Honduran authorities say they are investigating the killings of activists Felix Vasquez and Jose Adan Medina.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez warned that allegations by United States prosecutors of his involvement with organised crime could affect cooperation with Washington in fighting drug trafficking.
US prosecutors, in a federal court filing in New York on February 5, said Hernandez used Honduran law enforcement and military officials to protect drug traffickers as part of a plan “to use drug trafficking to help assert power and control in Honduras”.
US prosecutors have said Hernandez accepted a million-dollar bribe from Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman, who was convicted in 2019 and is serving a life sentence in a US prison.
Hernandez has denied the allegations and he has not been charged with a crime.
Hernandez, while speaking to the Honduran Congress on Wednesday, said that members of the “Los Cachiros” cartel falsely accused him in an effort to seek shorter prison sentences. He warned US officials that believing these allegations could compromise joint security efforts between Washington and Tegucigalpa.
“If certain offices in the United States make the mistake of rewarding drug traffickers who give false testimony, instead of increasing their penalties … then the battle that we have jointly waged with our allies against drug trafficking may become unsustainable because there will be loss of trust,” Hernandez said.
He added that if Washington takes the accusations against him seriously, “it will mean that sooner or later effective cooperation systems will inevitably collapse.”
Hernandez, who has been in power since 2014, is a close US ally in Central America. Yet the accusations against him pose a challenge for US President Joe Biden’s administration, which has promised to invest $4bn into Central America to address the root causes of migration from the region.
One of the Honduran president’s brothers, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, was convicted in New York of a drug conspiracy in 2019.
Earlier this week, a group of Democratic US senators introduced legislation to impose sanctions on Hernandez for corruption and human rights abuses and to suspend US security assistance for the Honduran police and military.
On Tuesday, Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon introduced a bill that would seek to isolate Hernandez, who in recent years has leaned heavily on support within the US 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 Hernandez, 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 Senators 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 US 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 Hernandez, a similar mission backed by the Organization of American States was not renewed after it began to implicate a number of federal lawmakers.