Honduras' Crooked President Deserves The Same 'Gringo' Treatment Venezuela's Got
COMMENTARY Designating if not indicting Juan Orlando Hernández as head of a narco-state could bolster, not hinder, Biden's Central America project.
When I saw the wife of Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán was arrested in Washington this week, I thought: these must be financially frustrating times for Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández.
After all, according to U.S. federal prosecutors, Chapo’s powerful Sinaloa Cartel has been a reliable source of million-dollar bribes for the Honduran leader for years. But since 2019 Chapo’s been serving a life sentence in a U.S. federal prison. Hernández’s brother and former Honduran congressman Tony Hernández – convicted in 2019 in a U.S. federal court for, among other crimes, ferrying Chapo’s millions to President Hernández – is himself facing up to life behind bars.
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Now Chapo’s mujer, former Mexican beauty queen Emma Coronel Aispuro – who U.S. officials allege has helped run his bloody, multi-billion-dollar narco-corporation in his absence – has been collared. That kind of organization-chart disruption can mess up the flow of payoffs to a head of state like Hernández. He’s allegedly allowed his violent and impoverished Central American country to become a drug-trafficking depot for syndicates like Chapo’s. So with the Sinaloa gang in this sort of disarray, there must be quite a backlog of presidential palm-greasing invoices.
Hernández of course denies residing in pockets like Chapo’s. But in recent weeks U.S. prosecutors in New York have only pointed more fingers at him. Last month they filed motions describing Hernández’s alleged deployment of the Honduran military to protect cocaine laboratories – and quoted Hernández as saying he wanted to “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos.” Two weeks ago, they finally acknowledged he is under U.S. investigation.
But given all these courthouse declarations, why isn’t Hernández already under U.S. indictment? Or rather: why hasn’t Hernández been slapped with the same drug conspiracy charges the U.S. leveled last year against his equally narco-crooked counterpart in Caracas, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro? If the Trump Administration believed that sort of jab can help save Venezuela, the Biden Administration likewise should view it as one way to rescue Honduras — if not the rest of the Central American dystopia so many undocumented migrants keep fleeing for the U.S.
If the Trump Administration believed indicting Maduro could help save Venezuela, the Biden Administration should view prosecuting Hernández one way to rescue Honduras – if not the rest of the Central American dystopia so many migrants flee for the U.S.
Hernández was never a Trump White House target because going after a right-wing dictatorial leader in Latin America didn’t harmonize with Trump’s feverish anti-socialista election strategy with Florida Latinos. Going after a left-wing dictatorial leader like Maduro did. Trump was also shielding Hernández in exchange for letting Honduras be used as a MAGA holding pen for all those asylum-seeking migrants trekking through in hopes of reaching America.
Now Hernández is looking up the noses of different gringos. In the new, Democrat-controlled Senate, Jeff Merkley of Oregon this week presented a bill – the Honduras Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act – that urges President Biden to sanction Hernández and move toward designating him, like Maduro, as head of a narco-state. It would also cut off loans and certain materials to Hernández’s thuggish security forces – and, perhaps most important, lean on Honduras to establish a U.N. anti-corruption mission there.
Since Hernández, like Maduro, was re-elected under brazenly fraudulent circumstances; has trashed human rights in Honduras; is accused in corruption scandals that include the $350 million looting of the country’s healthcare system; has let streets gangs like the vicious MS-13 morph into de facto rulers of large swaths of territory – and is now part of an official U.S. drug-trafficking probe – it would seem Merkley’s legislation is a reasonable step.
Even so, there’s a lot of hand-wringing in the Biden Administration over whether to confront Hernández à la Maduro, because it might complicate Biden’s $4 billion development-cum-security plan for Central America’s hellish Northern Triangle – El Salvador, Guatemala and especially Honduras.
I don’t think so. If anything, it would make Biden’s campaign to lift the Northern Triangle from its benighted ashes look and sound all the more serious. Hernández, like Maduro, is an irredeemable figure – so I’d argue that working with him could complicate Biden’s Mesoamerican Marshall Plan more than prosecuting him would.
This is Hernández’s last year in office, anyway. Better to spend the next 10 months working around him and his rotted government as much as possible, then pick up directly again next January with his successor.
In the meantime, give Hernández what he deserves. Right up the nose.