Juan Orlando Hernández
Foto: Revista E&N

Juan Orlando Hernández, former president of Honduras, leaves behind a legacy marked by his controversial tenure in history. Despite his term ending, the persistent issue of the narco-state continues to define the Honduran reality.

Lawyer, if this isn’t stopped, within a quarter century even the President of the Republic will be implicated.» It was the year 1988. The uncertain prophecy was heard by lawyer Miguel Ángel Izaguirre directly from General Álvaro Romero Salgado of the Armed Forces of Honduras, who was visiting him in his cell at the military base in Tela, on the Caribbean coast of Honduras, 300 km north of Tegucigalpa. It referred to how drug trafficking had permeated all levels of Honduran society.

Until June 1, 1988, Izaguirre had served as a criminal judge in Tela and in the last two years had become a close collaborator with the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), fearlessly handing over several Colombian drug traffickers who posed as businessmen and artists residing in Honduras.

«I was the first to take aim at drug trafficking in Honduras and the first to mention that Honduras was a narco-state, in an interview with a journalist from the Miami Herald,» recalls Izaguirre, now 77 years old but still active in the legal profession from his office in downtown Tela.

Following the guilty verdict against former President Juan Orlando Hernández in a New York court, Izaguirre reiterates that the involvement of high-ranking state officials in drug trafficking activities is not new. Izaguirre was imprisoned after naming four Supreme Court justices, the Attorney General of the Republic, and 18 deputies who collaborated with drug traffickers. That same day, he was dismissed and taken into military custody. He spent two years in a cell until a new Supreme Court took office in 1990.

Izaguirre asserts that the boom in drug trafficking in Central America, particularly in Honduras, began in the early 1980s when U.S. laws like the Boland Amendment prohibited President Ronald Reagan from funding the Nicaraguan Contra rebels seeking to overthrow the Sandinistas, in power since 1979. This led the State Department and agencies like the CIA to turn a blind eye and allow drug trafficking northward into America.

The book «Whiteout CIA, drugs and the press» by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair reveals that the Contra organizers, backed by the CIA, created a criminal network to sell cocaine to California gangs, who turned it into crack cocaine. The organization allegedly distributed up to 900 kilos at a time, valued at around $50,000 each wholesale, totaling around $45 million in revenue.

To achieve this, they established routes through Central America and Mexico. One route used the airline Servicios Turísticos Ejecutivos Commander (SETCO), owned by Honduran Ramón Matta Ballesteros, which transported drugs northward and brought back weapons and military supplies, using the «El Aguacate» military base in Olancho department, eastern Honduras.

The document «Drugs, law enforcement, and foreign policy,» prepared by the Senate Subcommittee on Terrorism, Narcotics, and International Operations, mentions that the DEA opened an office in Honduras in 1981 but closed it less than two years later citing «budgetary problems.» It names several high-ranking and former military officials linked to drug trafficking.

But it wasn’t just the military who took advantage of the situation to enter the illicit business. «Politicians saw that ‘authorized drugs’ were being trafficked and made their parallel profit,» emphasizes former judge Izaguirre. This led to his denunciation of high-ranking state officials and deputies, which ultimately led to his downfall in 1988.

The business got out of hand

A series of signals indicated to U.S. authorities that the issue had spiraled out of control. First, in 1985, the murder of DEA agent Enrique Camarena in Mexico by the Guadalajara cartel. Then, on November 19, 1987, a shipment of 8,000 pounds of cocaine – the largest intercepted at that time – was seized off the coast of Florida, packaged in furniture manufactured in Honduras (the Puertas de Castilla case). A week later, the DEA announced it would reopen its office in the Central American country, according to the document «Drugs, law enforcement, and foreign policy

From then on, efforts were made to put a stop to it, but the business had already branched out and thrived into a multibillion-dollar industry. In April 1988, months after the DEA’s return, Ramón Matta Ballesteros was captured in Tegucigalpa and sentenced to 12 life sentences in the United States. The U.S. Ambassador to Tegucigalpa, Everett Briggs, handed the Honduran government a list of officials involved in drug trafficking, none of whom were prosecuted. Over the next three decades, drug cartels multiplied.

Building on this historical foundation, Juan Orlando Hernández allegedly constructed a structure of corruption and drug trafficking to the point of claiming he would «put drugs under the noses of the gringos,» according to one of the key witnesses in the trials against him and his brother, former deputy Juan Antonio Hernández. The latter is already serving a life sentence plus 30 years.

But the Hernández brothers are not the only associates of power to have been caught up in U.S. justice. Over the past decade, the son of a former president, a director of the National Police, several deputies, police officers, and a series of drug lords have been extradited, totaling more than 40, with a pending list of 28 more.

According to information from the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Hernández brothers had been under investigation for drug trafficking activities since around 2004, when the youngest of the 17 Hernández siblings was 26 years old and Juan Orlando was already a deputy.

Destruction of institutionalism and creation of a criminal structure

Once in power (deputy 1998-2014, President of Congress 2010-2014, and President of the Republic 2014-2022), Juan Orlando Hernández implemented legal reforms, subjugated the other branches of government, and made appointments in the Armed Forces and National Police from among his associates. This allowed him, with total impunity, to allegedly plunder state coffers and facilitate drug trafficking operations for cartels affiliated with him while feigning an anti-narcotics fight by eliminating his enemies.

Rodolfo Dumas, a prominent lawyer and executive of the World Compliance Association (a non-profit organization that promotes ethical behavior and good corporate governance), points out that over the past decade, the country’s institutionalism has been reduced to its bare minimum, ceased to function, and with it, institutions such as the Judiciary, Public Ministry, investigating bodies, and auditors such as the Supreme Audit Institution, were unable to detect and punish organized criminal operations.

To co-opt institutions, Hernández, using associates like the President of the National Congress, Mauricio Oliva, promoted legal reforms such as the so-called «Impunity Penal Code,» which came into effect in June 2020, reducing penalties for corruption offenses.

This Code «created shielding tools for those linked to corruption. Reforms must be made to have exemplary penalties, with easy-to-prosecute criminal offenses,» said opposition deputy Fátima Mena.

Silvia Ayala is a lawyer and ruling party deputy. She chairs a commission that reviewed the Penal Code and indicated that they are preparing to submit a report recommending the approval of a new Code that toughens penalties for drug trafficking and corruption offenses.

Hernández’s government also passed decree 117-2019, or the «Parliamentary Immunity Law,» which allows deputies to shield themselves from accusations related to their actions as parliamentarians. In practice, it provides impunity. Mena points out that this was passed in 2019, amidst the trial in the United States against Juan Antonio Hernández, and names of legislators began to be mentioned as his associates.

Hernández’s government also passed decree 93-2021, which allowed amendments to the Penal Code and the Anti-Money Laundering Law to release from prison and return properties to those accused of being frontmen for drug traffickers and corrupt individuals.

This decree was amended by the current Congress in July 2023 to again allow the prosecution of money launderers.

In addition to laws passed by Hernández and his followers, pre-existing legislations like the Criminal Procedure Code, approved in 1999, also play a role. Articles 414 to 417 state that high-ranking state officials must be tried by special courts composed of Supreme Court justices, not ordinary courts. Justices are elected by National Congress deputies from among their party affiliates. In other words, corrupt and negligent officials end up being judged by their own party members.

The processes held by these special courts have always ended in the absolution of high-ranking officials at the initial stages; none of the cases have reached an Appeals Court and therefore, no trial, as reported by the Center for the Study of Democracy (Cespad, a non-governmental organization). «The special jurisdiction tends to protect the corrupt or drug traffickers, so it is another law that undoubtedly needs to be reformed or repealed,» said lawyer and deputy Mena. Except for reforms to 93-2021, the other laws mentioned here remain unchanged.

Three powers, one man

Another maneuver by Hernández was to regulate the Defense and Security Council Law, while serving as President of the National Congress, in 2011. Through this legal provision, he established a dictatorship model. For example, in Security Council meetings, it was decided whether an individual, a representative of civil society or social movements in the country, was an enemy of the State. If so, the Public Ministry was ordered to prosecute them criminally. If the person’s actions were not criminal, the Legislature was ordered to make reforms to penalize their actions.

The National Police and Armed Forces were instructed to pursue them, while judges were made aware that these target individuals had to be imprisoned «by the will of the man,» as one judge put it, who was dismissed for making it public, explained Menjívar.

Gustavo Irías, coordinator of Cespad, pointed out in a recent forum that with Juan Orlando, a «redesign of the State» was carried out to turn it into an «autocracy, power concentrated in one person» through the Security Council.

He believes that this body «destroyed the rule of law and the character of the Republic,» urging the dismantling of «the core of the narcodictatorship.» Its continuation allows Honduras to «remain subjected to a process of militarization of public security and society.»

He added that «this government (led by Xiomara Castro) has a debt to dismantle this National Defense and Security Council.»

The original sin: buying the will of politicians

In January 2017, the «Law on Financing, Transparency, and Oversight of Political Parties and Candidates,» better known as the «Clean Politics Law,» came into effect, aiming to bring transparency to political campaign financing.

However, a year later, in January 2018, lawyer Kelvin Fabricio Aguirre Córdova, acting as commissioner of the Unit for Financing, Transparency, and Oversight of Political Parties and Candidates (UFTF or Clean Politics Unit), requested the Institute of Access to Public Information (IAIP) to classify «public information of political parties» as confidential.

This included keeping public financing amounts, party financial statements, contribution records and notifications, deposits in institutions of the National Financial System, private contributions to candidates, contracts for asset acquisition, leases, concessions, and service provision, all confidential.

While Aguirre Córdova represented the National Party – the same as then-President Hernández – the measure was not challenged by the other major political parties represented in the UFTF (Liberal and Freedom and Refoundation, Libre, now in government).

Civil society organizations have demanded the annulment of the resolution, but six years later, there has been no response. During the trial of Juan Orlando Hernández, witnesses testified to contributing to the political campaigns of former presidents Manuel Zelaya Rosales (2006-2009), Porfirio Lobo Sosa (2010-2014), and Hernández himself (2014-2022).

Primeras imágenes de Juan Orlando Hernández declarando en su juicio en Nueva York. Fotografía: El Heraldo

According to Deputy Mena, various studies show that the «original sin» of corruption is the financing of political campaigns. This allows corruption networks and organized crime to «invest» in exchange for installing their allies in relevant public positions. In this way, they have instrumentalized «institutional frameworks, not only for self-protection but also for illicit enrichment» through companies that secure contracts with the State and launder money from fraudulent operations.

She urged to strengthen the UFTF with financial and logistical resources because its operations are centered in Tegucigalpa, forgetting regions where drug cartels operate. But she also demanded openness to know about the assets and contributions received by political parties and candidates.

Lawyer Menjívar was a mayoral candidate in San Pedro Sula in the 2021 elections but ultimately formed an alliance to step back to the vice-mayoral position. He comments that one of the changes that should be promoted is the way politics is conducted because it currently demands significant financial resources. He exemplified that in a city like San Pedro Sula, with approximately one million inhabitants, a candidate requires, at a minimum, 4.5 million lempiras (182,000 dollars) just for election day logistics. This in a country where per capita income is around $2,750.

«Those who don’t have that amount cannot participate, even though the Constitution says they have the right to vote and be elected. Thus, democracy becomes illusory and remains a privilege reserved only for those with money,» said Menjívar.

This creates a risk because anyone aspiring to a position as a life goal will be willing to do whatever it takes to obtain those resources. This provides an opportunity for transnational organized crime, such as drug trafficking, which offers support to buy influence, noted the former prosecutor.

As a result, campaigns «are funded with resources from organized crime and public funds, drained from the treasury by corrupt officials who need to maintain power.» He added that the Clean Politics Unit «does not work» because it lacks sufficient resources and personnel to fulfill its duties.

Luis Zelaya, who ran for president in the 2017 elections with the Liberal Party, acknowledged that the «weakest link,» through which organized crime enters the State, is the financing of mayors, deputies, and presidents.

He emphasized that deputies are responsible for second-tier elections, which determine heads of the Public Ministry, justices of the Supreme Court, Court of Auditors, Electoral Court, Institute of Access to Public Information, National Registry of Persons, Clean Politics Unit, among others. If you have the deputies on your side, you have all these entities at your service.

Therefore, he urged reforms to change the mechanisms for electing officials, which are influenced by criminals. He regretted that even today there is no political will to «prevent organized crime from penetrating the structures of the State.»

The bases that facilitated corruption and crime are still there

Santos Orlando Rodríguez Orellana is a retired captain of the Honduran Army. In 2014, as part of an anti-drug operation in La Mosquitia, he intercepted a helicopter linked to illicit drug trafficking. The officer received information that the aircraft belonged to Juan Antonio Hernández, brother of then-President Juan Orlando Hernández, and reported it to his superiors.

As retaliation, he was removed from his position, and the Public Ministry accused him of trespassing and torture. In 2016, the U.S. embassy – which supported Juan Orlando until the end of his two terms – announced that it was investigating him for alleged ties to drug trafficking and corruption, a context that the Armed Forces used to dishonorably discharge him.

In 2018, due to lack of evidence, he was acquitted of all charges, and in February 2021, he announced his presidential candidacy. Throughout, he remained steadfast in his accusations against the Hernández brothers as drug traffickers and against his military colleagues as close collaborators.

In November 2021, 24 days before the elections, he and his wife, Jennifer Lizzeth Bonilla, and his mother-in-law, Reina Lizeth Bonilla, were arrested and accused of money laundering. The Public Ministry claimed he owned 32 movable and immovable properties and more than 280 million lempiras. His three minor children, the youngest being 3 years old, were removed from their home. The National Council for Defense and Security was operational.

He claimed to own only a house, a small farm, and a modest bank account, and that the assets attributed to him belonged to Juan Orlando Hernández’s circle of collaborators. In June 2023, all three were acquitted. The former president had already been extradited to the United States in April 2022.

After a decade of persecution, Rodríguez Orellana now cultivates coffee on his small farm in Intibucá, western Honduras. He continues to speak with the same frankness with which he accused Juan Antonio Hernández of drug trafficking when everyone believed he was a prominent lawyer and deputy who would follow his brother’s political career.

Juan Orlando brought the Armed Forces and the National Police under «his own commanders, his own people,» Rodríguez Orellana claims. He used the Armed Forces’ equipment for drug trafficking. Everything that happened was a strategic plan, he reiterates.

A review of the profiles of those who became generals during his presidency reveals that these individuals had been part of his inner circle for many years, since they were mid-level officers, expresses the retired captain, who aspires to the presidency with the Christian Democracy party in the next elections.

He believes that the major problems begin with the politicization of the Armed Forces and the National Police. «Eight or ten years ago, if you arrested a citizen with weapons, it was a deputy who resolved it, calling to say that this person worked with him.»

In twenty legal processes in the United States, drug traffickers have revealed how high-ranking officers of the Army and the Police guaranteed the passage of drugs through Honduran territory.

He emphasizes that entities like the Armed Forces, the Police, and the Public Ministry must undergo a thorough purge and create mechanisms for politicians to keep their hands off them. However, 26 months into Xiomara Castro’s government, «we continue with the same,» he points out.

The officers promoted by Hernández remain in key positions within the institution. In fact, in the recent trial held in February 2024, two defense witnesses were active generals who are currently undergoing disciplinary processes within the Armed Forces for appearing in New York courts without informing their superiors.

Rodríguez Orellana insists that «nothing has changed» and that in these two years of government, no significant figure has been prosecuted for drug trafficking despite «countless cases.» The structures created by Juan Orlando remain operational.

Former prosecutor Omar Menjívar notes that the «infiltration created by organized crime, placing their people within the Public Ministry and the Judiciary, remains there. A radical purge will have to be carried out.»

Deputy Silvia Ayala, who participated in a commission that analyzed the extradition system between Honduras and the United States, explained that they had access to a list of people who visited the former president in a New York prison, including several deputies.

Juan Orlando was found guilty of three drug trafficking charges and possession of weapons on Friday, March 9, and on March 13, his wife, Ana García Carías, announced the launch of her presidential candidacy in an attempt to maintain the entrenched power structures within the State, the National Police, and the Armed Forces.

The former president of Honduras and his wife. Photo: Taken from social media X.

As noted by Father Ismael Moreno, a leader of civil society: «With feelings turned inward upon himself, JOH (Juan Orlando Hernández) ended up without remorse, without guilt, and without feeling others’ pain. Everything revolved around his greed. From that perspective, he treated and mistreated others. His wife and cronies were left as legitimate heirs of corruption and cynicism.»

According to former presidential candidate Luis Zelaya, Juan Hernández «is already a living dead man,» having become «a prisoner with a number who will spend the rest of his life in a maximum-security prison,» but «the future belongs to us, to our country, to our children and grandchildren.» We must reflect to find a way out, but the outlook is uncertain in the face of a criminal organization that refuses to relinquish power. General Álvaro Romero Salgado’s prophecy came true 36 years later.


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