US backed a ‘crumbling narco state’ in Honduras

Federal prosecutors this week accused Honduras’s sitting president of presiding over a violent, state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy

 Matthew Petti
March 19, 2021

Federal prosecutors said on Tuesday that the U.S.-backed government of Honduras has unleashed “unimaginable horrors” and accused the country’s sitting president of playing “a leadership role in a violent, state sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy.”

They also said that the Honduran president’s younger brother sold intelligence, which the United States had helped Honduras obtain, to drug traffickers.

The United States Attorney for the Southern District of New York filed its sentencing memo this week for drug trafficker Tony Hernández, younger brother of Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández, who was convicted of the underlying charges last fall. The memo, which is calling for a life sentence, not only points the finger at high-level members of the Honduran government for drug trafficking, but also traces Honduras’s descent into a “crumbling narco-state” even as the U.S. government continued to pump aid to corrupt institutions.

It comes as a record number of Central American child refugees are arriving at the U.S. border.

The ongoing crisis in Honduras began with a military coup d’etat against left-wing president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya in 2009. The coup paved the way for the conservative National Party to assume control of the country, bringing to power several figures affiliated with the drug trade, including President Hernández, usually known by his initials JOH.

JOH’s younger brother “sought to capitalize on political instability resulting from the coup that year, and those he chose to protect became virtually untouchable,” prosecutors wrote in Tuesday’s sentencing memo. “This impunity resulted in Honduras becoming one of the foremost transshipment points for U.S.-bound cocaine and unimaginable horrors for the Honduran people as they were left to reside in a crumbling narco-state.”

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U.S. officials privately acknowledged in internal cables that Zelaya’s ouster was an “illegal and unconstitutional coup,” but the Obama administration resisted pressure to officially label it a coup, which would have required a cut-off of U.S. assistance. Under pressure from neoconservatives and other hawks in Washington, the administration also shielded the successor regime from sanctions favored by other Latin American nations at the Organization of American States.

Prosecutors claim that National Party chief Porfirio Lobo Sosa and JOH had cooked up a plan a year before the coup to offer “protection in drug trafficking” in exchange for million-dollar bribes. In the first elections after the coup, Lobo Sosa — whose son is currently serving a 24-year sentence in U.S. prison for drug-trafficking — was elected president, while JOH won control of Honduras’s national congress.

“Gangs and violence have proliferated because of a regime the U.S. has supported for almost twelve years,” says Dana Frank, a history professor at the University of California Santa Cruz. “The United States has been the biggest, most powerful backer of Honduran corruption.”

JOH succeeded Lobo Sosa as president in 2013, and overrode the Honduran constitution to win a second term in 2017 in an election that featured widespread irregularities according to international observers, and gave rise to many weeks of mass protests.

Tony Hernández was able to enlist “heavily armed members of the Honduran military and Honduran National Police” in drug smuggling operations during this time, according to prosecutors.

Prosecutors also say that Tony Hernández sold radar data — which the U.S. government was sharing with Honduras at the time — to help drug traffickers land cocaine-filled aircraft.

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JOH denies involvement in the drug trade, calling the allegations “lies based on the testimony of these drug smugglers” who “have only the aim of vengeance.”

The Obama and Trump administrations both worked closely with the Hernández administration, securing millions of dollars in U.S. security aid for the Honduran government.

“President Hernández is working with the United States very closely,” President Donald Trump said at the Israeli American Council conference in 2019. “We’re winning after years and years of losing. We’re stopping drugs at a level that has never happened.”

Forty-four Democratic representatives are now pushing to cut off that security aid, while eight Democratic senators want to go even further by sanctioning JOH. The Biden administration has said that it will impose strict conditions on aid to Central American states.

The chaos in Honduras has contributed to the massive regional refugee crisis. Authorities have apprehended hundreds of thousands of Hondurans — including over 253,000 people from October 2018 to September 2019 alone — at the U.S. border, according to U.S. Border Patrol statistics.

Frank emphasizes that the problem is not only about criminality but also “the repression of civil rights.” Scores of Honduran activists have been killed at protests or disappeared for opposing the Hernández administration.

Berta Zúñiga-Cáceres, daughter of the murdered environmental activist Berta Cáceres, drove that point home at a September 2019 rally outside the Organization of American States in Washington, DC.

“More people in the United States are aware of what is what is happening in Honduras, because there are very big migratory waves from his country. And this is not by chance,” she said in an interview in Spanish after the rally. “The current government of Honduras is an illegitimate government. It is not recognized by the majority of the population because it assumed power in an arbitrary way.”

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She said that the “infringement of fundamental rights, violence by the state, [and] great corruption” have led people to take to the streets.

“It’s not just that the police or the military police or the military units fire into protesters,” said Professor Suyapa Portillo Villeda of Pitzer College, who has assisted with asylum cases in U.S. courts, in an interview that same month. “They actually go into their homes to look for them.”

But one former Obama administration official is more positive about the results of U.S. policy. In her memoir, “Hard Choices,” former secretary of state Hillary Clinton praised the post-coup elections that brought the National Party to power.

“This was the first time in Central American history that a country that suffered a coup and was on the verge of a major civil conflict was able to restore its constitution and democratic processes through negotiation, without imposition from the outside,” she wrote

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