Washington's Favorite Drug Trafficker
Juan Orlando Hernandez, the corrupt former president of Honduras, was enabled at every step of the way by American officials.
In April, Hondurans were treated to the spectacle of their outgoing president, Juan Orlando Hernandez (2014-2022), being handcuffed and extradited to the United States on drug trafficking charges. For most of the 2010s, the Honduran president acted as one of the most powerful and violent drug kingpins in the hemisphere.
While the bar has always been abysmally low for Central American heads of state, it is nonetheless stupefying to see our own Justice Department accuse a close ally of trafficking over 500 metric tons of cocaine into the United States. Even this fact is just the tip of the iceberg. For at least ten years, although the master strategists of the foreign policy uniparty knew the two-term kingpin-in-chief was flooding American streets with cocaine, they nevertheless actively aided his administration and praised it as exemplary in the region.
In June 2015, then-Vice President Biden met with Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH) at the White House to discuss a $1 billion aid package “to tackle corruption, target transnational criminal networks, and promote economic prosperity and opportunity in Honduras.” And yet, as far back as 2013, the DEA was already investigating JOH for drug trafficking while he was president of the Honduran Congress. To hear the same meandering platitudes from our aging president on the importance of good governance and democracy in Honduras in 2022 is nothing short of comical.
Why did it take so long for charges to be brought against JOH and what strategic thinking could have possibly justified backing an “ally” raking in millions from the sale of drugs on American streets?
We must take a trip down memory lane to the early days of the Obama administration. Back then, the Honduran military staged a coup against then-President Manuel Zelaya (2006-2009). Ostensibly, the rationale for the coup was to remove the power-hungry Zelaya because of his attempts to seek an illegal second term in office. In reality, the opposition National Party, the army, and business sectors were fearful of Zelaya’s close ties with then Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton concurred and ultimately helped secure diplomatic recognition for the post-coup interim government. With Zelaya out of the way, Porfirio Lobo Sosa (2010-2014) won that year’s presidential elections, kicking off twelve years of National Party rule. Ironically, it was during this period that then-President of Congress Juan Orlando Hernandez helped secure passage of an extradition agreement with the U.S., in 2012.
In a show of his political savvy, Hernandez calculated correctly that U.S. leaders were ultimately more interested in superficial rather than concrete results in the war on drugs. Since 2012, Honduras has extradited over 40 high-level drug traffickers as well as seized countless tons of cocaine all while cocaine production and consumption in the United States soared to record levels.
As president, JOH also established the OAS-backed Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras (MACCIH). Like the extradition treaty however, the commission proved to be a half-hearted effort to fight corruption that allowed Hernandez to tout presentable results to his American counterparts.
In the end, the commission mainly investigated JOH’s predecessors, including the wife of former president Lobo, accused of embezzling state funds. At the same time, the Obama administration seemed largely unfazed by the revelation that JOH’s 2013 campaign was financed with over $3.5 million in proceeds from drug cartels. All the while, millions in U.S. aid continued poor into Honduras’s deeply compromised police forces.
In the age of Trump, relations with the Hernandez administration took a decidedly transactional turn. At this point the MACCIH had begun to inconvenience JOH. In exchange for Trump’s approval to dismantle the MACCIH, JOH brokered a so-called safe third country agreement. Foreign migrants would need to first apply for asylum in Honduras rather than the U.S. Biden would later overturn all such third country agreements in Central America.
By 2017, Hernandez had successfully packed the Honduran supreme court with his cronies. Consequently, the court overturned the constitutional prohibition against presidential reelection. Thus, JOH succeeded where Zelaya had failed so spectacularly. That year, JOH secured a full second term by a margin of just 40,000 votes in an election marked by violence and widespread fraud. The very same OAS that sponsored the MACCIH raised “serious doubts” about the 2017 results in a post-election audit. Unsurprisingly, the Trump administration did not condemn JOH’s reelection.
The straw that finally broke the camel’s back came just a year later, in 2018. After years of dithering, the DEA and justice department arrested congressman Tony Hernandez, Juan Orlando’s brother, in Miami on drug trafficking charges. In the subsequent trial, Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison for the funneling of tons of cocaine into the United States between 2004 and 2016, the proceeds of which funded much of his brother’s political campaigns.
JOH himself was directly implicated in the trial as “co-conspirator 4.” The brothers are alleged to have ordered the assassinations of numerous business partners as well as alerted specific traffickers to U.S.-led raids. For all the traffickers that JOH extradited, the kingpin-in-chief was busy building his drug empire right under our noses. Dispassionately, the logistical acumen of JOH’s narco-state is almost admirable.
On a recent trip to Honduras, I spoke with Gustavo, a small businessman from colonial Comayagua in central Honduras. Gustavo lamented the purported origin of Comayagua’s 2021-inaugurated international airport, odd for a municipality of just 100,000. During their twelve years in power, the governing National Party constructed five of Honduras’ twelve international airstrips. Ostensibly, these were meant to promote tourism. In reality, however, Gustavo claimed (accurately), that the nationals, or “narcos” as many Hondurans refer to them, constructed the airports to boost aerial drug shipments.
In the end, the sheer scale of controversies during the Hernandez administration led to a spectacular loss of support for the governing National Party. After twelve years, even parts of Honduras’ conservative business elite lent their support to the Maduro-aligned Xiomara Castro de Zelaya (wife of Manuel). In a historic victory, Castro defeated her National opponent, Nasry Asfura, by a margin of 20 points. Tellingly, several of the Hondurans I spoke with repeated almost verbatim the same opinion about the new government: “[They’re] terrible…but the previous government was worse”.
What (if any) lessons can we draw from the sad saga of the Honduran narco-state? For one, the foreign policy blob’s approach to strategy seems to be firmly stuck in 1985. For all the vitriol regarding the comparable narco-regime in Venezuela, little attention is given to the fact that much of the cocaine trafficked out of Venezuela arrives in Honduras rather than neighboring socialist Nicaragua. Similarly in El Salvador, where the center-right Bukele administration has been documented laundering money for the Maduro regime.
Hard as it may be for the foreign policy establishment to believe, organized crime does not have a political stripe. Moreover, national interests in the United States should always favor the lives and wellbeing of American citizens. As cocaine sales and overdose deaths skyrocket in the United States, it should go without saying that aiding and abetting known drug kingpins is antithetical to that priority.
JOH’s trial stands to be second only to that of the Panamanian narco-dictator Manuel Noriega. In that case longtime U.S. support for the former dictator ceased only after he accepted military aid from Cuba and Nicaragua in the late 1980s. In contrast, JOH’s drug related crimes proved to be so egregious they warranted action all on their own. The Biden administration will no doubt cast JOH’s trial as a grand victory against corruption and impunity in the region. But those of us more familiar with the case can’t help cringe at the utter inanity of the uniparty Joe Biden epitomizes.
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Just last month at the Summit of the Americas, the president suffered yet another string of humiliations, among them the absence of the purportedly sympatico Castro government as well as Nayib Bukele refusing to answer the White House’s calls. Add to this a recalcitrant Jair Bolsonaro questioning the integrity of Biden’s 2020 election victory and it seems there’s no indignity our aging president cannot endure. Did I mention that JOH hopes to subpoena Biden, Trump, and Obama as witnesses for his upcoming trial?
Inevitably, the current Castro and future Honduran administrations are likely to become as compromised as that of JOH. Today, the Biden administration can sing the praises of the Castro government for the extradition of JOH and purported sympatico objectives on migration. Tomorrow however, they should not flinch at punishing Castro if and when her government exploits many of the same criminal contacts and resources that were once available to her predecessor. We can only hope that Biden and the rest of the blob have learned something from the Honduran debacle.
Juan David Rojas (M.A, University of Florida) is a writer and researcher of security and politics in Latin America.