As the United States gears up for the drug trafficking trial of Honduran ex-President Juan Orlando Hernández, prosecutors face the diplomatic paradox of presenting evidence showing their government stayed friendly with a leader that it knew was corrupt.
Hernández, often referred to by his initials JOH, maintained strong ties with the United States during much of his two terms as president of Honduras from 2014 to 2022.
Early on, the partnership had a substantial focus on crime and security issues, including anti-corruption initiatives, police reform, and extraditions of high-priority drug trafficking suspects.
But while Hernández’s administration was aiding US efforts to tackle organized crime in Honduras, US law enforcement was building a case that Hernández was working with his brother and others in a cocaine trafficking conspiracy.
“This is part of the great enigma of JOH. Cooperating in matters that were important to the United States and which eventually contributed directly to his own downfall,” a former senior US official told InSight Crime, requesting anonymity to speak freely about the diplomatically sensitive prosecution.
Hernández’s trial is set to start February 12, although the judge has not yet ruled on a request from his newly appointed lawyer to delay the trial further.
It marks the culmination of an expansive and ambitious US organized crime investigation that showcases the political complexities of building cases against high-level officials – especially when they are ostensible allies of the United States.
A Promising Start
The public-facing relationship between the United States and Hernández is rooted in the tough-on-crime persona he cultivated before he became president.
As the head of the Honduran congress from 2010 to 2014, Hernández backed the creation of a military police force and, ironically, a constitutional amendment in 2012 that permitted the extradition of Honduran citizens – a change that would clear the way for his own extradition a decade later.
Despite his public image as a crime-fighter, US court documents suggest Hernández may have been involved in drug trafficking since at least the mid-2000s. And the records indicate the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) started investigating Hernández in 2013, the year he won the presidential election.
But Hernández’s political stature limited the ability of US law enforcement to act on the evidence it collected. Openly investigating or charging a sitting, elected leader could spur accusations of interference in Honduras’ democracy. It could also close the door to cooperation on important bilateral issues like crime, migration, and trade.
“There’s this idea that we needed partners,” Christine J. Wade, who teaches Central American studies at Washington College, told InSight Crime. “This has been central, I think, in the minds of Washington for the past decade. And he’s the president. So he’s a partner, right?”
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US law enforcement kept its investigations of Hernández highly secret while the Honduran president burnished his public image as an anti-crime ally of the United States.
Building on his reputation as a crime fighter, Hernández oversaw a series of arrests and extraditions of major drug traffickers in his first two years in office.
In 2016, he supported a major police reform effort and agreed to the creation of an independent anti-corruption body supported by the Organization of American States.
Hernández also backed US efforts to stem migration from Honduras, which was a major political priority for the administration of then-President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.
“We got a lot of cooperation. We didn’t get 100% cooperation. And, you know, we had our eyes wide open,” the former US official said.
The possibility that the United States was tracking Hernández came to light near the end of Obama’s final term, in October 2016, when InSight Crime revealed that Juan Orlando’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, was a “person of interest” in a drug investigation.
But the revelations had little immediate effect on the anti-crime posture of the Hernández administration. In keeping with his image, the president took no action to shield his brother. Rather, he repeatedly proclaimed that, “No one is above the law.”
The scandal swirling around Tony Hernández also failed to immediately derail his brother’s diplomatic relationship with the United States after Donald Trump assumed the presidency in January 2017.
In May 2017, months after Tony was first implicated, Juan Orlando made a two-day visit to Washington, DC, where he was warmly received by leading members of the US Congress, high-ranking security officials, and then-Vice President Mike Pence.
“After Tony was first implicated, we asked [the US Justice Department] and DEA repeatedly and directly if JOH was under investigation,” the former US official said.
“The president, secretary of state, and the foreign policy apparatus needed to know so that they could adjust the policy accordingly if necessary. We were repeatedly told, ‘No, nothing to worry about.’”
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Relations Break Down
Juan Orlando Hernández’s anti-crime stance and his relationship with the United States started unraveling following a controversial re-election process and mounting allegations that the president himself was involved in the drug business.
Hernández began his second term in January 2018, tainted by allegations that he had rigged the November 2017 vote, after which both he and his rival, Salvador Nasralla, claimed victory.
The United States had held off recognizing the results for weeks, but ultimately issued a terse statement of congratulations urging “a robust national dialogue” in the wake of electoral “irregularities.”
Things got more tense in late 2018, when Tony Hernández was arrested in Miami on charges he used connections with corrupt police and other officials to traffic drugs through Honduras, particularly the remote Moskitia region.
The trial against Tony, along with prosecutions of other drug traffickers, exposed allegations that Juan Orlando had taken millions in drug money to help fund his political campaigns in return for assisting drug traffickers while in office.
The Honduran president denied those claims, saying they were based on false testimony from traffickers extradited under his watch. But in the coming months, he backtracked from previously strong crime-fighting stances, refusing to renew the mandate of the international anti-corruption body and overseeing a weakening of laws against drug trafficking and money laundering.
Still, Hernández avoided an entirely antagonistic relationship with the United States under Trump by cooperating on other major policy matters like controlling migration and moving Honduras’ embassy in Israel to Jerusalem.
“It was little shows of support like that ingratiating himself to the Trump administration on occasions that I think kept him in a relatively comfortable position,” Wade said.
Nevertheless, Honduran law prohibited Hernández from running for a third term, and in November 2021, current Honduran President Xiomara Castro – a member of the political opposition – won the election to succeed him. Within weeks of his departure from office in early 2022, Hernández was arrested and slated for extradition.
“When he lost the presidency, he lost any usefulness he had to the US government,” Orlando Pérez, who teaches US-Latin American relations at the University of North Texas at Dallas, told InSight Crime.
Juan Orlando Hernández’s trial raises the question of why the United States maintained a close diplomatic relationship for so long with an allegedly corrupt, criminal leader. But the evidence available so far suggests diplomatic relations and law enforcement investigations proceeded on largely separate tracks.
“People think that if one organization is doing something that the other knows about it. And I think that’s not always necessarily the case,” Wade said. “There may be really good reasons not to share information between agencies or departments depending on the level of sensitivity.”
The United States has often worked with problematic foreign partners in the past, and it will likely continue to do so. But it is rare for US prosecutors to put former partners on trial after they leave office.
One prominent historical example is Manuel Noriega, the dictator of Panama during the 1980s who was considered a US ally in the Cold War, but was later ousted in a US military invasion and imprisoned for drug trafficking.
The United States also maintained solid relations with Ricardo Martinelli, the Panamanian president from 2009 to 2014. Despite Martinelli’s cooperation on economic and security issues during his time in office, a swirl of corruption scandals around him and his family led the United States to extradite him back to Panama in 2018, where he was sentenced to over a decade in prison for money laundering.
Although the United States extradited Martinelli rather than putting him on trial, that example – combined with the upcoming prosecution of Hernández – shows an increased willingness by the United States to turn against former allies.
“There seems to be a pattern of the US cooperating with corrupt politicians while they’re in office, and then once they’re not in office, going after them,” Pérez said.
Hernández’s trial will provide a test for prosecutors who must argue that US allies can also be criminals.