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'Deeply alarming corruption': US bill would sanction Honduran president

Group of Democratic senators introducing legislation that would suspend certain US assistance.

The Guardian | Nina Lakhani

February 23, 2021, 11:46am ET

Juan Orlando Hernández, center, speaks as the national police chief, Orbin Galo, and the armed forces chief, Tito Livio Moreno, listen at the presidential palace in Tegucigalpa, on 16 February. Photograph: Orlando Sierra/AFP/Getty Images

A group of influential Democratic senators are introducing legislation which would sanction the president of Honduras – an alleged drug trafficker and key US ally – and cut off financial aid and ammunition sales to the country’s security forces which are implicated in widespread human rights abuses and criminal activities.

The Honduras Human Rights and Anti-Corruption Act, co-sponsored by Senators Jeff Merkley, Bernie Sanders, Patrick Leahy, Ed Markey, Elizabeth Warren, Dick Durbin, Sheldon Whitehouse and Chris Van Hollen, would suspend certain US assistance to the Central American country until corruption and human rights violations are no longer systemic, and the perpetrators of these crimes start facing justice.

Joe Biden has vowed to tackle the root causes of migration from Central America’s northern triangle – Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador – the most violent region in the world outside an official war zone, which accounts for most migrants and refugees seeking safety and economic opportunities in the US.

This bill makes clear that tackling migration from Honduras will be impossible if the US continues to prop up the president, Juan Orlando Hernández, and the security forces.

It lays bare the violence and abuses perpetrated since the 2009 military-backed coup, as a result of widespread collusion between government officials, state and private security forces, organized crime and business leaders.

It also catalogues the systematic use of force against civilians, a clampdown on the freedom of speech and protest, and targeted attacks such as arbitrary arrests, assassinations, forced disappearances and fabricated criminal charges against human rights and environmental defenders, political opponents and journalists.

In the past year alone, at least 34,000 citizens have been detained for violating curfew and lockdown restrictions including nurse Kelya Martinez, who earlier this month was killed in police custody.

“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 Merkley, who serves on the Senate foreign relations committee. “A failure to hold President Hernández, national officials and 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.”

This is the first time the Senate has proposed legislation which could genuinely threaten the post-coup regime, which has used drug money, stolen public funds and fraud to maintain its grip on power with few consequences from the international community.

Hernández, who has been identified as a co-conspirator in three major drug trafficking and corruption cases brought by New York prosecutors, would be investigated under the Kingpin Act to determine whether he is a designated narcotics trafficker – a criminal status given to drug bosses like Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Hernández has repeatedly denied any links to drug trafficking including prior knowledge about his younger brother’s cocaine and arms deals for which he was convicted in New York last year.

The bill also details Hernández’s role in the demise of the rule of law in the country: as a congressman, he supported the 2009 coup, and later created the militarized police force which is implicated in extrajudicial killings, oversaw a purge of the judiciary and pushed through unconstitutional reforms in order to stay in power and shield corrupt officials from prosecution.

Hernández, who has so far enjoyed a close relationship with key military and political leaders, would have his US visa revoked and assets frozen as part of the proposed sanctions.

The bill would also ban the export of munitions including teargas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, water cannons, handcuffs, stun guns, Tasers and semi-automatic firearms until the security forces manage 12 months without committing human rights violations. Financial assistance including equipment and training would also be suspended, though waivers in the national interest would remain possible. The US would also vote against multilateral development bank loans to the security forces.

“This legislation is designed to send a clear message to Biden that it will be impossible to tackle the root causes of migration without getting rid of Hernández and withdrawing support from the security forces which have a long track record of corruption, organised crime and repression,” said Dana Frank, professor of history at the University of California and author of The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup

In order for the restrictions to be lifted, Honduran authorities would need to demonstrate that it had pursued all legal avenues to prosecute those who ordered, carried out and covered up high-profile crimes including the assassination of indigenous environmentalist Berta Cáceres, the killing of more than 100 campesinos in the Bajo Aguán, the extrajudicial killings of anti-election fraud protesters, and the forced disappearance of Afro-indigenous Garifuna land defenders.

© 2021 Guardian News & Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved.

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