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Drug claims against Honduran president pose dilemma for Biden

In a US courtroom, he was described as an untouchable crime boss who partnered with a cocaine trafficker to “stuff drugs up the gringos’ noses”, took a $1m bribe from the infamous chief of the Sinaloa cartel and had his title emblazoned on a machine gun.

The man dubbed “co-conspirator 4 (CC-4)” or “Juancho”, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández has by no means set foot within the federal courthouse in New York the place his brother Tony, a former congressman, was discovered responsible in 2019 of smuggling narcotics into the US and who’s dealing with as much as life in jail when he’s sentenced subsequent week.

He has however loomed giant over his brother’s case, in addition to that of Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, described by US legal professional Audrey Strauss as a “ruthless, powerful and murderous cocaine trafficker” and a “conduit” to officers together with Hernández. Ramírez was convicted this week on trafficking and weapons costs.

Hernández, president of Honduras since 2014, has denied allegations of complicity with both man’s crimes. US prosecutors say the president, one among Washington’s staunchest regional allies, is under investigation. But he has not been charged, regardless of testimony that he took tens of hundreds of {dollars}, some in cash-stuffed briefcases, to ensure safety to drug lords.

The particulars rising from federal instances in New York complicate a rising political disaster for US president Joe Biden, whose administration is scuffling with rising numbers of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

It has vowed to work with these nations to handle the causes of migration. This contains channelling $4bn in help to the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America the place analysts say endemic authorities corruption, on prime of violence and poverty, pushes folks to go away.

“Biden faces a real challenge,” mentioned James Bosworth, founding father of danger consultancy Hxagon, calling Honduras “a country captured by a criminal group masquerading as a political party”.

Protesters gathered outside the Manhattan federal courthouse to denounce Hernández during the trial of Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez
Protesters gathered exterior the Manhattan federal courthouse to denounce Hernández through the trial of Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez © AFP through Getty Images

Hernández’s ruling National party and authoritarian authorities have lengthy confronted accusations of corruption and shut hyperlinks to drug trafficking. He admitted his 2013 campaign received funds from corporations linked to a $200m social safety fraud however denied he or his social gathering had identified about it.

In 2017, he ran for a second time period after Supreme Court judges loyal to him overturned a ban on his re-election. He is broadly believed by analysts to have stolen that election — the Organisation of American States mentioned on the time the ballot was so flawed there ought to be a brand new one. Washington endorsed the result and saved help cash flowing.

Since then, a collection of investigations and prosecutions have detailed hyperlinks between high-ranking Honduran officers and drug traffickers, at the same time as officers vow they’re stamping out the circulate of unlawful substances.

In addition to Ramírez and Tony Hernández, a former police chief has been charged with drug trafficking within the US, and the safety minister, attorney-general and different officers have been implicated in investigations in each the US and Honduras. Fabio Lobo, son of Hernández’s predecessor as president, was sentenced within the US to 24 years in jail in 2017.

Hernández controls Congress, the Supreme Court and organs of the state. Last yr, he scrapped a US-backed independent anti-corruption investigative body often called MACCIH.

“What there is in Honduras is a pact promoted by political parties not to touch each other,” mentioned Juan Jiménez Mayor, who led the MACCIH from 2016-18.

“The situation is definitely ugly,” mentioned Bosworth.

Biden is dealing with stress from inside his personal social gathering to take a tougher line. In February, eight Democratic senators introduced a bill to impose sanctions on Hernández for “significant corruption and human rights violations” and to halt US help to the Honduran police and navy.

“The United States cannot remain silent in the face of deeply alarming corruption and human rights abuses being committed at the highest levels of the Honduran government,” mentioned the invoice’s sponsor, Jeff Merkley, a senator from Oregon.

Hernández, 52, a suave lawyer from the nation’s rural west and the fifteenth of 17 youngsters, hit again at what he referred to as “offensive” and “perverse” accusations and “vile lies” aired in courtroom.

Two days after Ramírez was convicted, Hernández appeared in a 47-minute television broadcast from the presidential palace. He mentioned the US Drug Enforcement Administration secretly recorded Honduran cartel members in 2013 calling him “a man we can’t buy”.

He boasted that US knowledge confirmed a 95 per cent drop in drug flows by way of his nation since he was elected in 2013. “We rescued the country from the narcos. Honduras is the opposite of a narco-state,” Hernández mentioned. “The US is an ally, a partner of ours . . . We won’t change our relationship with the US.”

As vice-president in 2015, Biden promised “systemic change” within the Northern Triangle. He has now given US vice-president Kamala Harris the duty of rebooting relations to handle the poverty, corruption and violence that has compelled hundreds of migrants to flee.

Keylin and her 3-year old-son are among thousands who have fled Honduras in a desperate attempt to claim asylum in the US
Keylin and her 3-year old-son are amongst hundreds who’ve fled Honduras in a determined try to assert asylum within the US © REUTERS

The US state division mentioned: “We take any allegations of criminal activity very seriously . . . Any leader who is not prepared to combat corruption will not be able to have a close partnership with the United States.”

Dana Frank, an knowledgeable on Honduras on the University of California Santa Cruz, mentioned the Biden administration “should be taking responsibility for what [the US] did to create this monster”.

The US has taken motion against different authoritarian regimes — Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. In a Senate hearing final week, the US prime navy chief for the area, Admiral Craig Faller, chief of US Southern Command, mentioned the “scourge” of drug trafficking however made no criticism of Honduras.

“It’s very clear [the US] is still looking the other way,” Frank mentioned.

Hernández, who leaves workplace in January, has seen off protests calling for his resignation up to now and has saved a lid on response to the most recent allegations. In January, Congress rejected an opposition try and oust him.

Meanwhile, the outlook, each for him and for Honduras, is unsure.

Candidates within the upcoming election “don’t promise much of a solution,” mentioned Jiménez Mayor, the previous head of MACCIH. He famous that the opposition Liberal social gathering’s candidate, Yani Rosenthal, was a confessed cash launderer who had simply spent three years in a US jail.

As for Hernández, he added: “I don’t know how well he’ll sleep when he leaves office . . . but it’s difficult to forecast a good future for him.”

Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington

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