Juan Orlando Hernández Alvarado, Honduras’ former president, is facing trial on US drug charges after years of allegations that he received bribes to protect traffickers, financed political campaigns with drug money and abetted his brother’s cocaine ring.
A onetime US ally, Hernández was placed in shackles at his home in February 2022, a spectacular downfall for a politician who held the country’s highest office for two consecutive terms from 2014 to 2022.
As head of congress and then president, Hernández was the country’s most powerful political figure for more than two decades, but his tenure was roiled by persistent accusations of corruption among members of his inner circle, including his sister and his brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who is imprisoned in the US after being convicted of drug trafficking in 2019.
US prosecutors have accused the former president of facilitating an international drug trafficking network that moved at least 500 tons of cocaine through Honduras to the United States. Hernández has repeatedly denied all drug-related accusations.
Hernández started his political career in his hometown of Gracias, in the western department of Lempira, joining the ranks of the right-wing National Party (Partido Nacional) in the 1990s. He was elected Lempira’s congressman in 1997.
In 2010, Hernández was elected President of the National Congress, cementing his rise within the ruling party. But as his power grew, he was increasingly dogged by allegations of corruption. During his tenure as head of Congress, the congressionally-controlled Departmental Development Fund misappropriated an estimated $360 million in funds, using them to fill party coffers and finance campaigns. The fund was under the stewardship of Hilda Hernández, Hernández’s sister who ran Honduras’ Ministry of Social Development and Inclusion.
Hernández was first elected president in 2013. Investigations by the country’s anti-corruption commission later revealed that millions of dollars in embezzled funds were funneled to Hernandez’s first presidential campaign.
Hernández won a second term in 2017. His re-election, however, was marred by controversy – including the country’s Supreme Court voiding single term limits for presidents to allow him to run again – and accusations of voter fraud.
At the same time, a wave of traffickers indicted in the United States began to provide testimony that implicated Hernandez in receiving bribes. Then in 2018, his brother Tony was arrested on drug charges at a Miami airport. Court documents that came to light in his brother’s case identified Hernández as being a co-conspirator.
His brother’s high-profile trial in 2019 made the then-president the subject of even more damning allegations. During the trial, Alexander Ardón, a former drug trafficker and mayor, testified that Tony had traded protection for Ardón’s operations for a $2 million contribution to his brother’s campaign.
US prosecutors also alleged that former Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias “El Chapo,” had hand-delivered $1 million to Tony that was meant for the former president.
Prosecutors also spoke of a ledger confiscated from a drug trafficker that listed $440,000 in payments to “JOH y su gente,” or JOH and his associates. The president is commonly referenced by his initials.
Usually loath to name sitting presidents in criminal indictments, US prosecutors continued to allege in various cases and his brother’s sentencing that President Hernández took bribes directly and had participated firsthand in his brother’s drug trafficking scheme. The most explosive allegation came when a witness during the 2021 trial of drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez testified that President Hernández had boasted about deceiving US anti-drug forces.
“We are going to shove the drugs up the noses of the gringos and they won’t even know it,” the president allegedly said.
Still, Hernández retained his status as a key US partner, willing to accommodate then-President Donald Trump and his crusade to stop migrants from reaching the US-Mexico border.
It was only in 2021, more than a decade after repeated allegations of serious misconduct, that Washington truly began to distance itself from the Hernández administration. In February of that year, eight Democratic senators proposed a sanctions bill in which they said that Hernández had engaged in a pattern of criminal activities.
By November 2021, voters in Honduras had had enough of Hernández’s ruling National Party. Xiomara Castro won a decisive victory in the presidential election, and speculation soon swirled that Hernández could be indicted by US prosecutors upon leaving office.
Following the loss, Hernandez was immediately appointed to the Central American Parliament (PARLACEN) in a bid for immunity from prosecution.
But just weeks after leaving office, US prosecutors asked for his extradition on drug trafficking and weapons charges. Hernández was detained at his home on February 15, 2022. Police placed him in shackles and a bulletproof vest, a shocking and once unthinkable sight.
Hernández has been accused of accepting bribes from drug traffickers, and even providing presidential protection to drug labs and cocaine shipments. He has long denied the allegations against him, saying that they are the product of traffickers with a vendetta.
US prosecutors in the Southern District of New York – the same office that prosecuted his brother – brought the charges against Hernández.
In early 2022, Hernández also made the State Department’s so-called Engel List of corrupt actors for “committing or facilitating acts of corruption and narco-trafficking, and using the proceeds of illicit activity to facilitate political campaigns.”
While he has previously admitted receiving campaign funding from sources known to funnel misappropriated public funds, Hernández has claimed ignorance of the origin of those payments.
With the protection of the National Party, drug traffickers transformed Honduras into a major thoroughfare for South American cocaine to Mexico and the US.
Western Honduras, near the Guatemala border, was the center of power for Hernández and his brother Tony, who was also a National Party congressman. There, the younger Hernández began to serve as a political powerbroker with drug trafficking clans.
Both aerial and maritime routes flourished. Clandestine landing strips for drug-flights carrying northbound cocaine became common in the more sparsely populated regions of the country. Land routes also were popular among traffickers connected to Honduras.
With Tony’s protection, the Valle Valle brothers controlled the principal land corridor from Honduras into Guatemala, where between 150 to 300 tons of cocaine were trafficked each year since at least 2015.
Allies and Enemies
Through his brother, Hernández allegedly offered protection to some of the most prolific drug trafficking organizations in Honduras.
Tony’s principal clients were the Valle Valle brothers, with whom he got his start in large-scale trafficking. Tony brokered a truce between them and the group’s biggest rival, the AA Cartel, according to court documents.
Hernández allegedly provided Tony’s associates with political protection and support from authorities. This included the services of notorious former police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, alias “El Tigre,” who is accused of using his position to protect drug shipments on behalf of Tony Hernández. During his year at the helm of the Honduran National Police, he allegedly oversaw multi-ton loads of cocaine traveling from Colombia and Venezuela on to Guatemala, according to US prosecutors. On April 8, a Honduran judge agreed to Bonilla’s extradition to the US on drug charges.
Hernández was a constant scourge for the country’s opposition, having won his 2017 bid for re-election under dubious circumstances.
Until 2021, however, the political opposition had remained too divided to mount a strong enough campaign to ensure his defeat. This made Xiomara Castro’s decisive victory over her National Party opponent, Nasry Asfura, all the more historic, as it ended 12 years of National Party rule.
One of Hernandez’s more outspoken critics, former Security Minister Ramón Sabillón, ultimately carried out his arrest.
If Hernández goes to trial, he would be the first president to find himself in a US courtroom on drug charges since Panama President Manuel Noriega, who was convicted in a Florida court in April 1992.
If Hernández is convicted of firearms and drug charges, he could face a sentence of life in a US prison. His brother Tony was sentenced to life in prison, as was drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez. In both cases, prosecutors named the former president.