How US’ drug agency made mince meal of ex-Honduras drug lord president
Juan Orlando Hernandez extolled his achievements as Honduras president with the words: “Together we made history”.
This week, the one-time Washington ally earned his place in the record books for a different reason — less than a month after leaving office as he became the first former Latin American leader to be arrested and face extradition to the US on drug trafficking charges.
As dozens of armed police led a handcuffed Hernandez from his luxury home in the capital Tegucigalpa, many Hondurans celebrated his downfall, letting off fireworks and singing “Juanchi, you’re going to New York”.
“It’s not an easy moment, I wouldn’t wish it on anyone,” the former president said in an audio message posted online shortly before his arrest. He vowed to clear his name.
Prosecutors allege that for the past 18 years, Hernandez “participated in a violent drug-trafficking conspiracy” to ship hundreds of tonnes of cocaine to the US via Honduras and received “millions of dollars in bribes and proceeds” in return, according to a copy of the extradition request seen by the Financial Times.
Hernandez was not the first Latin American leader exposed for drug ties.
Ernesto Samper had his US visa revoked while president of Colombia in 1996 after cocaine traffickers helped fund his election. (Samper admitted that drug money helped fund his campaign but said he was unaware of it.)
Manuel Noriega, Panama’s de facto ruler, was deposed and captured in a 1989 US invasion after being indicted on drug trafficking charges.
But what was unusual about Hernandez is that he was lauded by the US as a valued ally even as law enforcement agencies were investigating him and his brother for drug trafficking.
Despite the widespread and well-publicised influence of drug money in Honduras, the US continued to back him.
In 2017, Joe Biden, then US vice-president, phoned Hernandez and “praised Honduras’ progress in improving security and tax administration”, according to a White House statement.
Juan Cruz, the top White House official on Latin America from 2017-19, told FT that when then-vice-president Mike Pence met Hernandez and other Central American presidents in Guatemala in 2018, “I was part of the team preparing the briefing and I can tell you we didn’t have a clue” that Hernandez was an alleged drug trafficker.
A former senior US government official said the state department and White House were not informed about justice department or Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigations into Hernandez despite asking repeatedly.
The US justice department declined to comment.
For years, Hernandez talked tough on drugs in public. In 2012, while president of Congress he supported a constitutional amendment to authorise the extradition of traffickers.
But in private, according to the extradition request, Hernandez was promising to protect his trafficking allies in return for money and support.
US prosecutors say Hernandez’s first presidential election campaign in 2013-14 was oiled by a $1 million bribe from Mexican cartel boss Joaquin Guzman in exchange for promises to protect shipments by his Sinaloa cartel through Honduras, a key transit point in drug routes to the US.
Hernandez’s successful re-election bid in 2017-18 was also allegedly lubricated with $1.5 million of drug-trafficking proceeds, according to the US extradition request.
But by 2019, the Honduras president’s luck was running out. His brother Tony went on trial in the US and was convicted and later sentenced to life imprisonment for smuggling more than 185 tonnes of cocaine.
Lurid testimony at that trial and a related one implicated Hernandez, including witness statements that the president had mocked the DEA and vowed to “stuff drugs up the gringos’ noses” — a reference to flooding the US market with cocaine.
Back home, Hondurans protested in the streets, demanding the removal of their “narco-presidente”.
Yet nearly two months after Tony Hernandez’s conviction, then-president Donald Trump welcomed his brother as a guest at a summit of the Israeli American Council in Florida.
“I have to tell you — thank you, sir — that President Hernandez is working with the US very closely.
“And we’re winning after years and years of losing. We’re stopping drugs at a level that has never happened,” Trump said.
Patrick Leahy, a US senator, was scathing of Washington’s approach, saying that through “years of decay, depravity, and impunity, successive US administrations sullied our reputation by treating Hernandez as a friend and partner.
“By making excuse after excuse for a government that had no legitimacy and that functioned as a criminal enterprise, US officials lost sight of what we stand for.”
Ultimately, experts said, Hernandez won US backing mainly because he was prepared to do what Washington most wanted: co-operate on reducing the flow of migrants from Honduras to the US border.
“Hernandez was quite astute in that respect,” said Michael Shifter, president of the Inter-American Dialogue think-tank in Washington.
Tired of what they perceived as Hernandez’s’ corruption and misrule, Hondurans voted in a leftwing president, Xiomara Castro, by a landslide last year.
She took office last month with strong US support but faces daunting odds tackling endemic corruption in one of the western hemisphere’s poorest nations.
“It’s going to be really difficult.
“Drug traffickers are in the institutional structures of the country, in the ministries, in Congress, in the supreme court.
“Honduras is a living example of a narco state,” said Salvador Nasralla, Castro’s incoming vice-president. Read more.
The article “Ex-Honduras president’s arrest puts US war on drugs into focus” was first published on Financial Times