Juan Orlando Hernandez, A Powerful Man in Chains
A few days ago, Honduras’s National Police detained former President Juan Orlando Hernández, better known in his country as JOH.
Ramón Sabillón, the former police chief, returned from exile to present his former commander in chief with an arrest warrant. Sabillón had been fired five years earlier by Hernandez when he arrested the Valle Valle brothers –key links to the Sinaloa cartel– without his authorization.
Xiomara Castro, the recently inaugurated president of Honduras, reinstated Sabillón as the head of the police force. If Hernandez is extradited to the United States, he will face drug charges in a federal courtroom in the Southern District of New York. The former president is accused of involvement in a drug cartel that used Honduras as a platform to send large shipments of drugs to the U.S. Last year, Hernandez’s brother, Tony, was sentenced to life in prison in the U.S. for his role in the importation of at least 185 tons of cocaine.
Tony, who wanted to make a name for himself in the business, marked the packages of cocaine with his initials. He exploited his high-ranking position in the government and his proximity to his brother to become a key player for the drug cartels. During the trial of Tony and other cartel members, JOH’s name came up again and again as a primary conspirator in the operation.
From then on, his fate was sealed.
He sought immunity from prosecution by joining the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) after leaving the presidency.
It did not work.
If the extradition order is approved by Honduras’s Supreme Court, and his case goes before a U.S. court, he could be sentenced to several years in prison. The magistrates and prosecutors Hernandez placed in key posts of the judiciary will not be able to save him.
Hernández first came to the presidency in 2014 as the candidate of the National Party. In 2017, with the help of allies in the Supreme Court, he managed to remain in power (Honduras constitution does not allow reelection). In November, he prevailed in the general elections through a maneuver which the OAS described as election fraud.
During his eight years in power (2014-2022), Honduras hit bottom. The poverty rate climbed. Organized crime, and Honduras’ maras or gangs – now heavily involved in the drug business – grew stronger. Dozens of activists for land rights, the environment, and water and community rights were killed or imprisoned. (As of today, six anti-mining activists in the area of river Guapinol continue in prison despite being exonerated on February 10 by the Constitutional Chamber).
Two presidential administrations, one Democratic and the other Republican, ignored the problem. However they quickly reacted to the hundreds of thousands of Hondurans seeking refuge in the United States.
Days ago, the Honduran newspaper La Prensa published a detailed list of charges which await the former president if he is extradited to the US. If he is found guilty, he will be kept out of play for several years. Still, the stalwarts he installed over eight years are still there, as well as the powerful interests he served.
It is fair to say that through all these years of narco-state governance, Hondurans did not remain passive. They fought in the communication media, in social networks, in the streets, in courts and in international forums.
It takes time and effort to dismantle a corrupt state that has the Police and the Army on its side. This year, though, there is a glimpse of hope. It would not be possible if Xiomara Castro had not been sworn in to the presidency two weeks ago. This election has struck a blow to the existing regime.
What is happening in Honduras also sends a message to other leaders in the region. Sooner or later they will understand: the arrogant exercise of power for criminal purposes does not last forever.
Róger Lindo is a journalist and writer.