By Delphine Schrank
(Reuters) – Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez emerged battered from the trial and conviction of his brother on Friday after the U.S. Justice Department concluded that the evidence showed narcotraffickers had bribed the president and his party.
A U.S. jury on Friday found President Hernandez’ brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, guilty of conspiring to import cocaine, illicit weapons possession and lying to U.S. authorities.
U.S. prosecutors did not indict President Hernandez. But the Department of Justice reiterated in a statement after the verdict that as a candidate and then president, Hernandez received drug money for his electoral campaigns, including from Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Hernandez, who took office in 2014, has repeatedly denied the allegations.
Analysts say the verdict has undoubtedly weakened the president, who has faced intermittent street protests calling for his ouster since he was sworn in for a second term in January 2018 amid allegations of fraud.
The Central American leader may now reckon with dwindling support at home, where local press avidly covered the two-week trial.
He also may be more reliant than ever on support from the U.S. government. Long praised as a key U.S. ally in the drug war, he has under President Donald Trump faced intense pressure to partner in the U.S. effort to curb migration flows.
The U.S. State Department declined to comment.
Witnesses at the trial alleged that President Hernandez pledged to protect his brother from extradition and called for bribing mayors in Copan, a department bordering Guatemala and a notorious gateway for cocaine trafficking, to secure power for himself and the ruling National Party.
Hernandez says the allegations are the fabrications of criminals bent on revenge for his efforts against organised crime.
“I reaffirm that it is false that I have received or accepted money from these criminals … I reiterate my total rejection on behalf of the Honduran people of the suggestion that our country is a narco state,” he said in a speech on Thursday.
He also defended his anti-corruption legacy in the Thursday address and on Twitter after Friday’s guilty verdict.
Luis Zelaya, president of the opposition Liberal Party, told reporters that the party would demand that Hernandez leave power to be replaced with a transitional government.
“It is no longer a suspicion he is involved in drug trafficking,” Zelaya said. “He has to be accused.”
Hernandez will likely face a rough next two years in office “because his legitimacy is being increasingly questioned,” said Kurt Ver Beek, co-founder of the Honduran-based civil society organization, the Association for a More Just Society.
“Probably in his favor is that the opposition is also very weak and divided,” he said. He added that it helped that there was little physical evidence that Hernandez is guilty, however.
“If in this trial they came out with clear evidence – for example audio or video or pictures of Juan Orlando taking money from drug traffickers – it probably would have meant the end of his administration,” said Ver Beek.
One former senior U.S. official with knowledge of Honduras had long credited Hernandez for his willingness to partner with the United States in fighting crime, but added that narrative might have to be reassessed.
Hernandez often points out that under his administration, the country’s homicide rate was halved in five years, to 40 people out of 100,000 inhabitants, after peaking in 2012 as the world’s highest outside a war zone.
The president cooperated in extraditions, purging a corrupt police force and bolstering prosecutors and even invited in a key Organization of American States-sponsored anti-corruption body, measures that helped hasten his younger brother’s trial.
With Hernandez’ standing even within his own party diminished, the Trump administration’s support is all the more crucial, the former U.S. official said.
“Because without that I think he thinks and a lot of people in Honduras think it could be over for him,” the official added.
The Trump administration in June slashed aid that previous U.S. administrations had given to help curb the root causes of migration.
On Wednesday, the Trump administration announced that some “targeted assistance” would resume after Honduras, along with El Salvador and Guatemala, struck migration deals with the United States.
(Reporting by Delphine Schrank; Editing by Christian Plumb and Sonya Hepinstall)