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Once the US’s “Good Friend” in Honduras; Now on Trial for Drug Trafficking

The trial of Juan Orlando Hernández, once the seemingly untouchable and authoritarian president of Honduras, is officially set to begin on February 12 in New York. Hernández, who faces drug-trafficking and weapons charges, was to be tried at the same time as Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, formerly the feared head of Honduras’s National Police. Now that Bonilla has pleaded guilty, it’s expected that he may testify against the former president (as may accused former police officer Mauricio Hernández Pineda). This day of reckoning for the former president is one that many Hondurans thought would never come, especially given the many years of unwavering US support for both former president Hernández and for Bonilla. But can justice be achieved through a trial that sidesteps Hernández and Bonilla’s most egregious crimes against the people of Honduras?

The US government supported Hernández from the beginning of his first presidential term in 2014, and helped him and other high-level Honduran officials now facing justice in New York to survive scandals, stay in office, and continue to receive millions in US funding, even as evidence of their criminal involvement continued to build. Even after drug-trafficking allegations emerged against Hernández, General John F. Kelly, then chief of staff to President Donald Trump, and former head of the US military’s Latin America-focused Southern Command, referred to Hernández as a “great guy” and a “good friend.”

But backing for Hernández and Bonilla was bipartisan and part of the same policy that, a few years earlier, resulted in Obama administration efforts to ensure the success of the 2009 military coup against Honduras’s democratically elected government. “Keen to maintain pro-US allies in charge of a country hosting major US military assets — in particular the Soto Cano air base — the US government has shown little regard for justice and progress in Honduras,” CEPR’s Alex Main wrote in The Hill in 2017.

The Coup

The prosecution makes clear how the 2009 coup helped pave the way for Hernández’s eventual ascendance to the presidency, as well as for the first elected post-coup president, Pepe Lobo, who is currently facing corruption charges in Honduras:

During the summer of 2009, the sitting Honduran President was removed from office following a coup d’état. After the coup, the defendant [Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, Juan Orlando Hernández’s brother] met with CW-3 [collaborating witness 3] to discuss the situation. The defendant indicated that the coup had improved the chances that CC-3 [Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo] and CC-4 [Juan Orlando Hernández] would win in the elections later that year, and reiterated his interest in a drug-trafficking partnership.

After Honduran soldiers abducted President Mel Zelaya at gunpoint and put him on a plane out of the country, the Obama administration engaged in public hand-wringing, while behind the scenes it helped the coup to succeed. As Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state during the coup, wrote later: “In the subsequent days [after the coup] I spoke with my counterparts around the hemisphere, including Secretary [Patricia] Espinosa in Mexico. We strategized on a plan to restore order in Honduras and ensure that free and fair elections could be held quickly and legitimately, which would render the question of Zelaya moot.”

Indeed, although they were neither free nor fair, elections were held, thereby ensuring that the coup achieved its goal. Zelaya was not allowed to return to the presidency, and Clinton and other US officials openly ridiculed his attempts to do so, even as nearly every other government in the region insisted that he be reinstated as president. The November 2009 elections were held under the auspices of the coup regime, during which independent media outlets were shut down, protesters were gassed and beaten, and international observers were threatened — leading to condemnations by Amnesty International and other groups. The elections resulted in the ascendancy of the right-wing Lobo. (The fact that the relevant passage was later excised from the paperback version of Clinton’s memoir has added to its damning status as evidence.)

Hernández, meanwhile, played an important role as a coup supporter; as head of the Congress, he was a top elected leader. Chilling political repression marked the post-coup period, with dozens of protesters, human rights defenders, land rights advocates, and LGBT leaders killed, and many more attacked. These murders, which also targeted journalists, attorneys, and judges, continued through the Pepe Lobo administration (2010–2014), when many political opponents (mostly from the anti-coup Libre Party) were murdered in the run-up to the 2013 elections. Hernández rode the repression to office, and political killings continued through his term, perhaps most notably with the assassination of internationally renowned environment defender Berta Cáceres in 2016. Hernández’s signature campaign proposal was to further militarize the Honduran police, even as they engaged in extrajudicial killings, torture, kidnappings, rapes, and other abuses (more on this below).

Police Death Squads

For years, scandals around the reemergence of police death squads were a feature of US media coverage of Honduras, thanks largely to brave investigative (and award-winningreporting by Associated Press correspondent Alberto Arce. Arce uncovered evidence of death squads within the National Police, overseen by Bonilla, targeting alleged gang members and others. Bonilla had previously been embroiled in police death squad scandals in the early 2000s, and was subsequently forced out. He was named head of the Honduran police in 2012, despite concerns from the US Congress and the US State Department about his alleged involvement in police death squads years earlier.

The post-coup death squad scandals drew the attention of US Congress members who demanded answers, as did the AP and other journalists. The State Department lied in various responses to their questions. Under the Leahy Act, Congress would not be able to approve support for known human rights abusers, such as Bonilla, so State Department officials claimed that officers implicated in abuses did not report to Bonilla. But as Arce wrote in a March 2013 article, coauthored with Katherine Corcoran:

The U.S. State Department, which spends millions of taxpayer dollars a year on the Honduran National Police, has assured Congress that money only goes to specially vetted and trained units that don’t operate under the direct supervision of a police chief once accused of extrajudicial killings and “social cleansing.”

But The Associated Press has found that all police units are under the control of Director General Juan Carlos Bonilla … who in 2002 was accused of three extrajudicial killings and links to 11 more deaths and disappearances. He was tried on one killing and acquitted. The rest of the cases were never fully investigated.

As we noted at the time:

Congress has already withheld some funding ($30 million) to the Honduran police under the Leahy Law over concerns about Bonilla’s alleged past death squad involvement, but the State Department has continued with some other funding and just announced a new $16.3 million commitment to the Honduran police during a visit to Honduras by Assistant Secretary of State for the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs William Brownfield last weekend. AP noted that “Some of the U.S. money will go to the Gang Resistance Education and Training program under the director of community policing, who also told the AP that he reports directly to Bonilla.”

Brownfield and other State Department officials would continue to attempt to evade questions from the media and from Congress about the possible Leahy Law violations, and for years the State Department would continue to maintain the fiction that US funds were not going to death squads or to known rights abusers such as Bonilla. Laura Gilchrest wrote for CEPR in July 2016:

Grilled about the evidence that military hit squads were involved in the killing of prominent environmental activist Berta Cáceres, spokesperson John Kirby repeatedly claimed that State has no credible evidence of hit squads or other human rights abuses perpetrated by either the Honduran military or police, which the US has been funding and training for decades — this despite that active duty military and two high-ranking retired military officers were arrested in connection with this political assassination.

Military police, meanwhile, were a hallmark project for Hernández. As Alex Main wrote in 2018: “While president of the Congress, Juan Orlando Hernández pushed through legislation creating a military police of public order (PMOP) and, soon after becoming president of Honduras, he created the TIGRES militarized police units, which receive US training and whose members have been publicly implicated in corruption.”

Had the State Department not lied about the extent of police corruption and the existence of Honduran death squads, perhaps the network of corruption and drug trafficking surrounding Hernández would have been discovered, and acted on, sooner.

Pacheco and the Special Commission’s White-Wash

“In April 2016, news broke that high-level officials in the National Police had been involved in the assassinations [in 2009 of director of counternarcotics, retired General Julián Arístides González, and in 2011, of Aflredo Landaverde, “another senior antidrug official”] and that evidence compiled in an internal report had passed through the hands of numerous police and Security Ministry officials without action,” Laura Gilchrest wrote a few months later. In response, Hernández appointed then security minister Julián Pacheco Tinoco (whom witnesses have named as a co-conspirator in the current trial) to lead a “Special Commission” on cleaning up the police. But questions soon arose over how serious the commission was in fulfilling its stated purpose. “Though the Special Commission claims to have discovered definitive evidence of police involvement in illicit activities, including existing convictions, illicit accounts, and drug trafficking connections, the Public Ministry has not brought charges against the officers in question,” Gilchrest wrote.

The Special Commission took credit for purging six dirty cops in mid-2016, even though it was a year after the DEA first discovered their criminal involvement. “The officers are alleged to have worked with Fabio Lobo, the son of former post-coup president Porfirio Lobo Sosa,” Gilchrest wrote. “Astoundingly, the commission immediately released a press statement applauding its own efforts in firing, suspending, or investigating the six police officers named.”

In November 2017, CEPR broke the news that Pacheco himself was implicated in drug trafficking, “according to the testimony of a US DEA informant.” Alex Main wrote at the time, “The police purges which Pacheco directs have not been verified by independent observers. Of the 4,400 supposedly ‘purged,’ at least two-thirds were merely laid off for reasons of ‘restructuring’, as the commission itself has acknowledged.”

Pacheco had decades-long ties to the US, was trained at the US School of the Americas, and had even been sent to Washington in 2009 to attempt to convince US government officials that the military coup had not been a coup after all, as CEPR’s Jake Johnston reported. President Lobo made Pacheco his director of military intelligence following the problematic 2009 elections; Hernández would name him his security minister. As Johnston reported, even months after a DEA informant had fingered Pacheco as a senior official involved in facilitating the illegal drug trade, Pacheco continued to be invited to speak at events in Washington.

The US Supported Its “Good Friend” as Troubles Mounted

The US government repeatedly came to Hernández’s rescue when he was threatened by various corruption scandals during his tenure. One particular scandal in 2015, and subsequent mass protests, may have posed the greatest risk to Hernández’s government, but as Alex Main wrote in 2017: “The US State Department and Organization of American States swept in and mediated a political solution that excluded major opposition groups.” The scandal centered on the raiding of the public health service (IHSS) funds, some of which apparently wound up in the coffers of Hernández’s election campaign. Following the revelations of the misappropriated funds in 2015, Main wrote:

… massive protests erupted when it was discovered that funds linked to a major corruption scheme had ended up in Hernández’s 2013 campaign account. The US State Department and the Organization of American States (OAS) swept in and mediated a political solution that excluded major opposition groups and helped Hernández dodge the fate of Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina.

Pérez Molina had been brought down by investigations by the International Commission against Impunity in Guatemala (CICIG), a joint UN-Guatemala initiative, and the popular protests that they spurred. But Washington opposed a widely popular proposal to create a Honduran anticorruption body under UN auspices, similar to the CICIG, preferring a toothless alternative instead, as Alex Main wrote in The New York Times in 2016.

The Trump administration rushed to Hernández’s aid at the end of 2017, when mass protests again erupted — this time in response to flawed elections and an irregular and obscure tabulation process. The US government backed Hernández even as he violently cracked down on demonstrators, killing over 30 people, and even though an OAS Electoral Observation Mission had determined the elections to be highly irregular, and possibly fraudulent. Hernández should have been barred from running for reelection under the constitution, which forbids presidential reelection, but the Supreme Court, which Hernández had packed, ruled that he could run.

The US stood by Hernández even as he engaged in far-worse antidemocratic actions far worse than the pretext falsely used to justify the 2009 coup against Zelaya. Ironically, of course, Trump and his supporters would be crying “stop the steal” just three years later after losing their own reelection bid.

When Kelly referred to Hernández as a “great ally” and “good friend,” it followed a long tradition of US support for right-wing authoritarian figures in Honduras, regardless of what criminal activity they might be alleged to be involved in. Even now, the US ambassador to Honduras under Biden has been outspoken in criticizing the current president, Xiomara Castro, and her efforts to promote progressive reforms and combat impunity and corruption.

The US Continued to Support Hernández for Years After His Brother Was Found Guilty, and After Hernández Was Also Implicated in Drug Trafficking

The beginning of the end for Hernández came in 2017, before the elections and a full presidential term before he would be arrested and extradited to the US. Writing for The Intercept, Jake Johnston summarized the allegations reported in The New York Times that year, and the response from the Hernández administration, which did not immediately dispute them:

The New York Times reported that [gang leader Devis Leonel Rivera] Maradiaga had given U.S. authorities another recording from 2013 in which a drug trafficker said he “made a $250,000 payment intended for Juan Orlando Hernández.” A Hernández representative denied the charges to the Times, and in what was either an incredibly honest or naïve response to a local paper, the president’s chief of staff said:

If we’re going to look at how organized crime has permeated society in general and funneled money, placed deputies, placed judges, various offices, within the attorney general’s office and everywhere, hold on to your seats, because we’re talking about all colors here.

A few years later, Hernández’s brother Antonio “Tony” Hernández was found guilty of drug trafficking in Federal court in New York. In March 2021, US prosecutors alleged that Juan Orlando Hernández had vowed to “shove” cocaine “up the noses” of the US. Yet, the US government would wait until the next elections, in November, were over, and President Hernández had left office, before finally distancing itself from him. Little wonder that Hernández publicly seemed to think he had total impunity, regardless of the allegations — or charges — up until he was finally arrested, shackled, and put on a plane to the US.

What the Hernández Case Reveals about the US War on Drugs

The schadenfreude associated with the current trial should be tempered by what the Hernández saga reveals about the US War on Drugs. While the US government defended Hernández throughout two terms, it — and its Honduran partners — were far less accommodating to innocent Hondurans. Most notoriously, four people were killed and four others wounded in a DEA-led counternarcotics operation in the Moskitia region in 2012. These were innocent villagers riding a water taxi who were in the wrong place at the wrong time — in the vicinity of an attempted transfer of cocaine by drug traffickers just as a joint US-Honduran counternarcotics team arrived on the scene.

The villagers had no PR machine behind them like Hernández did. Instead DEA and State Department officials engaged in an elaborate cover-up operation that sought to implicate the victims in drug trafficking and whitewash the DEA’s involvement in the counternarcotics mission. The villagers were immediately presumed to be guilty, and were quickly fired upon. It would take years of congressional and grassroots pressure before a US government Office of Inspector General investigation would confirm what survivors, witnesses, and independent investigators (including those from CEPR) had said all along: that the DEA was in charge of the operation, that lethal force was inappropriately used, and that there was no evidence of the villagers’ involvement in drug trafficking. By this point, the survivors and their families had languished with physical, mental, and emotional wounds for years while the US government attempted to cover up the incident and as it maintained that the villagers had fired on the DEA and police. They have received no compensation from the US government despite the damages resulting from a DEA-led operation.

Throughout the history of the US’s War on Drugs, users and low-level dealers have felt the long arm of the law and the mano dura at the end of it, while US allies  have sometimes been allowed to continue profiting off the drug trade. The US approach to Honduras since the 2009 coup has continued this dishonorable tradition.