Juan Orlando Hernández extolled his achievements as Honduran 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 Hernández 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, Hernández “participated in a violent drug-trafficking conspiracy” to ship hundreds of tons 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.
Hernández 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 indicated on drug trafficking charges.
But what was unusual about Hernández 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-published influence of drug money in Honduras, the US continued to back him.
In 2017, Joe Biden, then US vice president, phoned Hernández 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 the FT that when then-vice-president Mike Pence met Hernández 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 Hernández was an alleged drug trafficker.
A former senior US government official said the state department and the White House were not informed about the justice department or the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) investigations into Hernández despite asking repeatedly. The US justice department declined to comment.
For years, Hernández talked tough on drugs in public. In 2012, while the President of Congress he supported a constitutional amendment to authorize the extradition of traffickers. But in private, according to the extradition request, Hernández was promising to protect his trafficking allies in return for money and support.
US prosecutors say Hernández’s first presidential election campaign in 2013-14 was oiled by a $ 1mn bribe from Mexican cartel boss Joaquín Guzmán in exchange for promises to protect shipments by his Sinaloa cartel through Honduras, a key transit point in drug routes to the US. Hernández’s successful re-election bid in 2017-18 was also allegedly lubricated with $ 1.5mn 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 tons of cocaine.
Lurid testimony at that trial and a related one implied Hernández, 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-president”.
Yet nearly two months after Tony Hernández’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 Hernández is working with the US very closely,” Trump said. “And we’re winning after years and years of losing. We’re stopping drugs at a level that has never happened. “
Patrick Leahy, a U.S. senator, was scathing of Washington’s approach, saying that through “years of decay, depravity, and impunity, successive U.S. 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 have lost sight of what we stand for.”
Ultimately, experts said, Hernández won the 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.
“Hernández 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 Hernández’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,” said Salvador Nasralla, Castro’s incoming vice president. “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.”