Honduras leader warns drug cooperation with US endangered

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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)

TEGUCIGALPÁ – TEGUCIGALPÁHonduran President Juan Orlando Hernández warned Wednesday that antinarcotics cooperation with the United States could “collapse” if U.S. authorities believe “false testimony” in U.S. courts accusing him of cooperating with traffickers.

Hernández spoke before the Central American country's legislature a day after several Democratic U.S. senators backed a bill calling on President Joe Biden to impose sanctions on Hernández and “determine whether he is a specially designated narcotics trafficker.”

Hernández has repeatedly denied testimony by witnesses in U.S. drug prosecutions — one of which convicted his brother — accusing him of protecting and taking bribes from traffickers. He has not been charged, however.

On Wednesday, he again asserted that traffickers, particularly a group known as “Los Cachiros,” were seeking vengeance against him for allowing them to be extradited to the U.S.

“Los Cachiros have been repeatedly lying in the most obvious way,” he told the Honduran Congress.

He suggested that traffickers were trying to manipulate U.S. authorities into helping them take vengeance on the Honduran officials pursuing them.

“It would mean, sooner or later, that the systems of effective cooperation that I helped build, that have been recognized and praised repeatedly by Washington, inevitably would collapse — and not only in Honduras, but in several countries of the Americas,” he said.

His appearance before Congress came as he presented proposals to toughen laws against gangs.

A day earlier, Sen. Jeff Merkley of Oregon introduced a bill that would seek to isolate Hernández, who in recent years has leaned heavily on support within the U.S. government when facing domestic opposition and 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 was backed by Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, Richard Durbin of Illinois and Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts among others.

The bill calls for a suspension of security aid and also seeks to prohibit the export of 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 also 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 similar 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, U.S. prosecutors filed documents in an upcoming trial suggesting the president himself was under investigation. One of his numerous brothers, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, was convicted in New York of a drug conspiracy in 2019.

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 new Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has also included “corruption and lack of respect for human rights” as causes of migration, according to a State Department summary of a call with his Honduran counterpart.