As Honduras’s New President Seeks End to Narco-State, Will US Stand in Her Way?

The January inauguration of Xiomara Castro Sarmiento Zelaya from the Liberty and Refoundation Party was a political landmark in Honduras. Castro become the Central American country’s first female president, winning 51.12 percent of the vote, compared to her closest rival Nasry Asfura who garnered 36.93 of votes in November’s election. She has promised to convene a National Constituent Assembly to rewrite the constitution.

“For us to have the first female president in Honduras means 67 years of struggle (since it was in 1952) that us women fought for the right to be citizens — for the right to vote and the right to be voted for,” Wendy Cruz, member of the international peasant movement La Vía Campesina, told Truthout.

Castro campaigned on an agenda that will strongly empower lower-income Honduran women, who have been one of the hardest-hit sectors in a country ruled through aggressive neoliberal policies for the last 12 years. Castro’s task of governing will be particularly hard given the high levels of corruption and ties to the drug trade that have been linked to Honduras’s former president, Juan Orlando Hernández.

The forces that have been ruling from Tegucigalpa in recent years have not reacted well to losing power. One week before Castro’s inauguration, a fist fight broke out in Honduras National Congress as a faction of rebel lawmakers from Castro’s leftist Liberty and Refoundation Party (also commonly known as the Libre Party) proposed Jorge Cálix as head of Congress in opposition to Castro’s nominee. The problem with Cálix, according to Castro’s supporters, was that he represents the continued power and immunity of President Hernández, who critics have accused of running a narco-state.

There is much evidence to support these allegations. For example, in 2018, Tony Hernández, a former Honduran congressman and former President Hernández’s brother, was arrested in Miami, and last year was sentenced to life in prison in the United States for trafficking “multi-ton loads of cocaine” into the country. In that case, former President Hernández and former President Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa were named as co-conspirators, with the prosecutors accusing Hernández of using the Honduran military and police to transport and guard cocaine shipments.

The alleged criminality of both former presidents extends to other actors in Honduras. In Tony Hernández’s case, one of the most important witness testimonies was that of Alexander Ardón, a former mayor of El Paraíso, Honduras, and the supposed head of the AA Brothers Cartel. Currently in prison in the U.S. for drug trafficking, Ardón admitted to having been involved in the murder of 56 people, as well as torture, money laundering and arms trafficking. He also confessed to trafficking between 30 and 40 tons of cocaine with Tony Hernández from 2010 until the former congressman’s arrest in Miami in November 2018.

Were this evidence not damning enough, Ardón also testified that he was at a meeting with Tony Hernández and Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the head of the infamous Sinaloa Cartel. According to Ardón, El Chapo gave Tony Hernández $1 million in cash to be given to his brother for his upcoming presidential campaign in 2013, which he won against Xiomara Castro by a narrow margin. In return, Tony promised that the future president of Honduras would protect the Sinaloa Cartel’s drug trafficking routes.

Despite Juan Orlando Hernández’s flagrant connections to the drug trade, his support from U.S. presidents never wavered during his tenure in office. That support finally ended last week, when Honduran officials arrested Hernández after the U.S. issued an extradition request. According to CBS News, “U.S. officials confirmed the extradition request,” however, they did not “give any information on the nature of the accusations against Hernández.”

“Honduran politicians have long known that Washington will grant them immunity from prosecution (with some notable exceptions, including the former president’s corrupt brother). This culture has led to a Honduran [political] class [that hasn’t] cared about the fate of their people,” independent Australian journalist Antony Loewenstein, who has reported on Honduras in his recent book, Pills, Powder and Smoke: Inside the Bloody War on Drugs, told Truthout. “It usually doesn’t matter whether a Democrat or Republican occupies the White House, except perhaps the latter is more honest about his country’s real intentions towards Honduras: bribe [officials] with huge amounts of cash in the hope that they’ll do U.S. bidding.”

Noting that Honduras is a key transit point for drug trafficking in Central America, Loewenstein said that the country has “long been a U.S. client state” and that “this only worsened after the 2009 coup.”

During that year, when President Jose Manuel Zelaya, Xiomara Castro’s husband, was ousted by a U.S.-backed coup, most of the world, including the United Nations and the European Union (EU), regarded his overthrow as illegal and unconstitutional. With the EU and most countries in the region withdrawing their ambassadors, the Obama administration stood almost alone in keeping its official representatives in Tegucigalpa. While publicly the White House stood firm that a military takeover had not occurred, according to a leaked WikiLeaks memo, a U.S. embassy cable stated: “[T]here is no doubt that the military, supreme court and national congress conspired on June 28 in what constituted an illegal and unconstitutional coup.”

Following the coup, the UN General Assembly passed a resolution calling for Zelaya to be reinstated as president and to finish his presidential term. Instead, Hillary Clinton, U.S. secretary of state at the time, pushed the Honduran dictatorship to call for an election. As she later revealed in the first edition of her autobiography, “we strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.” This startling admission from Clinton would later be redacted from the paperback edition of her book.

Zelaya’s biggest crime in office, of course, was that he refused to be a subservient Honduran president to the interest of local big business and the United States. For starters, Zelaya increased the minimum wage by 60 percent and placed stricter regulations on the mining sectors, which included a ban on open-pit mining — moves that were certainly noticed by U.S. corporations. Speaking to the Harvard Political Review, Rodolfo Pastor, the minister of culture under President Zelaya, noted: “American mining companies complained they were not being treated as they wanted.”

Further angering the U.S., Zelaya exercised sovereignty and entered Honduras into the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), an intergovernmental trade and political group founded by late leaders Hugo Chávez and Fidel Castro. Zelaya joined the organization in 2008 despite earlier warnings from the north. In an interview with The Grayzone, Zelaya said that John Negroponte, deputy secretary of state under George W. Bush, told him that “if you sign the ALBA, you are going to have problems with the U.S.” Less than a year after joining, Zelaya was overthrown in a coup, and a few months after that, Honduras’s new leaders withdrew the country from the ALBA.

Years later, when questioned on Honduras, Clinton defended the Obama administration’s position in not declaring that a coup had taken place against Zelaya, although she did concede that the new regime “undercut their argument by spiriting him out of the country in his pajamas where they sent, you know, the military to, you know, take him out of his bed and get him out of the country.”

The above history is important to recall because, once Zelaya was unconstitutionally removed from office, it was large sectors of Honduran women who fought against Washington’s men in Tegucigalpa. Writing recently in NACLA, Suyapa Portillo Villeda, an associate professor at Pitzer College who specializes in Honduran politics, noted, “The resistance to the 2009 coup was led by women, who filled the ranks of most social movements. Women have stood on the frontlines to defend ancestral lands and rivers, their rights as educators and healthcare workers, the right to live free of violence, and the right to make choices about their bodies and identities.”

Alongside these women, Castro repeatedly joined thousands of Hondurans on the streets calling for her husband’s return. With the movement becoming known as the National Front of Popular Resistance (FNRP), it eventually formed the basis for the Libre Party and helped Castro campaign for the presidency in 2013 and 2017. Winning the presidency after her third attempt last year, Castro during her campaign called for family planning, access to contraception such as the “morning after pill” and promised to decriminalize abortion in cases of rape. According to Portillo Villeda, Castro also committed herself to the “recognition of women’s work, support for domestic violence shelters for survivors, and the creation of centers for the reinsertion of deported women into society.”

Organizers like Wendy Cruz believe the path to ending the narco-state will be very difficult. In her view, the crisis of the national congress was “due to the bribing of 18 congresspersons of the leftist Liberty and Refoundation party creating a crisis of governability in the national congress and one of legitimacy.” Eventually, Castro, who had expelled the rebel deputies from her party, reinstated them as it was agreed that the head of Congress would be Luis Redondo from the Savior Party, whom Castro and her supporters backed. With the crisis resolved by February 8, Cruz said the country’s elites had already begun to destabilize Castro’s government as it “will be in the eye of the hurricane by the country’s most powerful groups” — in summary, those who have ruled Honduras in recent years with U.S. backing will most likely continue to try and destabilize Castro’s government.

Gilberto Ríos Grillo, a national leader of the Castro’s Libre Party, told Truthout that any political and/or economic crisis in Honduras cannot really be separated from Honduras’s historical ties to the United States. In his view, due to the reactionary vision of the previous leaders during the last 12 years, Hondurans have been left with an “almost failed state penetrated by drug trafficking, organized crime and of course backed by the United States.”

Ríos Grillo believes that external bodies like the United Nations could play a role in tackling corruption or drug trafficking and would be supported by President Castro. However, such moves “would affect the interests of the National Party and Liberal Party” (Honduras’s main political parties) because “they have predominantly been linked to the issues of drug trafficking, organized crime and the groups which plundered public works during the 12 years and seven months of a dictatorship which we have managed to overcome during November’s election.” According to Loewenstein, President Castro “offers a possibility of change, but only if she negotiates a real shift in the relationship with her country’s imperial master.”

As Latin American leaders flew into Tegucigalpa for Castro’s inauguration, and her victory was loudly welcomed by the region’s leftist governments in Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua and Bolivia, U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris also arrived in Honduras’s capital. While Harris eventually met with Castro and said she was “impressed with the passion with which [Castro] talked about her priority on addressing and combating corruption,” Harris’s comments should be viewed with skepticism given Washington’s close ties to former President Hernández. Only this month, in fact, has the State Department publicly conceded that the Biden administration placed Hernández on a classified list of officials suspected of corruption and undermining democracy.

For now, it appears Castro has survived her first crisis; however, others are likely to surface, given she plans to move forward with her proposal to revoke numerous laws which grant impunity to officials and legislators established during the Hernández administration. Similarly, Castro will have to negotiate with the National Party in order to elect a new Supreme Court chief justice and a new attorney general. At some point, Castro, like Zelaya, may even question how the United States uses its military presence within the country, or with whom Honduras can form trade and political alliances. Given these enormous constraints, every day Castro is in office should be viewed as a triumph for average Hondurans and their fragile democracy.