With a public accusation that he accepted drug proceeds for his political campaigns, the US appears to finally be turning its back on its longtime ally, Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández.
In a court filing, US prosecutors said Hernández took part in a drug conspiracy when $1.5 million in proceeds allegedly went to support his first bid for the presidency in 2013. The allegations -- first reported by Univision -- came out in documents unsealed in New York’s Southern District Court on August 3 in the case against President Hernández’s brother, former congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who was indicted on drug-trafficking charges in November 2018.
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According to the documents, the drug money used to support Hernández’s campaign came from Amílcar Alexander Ardón, a former mayor who is also facing drug trafficking charges in the United States. Prosecutors do not identify President Hernández by name, but instead refer to him as CC-4, or Co-conspirator 4, saying that he was elected in late 2013.
Sometime in 2013 during his bid for the presidency, Hernández asked Ardón to support his campaign through bribes to local politicians, according to the documents. He also warned Ardón, then mayor of El Paraíso, a city on the Guatemala-Honduras border, to not seek reelection because he would not be able to continue to protect him, particularly “in light of extradition related pressures.”
Ardón went on “to spend $1.5 million in drug proceeds” to support Hernández’s presidential campaign, paying “cash bribes” and providing “gifts and favors” to local politicians, the court documents state.
President Hernández, Tony Hernández and other high-level officials -- including former President Porfirio Lobo Sosa -- were part of a conspiracy that leveraged drug trafficking to “maintain and enhance their political power,” the prosecutors conclude.
They also accuse Tony Hernández of arranging the murder of rival drug traffickers on at least two occasions. He is called “a violent, multi-ton drug trafficker” who believed he “could operate with total impunity,” the court documents state.
While President Hernández has not been charged with any crimes, he lashed out against the conspiracy allegations in a statement to the press, saying that the claims being made against him “are false” and come from “drug traffickers who are looking for vengeance.”
In the statement, he also highlights his “close” and “productive relationship” with the US government in the battle against drug trafficking and underscores his record of extraditing traffickers to face US charges.
InSight Crime Analysis
President Hernández has been held up as a poster child for US allies that have taken on drug trafficking in Central America. These revelations may end that relationship.
It was a long time coming.
Even before the president’s brother, Tony Hernández, was accused formally of drug trafficking, authorities told InSight Crime that he was a person of interest in a wide-ranging drug conspiracy case. Tony appears to have ridden his brother’s coattails into office. He then used the national police to protect drug shipments, stamping his initials on bricks of cocaine that were sent to the United States, according to the indictment against him.
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For his part, Ardón had his own long history with drug trafficking that started well before Hernández tapped him for campaign funds. What’s more, Ardón’s brother, Hugo, headed up the Fondo Vial, the government’s highway administrative wing, and gave contracts to drug trafficking groups like the famed Cachiros, one of many Honduran traffickers facing charges in the US. Rather than run away from the family, Hernández hired Hugo in 2013 to help him run his campaign in the eastern part of the country. Not long after the elections, the Ardón brothers went on the run.
President Hernández, however, has always skirted these charges, presenting himself as an enemy of the drug trade and the powerful elites involved in it, mostly through his close ties to the US, in particular his willingness to reinstitute extradition.
That decision may have doomed him. While the Ardón brothers were not extradited and appeared to have arranged their arrests as part of a plea deal, many other traffickers were captured and extradited. This tidal wave of traffickers helped paint a more complete picture that eventually led US prosecutors to the conclusion many Hondurans had already come to: that their president is heading up a mafia state.
Still, it took a long time, in part because Hernández has been an adept politician. Hernández presented himself as a loyal ally of the US during the administrations of former President Barack Obama and now President Donald Trump. In March 2015, Hernández flanked then US Vice President Joe Biden after a discussion about a partnership to bring aid to Central America in an effort to stem migration to the US.
Hernández was also close to former US Southern Command head and Trump’s former Chief of Staff, (r) Gen. John Kelly. And Secretary of State Mike Pompeo met with Hernández in June 2018, though Trump has slashed aid to Central America to punish those countries for not stopping their citizens from heading northward.
The latest allegations leave the United States’ relationship with Honduras in combatting drug trafficking in a precarious state. Prosecutors are clearly unafraid of pointing a finger at the president in the case against his brother, and Hernández will likely continue to take that as a personal affront.
But as the Trump administration has shown itself to be more transactional than political, bilateral relations may now hinge on Hernández’s willingness to slow the flow of migrants, the Trump administration’s current top priority.
This would not be the first time the Honduran president acquiesced to US desires. A former Honduran military official involved in anti-drug investigations told InSight Crime that pressure from the US embassy was the only thing responsible for arrests of drug traffickers and their allies under Hernández’s watch.
It’s now clear that US authorities and prosecutors never completely bought President Hernández's denials. In June, court documents revealed Hernández had been a target in a Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigation that started in 2013, and the new allegations go further, saying that Hernández benefited from drug traffickers’ largesse to get elected.