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Juan Orlando Hernández, from Olympus to the Abyss

…And the dreaded day arrived that had kept the followers of the former president of Honduras and his allies awake at night: to see the “boss” handcuffed hand and foot with chains that were harder on the soul than on the body. A humiliating epilogue to many years of abuse, corruption, and collusion with drug traffickers.

The media showed a chained Juan Orlando Hernández (JOH); the same one who some nine years ago said “I will be a new Tiburcio Carías Andino,” referring to the nationalist dictator who ruled the country with an iron fist from 1933-1949.

Carías Andino was never arrested or tried for his crimes, but the times have changed. The irony is that those who are now calling for his arrest and extradition are the same ones who in 2017 endorsed his illegal and fraudulent reelection. 

The preliminaries of the arrest 

Ever since Xiomara Castro assumed the presidency last January 27, Hondurans have been on the lookout for JOH’s whereabouts. The desire of certain U.S. actors to extradite him to try him for his relationship with drug trafficking has been well known since he assumed the presidency of the Congress in 2010. And not satisified with those twelve years that he was in power, the U.S. Justice accuses him of collusion with the illegal drug trade since 2004.

JOH is accused by the U.S. Attorney’s Office of the Southern District of New York for arms trafficking, organized crime, and drug trafficking. He is accused of participating in a violent conspiracy to traffic some 500 tons of cocaine to the United States from 2004 to date.

According to the U.S. embassy in Tegucigalpa, the former president received millions of dollars in bribes and profits from various drug cartels as part of this conspiracy. In exchange, he shielded the drug traffickers from investigation, arrest, and extradition. Although, under pressure, he allowed the extradition of several of them.

For some time now, the prosecutor’s office investigating him has included him in the trial documents of several Honduran drug traffickers, among them a brother of JOH, the once ineffable and smiling Juan Antonio Hernández, alias Tony, currently serving a long sentence in a U.S. prison.

Although the former president was rarely mentioned by name, it was known that “coconspirator 4” (CC4) was undoubtedly him. JOH always defended himself by denying the existence of this relationship, accusing those who linked him to drug trafficking, all of whom were under trial in the aforementioned Prosecutor’s Office, of testifying against him out of revenge since he allowed their surrender to the U.S Department of Justice (DoJ).

It is worth mentioning that the extradition was approved at the request of JOH himself, who in those days did not even dream that his own brother and himself would eventually be subject to the measure. Since JOH lost his presidential immunity, speculation has been the order of the day. Most thought that he would take refuge in Nicaragua, thanks to his “deep friendship” with Daniel Ortega. Others thought that his destination could be Israel, and a few of his followers, the most faithful or naive, believed that he would stay in the country to face his accusers.

None of this happened, that is, JOH stayed but not because of bravery, but because since before  even handing over formal power he was permanently under surveilance by undercover personnel of the DEA and the FBI, the same ones that discreetly participated in his arrest.

On the other hand, perhaps Ortega had the intention of giving asylum to his friend, but given the circumstances, it is likely that he would have regretted it. It is one thing to give shelter to two former Salvadoran presidents accused of corruption in their country and quite another to give it to one accused of drug trafficking by the United States. 

Ortega is not in a position to continue provoking Washington, much less with an issue that is totally foreign to him. The Nicaraguan president himself made it clear shortly after JOH’s arrest: “Nicaragua is not a refuge for criminals”.

What is coming for JOH?  

The Supreme Court of Justice (CSJ) of Honduras appointed Edwin Francisco Ortez Cruz, a magistrate deeply related to the former president’s entourage and familiar with all of his tricks to persecute and silence his enemies, as judge for the case.

Edwin Francisco Ortez Cruz was assistant to the former judge of the Civil Chamber, María Elena Matute de Hernández, sister-in-law of JOH and sister of Oscar Raúl Matute, former Secretary of the Interior of the de facto government of Roberto Micheletti Bain. Since then, according to court sources, she has been an important player within the Judicial  Branch for JOH and his allies to achieve their objectives.

Meanwhile, the president of the CSJ, Rolando Edgardo Argueta Pérez, who has been a loyal supporter of JOH since his appointment, seems to have invited him to have hot chocolate with whole wheat cookies in his own office when the former president was taken to the Supreme Court for the first time to learn about the charges against him.

An unprecedented attitude of deference, but… will the president of the CSJ dare to go further? Will the judge in charge have the courage to go against the almost omnipotent power of the U.S.?

It is to be expected that loyalties, friendships, and even common interests will be left behind. However, rumors, rumor-mongering, and the wildest speculations run rampatant through the Honduran streets, while the new government has not even settled in yet. The ideal would have been to try him in Honduras, which is what Attorney General Oscar Chinchilla is trying to do, very belatedly, as a ruse to avoid extradition. Meanwhile, the leaders of the ex-president’s party, once faithful militants of Juanorlandismo, either keep silent or say, saddened, that “each one must take responsibility for what he has done”. The height of cynicism.

Translated from Spanish by Alek Langford


Analyst, communicator and independent consultant to international organizations and agencies. Country Director of Presagio Consulting Honduras (headquarter in Guatemala).


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