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Weekly Report - 14 May 2020 (WR-20-19)

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HONDURAS: New allegations push Hernández back on defensive

President Juan Orlando Hernández is once again on the defensive after being implicated in drug-related allegations which emerged in charges announced by the US Department of Justice (DoJ) against Juan Carlos ‘El Tigre’ Bonilla, a former national police (PN) chief (2012-2013). As on previous occasions, such as the case involving his brother Juan Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernández, convicted in October 2019 by a US jury on counts including conspiring to import cocaine into the US [WR-19-45], Hernández has issued a firm rebuttal of the claims.

According to a DoJ press release issued on 30 April, Bonilla, who was charged with conspiring to import cocaine into the US and weapons offences, “oversaw the transhipment of multi-tonne loads of cocaine bound for the US, used machineguns and other weaponry, and participated in extreme violence, including the murder of a rival trafficker, to further the conspiracy”. The DoJ statement was explicit that Bonilla did this all on behalf of “Tony Hernández [a former national legislator for the ruling Partido Nacional who is due to be sentenced on 29 June] and his brother”.

These allegations came under two months after the arrest on 1 March in Miami airport of Geovanny Daniel Fuentes Ramires, who was charged with multiple counts of high-level drug trafficking and weapons offences. According to a DoJ statement on 3 March, Fuentes reported directly to Tony Hernández and paid at least US$25,000 to a high-ranking Honduran official known as ‘CC-4’ (a co-conspirator) “in exchange for protection from further interventions by law enforcement”. Court documents identify ‘CC-4’ as President Hernández. This follows other drug-related allegations such as claims made in a document unsealed in August 2019 as part of Tony Hernández’s trial that the PN government received US$1.5m in drug-trafficking proceeds to secure Hernández’s 2013 election.

As on previous cases, the latest allegations drew a strong response from the Honduran presidency. In a series of tweets issued the following day, the presidential palace stated that the references to President Hernández “are 100% false”; that it was he who insisted on a “major purge of the national police, resulting in the removal of General Bonilla, along with 43% of the entire police force”; that he was “the leader in promoting and implementing extradition [and] no president complicit in drug trafficking would ever promote and implement the extradition of drug traffickers”; and that “false testimonies by confessed criminals are based on revenge against the president who persecuted them and their hopes for negotiating a reduced sentence”.

US relations

The US-based Washington Office on Latin America (Wola) argued that the silence of the US administration led by President Donald Trump on the matter was a sign that it is “prioritising acquiescence to a harmful anti-migrant agenda, rather than addressing the systemic corruption that is driving migration”. As if to underline these links, the day after the DoJ statement was published, the details of the controversial asylum cooperation agreement (ACA) between Honduras and the US (which has signed similar deals with El Salvador and Guatemala) were published in the US federal register. As per the agreement, which has been likened to a ‘safe third country agreement’, people from specific countries can be blocked from applying for asylum at the US-Mexico border and instead be returned to the three so-called Northern Triangle countries.

Other allegations

According to the DoJ statement issued on 3 March “CC-4 expressed interest in access to [Geovanny Fuentes’] cocaine laboratory because of its proximity to a major commercial shipping port”, agreed to “facilitate the use of Honduran armed forces personnel as security” for Fuentes’ trafficking activities, and instructed Fuentes to “report directly to Juan Antonio Hernández Alvarado for subsequent drug trafficking activities”.