“The party is over!” Juan Orlando Hernandez said to applause during his 2014 inauguration speech. Hernandez—a hard-line conservative elected president of Honduras in November 2013—was promising to end drug-related violence in his country. The new president, known as JOH, thundered, “I will do what I have to do to reclaim the peace and tranquility of my people.”
The Hernandez administration weathered controversy after controversy: stolen public funds, a fraudulent election, lethal state repression, and mass outmigration. But few predicted the president’s spectacular downfall. Eight years after his 2014 speech, Hernandez walked away from his presidency in chains, escorted by dozens of police officers while a crowd jeered at him. The United States had outed the Drug War hawk as a likely drug trafficker.
In 2018, US authorities arrested JOH’s brother the Honduran congressman Antonio “Tony” Hernandez on weapons and drug trafficking charges, and many began to speculate that the president lay at the center of a corrupt drug ring. (Tony Hernandez was sentenced to life in prison last year.) Could JOH really have been oblivious to his brother’s activities? At the end of his presidency, Washington requested his extradition for drug charges. Honduran police arrested him, and he now faces extradition to the US for trial.
It’s likely that in the coming months and years the US government will paint Hernandez as an isolated figure bought off and corrupted by traffickers. But, in reality, several US administrations and institutions propped up Hernandez’s presidency as he played what seemed to be a key role in the War on Drugs.
In 2021, the Drug Enforcement Agency revealed that it had been investigating the president since 2013—meaning the Justice Department suspected him of corruption for the entirety of his presidency at the same time as the State Department and Pentagon touted him as a close ally.
“It’s clear [the US] knew Juan Orlando was involved in narco-trafficking while he was in power, but they still supported him,” said Juan Lopez, an activist formerly imprisoned for resisting a mining project supported by the Hernandez government. “Juan Orlando was the expression that came out of the 2009 coup to represent the economic interests of the United States in Honduras. That’s why the United States chose to protect him for so many years.”
Hernandez, a congressman for the conservative National Party since 2004, became president of the Honduran Congress after a 2009 military coup ousted then-President Manuel Zelaya. The country’s domestic oligarchy and the Honduran military moved against Zelaya after he drifted to the left and brought the country into the Bolivarian Alliance for the Peoples of Our America (ALBA), a Venezuelan-Brazilian oil alliance. Soldiers kidnapped him before dawn and placed him in a military plane that refueled at a US military base before whisking him out of the country. Later reporting by The Intercept indicated that the US Defense Department was aware of and likely gave the green light to the mission.
After the coup, Honduras became the most violent country in the world outside of a declared war zone. The number of political assassinations spiked and, within several years, the country became one of the main sources of undocumented migrants fleeing to the United States.
US military and financial aid was suspended following the coup. But it resumed less than a year later, after media attention on the government’s human rights abuses faded. Honduras withdrew from ALBA in 2010. Honduras has been a US geopolitical ally since the early 1980s, when it served as a base for supporting wars against leftist movements in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Nicaragua. The country still hosts some of the US military’s largest bases in Latin America. For Washington, national security interests ultimately trumped concerns about human rights abuses. Honduras, after all, was one of the front lines in the War on Drugs.
Hernandez—positioning himself as a drug warrior—was elected president at the height of the post-coup instability. Hernandez deployed the military to the streets under the pretext of fighting gang violence and sponsored the creation and expansion of elite military-police special forces units, who would later kill and torture protesters. The US Southern Command supported him in his apparent efforts to pacify the country via military force and end drug trafficking.
Hernandez met frequently with US military officials at Soto Cano, the US military base, for photo ops and to discuss “both nations’ security partnership.” In an attempt to fight the narcotic trade, Washington gave Honduran security forces $156.8 million between 2016 and 2019. Hundreds of millions went through the Central American Regional Security Initiative, an opaque program that funnels training, equipment, and technical assistance to military and police forces in Central America. By 2019, the Department of State had provided over $1 million in surveillance equipment to Honduran police forces. As president, Hernandez met with US Senator Marco Rubio, who, as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, helps set US policy toward Latin America; in 2016 in Tegucigalpa, they discussed migration and foreign investment. In 2019, well after the controversy surrounding his brother’s arrest, Hernandez joined then-President Donald Trump at a gala in Miami. “We’re stopping drugs like never before,” Trump boasted at the time.
After DEA agents arrested Hernandez’s brother in the Miami airport in November 2018, it became clear that the Honduran president (listed as a co-conspirator in the court documents) was part of something big. He headed what US prosecutors deemed a “violent, state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy,” in which high-level military and police officials directed portions of the Honduran state security apparatus to ignore or protect shipments and to orchestrate the assassinations of rivals.
Yet US training and collaboration with Honduran security forces continued after the trials revealed the scale of the corruption—and well into the Biden administration. In December 2020, Reuters reported that the United States was slated to share intelligence with Honduran authorities on drugs despite concerns over corruption. The US government spent nearly a million dollars training Honduran security forces that same year. In summer 2021, a commander of a Honduran special forces unit, which a former soldier accused of being run as a death squad, said his troops were being trained by US forces on a weekly basis.
Hernandez may be gone, but the drug war of which he was an integral part continues. On February 7, Marco Rubio, one of Hernandez’s main US allies, introduced a bill to increase US funds to Latin American security forces under the banner of fighting “transnational criminal organizations.”
The activist Lopez told me he doubts that the prosecution of Hernandez represents a shift in US policy. “The extradition of Juan Orlando Hernandez,” he said, “doesn’t represent a change in the foreign policy of the United States. The [US government] needed to change around some of the pieces of the puzzle, but not the system itself.”