The Narcodictator in His Labyrinth

John Perry

The Honduran and US flags outside the courthouse in New York where JOH was on trial. Photo © Derek French / SOPA Images via ZUMA Press Wire

Prosecutors in New York this month claimed they had cracked ‘the largest drug trafficking conspiracy in the world’. While it lasted, more than four hundred tons of cocaine were shipped to the United States from clandestine airstrips in Honduras by characters with aliases such as ‘The Tiger’ and ‘El Porky’. Million-dollar bribes were paid to government officials. A drug payment of $4 million was handed over in a duffel bag at a filling station.

Other payments – more than $100 million over three years – were allegedly carried from Honduras to Colombia by an Israeli diplomat who received a 3 per cent commission. An anti-narcotics czar was murdered and a plot to assassinate a sitting president was thwarted. Some prosecution witnesses had carried out dozens of killings. One, asked if he regretted the murders, said: ‘Not at the time.’ Facing life imprisonment themselves, they hoped to earn leniency in exchange for their co-operation.

The accused was Juan Orlando Hernández (‘JOH’), the president of Honduras from 2014 to 2022. Arrested and extradited soon after he left office, he spent almost two years in a New York prison awaiting trial. He had risen to political prominence after the 2009 coup in Honduras, which Washington tacitly supported. Fraudulent elections, also endorsed by the US, brought him to power and kept him there until the overwhelming unpopularity of his National Party eventually led to its defeat by the leftist Libre party, led by Xiomara Castro.

Despite bringing his country to a state of near collapse, driving one in ten Hondurans to migrate, JOH was favoured by Obama, Trump and, at first, Biden. Drug money, including a million-dollar bribe given to him personally by the then capo of the Sinaloa cartel, ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, boulstered his election campaigns as well as sustaining a luxurious lifestyle. Prosecutors showed a photo of him at the 2010 World Cup being embraced by the leader of a Honduran cartel.

Once JOH lost power (and with it, immunity from prosecution) he might have been put on trial in Honduras, where his close ties to US presidents could have been aired publicly. Dana Frank has argued that New York prosecutors acted against the wishes of the White House in pushing for JOH’s extradition. Even so, it was less embarrassing politically than a lengthy trial in Tegucigalpa would have been.

The prosecutors in New York didn’t pay much attention to Washington’s support for JOH. Instead, Honduras was portrayed as a dysfunctional state, unable to bring its own worst criminals to justice, even when they ‘committed crimes against the United States’. The New York Times described the trial as a rare ‘chance for national justice’ for Honduras. The implication, as Frank put it, was that the Honduran people can’t govern themselves and the US has ‘heroically imposed the rule of law’.

History shows that the opposite is true. To give only one example, the corrupt security forces that protected JOH’s cocaine shipments were trained and armed by the US. When JOH claimed to be applying la mano dura to control the country’s escalating violence, everyone knew this meant clamping down on JOH’s political opponents and minor criminals, not the cartel leaders. At his trial, three of the defence witnesses were serving officers in the Honduran military.

If allowing the trial to go ahead was a gamble by the US authorities, it paid off. Washington could be seen taking a hard line on drugs and tackling the corruption and violence that fuelled migration, while avoiding any embarrassment about its own role in Honduras’s descent into narcodictatorship.

The interference continues. Castro’s election was welcomed by the US, and Kamala Harris attended her inauguration in 2022, but since then the US ambassador in Tegucigalpa, Laura Dogu, hasn’t hesitated to criticise Libre’s reformist agenda and has openly sided with Castro’s opponents, even those as corrupt as JOH. Dogu has spoken out against increases in the minimum wage, tax reforms and a key government appointment. She has also challenged the outlawing of the libertarian model cities introduced by JOH. One frustrated investor, Próspera, is suing Honduras for $10 billion – similar to the government’s entire annual expenditure.

Last Friday, JOH became the third ex-president from Central America in three decades to be found guilty of serious offences in a US court. But the careers of those in Washington who aided or tolerated their crimes have continued unaffected.


  • 14 March 2024 at 1:19pm
    Graucho says:
    "visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children's children, unto the third and to the fourth generation."
    Uncle Sam's Latin American iniquities have generations yet to run.