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 says that antinarcotics cooperation with the United States could “collapse” if U.S. authorities believe “false testimony” accusing him of cooperating with traffickers.

Hernández spoke before the Central American country's Congress on Wednesday, 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 taking bribes from traffickers. He has not been charged, however.

On Wednesday, he again asserted that a group known as “Los Cachiros” were seeking vengeance against him for allowing them to be extradited to the U.S. He said they “have been repeatedly lying in the most obvious way” in order to manipulate U.S. authorities into acting against the very 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.

On Tuesday, 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.

“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, seeks to prohibit the export of items such as tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets for Honduran security forces and calls on the U.S. to oppose loans to those forces from multilateral development banks.

It also calls on the Honduran government to talk to the United Nations about establishing an anti-corruption mission. 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.

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.