$1 Million Bribe Offered by El Chapo to President? Hondurans Are More Resigned Than Shocked

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras — The allegation in the Manhattan courtroom was stunning. United States prosecutors said that one of the world’s most notorious drug traffickers had given $1 million to the brother of the president of Honduras, money meant for the president himself.

But on Thursday, Hondurans tempered their outrage with resignation at the news emerging from the cocaine-trafficking trial of Juan Antonio Hernández, the younger brother of President Juan Orlando Hernández.

On the first day of the trial on Wednesday, prosecutors said that the Mexican drug lord known as El Chapo had delivered $1 million to the president’s brother with the intention that the money would be funneled on to the country’s leader.

The news that American prosecutors say their president is complicit in drug trafficking only confirmed what many Hondurans already believed about their political leaders.

Indeed, many say they gave up long ago, despairing that Honduras will never address the chronic corruption, violence and criminality that has a chokehold on their country.

CreditFernando Antonio/Associated Press

As a result of this pessimism, thousands leave their country every month — many headed to the United States — after losing hope for a good future for themselves and their families.

So the drug-trafficking trial of Juan Antonio Hernández, known as Tony, has only strengthened the belief of many that their government is venal and does not have their interests in mind.

“I think that a lot of information is coming out that almost the whole country knew already,” said Gracia María Avendaño Paz, 45, a lawyer. “We live in a narcostate.”

In a tweet after the allegation was made, the president denied receiving any money and called the allegations “false, absurd and ridiculous.”

But to many Hondurans, hearing and absorbing the news for the first time on Thursday, the allegations rang true, even though prosecutors have yet to present evidence.

“How didn’t he know what his brother was doing?” said Francisco Antonio Velásquez, 33, a hotel employee in Tegucigalpa, the capital, of the president. “This tars him, it does. In my opinion, he has touched the narcos’ dirty money.” The president, too, should be prosecuted, Mr. Velásquez said.

The trial started just days after President Trump reached a deal with the Honduran president that will make it more difficult for asylum seekers to reach the United States. This has given many Hondurans the impression that the United States is more concerned with stopping migration than with drug trafficking.

President Hernández has been the country’s dominant political figure over much of the past decade: first, as president of Congress, and since 2014, as the country’s leader.

He has denied any involvement in drug trafficking, arguing that the allegations are the invention of convicted drug traffickers angered by his tough anti-crime policies. In Congress he pushed for a law that allowed Honduras to extradite accused drug traffickers to the United States and, as president, he began to send them north to stand trial.

On Thursday, the president told reporters at a news conference that more “novelistic stories” about him were likely to emerge at his brother’s New York trial as part of an effort by drug traffickers to attack him.

Raúl Pineda, a former legislator from President Hernández’s National Party, said that the allegations against the president put him in a “highly uncomfortable” situation, but he is still very much in control of the country.

“National public opinion is quite unfavorable,” Mr. Pineda said. “But it won’t have an effect because of his control over the attorney general, the judiciary, the armed forces and most of the media.”

“The fear of reprisal leads to a kind of silent acceptance,” he added.

The one hope that many Hondurans have, Mr. Pineda said, is that pressure from outside the country will force some kind of change — perhaps evidence from the trial will prompt a serious investigation inside Honduras of the president’s actions. “His control is strong but it is not absolute,” Mr. Pineda said.

Long before the arrest last November of his brother, who is accused of trafficking cocaine through Honduras for at least 12 years, President Hernández saw popular opinion in Honduras turning against him.

A surge of unaccompanied children from Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala who fled to the United States in 2014 snapped attention to conditions in the region, where gang violence produced the highest murder rates in the world.

The following year, demonstrators poured into the streets to protest Honduras’s rampant corruption, forcing President Hernández to accept a panel of international prosecutors to investigate graft. That group, working with the prosecutor’s office, has begun to reveal how politicians pocket public funds, confirming Hondurans’ long-held suspicions about why money destined to build schools, clinics and roads never reaches them.

More than 60 percent of Hondurans lived in poverty in 2018 according to the World Bank. In rural areas, one in five people live on less than $1.90 a day.

Remittances from Hondurans working abroad account for about 20 percent of the country’s economy.

In 2017, President Hernández won re-election after a disputed vote count. A United Nations investigation determined that 23 people died in the ensuing protests, at least 16 of them at the hands of security forces.

“There is not one single area where you can say the country is doing well,” said Dr. Suyapa Figueroa, the president of the Honduran medical association, who said she has watched health services decline over the past 10 years.

Budgets for health and education have dropped as a proportion of overall spending, said Ismael Zepeda, an economist with Fosdeh, a Tegucigalpa research institution.

In 2010, the health budget accounted for some 12 or 13 percent of the whole government budget, he said. Next year, it will be 6 percent.

The trial is a far-off concern, though, in the rural villages where people live hand-to-mouth, and it is the government’s neglect that stings most.

In the municipality of Cedros, about 50 miles outside the capital, the signs of abandonment by the state are everywhere — in the dry fields, the pitted dirt roads and the rudimentary schools.

A local resident, Wilmer Valdez said he has twice tried to reach the United States, and twice he was sent back. But with a new baby to support, he may try again.

“You look for a future because here there is only enough to get by from day to day — nothing more,” Mr. Valdez said.

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