Proposed US legislation would target Honduras president

FILE - In this Aug. 13, 2019 file photo, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez speaks to the reporters as he leaves a meeting at the Organization of American States, in Washington. Newly proposed U.S. legislation introduced Tuesday, Feb. 23, 2021, targets Orlando Hernandez as allegations of ties to drug trafficking grow. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File) (Jacquelyn Martin, Copyright 2019 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

MEXICO CITY – Newly proposed U.S. legislation targets Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández as allegations of ties to drug trafficking grow.

As the administration of President Joe Biden seeks to return the issues of corruption and human rights to relations with Honduras and other Central American countries, a group of Democratic senators says the U.S. government’s relationship with Honduras must change.

On Tuesday, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon introduced a bill that would seek to isolate Hernández, who in recent years has leaned heavily on his support within the U.S. government when facing domestic opposition and multiplying allegations of connections to drug traffickers by U.S. prosecutors.

“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,” Merkley said in a statement. “A failure to hold Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, national officials, and members of the police and military accountable for these crimes will fuel widespread poverty and violence and force more families to flee their communities in search of safety.”

Merkley’s bill, “Honduras Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act of 2021,” calls on Biden to impose sanctions on Hernández and “determine whether he is a specially designated narcotics trafficker.” The legislation also has the backing of Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts among others.

Such a designation would be a tremendous reversal of fortunes for a president who frequently cites Honduras’ active participation in the U.S. war on drugs whenever U.S. prosecutors in New York suggest his political rise was funded in part by drug traffickers. He has not been charged.

The bill also seeks to prohibit the export of defense items such as tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets that Honduran security forces have deployed in recent years against protesters. The U.S. government would actively oppose loans to Honduras’ security forces from multilateral development banks.

It calls on the Honduran government to talk to the United Nations about establishing an anti-corruption mission in the style of one that had success in Guatemala. Under Hernández, a mission backed by the Organization of American States was not renewed after it began to implicate a number of federal lawmakers in corruption scandals.

Earlier this month, Hernández again denied any connection to drug trafficking after U.S. prosecutors filed documents in an upcoming drug trafficker’s trial suggesting the president was under investigation. Hernández’s brother Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández was convicted in New York of a drug conspiracy in 2019.

On Friday, U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with his Honduran counterpart about cooperation between the two countries’ governments.

Under the administration of President Donald Trump, immigration overshadowed everything else in the relationship. Biden has spoken about development support for so-called Northern Triangle countries to address the root causes of migration, but Blinken also included “corruption and lack of respect for human rights” as causes of migration, according to a State Department summary of the call.