Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández assumed the presidency as a so-called crime fighter that the United States could collaborate closely with to fight corruption and violence, but that dream has gradually unraveled amid mounting criminal allegations against him.
Shortly after Hernández was declared the winner of the controversial 2013 presidential elections, then-US Secretary of State John Kerry extended his “warm congratulations” to the new head of state.
“Honduras’ newly elected leaders have committed to address the country’s most pressing challenges, including … security, justice, and human rights for all Hondurans,” Kerry said in a December 2013 statement.
*This is the second in a series of four articles on the tenure of embattled Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández. See the first installment here.
Hernández took office just after the Honduran Congress passed a constitutional reform that allowed for the extradition of its citizens to the United States on drug trafficking, organized crime and terrorism charges.
By March 2014, shortly after Hernández took office, authorities had already captured their first high-profile drug trafficker set for extradition: Carlos Arnoldo Lobo, alias “El Negro.” A little more than six weeks later, El Negro became the first Honduran drug lord extradited to the United States.
To date, more than 20 prominent criminals have been extradited to Honduras’ northern ally, according to the Honduran Security Ministry as reported by La Tribuna.
SEE ALSO: Honduras News and Profiles
Such bilateral cooperation, coupled with Hernández’s US-backed “mano dura” approach to cracking down on crime and a gradual drop in homicides — though this is just one part of a complex security landscape — in part helped him become the United States’ most important regional ally in Latin America.
In 2015, for example, Hernández was a guest of honor at the US Congress and spoke to several non-governmental organizations in Washington on “promoting peace and prosperity” in Honduras. Since then, he has regularly been seen with and held private meetings with high-ranking US officials.
Most recently, on August 13, Hernández was in the US capital for a number of meetings with the secretary general of the Organization of American States (OAS), Luis Almagro.
This came just about a week after US prosecutors identified the sitting president in court documents that said he had taken part in a conspiracy in which drug proceeds went to support his election campaign. Hernández, however, denied these allegations and said he faces no US criminal charges.
“That is an allegation from a drug trafficker in a separate trial,” the Associated Press reported him saying August 13. “We are now seeing the revenge of people who have absolutely zero credibility.”
InSight Crime Analysis
For years, President Hernández was able to make allies in Washington believe that he was confronting some of Honduras’ most pressing problems head-on, including corruption, insecurity and organized crime.
Over time, however, the mounting criminal allegations against him have knocked down this facade, calling into question how much of a “strategic partner” Hernández really is in the fight against organized crime.
After assuming the presidency in 2014 amid allegations of electoral fraud, including bribery and vote buying, some of the early evidence that raised questions about President Hernández’s suspected criminal conduct came as the Attorney General’s Office investigated a massive corruption scandal within the country’s Social Security Institute (Instituto Hondureño de Seguridad Social – IHSS).
Authorities accused former IHSS Director Mario Zelaya Rojas of embezzling as much as $330 million from the institution. Hernández would later admit that companies linked to the graft scheme — one of the worst scandals in the country’s history — helped fund his successful presidential campaign in 2013.
Anti-corruption protests erupted soon after. Thousands marched to demand Hernández’s resignation and the creation of an international commission to fight corruption. Backed by the OAS, the Support Mission Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras – MACCIH) later formed in early 2016.
What’s more, recently unsealed court documents uncovered that President Hernández, along with his sister Hilda and several members of Honduras’ powerful Rosenthal family, was the target of a 2013 Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation into “large scale drug trafficking and money laundering activities related to the importation of cocaine into the United States.”
But Hernández’s problems were only just beginning.
In October 2016, the United States accused several alleged drug traffickers — among them military officials — of having connections to the Atlantic Cartel, a network operating from the Moskitia region in northeast Honduras. Days later, it was revealed that the president’s brother, former congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, traveled to the United States following the revelation that he was considered a “person of interest” in the high-profile drug investigation.
SEE ALSO: Honduras Elites and Organized Crime
The probe put Hernández in a difficult spot, but the dust eventually settled and he continued ruling Honduras with an iron fist in the run-up to the highly disputed 2017 elections. By that time, he had filled many state institutions with close allies and managed to walk back a constitutional ban on re-election that allowed him to controversially run for president again.
Despite far-reaching allegations of electoral fraud — Hernández was losing in the polls, but jumped ahead of the opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla when the electronic voting system came back on the air after mysteriously malfunctioning — the United States gave its stamp of approval and recognized his questionable victory after a month-long standoff.
Then, in November 2018, US authorities arrested the president’s brother on drug and weapons charges. Tony Hernández’s testimony to DEA agents was based on his detailed knowledge of the drug trade and his connections to a range of notorious Honduran drug traffickers, including leaders from the Cachiros and Valles criminal groups. This raised questions about what knowledge the president himself had of such criminal behavior.
Months later, a May 2019 corruption report published by the US State Department placed further doubt on President Hernández’s commitment to fighting graft and organized crime.
The list identified 13 current or former senior Honduran officials allegedly engaging or facilitating corruption, some of whom had direct ties to the president and his administration. This included suspected drug trafficker and Honduran congressman Fredy Renan Najera Montoya, who served in the National Congress under Hernández before he became president in 2014.
Also featured on the list were Yankel Rosenthal, Honduras’ investment minister under President Hernández until June 2015, and his cousin Yani, a business tycoon and former minister to the presidency. Both Rosenthals admitted to laundering drug proceeds for the once-mighty Cachiros.
Criminal organizations like the Cachiros regularly integrated politicians into their modus operandi to ensure protection and the safe passage of drug shipments. The latest revelations against Hernández are the culmination of years-long suspicions that he too had been compromised by criminal interests.
(Top Photo: AP/Jacquelyn Martin)