Eight Democratic senators have sent the first signals that the United States will divorce itself from Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández amid mounting allegations of drug trafficking, saying in a proposed sanctions bill that there is substantial evidence he has engaged in a pattern of criminal activities.
The bill, the "Honduras Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act of 2021," seeks to sanction President Hernández and members of his government for alleged corruption, drug trafficking and violations of human rights. Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon, who introduced the legislation, said in a statement that the bill aims to counter the “alarming corruption and human rights abuses that are being committed at the highest levels of the Honduran government."
Merkley and his co-sponsors say the sanctions are due to "widespread collusion" among government officials, security forces, organized crime groups, and members of the private sector in Honduras, when it comes to the "knowledge and perpetration" of "assassinations, forced disappearances, and other abuses" against a range of people, including human rights defenders, environmental activists, opposition party members and journalists.
The senators suggest a range of punitive actions, including the revoking of US visas and the blocking of assets. The senators also call for criminal prosecution for alleged drug trafficking crimes.
The senators allege in the bill that "there is substantial evidence" that President Hernández "has engaged in a pattern of criminal activity and use of the state apparatus to protect and facilitate drug trafficking."
As evidence of Hernández's alleged crimes, the senators point to a number of drug cases in the United States in which Hernández is named as a co-conspirator, including the one that ended in the conviction of Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández -- the president's brother -- in October 2019.
In addition, the senators say that President Hernández has shown "contempt" for the rule of law, pointing to his controversial re-election in 2017 amid widespread allegations of voter fraud and allowing for the closure of an independent investigative body known as the Mission to Support Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (Misión de Apoyo Contra la Corrupción y la Impunidad en Honduras - MACCIH) in 2019.
In the bill, the senators also hold Honduran legislators responsible for abetting corruption by passing reforms that made it more difficult to prosecute criminal cases involving embezzlement, fraud and obstruction of justice. They call for an "action plan" to restore the rule of law in Honduras and demand the US government restrict weapons sales to Honduran security forces and limit security cooperation.
Finally, the bill's sponsors urged Honduras to begin a dialogue with the United Nations to create a commission similar to the defunct International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala (Comisión Internacional contra la Impunidad en Guatemala — CICIG), which prosecuted high-level corruption in Guatemala.
If the bill passes, the United States could hit Hernández with sanctions within six months.
InSight Crime Analysis
Sen. Merkley's bill presents the United States' first major political rebuke to the Honduran president, who faces longstanding allegations of abetting drug trafficking, even as he positioned himself as a key anti-drug ally. Prior to this bill, all allegations against Hernández had emerged from prosecutors with the US Justice Department.
US prosecutors have alleged in a series of court filings related to various drug cases involving Honduran officials and traffickers that President Hernández received millions in bribes to protect known drug traffickers. Hernández has repeatedly denied the accusations. Earlier this month, however, prosecutors detailed for the first time that the president himself was the subject of an investigation.
Despite all this, Hernández had managed to stay in good standing with the administration of former President Donald Trump, whose diplomacy with Honduras hinged on Hernandez's willingness to crack down on migrants from Central America.
But the fight against corruption in Central America has returned as a priority in Washington after the election of US President Joe Biden, as well as Democrats taking control of Congress. Prior to his election, Biden issued a policy plan that vowed to tackle the root causes of migration, violent crime and corruption in Central America.
And while there is still some way to go for the legislative proposal to become law, it is signed by powerful Democrats, including Senators Patrick Leahy, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders.
In Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández is also facing new allegations of corruption within his inner circle. On February 22, the Attorney General’s Office accused 11 people, including several who had been part of the presidential staff, of embezzling funds from government coffers between 2014 and 2016. In the case, known as Hermes, prosecutors allege Hilda Hernández, the president’s sister who died in 2017, was behind the corruption scheme and money from it went to fund her brother’s political campaigns.