Honduras President Called co-conspirator on Drug Trafficking Case

/ 06:39 AM September 10, 2019

In a closet-sized underground hip-hop studio in one of the deadliest neighborhoods in Honduras’ capital, Leonardo Sierra believes nothing will change in his country until the United States decides it should.

In the 28-year-old’s assessment, it is Washington fearing a leftist alternative in this Central American country important to U.S. drug and migration policy that is keeping unpopular President Juan Orlando Hernandez propped up even as U.S. prosecutors call him a co-conspirator in his brother’s drug-trafficking case and protesters call for him to step down.

From the depths of Tegucigalpa’s gang-controlled La Traversa a neighborhood to the halls of the nation’s congress, Hondurans wonder how long the U.S. government can stick with Hernandez.
While their president jets off to Washington for meetings and photo ops, average Hondurans are glued to the slow drip of revelations coming from a federal courthouse in Manhattan.

FILE – In this Aug. 25, 2008 file photo, from left, Bolivia’s President Evo Morales, Venezuela’s President Hugo Chavez, Honduras’ President Manuel Zelaya, Nicaragua’s President Daniel Ortega, and Cuba’s Vice President Carlos Lage, walk together at the presidential house in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Many Hondurans still cite the U.S. government’s decision to not pressure for the restoration of President Manuel Zelaya when he was ousted in a 2009 coup as a demonstration of its role as kingmaker in Honduras. (AP Photo/Esteban Felix)

Hernandez has said the allegations in the U.S. come from drug traffickers seeking revenge against him, but U.S. prosecutors promise will provide evidence in a trial scheduled for October showing that Hernandez harnessed his brother’s drug-trafficking connections to propel his own political fortunes.

“Particularly in this country the influence of the United States is decisive,” said Raul Pineda Alvarado, a political analyst and former three-term congressman from Hernandez’s National Party.

If the U.S. decides Hernandez is more trouble than he is worth his days will be numbered; if it doesn’t, he could finish his term, Pineda said.
Many Hondurans still cite the U.S. government’s decision to not pressure for the restoration of left-leaning President Manuel Zelaya when he was ousted in a 2009 coup as a demonstration of its role as kingmaker in Honduras.

FILE – In this May 31, 2019 file photo, demonstrators burn tires at the U.S. embassy to protest the government of President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Three days after Hernández has labeled a co-conspirator with drug traffickers in August 2019, the top U.S. diplomat in Honduras tweeted that he had met with Hernández “to reaffirm the collaboration and cooperation between the U.S. and Honduras on important bilateral issues.” (AP Photo/Elmer Martinez, File)

The State Department said in a response to written questions that the naming of Hernandez as a co-conspirator by federal prosecutors did not constitute criminal charges.
“Conversations with current heads of state are a routine part of diplomacy,” its statement added.
“We have a range of diplomatic issues that are important to address for the benefit of both our countries.”

In the past year, President Donald Trump has repeatedly bashed the Honduran government for not doing more to keep its people from migrating.
He suspended some aid and the U.S. continues to pressure Honduras to at least make it more difficult for migrants from other countries to cross its territory even if it can’t stop its own from leaving.

But Honduras remains critical, if inconsistent, an ally in the drug war.
And, ironically, the extradition of drug capos to the U.S. under Hernandez could have helped build the case against his brother.

FILE – In this June 15, 2017 file photo, Honduras’ President Juan Orlando Hernandez, left, shakes hands with U.S. Vice President Mike Pence during a conference on Prosperity and Security in Central America in Miami. Hondurans wonder how long the U.S. government can stick with Hernández, as U.S. prosecutors promise that in a trial in October evidence will show Hernández harnessed his brother’s drug trafficking connections to propel his own political fortunes. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee, Pool, File)

U.S. prosecutors say Hernandez took $1.5 million in trafficking proceeds for his campaign to win the presidency in 2013.
Once in the presidency, Hernandez could allegedly protect drug traffickers that his brother Tony was helping move tons of cocaine toward the United States, U.S. prosecutors said.

Hernandez points to the two dozen drug traffickers extradited to the U.S. under his administration as proof that he was not working with them.
He did not grant an interview request.

Three days after Hernandez was labeled a co-conspirator last month, the top U.S. diplomat in Honduras tweeted that he had met with Hernandez “to reaffirm the collaboration and cooperation between the U.S. and Honduras on important bilateral issues.”
Hernandez included that tweet in a press release defending himself.

FILE – In this March 16, 2017 file photo, Antonio Hernandez, also known as “Tony,” brother of the president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, arrives to hold a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras. Prosecutors describe Tony Hernández, who goes on trial in October 2019 in the U.S., as a “violent, multi-ton drug trafficker” with significant influence over high-ranking Honduran officials, who in turn protected his shipments and turf. (AP Photo/Fernando Antonio, File)

A survey by pollster CID/Gallup conducted May 6 -14 said 64% of Hondurans disapproved of Hernandez’s performance in office.
It said the poll had a margin of error of three percentage points.

Hernandez has suffered a credibility crisis since Honduras’ Supreme Court cleared the way for his re-election despite a constitutional ban.
His subsequent 2017 election win was marred by irregularities.
The dissatisfaction has increased even though the economy has grown moderately and Honduras’ homicide rate fell from a dizzyingly high 86.5 per 100,000 residents in 2011 to 41.4 last year.

Despite the improved numbers, the country remains among the world’s deadliest, is home to Latin America’s highest inequality rate and sees its citizens pouring out decrying systemic corruption, a lack of jobs and the hyper-violent gangs that maintain a stranglehold on many communities.

Migrant children look out from the window of a bus that will take them to the Guatemalan border, as families say goodbye in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Tuesday, Aug. 20, 2019. In the past year, President Donald Trump has repeatedly bashed the Honduran government for not doing more to keep its people from migrating. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

But Hernandez’s party and allies control the congress and he holds the military’s support, enabling him to resist popular pressure to step down.
Anti-Hernandez protesters in June burned tires and barricaded key highways, clashed with security forces and ransacked stores.

“Right now there is a protest, there is a strong, solid, overwhelming rejection (of the president), but there isn’t the political component of the consent of the United States government,” said Pineda.

While Hernández stays in office, Hondurans will continue to flee the country, said former President Porfirio Lobo, his predecessor for the National Party.

Soldiers patrol Tegucigalpa, Honduras, late Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. Honduras’ murder rate fell from a dizzyingly high of 86.5 per 100,000 residents in 2011 to 41.4 last year. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

“For Honduras to advance and move forward (Hernandez) has to step aside,” at least while an investigation into the allegations proceeds, Lobo said.

Hondurans feel the U.S. is holding back out of fear of who could replace Hernandez.
It is not an unfounded concern considering that Lobo is also named a co-conspirator in the case against Hernandez’s brother and that Zelaya has faced his own corruption allegations.

Salvador Nasralla, a well-known television sports commentator who ran on an anti-corruption platform, lost the November 2017 election to Hernandez.
Nasralla held the lead when officials said a computer glitch stopped vote counting.
When it came back to life hours later, his lead quickly evaporated, causing many to suspect electoral fraud, something the government denies.

Soldiers check men’s ids as part of a routine patrol in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Wednesday, Aug. 21, 2019. Ironically, the extradition of drug capos to the U.S. under President Juan Orlando Hernández could have helped build the case against his own brother, in which he is now implicated. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

As an outsider candidate, Nasralla appealed to Hondurans fed up with the country’s traditional parties, but he also allied with Zelaya’s LIBRE party.
That was a mistake, Nasralla says now, “because the main thing for the United States is that Honduras doesn’t have a leftist government.”

The U.S. government’s interests in Honduras start with battling drug trafficking. The country’s geography and weak institutions have made it a major transshipment point for South American cocaine. The U.S. Southern Command maintains close relationships with Honduras’ military brass and the U.S. military has an important presence at the Soto Cano Air Base north of Tegucigalpa.

There are important business interests here as well, starting with U.S. fruit companies whose historic presence and influence spurred the label “banana republic.” During June’s protests led by doctors, nurses and teachers, a convoy of several dozen tractor-trailers hauling bananas for a Dole Food subsidiary was looted and set on fire.

A sign that says in Spanish: “Prohibited to enter armed.” hangs on the door of a store in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Saturday, Aug. 24, 2019. Honduras’ murder rate fell from a dizzyingly high of 86.5 per 100,000 residents in 2011 to 41.4 last year. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Jorge Calix, a lawmaker from Zelaya’s party who has declared himself a candidate for the 2019 presidential election, said that each time it seemed Hernandez might be on the ropes he appeared for meetings in Washington or at the U.S. Embassy.

“That in some way is an endorsement in the eyes of the businessmen and the country’s most influential people,” Calix said.
“In the eyes of the people it generates mild hopelessness because the people think it doesn’t matter how many protests we hold, it doesn’t matter how big they are.
While the United States supports him we are not going to be able to get him out,” said

Still, there are signs of growing isolation for Hernandez. At the Tuxtla Summit hosted by Honduras in August, he was the sole head of state.
And when a U.S. congressional delegation led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visited Honduras in August it didn’t meet with Hernandez, not wanting to send the wrong signal.

A man blocks a road with burning tires to protest Honduras’ President Juan Orlando Hernandez in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. Hernández has suffered a credibility crisis since the Supreme Court cleared the way for his re-election despite a constitutional ban, and his subsequent 2017 election win was marred by irregularities. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

Back in La Travesía, Sierra said his parents had him taken to the U.S. illegally when he was 11 and he lived in Tennessee until he was deported at age 19 nearly a decade ago.
He still effortlessly slips into English with a southern twang.

The videos, albums, and mixtapes he makes with friends at AKA Family Productions aren’t enough for them to live on now, but he hopes it can provide an alternative to crime or migration.

“In reality, politics isn’t going to change,” Sierra said. “The change is in us.”

A man holds a sign that reads in Spanish: “Get out Juan Orlando Hernandez” during a protest against Honduras’ president in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Friday, Aug. 23, 2019. Hernandez was losing the ballot tally when a reported computer glitch stopped vote counting on Nov. 26, 2017, and when it came back to life hours later, Hernandez was winning, leading many to suspect electoral fraud, something the government denies. (AP Photo/Eduardo Verdugo)

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