Along a paved road that climbs the hillside to Celaque Mountain national park in south-western Honduras, one-room shacks are overshadowed by high-walled mansions – including the homes of President Juan Orlando Hernández and his political allies.
Local people say the results of Hernández’s eight years as president are on full display.
“He worked hard for his own good – not for the good of the people,” said Jesús Martínez, 68, a farmer resting in the picturesque colonial park in the center of Gracias.
“The people continue in calamity, and he’s leaving as a millionaire.”
On Thursday, Honduras will inaugurate Hernández’s successor: the country’s first female president, Xiomara Castro. Her resounding victory in November’s general election was propelled by a wave of anti-Hernández sentiment that reached even into his home town of Gracias.
“The results of the election are an expression of the overwhelming rejection of Juan Orlando and what he represented,” said Gustavo Irías, director of the Honduran watchdog group Cespad.
Hernández is widely expected to be indicted by US prosecutors on drug trafficking conspiracy charges upon leaving office. It would mark a spectacular fall from grace for a president who was once considered one of Washington’s top allies in the region.
The son of a prominent landholder who fathered at least 17 children, Hernández, 53, began his decades-long political career here in Gracias. He was raised in relative comfort compared with his rural counterparts – but far below that enjoyed by the urban elite.
“[His father] had his properties, his cattle and a vehicle – and in those times a person who had a vehicle was wealthy,” said Ana Guillermina, a local historian and retired teacher who once counted Hernández among her primary school students. “I don’t recall that there was anything special about him.”
When Hernández joined congress in 1998, fellow legislators from the time described him as quiet, humble, with few friends but with a keen interest on capitalizing upon his office. Hernández rose steadily up the political ladder, becoming president of Congress in 2010 and then president of the republic four years later. At the time, Honduras had one of the world’s highest homicide rates and was plagued by violent gangs and drug traffickers.
To combat the crime wave, he deployed the military in the streets, filled the country’s prisons and started extraditing high-level drug traffickers to the United States. He was commended for his administration’s efforts by numerous US agencies, including the Drug Enforcement Administration.
But at the same time, drug trafficking allegations mounted against one of his brothers, former legislator Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who was linked to a drug lab in 2014 and later to a helicopter that had transported cocaine, among other accusations.
In 2016, Hernández announced that he would seek re-election despite a constitutional prohibition against it. That decision would ultimately turn many Hondurans against him, and the subsequent 2017 election was marred by allegations of fraud and violent repression of protesters by state security forces.
“It would have been best for him to step aside because he was re-elected in a very unclear way,” said high school teacher Wilmer Oliva, as he sat in the shade of Gracias’s central park in December. Oliva voted for Hernández twice, but quickly regretted the second time. “These last four years have definitely been lousy. So many corruption and drug trafficking scandals.”
In November 2018, less than a year into Hernández’s second term, Tony was arrested while visiting Miami and charged with drug trafficking and related weapons charges.
A year later, a New York jury found him guilty on all counts following a trial that gripped the nation and exposed the depths of the government’s complicity in drug trafficking.
Prosecutors named Hernández as an unindicted co-conspirator in the case against his brother and accused him of receiving millions in bribes from drug traffickers in what they described as “state-sponsored drug trafficking”.
Hernández was then named by US prosecutors as a co-conspirator in two additional drug trafficking cases, including one in which he allegedly plotted with a drug trafficker to “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos”, Hernández has denied all allegations related to drug trafficking, calling them lies made up by violent criminals who are seeking to reduce their sentences. He did not respond to an interview request.
The Trump administration turned a blind eye to the accusations while Hernández continued to bend to the will of its migration agenda. But the Biden administration, which has pledged to fight corruption as part of its plan to address the root causes of migration, has essentially shunned the outgoing president, preferring to wait out his term with the hope of a fresh start with the new administration.
Meanwhile, the drug trafficking accusations piled on top of numerous corruption scandals, in which Hernández has also denied involvement. A bungled response to the Covid-19 pandemic and a devastating pair of major hurricanes in November 2020 made matters worse. Poverty rose to its highest level in four decades.
Perhaps it was unsurprising then, that when the country went to the polls in November, Hernández’s party suffered unprecedented losses across the country, even losing control of city hall in Gracias, one of the party’s historic strongholds.Supporters of Honduras’ President-elect Xiomara Castro enter the congress after the installation of the new legislature in Tegucigalpa on Tuesday. Photograph: Edgard Garrido/Reuters
“The king is dead, long live the king,” said the outgoing mayor of Gracias, Dr Javier Enamorado.
With his party set to lose control of government and his power in Honduras withering away, Hernández has been forced to look abroad for allies – and potentially a place where he could avoid arrest and extradition to the United States. Until now, he has been protected from indictment by a Department of Justice policy of not presenting charges against sitting heads of state.
On 10 January, he attended the inauguration of Nicaragua’s leader, Daniel Ortega, who was re-elected for a third time after an election broadly denounced as a charade.
“He showed up as a defeated emperor without his great entourage,” said Irías, who noted that Nicaragua is already providing refuge to two former presidents of El Salvador who face corruption charges at home. “His intention was clearly to support one of the most authoritarian regimes of the region in exchange for an eventual refuge.”