Officials in the United States have revealed that former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández is included on a US government list of corrupt actors in Central America. However, it remains unclear if this will lead to formal criminal charges.
In a February 7 press release, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the government was revoking the former president’s visa and “declassifying and publicizing” that he was included on the so-called Engel List of corrupt actors published in July 2021.
“Juan Orlando Hernández has engaged in significant corruption by committing or facilitating acts of corruption and narco-trafficking, and using the proceeds of illicit activity to facilitate political campaigns,” Blinken said.
He added that “Hernández was identified by name in sworn witness testimony in a US federal criminal proceeding as having received narco-trafficking proceeds as part of his campaign funding.”
Hernández has repeatedly denied the accusations against him, including writing in an open letter that he was “surprised” by the announcement. Last month, he argued in a Twitter thread that nobody should be “fooled by the false testimonies of narcos” after US Congresswoman Norma Torres called on the Justice Department to indict and extradite him. However, the latest sanctions are not based solely on the testimony of drug traffickers, they now also address alleged corruption committed by Hernández during his time in office.
Shortly after Torres’ statement, US Senator Bob Menéndez, who is the acting chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also urged President Joe Biden to designate Hernández as a “significant foreign narcotics trafficker,” citing a “growing body of incriminating evidence” of the former head of state’s “direct participation in drug trafficking.”
Hernández had said in a December 2021 interview with El Pais that he would join the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) after stepping down when Xiomara Castro assumed the presidency on January 27, effectively extending his immunity in what has become a safe haven for the region’s corrupt.
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The United States stood firmly by one of its premier allies in the region while he was in office, even in the face of criminal accusations that stretched back years. But since his departure, they’ve moved swiftly against him on paper.
Hernández’s brother, the former congressman Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, was convicted of drug and weapons charges more than two years ago in October 2019. During that trial, the former president featured prominently. Juan Orlando Hernández was linked to an apparent $1 million bribe delivered to Tony by former Sinaloa Cartel leader Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” that was actually meant for the sitting president.
But just one day after his brother’s conviction in the United States, the US Chargé d’Affaires in Honduras at the time, Colleen Hoey, was photographed smiling alongside Juan Orlando. And shortly after that, Michael Kozak, then the US State Department’s Assistant Secretary for Western Hemisphere Affairs, called Honduras a “reliable partner” under President Hernández. Public support for the embattled president continued through the end of his mandate despite the many allegations against him.
Hernández’s brother later received life plus 30 years in prison for trafficking thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the United States in his leadership role atop what prosecutors called a “state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy.” The former president was also accused in a separate trial, that of convicted drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, who was recently sentenced to life plus 30 years in prison, of receiving bribes from drug traffickers to fund political campaigns, among other misconduct, such as offering military protection for cocaine shipments.
All of that said, it remains unclear if the US Justice Department will take the steps to formally file criminal charges against Hernández. For now, he is only barred from entering the United States but remains free.
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