Until 27 January, Juan Orlando Hernández was president of Honduras; he’s now on his way to a high-security prison in New York, awaiting trial. On the day JOH handed power to Xiomara Castro, charges were filed against him that would lead to an extradition request from the US embassy in Tegucigalpa. He was arrested on 15 February and lost his appeal to the country’s supreme court on 28 March. A Drug Enforcement Agency plane came to pick him up today.
JOH’s brother Tony, arrested in 2018, is serving a life sentence for bringing two hundred tonnes of cocaine into the US. JOH’s alleged role was to protect Tony’s trafficking and share the proceeds. According to the charge sheet he first received drug money in 2005; conspired four years later with then president ‘Pepe’ Lobo to receive a further $2 million in protection money; and in 2013 received another from ‘El Chapo’ Guzman for ‘election expenses’. Shortly after his brother’s conviction, an associate who was ready to testify about JOH’s involvement was murdered in an Honduran prison. Most of the potential witnesses are already in the US, however, collaborating with law officers.
But there is a parallel story in which not only was JOH’s criminal activity ignored by successive US administrations, but his presidency was celebrated, first by Obama and then by Trump. His rise to power began shortly after the military coup in 2009, when he became head of congress and then, in 2013, ran for president. Having promised to put a ‘soldier on every corner’, he received a large share of $1.2 billion offered by Washington to strengthen the region’s armed forces. The Obama-Biden administration chose to see him as an ally in the war on drugs and Biden twice met JOH to back his efforts.
The US justice department had been tracking JOH’s involvement in narco-trafficking for nearly a decade, but stayed its hand on the grounds that JOH was still head of state – though that didn’t stop them indicting Venezuela’s Nicolás Maduro in 2020. Washington was content to let a neoliberal ally win a dubious election in 2013 and a completely fraudulent one in 2017. Days before his brother was found guilty, the US embassy tweeted its continued support for JOH. The Trump administration seemed untroubled by criminal behaviour as long as JOH appeared to be stemming immigration. Senator Patrick Leahy now laments that through ‘eight years of decay, depravity and impunity, successive US administrations sullied our reputation by treating Hernandez as a friend and partner.’
By last November’s election, JOH’s luck had run out. His intended successor, the corrupt mayor of Tegucigalpa, lost to the left-leaning Xiomara Castro. Her husband, Mel Zelaya, was ousted in the 2009 coup and she first stood against JOH in 2013. With more than half the votes, her victory could not be denied and it took only two days for Washington to congratulate her. It then emerged that Biden had put JOH on the ‘Engel’ list of corrupt politicians as early as last July. His US visa was cancelled. By the time JOH posted pictures of himself playing with his dogs at one of his many homes, the embassy already had the extradition request.
Can Castro bring an end to the narcostate? She’s hindered by a divided congress and state bodies permeated by corruption, drug trafficking and organised crime. Half her budget is pre-empted by the debt JOH built up, and she inherits health and education systems broken by years of underinvestment, labour disputes and the pandemic. With poverty levels jumping from 59 to 73 per cent in only two years, she has promised no increase in ordinary people’s taxes, and new subsidies for fuel bills.
Biden knows she needs all the help she can get. His priorities for Latin America have shifted away from the drug trade and immigration, now that he wants to counteract the growing influence of China and Russia. He’s keen that ‘new’ left governments in Honduras and Chile (and possibly, after elections this year, Colombia and Brazil) don’t link up with the old left in Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela.
Biden sent Kamala Harris to Castro’s inauguration in January, and so far has dissuaded the new president from switching allegiance from Taiwan to China, another of her election promises. He can exploit divisions within her governing coalition, evident in the controversy last month when Honduras voted against a UN Human Rights Council resolution on Nicaragua. Biden is promising Castro help if she toes the US line, but already the progressive parts of her coalition are complaining about the number of visits her ministers are getting from his officials. She faces a complicated balancing act.