Centroamérica / Corruption

Honduras: A Democracy Shielding Criminals

Thursday, April 16, 2020
Jennifer Ávila

“Between approximately 2004 and 2020, multiple drug trafficking organizations in Honduras and elsewhere worked together, and with support from certain prominent public and private individuals, including Honduran politicians and law enforcement officials, to receive multi-ton loads of cocaine sent to Honduras from, among other places, Colombia via air and maritime routes, and to transport the drugs westward in Honduras toward the border with Guatemala and eventually to the United States.”

The statement comes from the U.S. Department of Justice in its indictment of Honduran national Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, detained on March 1 in Miami and charged two days later in the Southern District of New York with conspiring to traffic cocaine, firearms, and explosives into the country. Fuentes Ramírez, described by U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman as a “prolific, powerful, murderous cocaine trafficker,” is yet one more piece to the puzzle that U.S. prosecutors have been assembling against Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who is standing trial on identical charges and is the brother of the sitting Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández. In their filing, prosecutors argued that Fuentes’s dealings with Tony Hernández directly implicated the president, an allegation the Presidential Palace dismissed over Twitter as “100 percent false.”

A National Police officer launches a tear gas bomb during a standoff with protesters calling for President Juan Orlando Hernández to step down after his brother was found guilty of drug trafficking in New York City. Tegucigalpa, October 25, 2019. Photo: Martín Cálix.
A National Police officer launches a tear gas bomb during a standoff with protesters calling for President Juan Orlando Hernández to step down after his brother was found guilty of drug trafficking in New York City. Tegucigalpa, October 25, 2019. Photo: Martín Cálix.

According to the indictments of both Hernández and Fuentes, Tony Hernández has had a hand in mass-producing and trafficking cocaine since 2004—by plane, boat, and even submarine. He had access to cocaine labs in Colombia and Honduras and, on multiple occasions, protected the drug traffickers with heavily armed guards from the ranks of the National Police. In the announcement of the Fuentes indictment, prosecutors alleged that Fuentes paid the Hernández brothers $25,000 dollars for protection, and that Tony instructed Fuentes to report directly to his brother, president Hernández, for matters relating to the trafficking. 

The U.S. government has alleged that Tony’s illicit business initially gained steam under National Party president Ricardo Maduro—architect of the “iron fist” policies wielded against crime, and who oversaw congressional reforms to the penal code, as well as the adoption of an anti-gang law that funneled thousands of young men from low-income neighborhoods into prison. Óscar Álvarez, then-minister of security who served in the role from 2002 to 2005 and from 2010 to 2011, maintained a close relationship with Leonel Sauceda, a police commissioner from northern Honduras who was arrested and indicted in Honduras last month on charges of money laundering.

Sauceda was so close to Álvarez during the Maduro administration that he offered the commissioner any position within the government, in keeping with his rank, that he wanted. But Sauceda later told the Honduran press that he turned down Álvarez’s offer, opting to continue in his position. Óscar Álvarez managed Hernández’s 2013 presidential campaign. Sauceda has been in prison since early February, awaiting trial for failure to justify roughly 13 million lempiras (roughly $500,000) discovered across 13 bank accounts listed in his name between 2006 to 2017.

Raúl Pineda, a Honduran political analyst, former National Party deputy and estranged ally of Juan Orlando Hernández, claims president Hernández orchestrated Sauceda’s downfall amid the intensifying conflict between the Armed Forces and National Police, in an effort to secure his grip on power. 

“The military is choking off the police,” Pineda argued. “It’s clear to me that the goal of the Armed Forces is to chip away at the role of the police force and take direct control of it. To do that, you first need a smear campaign, and that is why this police chief is locked up—not because of anything he did, but because he is the face of the police, and if he’s gone bad, then the whole force must have too,” he continued. He added that Juan Orlando’s prospects for avoiding prosecution in the U.S. hinge on his second reelection, and consequently, a negotiation with the Armed Forces.

Sauceda’s arrest aside, the Honduran police force has long been associated with corruption, extrajudicial killings, and collusion with drug traffickers—to the point that public outcry forced the organization to begin the purging of its ranks in 2016.

Fernando Silva laid out the timeline of the crisis in Honduran policing for Contracorriente in February 2020:

Since the inception of the Honduran National Police through the Basic Law of 1988, institutional cracks have persisted, impeding the force’s consolidation and the development of citizen trust, at least according to the Wilson Center’s assessment released in May of 2019. The report also identifies the 2009 political crisis and the force’s incorporation of elements of the Public Safety Force, a component of the military dispatched on policing operations, as key factors in the institutional weakness that contributed to the stark drop in public confidence in the police to 28.7 percent in 2012. The report also notes the infiltration of organized crime into the police force.

The killings of two college students—including the son of the then-dean of the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de Honduras—in 2011, and indications that police brass was involved in the assassination of Alfredo Landaverde, former chief advisor to the secretary of security, and the antidrug czar Julián Arístides González, sparked a national movement of diverse civic organizations, leading to a purge and reformation of the National Police. The Commission on Public Security Reform, created in 2012, was disbanded to make room for a police reform commission that has since purged 6,500 employees from the force, according to former commissioner Omar Rivera.

Óscar Álvarez speaking to the press after a march in support of the National Party and President Hernández. Tegucigalpa, November 28, 2017. Photo: Martín Cálix.
Óscar Álvarez speaking to the press after a march in support of the National Party and President Hernández. Tegucigalpa, November 28, 2017. Photo: Martín Cálix.

The 2009 coup d’état: an olive branch for the narcos

As the 2009 coup d’état brought Honduras to its knees, Geovanny Fuentes was establishing a cocaine lab in the department of Cortés northern Honduras, according to DEA information included in the DOJ indictment. That same year, Fuentes set about bribing members of the National Police to guarantee the safety of his business. Just as the National Police was violently repressing protests against the coup, it was also permitting the production and trafficking of cocaine. Both drug trafficking and human rights violations continue to go unpunished.

At the time, the OAS Interamerican Commission on Human Rights wrote in its 2009 report on Honduras that “[a]s a consequence of the disproportionate use of force by the security forces to suppress public demonstrations, at least seven people were killed. According to the information received, there is no indication that the internal investigations have made any significant headway in terms of identifying and punishing those responsible.” The coup was a mass distraction permitting drug traffickers to grow stronger.

From 2009 to 2012, though, the cartels began warring amongst themselves. Amid their turf wars, they not only took down lower-profile drug traffickers—they also targeted their high-profile enemies, killing Julián Arístides González, Alfredo Landaverde, as well as journalists. DEA operations also intensified as they worked in conjunction with Honduran security forces, culminating in the 2012 arrival of the Foreign-deployed Advisory Support Team (FAST). DEA members of the advisory team had originally received military training to fight opium traffickers tied to the Taliban, but FAST later turned its attention to Latin America with the objective of fighting transnational drug trafficking. The program became infamous for provoking the massacre of four innocent people taken for drug smugglers in Moskitia of eastern Honduras.

The U.S. war on drugs has been no silver bullet. According to Dana Frank, Professor Emerita at the University of California Santa Cruz, U.S. Southern Command—the unified military command under the Department of Defense in charge of training for the DEA FAST program—continues employing the rhetoric of “combating drug traffickers,” all the while closely collaborating with the traffickers to justify their budgets and compete with other regional commands for funding.

“Multiple levels of the U.S. government, including the State Department, White House, DEA, and the U.S. Special Operations Command are well aware of the evidence tying the Honduran government to the narcos,” Frank said. “The United States is deliberately choosing to look the other way in service of its ideological and geopolitical objectives, using Juan Orlando Hernández to attack the governments of Venezuela and Bolivia, support the right-wing regime in Israel, and push for new cold wars between China and Russia, all in service of the transnational corporations that underpin U.S. foreign policy.”

“Despite the growing, persuasive evidence in the U.S. press that the Honduran government and its security forces are run by narcos, U.S. congressional leadership, especially in the Senate, is maintaining its quiet support for the U.S. collaboration with JOH. Until Congress speaks forcefully, the Trump administration and Southcom [the U.S. Southern Command] will have a blank check to do as they please,” she continued.

During the 2013 elections which, in a sense, moved on from the post-coup transition, Tony Hernández appeared in the criminal panorama not only as a trafficker, but as a direct line to his brother, the next president of Honduras. Even prior to the election, Juan Orlando was the most powerful politician in the country, having already managed, as president of the National Congress, to mold Honduran institutions to his liking, including the Supreme Court. As the heir apparent, he was to receive reports on all activities in his territory. In that context, Tony was able to sell criminals peace of mind.

The public revelation in 2014 that Hernández’s presidential campaign had taken money from a network of businesspeople who had embezzled funds from the Honduran Institute for Social Security sent shock waves of resentment through the public—and particularly the middle class—throughout his first term in office. The scandal resulted in mass demands for an international anticorruption commission, similar to Guatemala’s International Commission against Corruption in Guatemala (CICIG in Spanish). The moment unveiled the public’s low trust in Honduran institutions—a symptom of a wound cutting much deeper than the 2009 coup, a wound that could not be bandaged up with the elections. 

Backed by the OAS, Hernández responded with the creation of the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH in Spanish). For a time, amid peaceful, controlled civic protest, the results were striking: homicides fell nationally, no protestors died, and there was no police violence or other human rights violations. But behind the political stage on which the president was attempting to save face through anti-corruption negotiations, much was happening: the collapse of the Rosenthal empire, a prominent Honduran political family, as Manhattan prosecutors secured convictions related to trafficking and bribery; the surrender of the leaders of the Los Cachiros cartel in the United States; territorial shifts among gangs; and a purge of the police force.

As these pieces shifted, the chess table became clearer. In 2017, after declaring unconstitutional the Constitution itself, Hernández gained a second term in elections which were internationally recognized as fraudulent, though the United States put its weight behind Hernández. This time, the civic protests were not as tame, resulting in more than 20 post-election deaths and hundreds of imprisonments. But it appears that Hernández traded the roughly 20 prior extraditions and cooperation on immigration control in exchange for the backing of the United States.

Frank pointed out that “U.S. precedent is to wait until a sitting president leaves office to press charges. The Southern District of New York has likely compiled enough evidence to indict JOH once he leaves office, but those prosecutors serve at the discretion of the Attorney General, who responds to Trump or his successor. There have been money laundering investigations—for example, the Rosenthals and Tony Hernández—but there seems to be no political will to systematically investigate [Juan Orlando].”

Since the start of Hernández’s second term, drug trafficking has stabilized and he seems to have overcome the scandal. But the state of Honduran democracy offers no assurance that Hondurans will stay in the country.

Migrants: a diplomatic bargaining chip

In a country where the main inflow of foreign capital is income from remittances (22 percent of gross national product) and where the largest export is people, promises to curb migration ring hollow, even under mounting pressure from the U.S. government.

In 2019, Honduras signed the Asylum Cooperative Agreement (often referred to as a “safe third-country agreement”) with the United States, in which it committed to curb the wave of refugees seeking asylum in the United States and assist U.S. authorities in obtaining biometric information from the Honduran National Institute for Migration, along with other unpublished details. The National Congress has not yet ratified the agreement. In response to a public information request Contracorriente filed to the Honduran Chancellery, the government confirmed having signed the agreement, but refused to publish its content, reasoning that its ratification is currently under negotiation.

In Hernández’s efforts to cling to power, the migrants who uphold the country’s economic prospects are a bargaining chip, just as they fuel Trump’s xenophobic rhetoric. “I don’t think accusations of illicit activities would bring down the [Hernández] administration,” argued Pineda. “The perfect storm would be his failure to follow through on the commitment he made to the United States regarding the migrants, which the Central American governments have tried to put off or evade. That could be the match that lights the fuse, leading to other events that rock the government,” he continued, adding that Hondurans’ hope that the United States will seal Hernández’s fate, at whatever cost, is a reflection of the deep distrust in Honduran institutions that have failed to act despite incriminating evidence against the president.

To understand what is to be gained from indicting narcos in U.S. courts, it is important to distinguish between different actors and interests, according to Frank. “New York prosecutors are, for the time being, independent from the State Department and the White House. They deeply believe in the fight against drug trafficking, but they steer clear of foreign relations matters and political processes inside Honduras or other countries. The State Department and White House, on the other hand, sometimes use accusations and extraditions in an effort to control and mold the leadership and internal power dynamics of a country, through a process we could call ‘empire through extradition,” she said. “Other actors, like the U.S. Congress, want to selectively fight against the ‘corruption’ of certain people without cutting off support to the JOH regime.”

As the Washington Office on Latin America’s Central America Monitor, which tracks U.S. relations in Central America, has tabulated, the U.S. invested $182 million dollars in Honduras, with violence prevention and good governance listed as the two top investment targets. Curbing international support to a failed state like Honduras is no easy task. Honduras registers one of the lowest levels of human development in the region (second only to Haiti), with scant direct international investment, and almost 70 percent of the population living in poverty. It is also home to one of the most vulnerable natural environments, with the highest rates of natural disasters. On top of it all, it is one of the most violent countries in the world. 

“While major U.S. news organizations have done solid reporting on JOH’s narco ties,” Frank said, “they have almost entirely opted not to use that information to challenge Trump or directly criticize U.S. foreign policy. For example, there is no mention of U.S. support to the Honduran military and police force, despite their clear involvement.” She added, “None of the Democratic presidential candidates have challenged Trump on his policy in Honduras.”

To keep president Hernández cooperating on immigration, Pineda believes that the Trump administration will maintain pressure on him by going after figures from the criminal underworld with paper trails leading back to the president. “The U.S. knows who is who in this country, and if they don’t act, it’s because they’re acting in their own interest, and not in that of the Honduran people. As Hondurans, we should stop believing in the infallibility of the U.S. and focus on the national agenda,” Pineda said.

Juan Orlando Hernández and Mauricio Oliva concerse during a Day of the Soldier march in Tegucigalpa, October 19, 2019. Photo: Martín Cálix.
Juan Orlando Hernández and Mauricio Oliva concerse during a Day of the Soldier march in Tegucigalpa, October 19, 2019. Photo: Martín Cálix.

For now at least, Trump and Hernández are mostly having their way. In the span of just over a year, Tony Hernández was arrested and many began referring to the country as a “narcostate.” 2020 is only a year before the next elections. Mauricio Oliva, a Hernández loyalist and current president of the National Congress, is the presumed presidential nominee for the National Party. But there is also another troubling possibility: Hernández could try to have his way with the constitution again, seek yet another term, and effectively establish himself as a dictator.


*Translated by Roman Gressier

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