In a US courtroom, he was described as an untouchable crime boss who partnered with a cocaine trafficker to “stuff drugs up the gringos’ noses”, took a $1m bribe from the notorious leader of the Sinaloa cartel and had his name emblazoned on a machine gun.
The man dubbed “co-conspirator 4 (CC-4)” or “Juancho”, Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández has never set foot in the federal courthouse in New York where his brother Tony, a former congressman, was found guilty in 2019 of smuggling narcotics into the US and who is facing up to life in prison when he is sentenced next week.
He has nevertheless loomed large over his brother’s case, as well as that of Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, described by US attorney Audrey Strauss as a “ruthless, powerful and murderous cocaine trafficker” and a “conduit” to officials including Hernández. Ramírez was convicted this week on trafficking and weapons charges.
Hernández, president of Honduras since 2014, has denied allegations of complicity with either man’s crimes. US prosecutors say the president, one of Washington’s staunchest regional allies, is under investigation. But he has not been charged, despite testimony that he took tens of thousands of dollars, some in cash-stuffed briefcases, to guarantee protection to drug lords.
The details emerging from federal cases in New York complicate a growing political crisis for US president Joe Biden, whose administration is struggling with rising numbers of migrants from Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
It has vowed to work with those countries to address the causes of migration. This includes channelling $4bn in aid to the so-called Northern Triangle of Central America where analysts say endemic government corruption, on top of violence and poverty, pushes people to leave.
“Biden faces a real challenge,” said James Bosworth, founder of risk consultancy Hxagon, calling Honduras “a country captured by a criminal group masquerading as a political party”.
Hernández’s ruling National party and authoritarian government have long faced accusations of corruption and close links to drug trafficking. He admitted his 2013 campaign received funds from companies linked to a $200m social security fraud but denied he or his party had known about it.
In 2017, he ran for a second term after Supreme Court judges loyal to him overturned a ban on his re-election. He is widely believed by analysts to have stolen that election — the Organisation of American States said at the time the poll was so flawed there should be a new one. Washington endorsed the result and kept aid money flowing.
Since then, a series of investigations and prosecutions have detailed links between high-ranking Honduran officials and drug traffickers, even as officials vow they are stamping out the flow of illegal substances.
In addition to Ramírez and Tony Hernández, a former police chief has been charged with drug trafficking in the US, and the security minister, attorney-general and other officials have been implicated in investigations in both the US and Honduras. Fabio Lobo, son of Hernández’s predecessor as president, was sentenced in the US to 24 years in prison in 2017.
Hernández controls Congress, the Supreme Court and organs of the state. Last year, he scrapped a US-backed independent anti-corruption investigative body known as MACCIH.
“What there is in Honduras is a pact promoted by political parties not to touch each other,” said Juan Jiménez Mayor, who led the MACCIH from 2016-18.
“The situation is definitely ugly,” said Bosworth.
Biden is facing pressure from within his own party to take a harder line. In February, eight Democratic senators introduced a bill to impose sanctions on Hernández for “significant corruption and human rights violations” and to halt US aid to the Honduran police and military.
“The United States cannot remain silent in the face of deeply alarming corruption and human rights abuses being committed at the highest levels of the Honduran government,” said the bill’s sponsor, Jeff Merkley, a senator from Oregon.
Hernández, 52, a suave lawyer from the country’s rural west and the 15th of 17 children, hit back at what he called “offensive” and “perverse” accusations and “vile lies” aired in court.
Two days after Ramírez was convicted, Hernández appeared in a 47-minute television broadcast from the presidential palace. He said the US Drug Enforcement Administration secretly recorded Honduran cartel members in 2013 calling him “a man we can’t buy”.
He boasted that US data showed a 95 per cent drop in drug flows through his country since he was elected in 2013. “We rescued the country from the narcos. Honduras is the opposite of a narco-state,” Hernández said. “The US is an ally, a partner of ours . . . We won’t change our relationship with the US.”
As vice-president in 2015, Biden promised “systemic change” in the Northern Triangle. He has now given US vice-president Kamala Harris the task of rebooting relations to address the poverty, corruption and violence that has forced thousands of migrants to flee.
The US state department said: “We take any allegations of criminal activity very seriously . . . Any leader who is not prepared to combat corruption will not be able to have a close partnership with the United States.”
Dana Frank, an expert on Honduras at the University of California Santa Cruz, said the Biden administration “should be taking responsibility for what [the US] did to create this monster”.
The US has taken action against other authoritarian regimes — Venezuela, Cuba and Nicaragua. In a Senate hearing last week, the US top military leader for the region, Admiral Craig Faller, leader of US Southern Command, discussed the “scourge” of drug trafficking but made no criticism of Honduras.
“It’s very clear [the US] is still looking the other way,” Frank said.
Hernández, who leaves office in January, has seen off protests calling for his resignation in the past and has kept a lid on reaction to the latest allegations. In January, Congress rejected an opposition attempt to oust him.
Meanwhile, the outlook, both for him and for Honduras, is uncertain.
Candidates in the upcoming election “don’t promise much of a solution,” said Jiménez Mayor, the former head of MACCIH. He noted that the opposition Liberal party’s candidate, Yani Rosenthal, was a confessed money launderer who had just spent three years in a US prison.
As for Hernández, he added: “I don’t know how well he’ll sleep when he leaves office . . . but it’s difficult to forecast a good future for him.”
Additional reporting by Aime Williams in Washington