Monday, July 26, 2021

U.S. targets Honduras President Juan Orlando in narcotics trade probe

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U.S. prosecutors are investigating the president of Honduras for accepting bribes to protect drug traffickers who shipped tons of cocaine to the U.S., according to a court filing.

The latest filing came in the criminal case of an alleged Honduran drug trafficker, Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, who prosecutors say paid President Juan Orlando Hernández large bribes to fund the Honduran leader’s 2013 presidential campaign in exchange for protection of his drug business.

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While the Honduran leader has been implicated in several drug trials in the U.S., the filing marks the first time American prosecutors have made public that they are investigating the president.

The Honduran government denied the allegations. “The claim that Pres. Hernández supposedly accepted drug money from a Geovanny Daniel Fuentes Ramírez, or gave protection or coordination to drug traffickers is 100% false,” said Honduras’ government Twitter account. The allegations, the government said, were “based on lies of confessed criminals who seek revenge or to reduce their sentences.”

Mr. Hernández wasn’t named in the court filing by name. Rather, he was described as CC-4, or co-conspirator four, in a court document filed late Friday in the Southern District of New York.

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The document said the U.S. investigation was targeting “high-ranking officials, such as CC-4,” identified as the brother of Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the president’s younger brother. The younger Hernández is awaiting sentencing in New York after being convicted in 2019 of trafficking 200 tons of cocaine to the U.S.

President Hernández, who was also named as an unindicted co-conspirator in his brother’s trial, hasn’t been charged with any crime.

One of the poorest countries in the hemisphere, Honduras poses a difficult challenge for the Biden administration. The new administration says it wants to focus on lowering corruption and improving the rule of law as part of a drive to lower illegal migration from the so-called Northern Triangle countries of Central America—Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.

As part of the policy, the Biden administration has promised to commit some $4 billion to spur economic development and fight the root causes of migration. But the case of Mr. Hernandez shows how difficult it will be to tackle issues like corruption.

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“The Juan Orlando Hernández case is the most challenging example faced by the administration in implementing its signature policy,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank. “At the end of the day, you need good partners to implement those plans.”

During the Trump administration, allegations about corruption in Mr. Hernández’s administration took a back seat to the issue of migration, in which the Honduran government was seen as a strong partner in trying to deter waves of migration, say analysts and some U.S. officials.

“There was this laserlike focus on the migration issue,” in Central America that came at the expense of corruption and governance problems, a veteran U.S. State Department Latin America official said in a recent interview.

Dealing with the allegations against President Hernández will be a priority for the Biden administration, the former official said. He noted there is currently talk in the administration of creating a special envoy who would pay close attention to Central America.

In a prior filing in the same case involving the alleged Honduran trafficker, Mr. Fuentes Ramírez, prosecutors said Mr. Hernández had told the alleged trafficker that “he [the president] wanted to shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos.”

The newly introduced court documents say the Honduran government has provided only “limited records” sought by the U.S. in the case of the president’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández. Honduras hasn’t honored requests for the extradition of other charged co-conspirators and potential witnesses against the president and Mr. Fuentes Ramirez, U.S. prosecutors say.

In exchange for large bribes, the president promised to protect Mr. Fuentes Ramirez from arrest and extradition, prosecutors said. The president also promised to help Mr. Fuentes Ramírez, who was arrested in Miami last year, to transport cocaine with the help of the Honduran armed forces, prosecutors said. The court filing alleges the president instructed Mr. Fuentes Ramírez to work with the president’s brother, Juan Antonio Hernández.

Mr. Hernández was elected president in 2013 and was re-elected in 2017 amid widespread allegations of fraud which generated weeks of street protests. He is expected to finish his term in January 2022.

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