity. To be sure, according to a La Prensa article citing an unnamed source, the US and Honduras are looking into as many as 35 suspects for their connections to various drug trafficking groups, among them the Atlantic Cartel.
The cartel’s leader, Wilter Neptalí Blanco Ruíz, is among those named in the embassy’s October 7 press release, along with Army Captain Carlos Alberto Maradiaga Izaguirre. On October 10, the US Embassy added Army Captain Santos Rodríguez Orellana to the list. Other suspects, La Prensa said, include mayors, policemen, judges and businessmen, but it is impossible to say if the US is readying indictments of these suspects just yet, and a search through the US public records database Pacer prior to publishing this article did not show any formal accusations.
Still, an investigation that may reach the country's first family could be in motion. On October 12, Army Captain Rodríguez Orellana told Radio Globo and ConfidencialHN that he was called to the US Embassy on October 9 for an interview with a DEA agent. There, according to a detailed account of the meeting by Radio Globo, the army captain says the DEA agent pressured him to give the US government information concerning the president’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández. The DEA agent also allegedly accused the captain and various alleged drug traffickers of participating in a plan to plant explosives at or near the ambassador’s residence in an attempt to kill the diplomat.
“You work with Tony Hernández,” the agent allegedly told him, according to Globo. “You work with Wilter Blanco.”
Tony Hernández is a congressman for the National Party, as well as a lawyer who has defended drug traffickers, according to a recent news report. The US did not publicly connect Hernández to the case in its press releases, but the US Embassy official told InSight Crime that he is a “person of interest.”
The US Embassy did not provide an official response to InSight Crime's efforts to obtain a comment on these matters.
But Rodríguez Orellana’s wife told the press that the assertions by the US are related to the capture of a helicopter with illegal drugs aboard that belonged to an associate of Hernández and had entered Honduras airspace under the purview of Honduras’ Minister of Defense Samuel Reyes.
"I do not know anything about the stories that have been told, and I reject the idea that I am involved in illegal activities," read the statement, which was posted using Congressional letterhead.
Still, if the press accounts of the interactions between the suspect and the US are to be believed, the US is focused on Hernández’s brother. Globo, for instance, detailed supposed Whatsapp messages to the army captain from the DEA agent.
“Captain,” one message allegedly says, “I am your only hope of salvation. Give up Tony Hernández.”
Another message allegedly tells Rodríguez Orellana to “give up other officials in the AF [Armed Forces] who supposedly participated in illicit activities of drug trafficking.”
The alleged interaction concluded with the DEA agent telling Rodríguez Orellana that he had until October 14 to turn in Hernández; if he did not, he would face charges of terrorism.
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To date, President Hernández has been a staunch US ally. For the first time in a century, his government began extraditing suspected drug traffickers. His government also started a special police commission, which has taken bold steps to purge the police from the top down, all with the president's blessing.
But the extraordinary series of public revelations in the past 10 days have put President Hernández in an impossible position. In addition to connecting the president’s family to drug trafficking, the accusations also hit one of the president’s most important allies: the country’s armed forces.
Hernández attended a military school and another brother, Amilcar, is a colonel in the army and part of his inner circle of advisors.
As president, Hernández has beefed up the army’s budget. He has also put army personnel in key positions around the government, including in positions normally reserved for civilian administrators and politicians, such as retired General Julian Pacheco as Minister of Security.
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In addition, Hernández has bolstered the military police, increasing its size and purview in security matters and has tried -- but failed -- to codify the military police in the country’s constitution.
The US has opposed the use of the military police, and the accusations force the president to walk a fine line between US judiciary and political demands, his family loyalties, and the army’s reputation.
This was evident already on October 12, when the president tweeted, “In Honduras no one is above the law. We have not and will not cover up crimes inside or outside of the country.”
En Honduras nadie está por encima de la ley. No hemos encubierto ni vamos a encubrir ningún delito dentro o fuera del país— Juan Orlando H. (@JuanOrlandoH) October 13, 2016
Soon afterwards, Ambassador Nealon retweeted the president’s tweet and added, “We will continue working together to end corruption and narcotrafficking.”
Sharing this message from President Hernández - we will continue working together to end corruption and narcotrafficking pic.twitter.com/Ge7kYdVZ3N— US Ambassador HN (@USAmbHonduras) October 13, 2016
The case comes at a particularly awkward moment for bilateral relations. The US is readying a $750 million aid package for Central America, and Honduras is set to be one of the main recipients provided it can continue to show that it is taking "effective steps" to combat corruption and curb human rights abuses.
Perhaps not coincidentally, on October 14, the State Department announced it had certified the Honduran government on September 30 so that it could receive aid from the US, but the US government also issued a stern warning.
"Serious challenges remain that require sustained effort and political will by the Honduran government," Deputy Spokesperson Mark Toner was quoted as saying in a statement. "But to date, the Honduran government has demonstrated the political will necessary to tackle the country’s security and developmental challenges."
What makes this case even more difficult for Hernández is his reliance on the military for both citizen security and for his own political career. According to LAPOP (pdf), the Honduran military consistently has some of the highest approval ratings in the country, trailing only the church in popularity.
Hernández is riding this wave towards what he hopes will be a second term in the presidency. But the accusations against his staunchest local allies by his most important international backers have put him in an untenable situation.