Jared Olson. Foreign Policy. MARCH 11, 2022
As then-Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández’s term came to a close in January, many Hondurans hoped he would soon be extradited to the United States, following the path of his brother, Tony Hernández, a former Honduran legislator who was sentenced to life in prison in the United States on drugs and weapons charges last year. But most people doubted it would actually happen: The now-former Honduran president, notorious for corruption, has remained a close U.S. ally throughout it all.
Yet Hernández, who reportedly bragged while president that he would shove drugs “right up the noses of the gringos by flooding the United States with cocaine,” had hardly begun his post-presidential life before he was arrested and taken prisoner at a police special forces base, where he now awaits likely extradition to the United States.
Accusations of drug corruption have floated around Hernández for years, ever since his brother’s 2018 arrest and trial. U.S. prosecutors indicated the president was a co-conspirator in his brother’s “violent, state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy.” But his status as president made things tricky: A White House aide indicated that U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris, after being briefed on Hernández last year, wanted to “go get him now” but was advised against doing so because he was a head of state.
Sure enough, hardly two weeks passed after he left office before the United States turned the screws on him: On Feb. 7, U.S. officials publicly revealed that last year, Hernández had been quietly placed on the Engel list of corrupt officials suspected of “undermining democracy in Central America,” sanctioning him and preventing him from getting a visa; a week later, the United States filed a formal request with the Honduran government for the former president’s extradition, causing hundreds of police officers to surround his residence. He was arrested without resistance the following day.
Hernández may seem to be an isolated bad apple in the war on drugs, the series of U.S.-sponsored military initiatives to stop drug trafficking in Latin America. But he’s not the only major political or military official in the region who has allegedly colluded with the very drug kingpins his country has received U.S support to fight. Even after the revelations in his brother’s trial—where prosecutors indicated Tony Hernández used Honduran state security forces to facilitate the drug trade and help kill off rivals—the former president’s forces continued to receive training from U.S. troops and hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid.
Rather than an aberration, Hernández is a window into the contradictions of the drug war itself, and his fall from grace speaks to deeper dysfunction within U.S.-led efforts to combat drug cartels—not just in Honduras but throughout Latin America.
Supporters of the Honduran opposition and members of the leftist Liberty and Refoundation party celebrate in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on March 30, after Tony Hernández, the brother of the President Juan Orlando Hernández, pictured in the poster, was sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking offenses in New York.
The war on drugs began in June 1971 after then-U.S. President Richard Nixon identified drugs as “public enemy No. 1.” It expanded throughout Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s after Washington began identifying the drug trade as a national security threat that needed to be combated via military force.
Pushed by U.S. demand for counternarcotics action, security forces in countries such as Colombia, Bolivia, and Mexico began aerial fumigation campaigns of clandestine coca or poppy fields and arrested members of the drug trade.
One of the first large-scale counternarcotics operations, Operation Condor, began in 1977 after Mexican soldiers and police, accompanied by U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents, descended on the mountains of northwest Mexico to wage a counterinsurgency campaign against rural poppy farmers, resulting in hundreds of deaths as well widespread torture and displacement. (Tellingly, in a preview of future corruption trends, historians have since established that—while they uprooted some traffickers—the Mexican government established a “protection racket,” wherein high-level army and police officials took control of the drug trade, allowing select groups of traffickers to work and extorting them for a slice of the proceeds as well as torturing or killing them if they stepped out of line.)
By the 21st century, a succession of U.S.-led security initiatives escalated the drug war on its various Latin American fronts. The first, Plan Colombia, which launched in 2000, set the standard for later initiatives, creating a model in which Washington funneled weapons and training to its Latin American allies to beef up their security forces while also pushing for judicial reform. (Some have noted that neoliberal economic restructuring as well as the expansion of mining and agribusiness have tended to come close on the heels of these security initiatives.) Plan Colombia was followed by the Mérida Initiative in Mexico and the Central America Regional Security Initiative (CARSI) in fiscal year 2008.
These initiatives were laden with controversy. Security forces benefitting from a surge in U.S. aid were documented as being responsible for massacres, extrajudicial killings, and enforced disappearances. Critics, meanwhile, pointed out that beyond temporary dips, overall drug flows remained consistent and, in some cases, even rose.
When Hernández was elected president in 2013, he portrayed himself as an iron-fisted conservative hard-liner who would stop at nothing to end drug violence. Bloodshed had been skyrocketing in the country since a 2009 military coup, which drove migration to the United States and thus led the Obama administration to increase expenditures on CARSI. As the head of the Honduran military, Hernández was a key partner of the program, which helped funnel more than a billion dollars to Central American security forces “to confront narcotics and arms trafficking, gangs, organized crime, and border security deficiencies” by 2015, according to the Center for Economic and Policy Research.
During his tenure, Hernández was frequently seen at Honduras’s Soto Cano Air Base for photo-ops with U.S. military officials to reaffirm shared security goals. Meanwhile, he benefited from relationships with Washington beyond security aid: Meetings with figures, such as Sen. Marco Rubio, former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, and former U.S. President Donald Trump, helped him maintain an international image of legitimacy even as his popularity at home soured due to rampant corruption and continuing violence.
Hernández is far from the only major U.S. ally in Latin America to have been implicated with the same narcotics he was tasked with fighting.
But after his brother’s 2018 arrest in Miami and subsequent trial in New York, it became clear to the public that while Hernández was arresting some drug traffickers, he was actively protecting others and reaping the benefits. U.S. prosecutors even alleged that he took a $1 million bribe from Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán through his brother in exchange for protecting El Chapo’s shipments, which Hernández later pumped into his successful 2013 presidential campaign. In 2021, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration revealed that since 2013, for the entire period he benefited from U.S. support, Hernández had been under investigation for drug trafficking. Out of office and no longer useful to U.S. geopolitical interests, Hernández—a widely loathed, corrupt former proxy—became an easy scapegoat for an administration struggling to “fight root causes” of surging migration.
For some observers, Washington’s about-face on a corrupt former ally is unsurprising: “The U.S. has selectively weaponized anti-drug policy against Latin American government officials only after they have been used to facilitate U.S. interests in the region,” said Oswaldo Zavala, a Mexican journalist and the author of Drug Cartels Do Not Exist: Narcotrafficking in U.S. and Mexican Culture. As a precedent, Zavala referenced Panamanian dictator Manuel Noriega, who had helped funnel drug money to the Nicaraguan Contras as a former CIA asset before eventually running afoul of his benefactors in the United States, who ousted him in a massive invasion in the winter of 1989 and 1990.
Indeed, Hernández is far from the only major U.S. ally in Latin America to have been implicated with the same narcotics he was tasked with fighting. Take, for instance, Genaro García Luna, Mexico’s public security secretary during the first phase of the Mexican drug war from 2006 to 2012, and Salvador Cienfuegos, Mexico’s general and defense minister from 2012 to 2018, who was awarded the Legion of Merit by the U.S. Defense Department. Both men presided over military forces that were crucial to Washington’s Mérida Initiative, touted as an “anti-drug and rule of law assistance to Mexico.”
Yet the U.S. Justice Department accused García Luna of taking payments from the Sinaloa Cartel and was arrested by DEA agents in Dallas in 2019, and Cienfuegos allegedly used his position to protect the Sinaloa Cartel and was arrested by U.S. authorities in 2020. (Following diplomatic uproar, the U.S. Justice Department abruptly released Cienfuegos from jail a month later.)
As the Mexican Army and Federal Police under Cienfuegos and García Luna were deployed to Ciudad Juárez, arresting certain traffickers, military-linked death squads began carrying out widespread extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances against the urban poor. Drugs still flowed north. Leaked State Department cables from 2008 indicated that U.S. officials were aware that there was a high probability García Luna, for one, was complicit in high-level drug corruption inside the Mexican state security apparatus, while Edgar Valdez Villarreal, a prominent drug lord known as “La Barbie,” alleged in a public letter after his 2010 capture that he had been making regular payments to García Luna.
It should not come as a surprise that some U.S. government agencies collaborate with the very individuals other U.S. agencies denounce, said Alexander Aviña, a Mexican American professor of Latin American history at Arizona State University who researches drug wars.
“There are competing interests within the U.S. state,” Aviña said. “The Justice Department is working against the CIA, which is working against the DEA. There are many cases where the DEA is aware that one of [the United States’] allies is involved in drugs, and then the CIA steps in and stops them from investigating.”
One former DEA agent who worked in Mexico under the Mérida Initiative, who asked to remain anonymous for professional reasons, was blunt in recognizing that when faced with a field of corrupt government officials, Washington often collaborates with the lesser of two evils: “You’ve got to make a deal with the devil at some point,” the former DEA agent said. “We had to adjust to [the reality of corruption] and work with people sometimes.”
The DEA did not respond to Foreign Policy’s request for comment.
Robert Arce, a former agent who worked for the U.S. Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) in Mexico between 2014 and 2017, said he and most of his colleagues at the INL were aware of corrupt officials, such as Cienfuegos or García Luna, in partner governments. But the heads of the bureau in Mexico City, he said, expressed little interest in investigating them because doing so would muddy the black-and-white image of linear progress in the drug war. “The heads don’t want to hear anything negative,” he said. “They don’t want us reporting bad stuff about these figures we’re working with being corrupt because they want to send rosy reports of progress to [Washington] so they can continue to get more funding.”
Hernández may be one rotten figure rooted out of the drug war, but the system itself continues to churn along.
In response to a request for an official comment, a U.S. State Department official, who would only comment on condition of anonymity, stated in an email, “The Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs works with governmental and non-governmental partners to prevent and respond to corruption and related crimes, and to strengthen anticorruption architecture around the globe,” adding that “Under our framework for security cooperation between the United States and Mexico, both countries pledged the utmost respect for human rights and an intolerance for corruption. INL’s work in Mexico has prioritized and continues to prioritize diplomacy and foreign assistance to advance efforts to prevent, identify, and prosecute corruption.”
Hernández’s potential extradition may help clean up that image, at least marginally, in the United States. But it “won’t fundamentally alter the course of the drug war or necessarily improve things for the better,” said Dawn Paley, a journalist who’s reported from Central America and Mexico and is the author of Drug War Capitalism. “Doing so would require the regulation of narcotics and the demilitarization of prohibition.”
Paley is of a community of critics who sees drugs and drug abuse as a public health issue—where drugs should be legalized so they can be regulated, reducing overdose deaths and lacing with deadly chemicals like fentanyl—rather than a national security threat needing to be combated by military force. Many see the prohibition of narcotics, on the other hand, as creating a black market opportunity for armed criminal groups and corrupt government factions to make dark money in an underground economy whose only form of regulation is extreme violence.
But as Hernández faces the prospect of going north, guns in the drug war continue going south: On Feb. 7, Rubio and U.S. Sen. Robert Menendez introduced the Western Hemisphere Security Strategy Act, a bill that would significantly expand the funding and training of Latin America’s militaries to fight transnational criminal organizations. Hernández may be one rotten figure rooted out of the drug war, but the system itself continues to churn along.