Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández goes on trial this week in New York City for overseeing a massive cocaine trafficking conspiracy. Washington learned of his dealings with narco-cartels soon after it backed a coup that brought him to power.
When then-Honduran President, Juan Orlando Hernández, set out for a pleasant jog along the National Mall while on an official state visit to Washington DC on August 13, 2019, he seemed not to have a care in the world.
“Daily exercise, healthy eating, and drinking lots of water = better health and quality of life,” he advised followers in a Twitter post that included photos of his jaunt around DC’s National Mall.
Activados en Washington DC. Ejercicio diario, alimentación sana y tomar mucha agua = mejor salud y calidad de vida.
La salud es primero, mantenga limpia su casa de criaderos de zancudos por usted y su familia. Un abrazo a la distancia a todos. pic.twitter.com/NGl0HX9kr4
— Juan Orlando H. (@JuanOrlandoH) August 13, 2019
When US officials returned Hernández stateside less than three years later, however, they were not interested in an elementary health consultation — but in taking the former president to trial over allegations that he converted the Honduran state into a de facto drug cartel.
“Juan Orlando effectively operated Honduras as a narco-state, acquiring political power through narcotics-fueled bribes and maintaining it by allowing the free flow of drugs through Honduras,” US government prosecutors alleged in a May 1 motion filed in the Southern District of New York.
Federal prosecutors unsealed an indictment targeting Hernández on April 21, 2022, the same day that Honduras extradited him to the US. He currently faces three drug and weapons smuggling charges in the Southern District of New York, including one count of conspiracy to import cocaine to the United States. His trial begins this week, on September 18.
The Hernández indictment stemmed from a separate case lodged against the president’s younger brother, Tony, who was convicted alongside other members of the conspiracy of nearly identical charges in October 2019. At the time of the elder Hernández’s visit to Washington DC the previous month, he had already been named as a co-conspirator in his brother’s narco empire. Tony Hernández was sentenced to life in prison in January 2020.
The Hernández brothers’ fall from grace highlights the bizarre—and seemingly contradictory— nature of Washington’s “War on Drugs.” As this two-part investigative series will detail, US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials confirmed President Hernández’s direct involvement in narcotrafficking within days of his 2014 inauguration, yet continued to collaborate with his administration, keeping it flush with cash and protected from legal scrutiny.
In private, Juan Orlando Hernández vowed to “stuff the drugs right up the noses of the gringos,” while in public, he was heartily embraced by Obama administration officials, including the current US president, Joe Biden. Despite possessing intimate knowledge of Hernández’s criminal activities, officials in the Obama White House worked tirelessly to keep his presidency afloat. While drug war refugees and narcotics from the country flooded American streets, Washington transferred over one billion dollars into Honduran state coffers.
Hernández’s ascent to power in Tegucigalpa came five years after Honduran military forces removed the country’s democratically elected president, José Manuel Zelaya, in a US-backed coup. Despite a constitutional one term limit on the Honduran presidency, Washington would go on to provide key political support for Hernández’s subsequent reelection bid, which succeeded following a November 2017 vote so crooked that even Western corporate media eventually demanded an electoral do-over.
The Honduran national nightmare began early one morning in 2009, when military officials in Tegucigalpa toppled a popular president who promised to usher in a new constitution that would guarantee unprecedented economic rights to the country’s citizens.
With an early morning raid, darkness falls on Honduras
In the pre-dawn hours of June 28, 2009, roughly 100 masked Honduran soldiers stormed the residence of President José Manuel Zelaya in Tegucigalpa and roused him from his slumber, guns drawn. As his daughter hid under the bed in her own room in terror, the special forces unit marched Zelaya into the street at gunpoint, loaded him into a vehicle and, ultimately, onto a plane destined for a US-run military base south of the capital. From there, soldiers shipped him off to neighboring Costa Rica, where he arrived on a deserted tarmac before sun up, still in his pajamas.
As Zelaya denounced the morning’s event as a “coup” before cameras in San José, his political foes in Tegucigalpa mobilized to dismantle his government with stunning efficiency. Within hours, the National Congress entered a supposed resignation letter from Zelaya—which he maintains was forged—into the official record, voted to remove him from office, and installed President of the Legislature, Roberto Micheletti, as interim president of the country. Meanwhile, a US general offered two Honduran colonels involved with the coup “behind-the-scenes assistance in Washington,” according to a whistleblower.
The early morning putsch came just hours before Hondurans were slated to vote in a referendum on whether to convene a national constituent assembly and write a new constitution. The Zelaya-led initiative may have allowed Honduras to follow the example of Venezuela, Bolivia, and Ecuador, three nations that established modern constitutions dramatically expanding economic and social rights while asserting sovereign control of domestic resources near the turn of the century. At the time, Zelaya enjoyed widespread popularity at home while he forged close ties with leaders of the so-called “Pink Tide” of progressive governments across Latin American and the Caribbean.
Micheletti’s interim government proceeded to not only cancel the June 28 referendum, but institute a 45-day state of emergency that temporarily suspended constitutional protections for all Hondurans, including their rights to Habeas Corpus, freedom of expression, and freedom of movement. For many Hondurans, however, the assault on their freedom extended throughout the entirety of the ensuing coup regime, which formally lasted until 2022.
Indeed, the homicide rate in Honduras skyrocketed in the coup’s immediate aftermath, making it the murder capital of the world for three consecutive years. At the same time, the number of Hondurans living in extreme poverty rose by 10 percent between 2009 and 2012 alone, placing roughly half its population in dire straits. These factors directly contributed to a migration crisis at the US Southern border, with Border Patrol agents reporting an astonishing 1,272 percent increase in their apprehension of Honduran children between 2009 and 2014.
“The [migrant] caravans heading to the US are from Honduras because the coup d’etat turned Honduras into hell,” Zelaya reflected during an interview with The Grayzone on the 10th anniversary of the coup that removed him from power.
Following Zelaya’s ouster, Honduras’ vehemently pro-Washington National Party maintained a stranglehold on local politics; first through a wealthy land developer named Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa, then via attorney-turned-drug boss, Juan Orlando Hernández. Soon enough, Honduras rapidly deteriorated into a hellish narco state worthy of Hollywood treatment.
As the US government indictment against the former president alleged: “The rampant drug trafficking that occurred with Juan Orlando’s support, and with the help of high-ranking officials… resulted in lawlessness in Honduras and directly contributed to Honduras’s rampant violent crime, corruption, and poverty.”
The Obama administration legitimizes sham election rigged by cartels
Following the 2009 coup against Zelaya and his Liberal Party, Honduras was placed under the rule of the conservative National Party, a political bloc with roots in the country’s era as a “Banana Republic.”
Throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, the notoriously exploitative United Fruit Company backed the National Party and its leader, a Honduran Major General named Tiburcio Carías Andino—a distant relative of Hernández’s wife. Andino transformed Honduras transformed into a de facto corporate outpost, ensuring foreign dominion of its resources and agricultural land while crushing all political opposition to the ruling oligarchy. Six decades later, the National Party would convert the Honduran state into another kind of private enterprise that generated fantastic wealth for a few while leaving the many in poverty. This time, the government’s puppet masters consisted of some of the American region’s most notorious international drug gangs.
The National Party cemented its reign in Tegucigalpa within months of the June 2009 putsch, following elections convened by the coup government. Protesters on election day were met with beatings and disappearances. And while governments across the region rejected the vote, Washington did everything in its power to legitimize it.
With many international observers, including the Organization of American States (OAS), boycotting the vote in protest of the regime, Washington dispatched observer teams from the National Democratic Institute and the International Republican Institute, two subsidiaries of the National Endowment for Democracy (NED), to certify the vote. The IRI declared the process “credible and peaceful,” adding “contrary to concerns about disruptions and violence, IRI observers witnessed an environment that was safe and free of serious problems.” The NDI neglected to offer an assessment.
Thomas Shannon, the Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the State Department’s top official working on Honduras, campaigned around the clock to legitimize the election. “Honduran voters have taken back their democracy,” Shannon wrote in an email to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the day of the vote. “We should congratulate the Honduran people, we should connect today’s vote to the deep democratic vocation of the Honduran people, and we should call on the community of democratic nations (and especially those of the Americas) to recognize, respect, and respond to this accomplishment of the Honduran people.”
Shannon continued: “This administration, which worked so hard to manage and resolve this crisis should be the ones who define the results and perceptions of today’s vote.”
The diplomat’s talking points were echoed in a State Department press briefing delivered by Arturo Valenzuela, Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, the following day: “I would like to commend the Honduran people for an election that met international standards of fairness and transparency despite some incidents that were reported here and there. I also want to commend Pepe Lobo for his ample victory in these elections.”
Secretary of State Clinton would offer her own congratulations to Lobo days later.
Just over a decade on, however, US prosecutors acknowledged that drug traffickers not only funded Lobo’s presidential run, but physically seized polling stations during the 2009 election in an effort to pressure voters into electing National Party candidates. At the time, Hernández was running for a legislative seat in the National Congress.
Leonel Rivera, head of the notoriously violent Los Cachiros cartel, told US prosecutors in 2017 that he personally offered bribes in support of Lobo throughout the 2009 electoral season. Meanwhile, Alex Ardon, a local politician who founded the AA Brothers Cartel with his brother, Hugo, led a violent voter intimidation campaign to ensure the National Party emerged victorious on election day. According to a US government motion filed this May, Ardon “sent emissaries to take control of polling stations” and “facilitated the casting of approximately 3,000 fraudulent votes in support of Juan Orlando, Pepe Lobo, and other National Party candidates.”
The tumultuous election vaulted Lobo to the Honduran presidency and Hernández to the National Congress. According to US prosecutors, Ardon then bribed influential lawmakers to ensure Hernández became President of the National Congress. From there, Hernández cemented his ties to drug traffickers and secured his place as next in line for the presidency.
Ultimately, US prosecutors allege that Lobo and Hernández “worked together” to obtain $2 million in drug trafficking revenue from Ardon to fuel their respective campaigns, promising to protect the narco chief from arrest and extradition to the United States and appoint his brother, Hugo (identified in the document as CW-1), to a government post.
Hernández eventually made good on his promise, appointing Hugo Ardon director of Honduras’ national infrastructure agency, Fonda Vial, a position he leveraged to pave roads and other projects that enabled drug trafficking. Conveniently, the companies Hugo Ardon contracted also functioned as fronts for drug money laundering.
Today, Lobo is banned from traveling to the US, with Secretary of State Antony Blinken accusing the former president of accepting “bribes from the narco-trafficking organization Los Cachiros in exchange for political favors” while in office. Lobo’s son, Fabio, has been sentenced to 24 years in a US federal prison for drug trafficking, while his wife will spend 14 years in jail after being found guilty of spending $500,000 in public funds on lavish shopping splurges. Lobo himself was exposed as having set up three Panama-based shell companies, two of which were launched during his presidency, to shield his family’s corrupt activities.
Yet Pepe Lobo’s corruption is a mere drop in the bucket compared to that of his successor, Juan Orlando Hernández. As we will see the second installment of this series, Hernández consolidated the Honduran state as a massive drug trafficking operation with his ascent to the presidency, acting as the linchpin of a hideously deformed national project that officials in Washington — including Blinken — helped to shape.
Alex Rubinstein is an independent reporter on Substack. You can subscribe to get free articles from him delivered to your inbox here. If you want to support his journalism, which is never put behind a paywall, you can give a one-time donation to him through PayPal here or sustain his reporting through Patreon here.
Anya Parampil is a journalist based in Washington, DC. She has produced and reported several documentaries, including on-the-ground reports from the Korean peninsula, Palestine, Venezuela, and Honduras.