Honduras’ embattled president, Juan Orlando Hernández, suffered a new blow after New York’s Southern District Court identified him as a co-conspirator in a drug trafficking case involving his younger brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández. The new accusations, which by now aren’t really surprising, provide further evidence of the close ties between the incumbent National Party (PN) and drug trafficking in the Central American nation of nine million. Although time seems to be running out for Hernández—who in the past has survived similar crises and massive protests demanding his resignation—the question remains of who will lead the country if he is eventually forced to step down.
Corruption and drug trafficking under the National Party
The PN is one of Honduras’ oldest parties, consecutively in power since the 2009 general election, which took place in the wake of the coup against leftist president Manuel Zelaya (2005-2009). Under the PN governments led by Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo (2010-2014) and Juan Orlando Hernández (2014-present), the country has been involved in recurring scandals involving top PN officials and their hidden dealings with corruption, drug trafficking and even election fraud, leaving the nation on the brink of collapse.
Last weekend’s revelations concerning Juan Orlando Hernández (or JOH, as he is popularly known) add further evidence of the PN’s involvement in illegal activities. Hernández is no stranger to such accusations. In 2015, Hernández acknowledged that his party had taken at least $147,783 from the Honduran Social Security Institute (IHSS)—agency in charge of pensions and healthcare—to help fund his 2013 election campaign. This was a small portion of an approximate $200 million total that was embezzled from the IHSS dating back to the Lobo presidency—leaving Honduras’ already fragile welfare regime practically bankrupt.
If the widespread embezzlement of public funds is already a source of serious concern, then the ties between the PN and drug trafficking have made the situation even worse. In recent years, a series of arrests have shed light on the closely knitted relationship between the PN leadership and drug kingpins. In 2015, an undercover Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) operative arrested Fabio Lobo, the son of former president “Pepe” Lobo, for planning to smuggle cocaine into the United States. During his trial, prosecutors proved that the president’s son regularly conducted business with Los Cachiros, a Honduran criminal organization with ties to the Sinaloa Cartel (the relationship was so personal that prosecutors even provided photographs detailing the bond between Pepe, Fabio and Javier Rivera Maradiaga, the leader of the Cachiros). Fabio is currently serving a 24-year sentence in New York.
Last November, “Tony” Hernández, the sitting president’s younger brother, was arrested in Miami. The Southern District Court of New York identified Tony, who was a PN representative of Congress from 2014 to 2018, as the head of a criminal organization in charge of smuggling cocaine into the United States. Prosecutors stated that Tony benefited from his high-level connections during Pepe’s presidency, as well as his status as Juan Orlando’s brother (then president of Congress), to bribe public officials and transport illicit cargo. He was apparently so unconcerned with being caught that he branded his initials (TH) on his cocaine shipments. Tony is currently awaiting trial in New York. Prosecutors are asking for a 40-year jail sentence.
With their inner-family circles under the radar of U.S. authorities, it was only a matter of time for Lobo and Hernández to be called out on their involvement in illegal activities. Even though prosecutors released damaging evidence on both, as sitting president, it is JOH who has taken on more heat for allegedly receiving $1.5 million in drug trafficking money for his political campaigns. The president responded by arguing that the new evidence is simply “vengeance from drug traffickers” for having been extradited to the United States. Yet, as the president’s position weakens, and the PN elite starts turning its back on him (as evidenced by Pepe’s recurring attacks against JOH on social media and the emergence of new factions within the party), it seems plausible to think that Pepe and Hernández are next in line to be extradited.
The morning after #FueraJOH
Ever since the embezzlement of the IHSS, thousands of Hondurans have publicly demanded Hernández’ resignation. Through familiar chants that have even united fans of rival football teams Olimpia and Motagua, and the #fuerajoh on social media (JOH out), it seems that the president has lost the remaining public support he enjoyed. While Hondurans are tired of the corruption and mismanagement under the PN, the key question is who will stand up to the challenge of governing the country if Hernández eventually is forced from the presidency.
The options on the table, unfortunately, are mostly discouraging. According to the country’s 1982 constitution, a presidential vacancy would result in one of the three vice-presidents (designados presidenciales) to lead an interim government until the next general election, which is scheduled for November 2021. Yet, Ricardo Álvarez, Olga Alvarado and María Antonia Rivera, all from the ruling PN, are either too closely tied to Hernández or are politically weak.
Álvarez, the first vice president and an influential PN boss, has been a key ally of Hernández since his 2013 election. Álvarez was rewarded for his loyalty by keeping his post following the 2017 election. Alvarado also belongs to Hernandez’s inner political circle after serving as undersecretary during his first term in office. Rivera, a political outsider with ties to the private sector, lacks the political support within her own party to become president—let alone to lead the country out of a crisis.
The next person in line is Mauricio Oliva, the PN president of Congress. A party hardliner from the southern department of Choluteca, Oliva was a crucial figure in the 2017 questionable reelection of Hernández, tainted by fraud (the Organization of American States (OAS) recommended a new election be held). As president of the legislative branch since 2014, he has been personally responsible for overseeing the government’s legislative agenda. Oliva too has been on the radar of local prosecutors. In 2018, the Support Mission against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH), an OAS backed anti-graft commission, announced it was investigating Oliva, alongside with 60 other deputies, on corruption charges. The investigation, however, was cut short after the PN-packed Supreme Court ruled in favor of Oliva’s appeal to halt the process against him.
Across the aisle, the leftist Freedom and Refoundation Party (LIBRE)—the main opposition party led by former president Manuel “Mel” Zelaya—falls short from representing a viable option for ruling the country. LIBRE, which works as an umbrella organization for different groups, has been continuously torn between radical and moderate factions—though it is the former who usually makes national headlines. In the last couple of months, party deputies burned a copy of the Constitution in the middle of a congressional debate, while groups that responded to the party’s call for protests came close to setting the U.S. embassy on fire. The party’s incendiary actions sent the wrong message to the local and international community. Hondurans do not want to see the country burn; they simply want solutions for their urgent problems. Unless LIBRE can rein the pyromaniacs in its party, then it will continue to be seen as too extreme to rule the country.
In between the PN and LIBRE is the Liberal Party (PL). The PL, which was once one of the country’s strongest political parties, all-but-broke down following the 2009 coup. In the last two presidential elections of 2013 and 2017, the party received 20.3 percent and 14.7 percent of votes, respectively. Now, the party is led by the uncharismatic Luis Zelaya (no relation to Mel), a former university provost who in the eyes of the public is better known for suing his own mother over his father’s will rather than building an effective opposition to the PN. Personal issues aside, the lack of Zelaya’s coalition-building skills became manifest when in 2017 he refused to join LIBRE in a single coalition against Hernández. Instead, Zelaya opted to pursue a personal candidacy that resulted in the party’s worst electoral performance since democratization in the early 1980’s. In retrospect, the PL’s vote share could have tipped the balance in favor of Salvador Nasralla, who ran on the platform of the Alianza coalition and lost by less than 60,000 votes.
Hope for the future?
While Honduras’ political future looks grim, two features could change the situation. First, there is hope in the country’s youth. Granted, the old guard must first step down for younger ranks to eventually rise. The good news is that there is potential in figures from the opposition including Jórge Cálix, a LIBRE deputy representing Francisco Morazán (the department where Tegucigalpa, Honduras’ capital, is located); José Eduardo Martell, a former PL presidential primary candidate; and Gabriela Blen, who led the movimiento de los indignados, or the protests against corruption triggered by the embezzlement of the IHSS.
A second feature consists of coalition building between LIBRE and the PL. Honduras’ youth needs to be more pragmatic than their stubborn predecessors in reaching agreements. If both parties fail—yet again—to unite in a single front against the PN as they did in 2013 and 2017, then a fourth PN government should not be discarded. But maybe a third time will be the charm.
In the meantime, Honduras’ continuous state of crisis seems nowhere near coming to an end. With an uncompromising opposition that fails to coordinate, as well as a former and sitting president besieged by growing evidence of drug trafficking, the political landscape is filled with despair. PN opponents need to set their differences aside and prove that they are ready to rule the country. If not, then Honduras risks falling into a power vacuum that will further undermine its already weakened democracy.
Lucas Perelló is a PhD candidate in Politics at The New School for Social Research. You can follow him on twitter @lucasperello