While he cracks down on gangs, the president of Honduras has largely ignored drug trafficking charges leveled at his family members and officials within his governing party, raising questions about his desire to take on corruption that implicates his inner circle.
Beginning in late January, President Juan Orlando Hernández sent military and national police into the streets to take on gangs like the MS13. Amid this show of force, Hernández said that the Central American nation needed to increase the presence of its security forces, including elite units.
In addition, Hernández is pushing to create a remote maximum security prison with no satellite communication, saying that the country’s current prisons are “insufficient for so many captured criminals,” La Prensa reported.
The president’s focus on hard-line security measures and combating the gangs comes shortly after federal US prosecutors accused two Honduran mayors of importing “massive quantities of cocaine” into the United States and using “heavy weaponry” like machine guns to protect drug shipments while working with other traffickers in Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico.
Prosecutors say Amílcar Alexander Ardón Soriano, the former mayor of El Paraíso in Honduras’ western Copán department along the border with Guatemala, had access to at least one cocaine laboratory and a clandestine air strip.
He “leveraged his power by charging a per-kilogram tax” on cocaine shipments transported by other traffickers through the area under his control, according to the indictment. Ardón Soriano also allegedly used some of his drug revenues to “fund political campaigns in Honduras” for himself and other associates.
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During Honduras’ 2013 presidential elections, Ardón Soriano was also accused of engaging in dirty tricks in favor of the governing National Party’s candidate at the time, President Hernández. He allegedly helped intimidate voters and block access to voting centers. Hernández secured more than 80 percent of the vote and went on to win the presidency.
Also charged with federal drug trafficking crimes is Mario José Cálix Hernández, the former mayor of Gracias in western Lempira department along the border with El Salvador. Prosecutors say he facilitated cocaine shipments and worked with drug traffickers who allegedly paid bribes to public officials, including to members of the National Congress and National Police, according to his indictment.
Cálix Hernández is the cousin of the head of Honduras’ Anti-Narcotics Directorate, Soraya Cálix. His co-conspirator, according to authorities, was former Honduran congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the brother of President Hernández.
Federal US authorities arrested Tony Hernández in November 2018 on drug charges. Prosecutors allege he was a “large-scale drug trafficker” who went so far as to stamp his initials on drug shipments he handled.
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Aside from responding to the arrest of his brother, President Hernández has largely remained silent on the slew of Honduran officials charged with drug trafficking, of which Ardón Soriano and Cálix Hernández are just the latest examples.
In 2018, US authorities charged former National Party Congressman Midence Oquelí Martínez Turcios with conspiring to traffic cocaine into the United States. Before that, in August 2017, Hernández’s former investment minister, Yankel Rosenthal, pleaded guilty to US charges that he laundered drug money.
Meanwhile, Hernández has chosen to hammer down on the gangs, rather than address the allegedly corrupt government officials linked to the country’s drug trafficking groups.
“It is entirely implausible that Hernández did not have knowledge of the alleged criminal activities of these newly indicted individuals or of his brother’s criminal projects,” Dana Frank, a professor at the University of California, Santa Cruz, told InSight Crime in an email.
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Christine Wade, a Central America expert and political science professor at Washington College, said these latest indictments against two former mayors with ties to Hernández showcase the “systemic rot” of the country’s political establishment.
“Organized crime and drug trafficking organizations have permeated Honduras’ state institutions at every level,” she added.
Despite all this, Hernández is still embraced by the United States as a key regional ally on security and anti-drug issues.
But Wade says that “mounting criminal charges in US courts,” in addition to what Ardón Soriano may possibly reveal through cooperating with US authorities in the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), may make the misdeeds of those around Hernández “harder to ignore.”
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