The ex-president of Honduras crashes on his cocaine superhighway

For nearly a decade, Juan Orlando Hernández dominated Honduran politics like a corrupt colossus. Because he was a faithful ally of the United States, three American presidents pretended not to notice that he was a drug trafficker. That pretense has now evaporated.

In April a federal jury in New York convicted Hernández, who was president of Honduras from 2014 to 2022, of drug trafficking and weapons conspiracy charges. Attorney General Merrick Garland said Hernández had turned Honduras into “a narco-state where violent drug traffickers were allowed with virtual impunity.” Sentencing is set for June 26. The mandatory minimum is 40 years.

It is an amazing story: The United States actively supported the president of a Latin American country for years despite his involvement in high-level drug smuggling. Now that ex-president is facing justice. In 2021 Hernández visited New York as a head of state, to address the United Nations. Next week he will be there facing a federal judge, to hear a harsh sentence.

Hondurans breathlessly followed their former president’s three-week trial. It was a wild ride, complete with a story about $4 million stuffed into a duffel bag and shady characters with nicknames like El Porky. Prosecutors said Hernández was part of “the largest drug trafficking conspiracy in the world.” They estimated that he and his confederates smuggled a mind-boggling 400 tons of cocaine into the United States.

Witnesses testified that South American drug cartels would send planeloads of cocaine to airstrips in Honduras that Hernández controlled, and from there the drugs would be smuggled north. One said he heard Hernández brag that he would “shove the drugs right up the noses of those gringos.” A former cartel leader testified that he paid Hernández $250,000 in exchange for immunity from arrest.

Little of this shocked Hondurans. Many had long surmised that their president was in league with drug cartels. More remarkable was the fact that American leaders embraced him while, as prosecutors put it in New York, he “paved a cocaine superhighway to the United States.”

American intervention in Honduras stretches back more than a century. In 1911 US officials helped Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray, a founder of United Fruit, to depose an uncooperative Honduran president. For much of the 20th century Honduras was governed by presidents who favored the fruit companies and other American interests. It never developed into a coherent nation-state. During the 1980s, the CIA turned part of Honduras into a staging ground for the US-sponsored contra war against the Sandinista government of neighboring Nicaragua. That helped militarize the country and further weakened civilian institutions.In 2009 the Honduran military, unhappy with the leftward drift of their then-president, deposed him in a predawn coup and spirited him out of the country in his pajamas. Washington cheered because the coup represented the defeat of an irritating anti-imperialist by a group favorable to American interests. Members of Congress flew to Honduras to express solidarity with the new regime. President Obama, after briefly suspending some military aid, blessed an election, giving it a fig leaf of legality.

The post-coup regime, which Hernández headed beginning in 2014, privatized services and welcomed investment from foreign mining, logging, and hydroelectric companies. That sparked a surge of protest and a wave of repressive violence. Gang terror spread unchecked. By 2012 Honduras had the highest murder rate in the world. It was also the most dangerous place to be an environmental activist, with more than 120 murdered between 2009 and 2017.

Despite all this, when Hernández announced plans to run for reelection in 2017 — in violation of the Honduran constitution’s prohibition against presidential reelection — the Trump administration did not complain. Nor did it protest what appeared to be electoral fraud in that election. That was because Hernández not only offered favorable terms for American investment but also supported US foreign policy. He joined in American condemnations of Cuba and Nicaragua, recognized the US-backed Juan Guaidó as president of Venezuela, and moved his country’s Israel embassy to Jerusalem.

“President Hernández is working with the United States very closely,” Trump said when the two leaders met in 2019. Two years later, President Biden refused to cut aid for Honduran security forces despite evidence that Hernández was using them to repress protesters.

The policy of cozying up to this drug kingpin finally collapsed when protecting him became less important than Washington’s overriding priority in Central America: slowing immigration.

Rising hopelessness and raging violence in Honduras set off a torrent of illegal migration to the United States. As the 2021 election in Honduras approached, the Biden administration signaled that it would not stand by if Hernández or any member of his group tried to subvert another election. That helped assure a fair vote count, and the election was won by a fiery populist who campaigned against “the gangster elite.” Just 18 days after Hernández left the presidency, Honduran and American police agents arrested him and bundled him off to New York.

For a long time, tolerating the activities of a major drug trafficker because he was the pliable leader of a foreign country evidently seemed like a good idea in Washington. It wasn’t. American policymakers allowed the allure of short-term political gain to blind them to the harm Hernández was doing to both his own country and the United States. He will have the rest of his life to reflect on lessons learned from this bloody episode. America’s leaders should reflect as well.

Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.

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