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The rise and fall of loyal US client Juan Orlando Hernandéz

The rise and fall of loyal US client Juan Orlando Hernandéz

After Washington cut him loose the ex-Honduran president was convicted of drug trafficking and now faces life in prison

Analysis | Latin America

On March 8, a Manhattan federal court found Juan Orlando Hernández, president of Honduras from 2014 to 2022, guilty of conspiracy to import large amounts of cocaine into the United States over nearly two decades.

Mainstream U.S. media generally framed the ex-president’s trial and conviction as a triumph of justice, a service rendered by the impartial U.S. justice system to the people of Honduras.

The great majority of such accounts, however, ignored and obscured context crucial for understanding Hernández’s rise and rule; in particular, how Washington contributed to both. Though the mainstream narrative around the ex-president rightly connects his tenure in office with massive emigration from Honduras, it has elided the degree to which U.S. influence enabled Hernández’s career and thus partially drove the migration that arose in response.

For roughly two centuries, Honduras, the original “banana republic,” has suffered a deeply unequal relationship with the far more powerful United States. One of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, Honduras and its people have endured frequent American military interventions, U.S.-backed coups, and a corrupt, rapacious local oligarchy closely tied to U.S. corporate interests.

Despite Hernández’s ultimate conviction on U.S. soil, he served Washington for many years as a loyal client. The single most important event in the ex-president’s political career was a 2009 coup, which overthrew center-left president Manuel Zelaya (whose wife, Xiomara Castro, won election in 2021 and currently occupies the presidency). Zelaya raised the minimum wage, subsidized small farmers, and authorized the morning-after pill, infuriating the country’s business elite and, in the last case, ultra-conservative religious leaders. Moreover, to Washington’s consternation, he made overtures toward Hugo Chavez’s socialist Venezuela and sought to convert a crucial U.S. airbase entirely to civilian use.

Joint action by Honduras’ military and judiciary — in a manner the U.S. ambassador called “clearly illegal” and “totally illegitimate” at the time — forced Zelaya to pay for these sins in late June 2009. While the White House’s reaction to the coup initially appeared confused, Washington soon recovered its footing. Even as huge protests raged, the Obama administration played a key role in ultimately compelling Honduras’ people and the region’s governments to acquiesce to the regime change as a fait accompli.

Despite widespread repression by the post-coup de facto government, accounts of fraud, and the condemnation of many countries and international organizations (including the normally deferential Organization of American States), U.S.-endorsed elections in November 2009 received Washington’s imprimatur. In her memoirs (the passage excised from the book’s paperback edition with no explanation), then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton explained that the U.S. sought to “render the question of Zelaya moot and give the Honduran people a chance to choose their own future.”

It was in this context that Hernández catapulted into power. After Porfirio Lobo won the 2009 presidential race, Hernández became President of the National Congress as a member of Lobo’s National Party — an institution historically closely linked to U.S. agribusiness. Lobo was Hernández’s mentor and groomed his protege to succeed him. But while Hernández enjoyed success, the coup’s consequences constituted disaster for ordinary Hondurans.

Political violence and repression became routine. The murder rate, much of it due to cartel-related gang violence, soared — it was the world’s highest for three years running. As the economic situation also deteriorated, and Lobo and his son allied with major narcotics syndicates, a huge surge of emigration swelled out of Honduras, with desperate citizens flooding northward. The total number of Hondurans apprehended at the U.S. border exploded — from less than 25,000 in 2009 to nearly 100,000 in 2014 — reaching 250,000 by 2020.

In Washington’s eyes, however, such concerns took a back seat to longstanding strategic needs: above all, Honduras’ openness to foreign investment and its role as a base for American military power. And, as head of the National Congress, Hernandez was seen as particularly amenable to U.S. desires.

“The State Department loved Hernandez,” according to Dana Frank, an expert on Honduras at UC Santa Cruz. As Lobo’s heir apparent, “he was young and could stay in power for a long time.” Frank cites a 2010 cable from the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa asserting that “He has consistently supported U.S. interests.”

The depth of American support for Hernández became clear after his 2013 election to the presidency. Despite credible reports of fraud, his National Party’s control over the counting process, and a wave of threats and sometimes lethal violence against opposition candidates and activists during the campaign, the State Department commended the election as “transparent, free, and fair.”

In 2015, a major corruption scandal centered on the misappropriation of funds from Honduras’ Social Security Institute exploded, prompting unprecedented popular demonstrations against Hernandez and calling for his resignation, “There was a real sense that Hernández could fall,” according to Alexander Main, a Latin America expert at the Washington-based Center for Economic and Policy Research. Fortunately for Hernández, however, the U.S. swooped in, helping to defuse the unrest by prodding the OAS to organize a local anti-corruption body known as MACCIH.

In that same year, according to Frank, Washington gave an “official green light” to a “completely criminal” power grab by Hernández whereby his hand-picked Supreme Court ruled that he was eligible to run for a second term in clear violation of Honduras’ constitution. Washington’s complacent reaction — “It is up to the Honduran people to determine their political future” — stood in remarkable contrast to 2009, when Zelaya’s mere suggestion that the constitution might be amended to permit a second term served as the pretext for the coup that the U.S. subsequently legitimized.

In Hernández’s 2017 reelection bid, the fraud was so blatant and widespread that even the generally conservative OAS declared the incumbent’s victory an example of “extreme statistical improbability” and called for new elections. The State Department, however, stood by Hernández, prodding Mexico and other OAS members to recognize the results, even as security forces suppressed massive and prolonged protests with live ammunition.

Indeed, U.S. training and funding also proved crucial in the creation of the brutal special operations units Hernández’s government used to terrorize opposition and environmental activists. Particularly significant in the military sphere was the role of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM), the American combatant command responsible for Latin America. Hernández was a particular favorite of John Kelly, SOUTHCOM’s head during Obama’s second term (and then White House chief of staff for Donald Trump), who, as Dana Frank noted, once referred to the convicted drug trafficker as a “great guy” and “good friend.”

Considering the U.S. relationship with Hernández, it is perhaps unsurprising that U.S. officials seemingly turned a blind eye to his deep involvement in narcotics trafficking. As both Hernández’s recent trial — during which a witness claimed Hernandez had privately vowed to “stuff drugs up the noses of the gringos” — and that of his brother in 2019 showed, the drug trade’s reach into the Honduran government was unmistakable, with numerous high-ranking security officials repeatedly implicated.

CEPR’s Main argues that it was “highly unlikely American officials were unaware” of Hernández’s criminality. Indeed, as a document from his brother’s trial revealed, the DEA began investigating the ex-president as early as 2013. As noted in Hernández’s trial, just weeks after his inauguration in 2014, the agency reportedly obtained video evidence indicating his involvement with major drug traffickers. Even after his brother’s 2019 conviction, when it became apparent that millions of dollars in drug money helped underwrite Hernández’s political career, President Donald Trump publicly praised him for “working with the United States very closely” and for his help in “stopping drugs at a level that has never happened.”

Given all this, the U.S. media’s failure to probe the influence of American policy on Hernández’s career begins to look less like an anomalous oversight and more like a manifestation of structural dynamics that tend to reinforce the notion of American innocence. We can see the same logic apply to the frenzied media accounts detailing “caravans” of Central American migrants headed to the U.S. While mainstream news outlets rightly note the relationship between Hernández’s presidency and increased migration from Honduras, they nevertheless fail to connect the two to the impact of U.S. policymaking. Without Washington’s complicity and assistance, Hernandez might have spent 2014 to 2022 in prison, rather than the presidency. Unfortunately, it was the Honduran people who paid the price.

Then Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández gives a speech in the La Paz region of Honduras in February 2019. (Vivid imagery/ Shutterstock)

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