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Honduran President Was Washington's Man, Until He Wasn't

The former President of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, or JOH, was arrested last week and will likely soon face charges by the U.S. Justice Department for allegedly trafficking roughly 500,000 kilos of cocaine. An Associated Press headline dubbed it a “stunning fall,” but the U.S. government provided him with significant support despite extensive evidence linking him to drug smuggling.

Aside from his ties to narcotics, Hernandez was involved in several scandals, including embezzling funds from Honduras’ social security system, stealing from World Bank development programs, credible fraud allegations in his 2017 re-election, and pervasive human rights violations by the police and military. In private conversations, Hernandez bragged about siphoning U.S. aid via phony NGOs.

The DOJ declined to press charges until after he left office last month. JOH was referenced as “CC-4,” or co-conspirator 4, in his brother’s drug trafficking case, along with other cases in the Southern District of New York. Nonetheless, this right-wing leader, who steadfastly supported U.S. economic, immigration, and military interests, enjoyed eight years of cordial relations with the White House. 

American diplomats looked the other way as Honduras developed into a narco-state. Adding to this hypocrisy, the U.S. provided millions of dollars of aid for counternarcotics that trained/equipped a police and military bureaucracy riddled with corruption. In turn, Honduran security forces have acted viciously against peaceful protest.

The former president’s brother, Tony Hernandez, was arrested in Miami in November 2018 on drug trafficking charges. Prosecutors alleged that he transported a whopping 185 tons of cocaine into the U.S. The jury heard from drug kingpins that JOH extorted them for protection money. 

One of those witnesses was Tony Hernandez’s partner, Amilcar Alexander Ardón Soriano, a convicted trafficker and a former Honduran mayor. Juan Orlando Hernandez solicited $1.6 million from Ardón Soriano for his 2017 presidential run. Ardón Soriano also testified that he arranged a meeting in which El Chapo handed the former President $1 million in cash in exchange for protecting his shipments within Honduras. 


The reluctance to prosecute JOH had to do with international politics, not legal formalities. Case in point: George H. W. Bush launched Operation Just Cause in 1989 to capture the Panamanian dictator, Manuel Noriega. Much like JOH, the U.S. government was fully aware of Noriega’s ties to drug trafficking; he was on the CIA’s payroll for decades. 

JOH wasn’t an intelligence asset, but he offered a subservient relationship. That was a change from the left-of-center President Manuel Zelaya who was elected in 2006. Zelaya wanted moderate economic reforms, but he shifted further to the left after entering office. This was partially prompted by the heavy-handed tactics of American diplomats. 

U.S. Ambassador Charles Ford provided Zelaya with a list of prospective nominees for cabinet positions whom the U.S. found to be acceptable. Such gestures, among others, proved to be counterproductive as Zelaya developed relationships with Hugo Chavez and Fidel Castro and suggested that he may seek a constitutional amendment that would permit him to seek a second term. Those moves helped neoconservatives, such as Otto Reich and Elliott Abrams, and right-wing U.S. lawmakers, notably Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-FL), to defend the 2009 military coup by labeling Zelaya as an “autocrat determined to turn Honduras into an undemocratic, hostile state.” 

Read entire article at Responsible Statecraft