Is there any way out of this narco-dictatorship?
When Tony Hernández was convicted of drug trafficking,
everything pointed to his brother, Juan Orlando Hernández,
as operating a narco-State in Honduras.
The elections scheduled for November 2021,
and the orgnization of an opposition coalition by the LIBRE party,
have breathed new life into a regime that was in its death throes.
What are the chancesies of making it to the end of that democratic path
and achieving a new social compact?
Ismael Moreno, SJ
After a New York jury handed down Tony Hernández’s conviction, all roads seemed to close off for his brother, Juan Orlando (“Tony”) Hernández, now in his second consecutive term as President of Honduras. But the country so tightly controlled by JOH, as he is commonly referred to, has not yet found a way to retrieve the constitutional order, the rule of law and democracy. Such a path is hard to find and even harder to travel down, because Honduras has been inexorably trapped in what could be called the Hernández cartel over more than a decade.
Simultaneously accused of pillaging public institutions, protecting criminals, controlling all branches of government and, therefore, heading a dictatorship, none of these labels define Juan Orlando Hernández as precisely as that of government handler for narco-business. Being a drug king is his true calling card.
His direct responsibility for building a narco-criminal infrastructure in Honduras was proven to be more than a rumor after the verdict handed down by the Southern District Court of New York, a federal court, on October 18, finding his brother Tony guilty of conspiring to import drugs to US territory, possession of high-caliber weapons, illegal arms trafficking and false testimony.
The accumulated information and testimony backing up the district attorney’s charges showed Tony Hernández to be part of a criminal structure operating under his brother’s direct responsibility since at least 2004, 10 years before Juan Orlando was elected the head of the government’s executive branch. From there he has converted the State’s institutionality into a cartel for trafficking drugs and other illegal goods.
In the more than 100 times Juan Orlando was named by witnesses at the trial, held between October 2 and 15, he was identified as the narco-President of a national government, a power status that not even the greatest drug kingpins from Al Capone to Pablo Escobar, from Amado Carrillo to Chapo Guzmán, had ever achieved.
JOH will remain in power
Despite all that came to light during the trial, there is no doubt Juan Orlando Hernández will remain in power, although eight in ten Hondurans wish it weren’t so. While his brother Tony will serve a life sentence in the United States, it’s highly likely Juan Orlando will hold on to his presidential investiture, because Washington has no replacement that would guarantee a stable Honduras. It would prefer to continue backing a “bad but familiar drug trafficker.”
Despite his own disrepute and that of his National Party, JOH could continue to control the country effectively through the all-encompassing grip on institutions he has acquired over the course of a decade.
He still enjoys the loyalty of a significant segment of the armed forces, although he did have to quash at least three coup attempts in the last half of this year, according to presidential palace sources and the armed forces themselves.
He can count on the acquiescence of a majority of legislators in the National Congress, not just his own party’s representatives. He has tacit agreements with opposition sectors, including the Liberal Party and even Mel Zelaya’s LIBRE (Freedom and Refounding) party, having already gotten them all to agree that the current political and social turmoil should lead to and be “resolved” by elections in November 2021.
He enjoys close relations with “civil society” groups that have co-governed with him, keeping in the public eye the role of those auditing the performance of a range of government institutions. He is further backed by a successful information control strategy thanks to his alliance with the owners of the country’s most important media outlets.
He also has in his corner around 300,000 families, drowning in poverty, who are beneficiaries of welfare-oriented projects under the “Better Life” program, which receives an injection of IDB funds and resources from the Security Tax, which the President uses at his discretion. And finally, he has the support of the US State Department and the Southern Command.
Life support from
the electoral route…
Many considered JOH’s rule to finally be in its death throes, having fallen victim to its own abuses of power, insatiable corruption and lies; but four release valves have given him enough oxygen to stay alive. Without them, he would have been ousted from the presidential palace before the end of 2019 to be tried in the courts and sentenced to many years behind bars.
The first release valve, which gave him just enough air to come back to life, is having opted for the electoral process
as the way out of the political crisis that intensified after the fraudulent elections of November 2017. In choosing this route, Hernández deigned to include LIBRE party representatives in electoral bodies.
…the LIBRE party…
The narco-dictatorship received a good hit of oxygen when it agreed with LIBRE on the electoral route as the mechanism for resolving the crisis. The participation of LIBRE—the opposition party with the most power in the current climate—has been decisive in legitimizing the dictatorship, even though it has not abandoned its rhetoric and its slogan of “Out with JOH!”
LIBRE has sold its support for the next electoral process by insisting that it’s a key tool in the struggle to defeat the dictatorship. Nonetheless, neither JOH nor National Congress President Mauricio Oliva seem to feel threatened by the role LIBRE will play in the electoral bodies. Quite the opposite: Oliva states that LIBRE’s participation shows the triumph of democracy and trumpets it as a personal victory achieved thanks to his role leading the National Congress.
The clearest signal that LIBRE’s own leadership recognizes they have given the dictatorship—or at least JOH—the oxygen needed to stay alive politically, is the fierce and irrational way they defend their decision, and their intolerance of any questioning or criticism of their actions. LIBRE’s spokespeople argue that those who question the agreement underestimate the sacrifices that have been made to gain these roles in the electoral bodies, affirming that the spaces were obtained through a struggle that took the life of “martyr.s.” They accuse critics of playing into the hands of the dictatorship, having an NGO mentality and failing to recognize LIBRE’s right as a majority party to hold positions in the electoral entities.
LIBRE’s leaders base their argument on the conviction that their presence in the electoral structures won’t just guarantee transparency in the elections, but will also ensure that these entities will recognize any victory at the ballot box for their presidential candidate and other LIBRE candidates.
It’s anathema to say that LIBRE has provided Orlando a respite and those who say it are, in religious parlance, heretics. That being said, the view that LIBRE’s agreement has been the main release valve for the dictatorship is supported by the facts. President Hernández has not only survived and recovered; he has even gotten the Trump administration to confirm him as Washington’s second most important partner in Central America, behind Salvadoran President Nayib Bukele.
…the Trump administration…
The next release valve for JOH was opened by Washington and the US government, as demonstrated by the short but symbolic meeting between Trump and Hernández during the UN’s annual General Assembly sessions in New York. It went beyond the usual effusive handshake, with Trump showering JOH with praise for his love of Honduras and affirming that they would continue to forge ahead together.
It’s true that in the months prior to his brother’s trial in New York, the US legal system was determining Juan Orlando Hernández’s present and near future, beyond the State Department’s political definitions. But it’s also true that the institutions that have daily turned eyes, ears and minds to Honduras are the State Department and Southern Command, not the Supreme Court.
…and social movements
The final release valve that has given Hernández fresh air comes from the so-called social movements. The last decade has seen the growth of environmental, community and grassroots social movements throughout the country defending water, land and the cultures that occupy them against the extractive companies that exploit natural resources. Many lives have been mowed down in the struggle for common goods and the environment, with Berta Cáceres the most emblematic among them.
The struggles waged by these movements have a dual dynamic. On the one hand, they express an awakening consciousness in communities and among their leaders. On the other, they spring from the environmental agendas of international cooperation agencies. While the population’s consciousness is a decisive factor in the movements’ growth and development, international cooperation determines the economic investment. This contributes to trapping the communities and organizations within their local dynamics, where they lose sight of the national dimension of these problems. By underwriting their activities, international cooperation contributes, whether actively or passively, to community-based and social struggles losing their political edge and weakening the organizing, mobilizing mystique of the poor.
Using the abstract language peculiar to international cooperation, many leaders of these organizations are radically coherent in their criticism of neoliberalism and extractive projects, but are loathe to link up with other national sectors
that could weaken their own role as protagonists or lead to relationships that go beyond the ones they have with their donors.
There are hundreds of community-based environmental defense organizations that are acutely conscious of the threats the extractive industries represent but lack the capacity and the will to join national political struggles that are also tied to the evil of extractivism. The excessive criticism they steadily aim at “politicians” ends up heightening these movements’ isolation and dispersion, fostering the skepticism and pessimism with which they regard other sectors that are neither their counterparts in environmental defense nor on the international funders’ agendas.
The electoral path is
just more of the same/
The first pathway to open up in these turbulent, uncertain times leads to more of the same: continuing the business
as usual of an authoritarian, criminal institutionality. It’s the continuation of Juan Orlando’s brand of leadership, preferably with him at its head; though it could do without him as long as leadership is wielded by the corrupt punishment-immune structure that has controlled government institutions for the last decade.
This is a path linked to the National Party leadership, specifically the team tightly bound up in JOH’s trajectory. In the current climate, it is tied to the electoral process, which will further extend Juan Orlando’s destruction of institutionality. Going down it entails a pact of impunity, which would be signed not just by JOH’s inner circle, but also by military leadership, the business elite concentrated in the Honduran National Business Council (COHEP), pro-government civil society organizations from Tegucigalpa and union leaders. Other, unofficial signers include the leadership of formal political opposition parties, including LIBRE.
A coup d’état?
A second pathway is a coup, which is only a variation on the first path, overlapping the interests of far-right power brokers. Leadership would be held by the segment of the armed forces unhappy with Juan Orlando Hernández, not for ideological reasons, much less patriotic motivations, but stemming from resentments and discontent at having seen some commanders relegated in the line of succession in disregard of advancement and promotions.
On this path the visible heads of the current regime would be displaced, and JOH’s closest accomplices would be purged, left to the mercy of the courts.
This pathway might have been viable in the first half of this year, but it grew progressively weaker until being abandoned in early October, when the regime, via the Armed Forces Joint Chiefs of Staff, dismantled a coup attempt, discharged several officers and placed a dozen coronels on standby.
With this move, JOH kept the most submissive, servile and corrupt officers. With them and his team of sycophantic politicians in the executive branch and the National Congress, he decided to move ahead with elections in November 2021 as the best way to stabilize his authoritarian project.
A new social compact?
A third pathway would be a new social compact. Getting there would involve a latticework of alliances among diverse opposition sectors, some of which, like LIBRE, are already implicitly committed to the first path: the institutional continuation of Juan Orlando’s brand of leadership in the next electoral process.
A new social and political compact would be the best means to progress toward recovery of the rule of law. But
it is the most complex path, with the least likelihood of becoming reality in a country mired in polarization and mutual mistrust that lead to confrontation not just between traditional political foes, but also among grassroots sectors whose common issues and interests should theoretically make them allies.
The pitfalls along such a path were made clear on October 19, just one day after the verdict in New York against Tony Hernández, when opposition leaders—Manuel Zelaya, Salvador Nasralla and Luis Zelaya—surprised the country by announcing they were forming what they named an Opposition Unity Coalition with the sole purpose of defeating JOH at the polls. They called on all social forces to back the coalition; but their unexpected decision found a cool reception among the populace.
Where does this
coalition come from?
Manuel Zelaya explained that the coalition sprang up spontaneously that very day, after a morning of helicopters flying over the capital, frequently dipping low to buzz his residence. That, he said, was when he decided to call Salvador Nasralla, then Luis Zelaya, and both immediately agreed to form the unity coalition. A scant hour later they had set it up.
That same day, the three called on the population and their bases to mobilize on the following Monday, but the grassroots response was rife with caution and suspicion.
What weighted heaviest, perhaps, was the fear generated by the dark events of the 2017 repression that followed the electoral fraud and official “peacemaking.” It successfully combined police and military repression; stigmatizing of protest; the arrest, trial and jailing of dozens of opposition members; the murder of dozens of protestors; and a media campaign in support of the repression.
All together this worked to demobilize huge swaths of protesters who, rejecting Juan Orlando Hernández, decided to take their rage and shut themselves up in their domestic spheres, from which they would toss invective and make proposals, now through the social media instead of on the streets.
Fear of repression wasn’t the only reason people ignored the summons issued by the new coalition. They also declined to respond due to the skepticism opposition leaders have provoked. Many who had participated in the lengthy protest sessions and long marches of those years had to accept, first grudgingly and then openly, that their leaders—
even as they were calling for insurrection— would sit down to dialogue with their adversaries and arrive at summit agreements behind the people’s back. This is why there are so many disenchanted people unwilling to take
to the streets to heed a call from leaders whom they would later see seated among representatives of the narco-State, reaching new agreements.
A sole consensus:
Although continuity tends to dominate among the three paths, social and political opposition sectors are holding out hope for a citizens’ awakening that would light a new, mobilizing spark before the social environment is overtaken by the electoral campaign scheduled to commence in 2020 and overwhelm everything with its promise-laden propaganda.
A new social compact would entail consensus agreements among those who lead the new Opposition Unity Coalition and the social sectors clustered in the Health and Education Defense Platform, in the Convergence against Continuity and the many other social movements scattered but active throughout the country. To start, the only consensus that would unite this other collection of opposition forces would be the fight to get Juan Orlando Hernández out of government. Any other debates would be postponed and de-prioritized.
A transition period?
Should State Department pressure increase, the organized business sector decide to withdraw its support for the dictatorship and discontent grow among a sector of militry officers to the point of fracture, it will be necessary to have a proposal ready for a transition period.
There would be at least two formulas for the transition. The first involves US government pressure forcing the National Congress to make JOH’s resignation official and naming a transitional governing junta instead of replacing him with a designated presidential successor or with the National Congress president.
The other formula would be for the National Congress to make official the victory that wide swaths of the grassroots sector continue to believe were the real November 2017 election results, and accept the presidential ticket headed by Salvador Nasralla, the true purported winner of those elections.
For something like that to occur, consensus would have to be hammered out among those who head the new Opposition Unity Coalition. But this possibility will be just conjecture and wishful thinking—a kind of political fiction—unless the social immobility is broken and the rejection of the dictator converts into grassroots pressure.
A period of extreme tension
The lack of mass protests both gives the regime some peace and turns demobilization into a convincing argument that the opposition is made up of merely minority groups.
The populace’s generalized demobilization also leads to extremely repressive responses to those who do choose to take to the streets in protest. It further makes it easier for the regime to infiltrate any protest with elements favoring the dictatorship and provoke acts of violence that justify criminalizing protests and an even more violent response from armed forces.
Despite the citizenry’s apparent passivity, the environment is highly charged, as can be seen in JOH’s countenance, which appears threatening, aggressive and irritated, as well as depressed, with signs of exhaustion and extended sleeplessness. His collaborators wear furrowed brows and worried, dismissive faces.
Times of audacity
While Juan Orlando Hernández is on the defensive, his party’s top brass is working hard to distance him from his brother. They point out that the person found guilty is Juan Antonio, so Juan Orlando is the innocent victim of drug traffickers who want revenge on the man who disbanded their dirty businesses and will remain steadfast in the fight against drug trafficking.
The more serious the accusations and evidence of JPH’s links to major drug traffickers, the more visibility is given to the campaign to paint him as the leader who has done the most in the country’s history to fight drug trafficking. No one among his collaborators, sycophants and closest employees can see in him even an iota of responsibility for the crime the government organized. According to official rhetoric, criminals and drug traffickers are the “others”; in fact you even have to look for them in LIBRE and other parties. This extreme audacity seeks to show that nothing has happened, and everything is “norma.”
Óscar Nájera, the National Party legislator in Colón state, repeatedly identified as one of the close collaborators of the Cachiros cartel and others, dared to declare that never in his life has his drivers’ license even been suspended, that it’s all a hoax perpetrated by the enemies of democracy and of his Catholic faith, because he prays every morning, noon, evening and night....
Juan Orlando Hernández’s spokespeople also attack his accusers by saying they are part of a Bolivian plot to drive Honduras into the communist maelstrom and resume the path that “Honduran democrats” cut short in June 2009 with the coup d’état that ousted Mel Zelaya.
The National Party’s cynicism has no known limits in the current context—one of increased disrepute surrounding it given the accumulated evidence of its corruption and participation in drug trafficking—. Its legislators, who hold
the majority in Congress, approved two decrees immediately published in the official gazette on October 18, the same day Tony Hernández was found guilty in New York. The purpose of one of them was to reactivate the highly suspect Department Fund, which gives legislators access to public funds at their discretion for “social works.” The other stipulates that these funds can only be audited after three years and by the High Court of Auditors—long-politicized and under their control—by which they intend to avoid any action by public prosecutors.
All roads lead to JOH
On October 26, Nery Orlando López Sanabria, a.k.a. Magdaleno Meza Fúnez, convicted of asset laundering and arms and drug trafficking, was murdered in the maximum-security prison known as El Pozo (the Pit), in Ilama, Santa Bárbara. One of Tony Hernández’s most trusted associates, López Sanabria had faked his own death and took on the new identity in an attempt to avoid his arrest. Rumors are that he did so on the advice of those who take orders from Tony.
The notebook the New York district attorney used as evidence to incriminate Tony Hernández, which contained recorded transactions and names related to drug trafficking, belonged to this man. He had earlier escaped certain death when the hand grenade meant to kill him was found on the body of the purported assassin.
The prevailing rumor back then was that this death was planned out of an office at the presidential palace. With so much incriminating information in his power, it’s no surprise that many fingers point not to Tony Hernández, who now has nothing to lose, but to his brother, the only one interested in erasing the prints that could prove his commitment to years of narco-business.
Highly dangerous times
The stalemate of confrontation and polarization in Honduras, answered with vengeance and repression, has been broken following the New York verdict. Juan Orlando Hernández has decided to stay in the Presidential Palace come hell or high water and has crafted a strategy to keep him there, with the presidency to shield him.
But many say this hostage to his own ambition faces very limited prospects: jail or revenge by people or groups who consider him a traitor. He knows this and it’s why he needs the presidential palace as a shield behind which to fire
at his enemies, with a total lack of both scruples and limits.
There can be no more dangerous, risky environment for political opposition and all the organizations and groups that have publicly called for him to step down from power and for his subsequent prosecution. Only massive, organized and mobilized grassroots pressure can shield Honduran society from the threat.
Ismael Moreno, sj, is the envío correspondent in Honduras.