Honduras is ruled by a US-backed drug cartel – and the country’s opposition just united to oust it

“The process of uniting the opposition has begun, to oust the DRUG TRAFFICKERS, who rule us with the dictatorship of Juan Orlando,” a leader of the new coalition proclaimed.

By Ben Norton

The main forces in the political opposition in Honduras have come together in an historic unity agreement to oust the right-wing government of President Juan Orlando Hernández — one of the most corrupt regimes on Earth.

Hernández, commonly referred to by his initials JOH, is a key US ally in Central America, and is notorious for his documented involvement in the international narcotics trade.

While the United States federal government and military has thrown its weight behind JOH and his unpopular government, the US justice system recently confirmed his role in drug trafficking and the shocking levels of corruption festering under his watch.

The Grayzone discussed these developments with a leader of the Honduran opposition, who explained the importance of his new unity agreement and the steps forward. The interview follows below.

A close US ally trafficking mountains of drugs and guns

On October 18, a US district court convicted JOH’s brother Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández of trafficking nearly 200,000 kilograms (440,000 pounds) of cocaine, as well as machine guns.

The US attorney for the Southern District of New York District Court explained in the conviction, “Former Honduran congressman Tony Hernandez was involved in all stages of the trafficking through Honduras of multi-ton loads of cocaine that were destined for the U.S. Hernandez bribed law enforcement officials to protect drug shipments, solicited large bribes from major drug traffickers, and arranged machine gun-toting security for cocaine shipments.”

The Southern District described Tony Hernández as “a large-scale drug trafficker who worked with other drug traffickers in, among other places, Colombia, Honduras, and Mexico, to import cocaine into the United States,” over a period of roughly 15 years, beginning in 2004.

The court added that he “controlled cocaine laboratories in Honduras and Colombia, where some of his cocaine shipments were stamped with the symbol ‘TH,’ for ‘Tony Hernández.'”

Tony transported large amounts of drugs with the help of members of JOH’s Honduran National Police, who were also used to carry out multiple drug-related murders.

While presiding over this crime network, Tony Hernández was a prominent politician in the National Party of Honduras, the nation’s ruling right-wing party, which is led by his brother, JOH.

In fact, the US federal court directly implicated JOH, one of Washington’s closest allies in the region, in the drug trafficking operation.

The court noted that Tony “funneled millions of dollars of drug proceeds to National Party campaigns to impact Honduran presidential elections in 2009, 2013, and 2017.”

According to the US district court, infamous Mexican drug lord El Chapo even personally delivered a $1 million bribe to JOH to help him rig the 2013 national elections in Honduras.

Suffocating austerity and skyrocketing poverty

Juan Orlando Hernández stands accused of using drug money to fund his wildly unpopular regime, enriching a small handful of elites while the rest of the country falls into disarray.

A staunch right-winger, JOH has imposed neoliberal economic policies and brutal austerity measures that have significantly boosted poverty and caused inequality to skyrocket.

Honduras has become one of the poorest countries in all of Latin America, if not the poorest, with 67 percent of the population below the poverty line. Studies show as many as 50 percent of Hondurans are unemployed.

A staggering 77 percent of Honduran children live in households that are in poverty; one in five children suffer from chronic malnutrition; and only 58 percent attend school, according to UNICEF. And poverty is only getting worse.

So too is the violence. After a 2009 US-backed military coup ousted Honduras’ democratically elected left-wing President Manuel Zelaya and installed a right-wing regime, violence in the country soared. By 2012 it had the highest murder rate in the world.

This toxic mixture of factors has unleashed a massive refugee crisis, pushing more than 300 Hondurans to leave their country every single day.

The Grayzone traveled to Honduras’ capital Tegucigalpa in June and July to report on the 10th anniversary of the coup and the government’s violent repression of workers and anti-privatization protesters.

Uniting the opposition

Faced with unbearable corruption, suffocating neoliberal economic policies, and violent repression, Honduras’ leading opposition factions have come together to form a political alliance aimed at unseating President Juan Orlando Hernández.

The opposition in Honduras is largely led by the leftist Libre Party, headed by former President Manuel Zelaya, who was ousted in the 2009 coup, overseen by then US President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

On October 19, Manuel Zelaya convened a meeting with Salvador Nasralla, a centrist, reform-minded politician who won the 2017 president election – before the victory was stolen from him – and Luis Zelaya, the leader of the Liberal Party (and of no relation to Manuel Zelaya).

In announcing the meeting, Zelaya said, “the process of uniting the opposition has begun, to oust the DRUG TRAFFICKERS, who rule us with the dictatorship of Juan Orlando.”

Nasralla wrote they were meeting “to save Honduras from the drug traffickers.”

The opposition leaders signed a one-page document announcing the creation of a “Coalition of the United Opposition,” and calling for “the departure of the dictatorship and the formation of a democratic government.”

The declaration condemned “the kidnapping of the state by a group of individuals who colluded to commit multiple crimes,” and says “the presence of the dictatorship makes impossible an institutional solution with the justice system.”

The document added that the US district court’s conviction of Tony Hernández “is an irrefutable exhibition of how in Honduras power is held by a criminal network of drug trafficking and corruption and how the justice system in Honduras does not exist.”

In the agreement, the opposition leaders called on “all the political, social, and business sectors of the country to join this United Coalition against the dictatorship and for the rescue of the homeland.”

It announced that the nationwide protests would begin on October 21, and “the mobilization is permanent and indefinite, until the departure of the dictatorship.”

Interview with Honduran opposition leader

To better understand the steps forward for the Honduran opposition, The Grayzone interviewed Gerardo Torres, the international secretary of the Libre Party, which orchestrated the unity coalition. The following is a lightly edited transcription of our interview:

BEN NORTON: Is this opposition alliance an unprecedented step in the struggle against the Juan Orlando Hernández government? Is this the first time the opposition unified?

GERARDO TORRES: No. Since day one, since the coup d’etat against President Zelaya in June 2009, we have always tried to get together as many movements, political organizations, and social organizations as we could. We created on the day of the coup the National Resistance Front, and we had in that front all the workers, campesinos, students, feminists, the church, environmentalists, indigenous, and Garifunas, in a single platform.

Then in 2011 we created the Libre Party, that was also a big platform.

Then in 2016 we created the opposition alliance, which didn’t only have people from the left, but also people from the center, and even people from the right, that were tired and against the regime that started after the coup or because of the coup.

So he had this opposition alliance. In 2017 we wont hat election. We also had won the election in 2013. In both cases they stole the elections.

This is part of what we are; this is part of how we understand the struggle, and how we understand the necessities and the political objectives that we should follow. We believe unity is the most important value.

We always try to get together with other forces to fight against the enemy, that is the same enemy that we all face, that is the regime, the drug traffickers, the assassins, the corrupt that have taken power for more than 10 years, and that have stayed in power because of their use of violence.

BEN NORTON: How is this alliance different from before?

GERARDO TORRES: Every time it is different from the time before, because every time is bigger.

The first time we created this unity between two groups that were historically separated, people of the Liberal Party and people of the leftist political movements and social movements. I came from that second group; we never believed in the Liberal Party or in the democratic process as a solution to the Honduran problem.

But the Liberals who were backing Zelaya after the coup decided to get together with us, and we created the Resistance Front.

In 2015, we got together with the Indignados, which was a social movement, especially of young people, against corruption.

And in 2016 and 2017, with those people who had already been in the streets for a year, we created the Opposition Alliance. So that time it was bigger than what we had done before in the Resistance Front in 2009 and 2010.

Now this year we have the doctors, nurses, and health workers; we have the teachers movement; we have the anti-corruption movement; we have the Libre Party; we have the Resistance Front. And we even have some businessmen that have gotten together with us and showed interest in our struggle.

Our position has not changed in the last 10 years. We have always said that this is a regime; we have always said they use murder, assassination, torture to fight against the opposition.

And many of the groups that did not believe us at the beginning have now started to believe us, and to understand that what we have been saying in this decade is not false; in fact it is true.

BEN NORTON: Do you think the US is still committed to propping up JOH? Or does Washington have someone else in mind they hope to replace him with?

GERARDO TORRES: It is really hard, especially in countries like Honduras, which are so dependent on the United States. I think that there is a big policy decision, that is to support Hernández, because that position has been taken by Southern Command and by the US embassy in Tegucigalpa.

But I think there are also other voices in the United States that are tired and are trying to stop that support for this regime. There are groups in the United States that are against this regime.

We saw the visit of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi two months ago, where she decided not to meet with Hernández. We have seen the position of Congresswoman Norma Torres has been really strong against Hernández.

And we have seen the DEA and the [US District Court of the] Southern District of New York have decided to start an investigation against Hernandez’s brother, and against Hernandez himself. We have seen that the DEA has announced that they are not only going to investigate the relationships of Tony Hernández with the drug cartels, but they are also going to investigate Juan Orlando Hernández, the president of Honduras, and his connections with these crime organizations. They have called him a person of interest.

But it is one thing if the South District or the DEA wants to investigate, but the other thing is that there is a geopolitical situation in which the United States is not willing to sacrifice or put in danger its position in the region, with its prime military base in Palmerola, just 80 kilometers from Tegucigalpa, and create an instability or allow a government that is not as obedient as the Hernandez government to get into power.

The United States has this discourse, has this public position in which they are fighting against corruption and fighting against drug cartels, but in fact what they are doing in Honduras is they are supporting a drug cartel, they are supporting corrupt government, just because this corrupt drug cartel government gives them benefits in their geopolitical maneuvers or strategies to control, or to pace possible threats to their interests, in Latin America.

BEN NORTON: If the protests that start on October 21 succeed in forcing JOH to resign, what would the strategy for a transition of power be?

GERARDO TORRES: There are two positions in Honduras. There is the position of the people who are more to the right and the center, who are more used to being obedient to the United States, and are more used to receiving orders from the United States.

These people believe that what we should do is try to convince the United States embassy, or Southern Command, or the United States government that a transitional government or a different government from Hernández is not going to be their enemy, that we’re going to behave well, that we’re not going to get so close to Venezuela, that we are not going to follow the example of the Sandinistas, and we are going to keep our distance from Cuba, among other things.

That way of seeing things creates a route that maybe could end up with the ousting of Hernández from power, but it won’t change much of what’s going on in Honduras. Because at the end what we are going to change is just a name, a person, but we are not going to change the system of things that have brought the country to this current situation of poverty, misery, violence, impunity, corruption, etc.

The United States has a great part in backing corrupt politicians just because those corrupt politicians are better allies than people that could have some dignity, and could make sure Honduras has a mutual respect and relationship with the United States in which the interests of both countries are seen as of equal importance, not one as the chief and the other one as the servant.

On the other hand, many of the people who are on the streets, many of the people who are willing to fight, understand that even though the United States has investigated Hernández, and the DEA and Southern District of New York has hurt him really badly, Hernández has been able to establish this drug cartel because of his support from the United States, because he has precisely that support, and that support allowed him to become what he is right now.

Those two positions are different. We want a change in Honduras. It is most likely that Hernández is going to leave office. But we want a real change, not just a cosmetic change, or something where we could be glad for a couple of minutes, and then continue in this situation of vulnerability, of not respecting the lives of Hondurans as equal human beings.

So I think that is a big struggle. We are going to get together with all the groups that want Hernández to leave power, but then we will have to see and establish that difference, and that will be another stage of all of this work that we have to do as Hondurans to put an end to this dictatorship and then create something new.