Trump administration OKs aid to Central American countries praised for immigration help

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) talks with Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.).
(Evan Vucci / Associated Press)

If the president of a country is implicated in running a massive drug-trafficking network, you might think that would be a disqualifier for receiving U.S. aid.

But not if the country is Honduras and the Trump administration holds the purse strings.

The State Department in recent days has quietly certified Honduras and its two Central American neighbors, El Salvador and Guatemala, for millions of dollars in U.S. aid, despite each country’s failure to demonstrate progress on human rights and good governance.


In documents filed with Congress and reviewed by The Times, State Department analysts reported limited success in the countries’ efforts to improve human rights, police practices and governance, or in curbing corruption and violence.

Where the three received the highest marks, however, was in their cooperation with President Trump’s immigration policies, designed to drastically reduce legal and illegal migration from Central America to the U.S..

“The certifications reflect the ‘glass half full’ approach,” said Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) , who follows Latin America closely and is a veteran member of the Senate Appropriations Committee. “There are glaring examples of not only failing to meet the conditions in U.S. law, but actively seeking to undermine them. It makes a mockery of the process.”

U.S. law has for a couple of decades made some foreign aid contingent on advances in human rights and other issues, which is why the State Department is required to make its annual assessment.

At stake is about $500 million for each of fiscal years 2019 and 2020 to be divvied among the three countries. (The 2019 fiscal year ends Sept. 30). Several months ago, Trump threatened to cut the aid for lack of cooperation on immigration.

The case of Honduras, critics say, is especially egregious.

President Juan Orlando Hernandez, a dedicated ally of Trump, was an unindicted co-conspirator in a U.S. federal case against his brother, Tony. Tony Hernandez was found guilty in Manhattan in October of running what the indictment called a “state-sanctioned,” multimillion-dollar drug-trafficking network that sent tons of cocaine to the United States.


In the trial, prosecutors and witnesses linked the president to the operation, although he was never charged and has denied wrongdoing. A separate federal indictment filed in Manhattan on April 30 accuses a former senior Honduran police commander, Juan Carlos Bonilla, of conspiring to import cocaine to the U.S. “on behalf of” President Hernandez, who allegedly benefited from the profits.

In the State Department’s certification, the Tony Hernandez trial is mentioned only once and the Honduran president’s connection is not mentioned at all.

A State Department official defended the findings while acknowledging high-level corruption remained a problem in Honduras.

“Extremely serious challenges remain, including credible information that the most senior levels of the government received money from narco-traffickers,” said the official, from the Western Hemisphere affairs bureau, on condition of anonymity in keeping with administration protocol.

“Much work remains to be done in Honduras,” the official said. “Without U.S. assistance, we would likely see backsliding on the progress that has been made.”

Hernandez’s government also drew international criticism for its decision to close down a highly regarded anticorruption agency sponsored by the Organization of American States. The agency had launched numerous investigations into powerful Hondurans and was successful in important prosecutions, including of a former first lady and former mayor of Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital.

In January, Hernandez ignored pleas from international diplomats and civil rights organizations to not abolish the panel, known formally as the Mission to Support the Fight Against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras, or MACCIH.

At the time, State Department officials lobbied intensively for Hernandez to preserve the anticorruption group but ultimately were defeated.

MACCIH was modeled after a United Nations-created anticorruption agency in Guatemala, which was similarly scoring investigative victories only to be closed down by then-President Jimmy Morales, who gave international investigators 24 hours to leave the country.

“What we see in Central America is a series of blows to the rule of law, as institution after institution intended to investigate corruption is shut down by the people being investigated,” Rep. Norma Torres (D-Pomona), the only Central America-born member of Congress, said when MACCIH was closed.

The State Department official who spoke to The Times for this article said officials were “disappointed” at the Honduras decision, but hopeful that other entities created by the government may be able to take up investigations.

In their certification report, State Department officials cite the Hernandez government’s “robust” cooperation on immigration, its 148% increase in arrests of migrants in 2019 and the 90% drop in Hondurans being captured by the U.S. Border Patrol from May 2019 to February 2020.

Diplomats, academics and others who study Latin American and immigration policy say the Trump administration appears to be willing to look the other way on other issues in exchange for cooperation on immigration. But those other issues, such as human rights and violence, in fact are major generators of migration.

All three countries have entered controversial agreements with the Trump administration to take back Central Americans who have attempted to enter the U.S. illegally, and to allow repatriation of citizens attempting to apply legally for asylum in the U.S. Under international convention, people fleeing their homelands out of fear of persecution or death should be allowed to apply for asylum and remain in the country where they make the application, in this case the U.S.

The agreements have allowed the U.S. to essentially end asylum, reversing generations of practice, while migrants are forced to wait not in the U.S., but in Mexico or Central American countries with some of the highest homicide rates in the world.

“Instead of building the rule of law and institutions of accountability, the administration has let those be undermined in return for governments giving full support to stop people from leaving,” said Andrew Selee, president of the nonpartisan Migration Policy Institute and an expert on Latin America.

“The impetus is so strong on immigration that they [administration officials] are willing to give governments that cooperate a pass on things that would have caused alarm bells in another moment,” Selee said.

Hernandez, the Honduran president, was elected to a second term, after he oversaw changes in the law to allow his reelection in late 2017, a questionable victory that triggered days of deadly demonstrations in the country. The U.S. quickly recognized the Hernandez victory, ignoring the conclusions of international election monitors who detected widespread fraud.

Both El Salvador and Guatemala have newer presidents, respectively, Nayib Bukele, inaugurated a year ago, and Alejandro Giammattei, who took office in January.

Much like Honduras, the countries were given mixed assessments in the State report, but praised for their halting of immigration. Those measures have drawn considerable domestic protest.