Today, April 22, former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez (JOH) is expected to make an appearance at his first virtual court hearing tried in a federal court in New York. He is being charged with three counts: 1) conspiring to import cocaine into the United States which carries a sentence of 10 years to life in prison; 2)using and carrying machine guns and destructive devices during, and possessing machine guns and destructive devices in furtherance of, the cocaine importation conspiracy mentioned, which carries a sentence of 30 years to life in prison; and 3) conspiring to use and carry machine guns and destructive devices during, and to possess machine guns and destructive devices in furtherance of, the cocaine importation conspiracy, which carries a maximum life sentence. Sentencing will ultimately be determined by a federal district court judge considering U.S. Sentencing guidelines and other factors.
In furthering the alleged cocaine trafficking conspiracy referenced all three charges, since at least 2004, JOH assisted multiple Honduran drug-trafficking organizations in receiving multi-ton shipments of cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela to later be trafficked to the United States. The DOJ indictment alleges that drug traffickers bribed JOH, who first served in the National Congress before his presidency, and other public officials in exchange for protection from investigation.
Throughout his public service career, Hernandez would abuse his office to thwart justice against his allies. This included enlisting heavily armed security to protect members of the drug trafficking conspiracy, assist in transporting and distributing cocaine shipments, interfere with drug trafficking investigations, and prevent U.S. requested extradition of suspected drug traffickers.
The DOJ indictment paints a relationship of mutual strengthening between JOH’s political career and the drug trafficking conspiracy. In 2005, during Hernandez’s first reelection campaign, he received, through Hernandez’s brother Alvarado, a $40,000 bribe from Victor Hugo Diaz Morales (AKA “El Rojo”), a drug trafficking organization leader. Returning the favor, Hernandez provided information and protection from Honduran law enforcement in transporting large quantities of U.S. bound cocaine.
During JOH’s 2009 campaign to become president of the Honduran National Congress, Diaz Morales allegedly bribed JOH $100,000 with the promise that he would appoint their favored officials to top law enforcement positions if successful. This provided the drug trafficking organizations information to assist in trafficking and about interdiction efforts of the Honduran National Police and Army.
By 2013, Hernandez would ramp up his alleged corruption efforts as he began his first run for the Honduran presidency. In that year, he would allegedly accept a $1,000,000 bribe from Sinaloa Cartel leader Guzman Loera (AKA “El Chapo”) paid through JOH’s brother Alvarado who collected the bribe armed with machine guns. In exchange, JOH allegedly coordinated with other drug trafficking organizations to provide cocaine and armed security to the Sinaloa Cartel. Pertaining to the election, JOH would employ friendly national government officials to intimidate various municipalities which were deemed insufficiently supportive of him. Agents would also bribe officials to manipulate vote counts to Hernandez’s benefit. According to the North American Congress on Latin America, the elections were “fraught with irregularities and violent intimidation, threatening to throw the embattled nation into further political disarray.”
Allegations of intimidation and irregularities would continue into JOH’s 2017 re-election campaign. The DOJ indictment alleges that he used $1.5 million in drug-trafficking proceeds to bribe politicians and election officials into supporting him in his re-election.
The cards would begin tumbling down in 2018 after JOH’s brother, Hernandez Alvarado, was charged in the Southern District of New York in connection with his participation in the cocaine-trafficking conspiracy. Alvarado was tried and convicted on October 18, 2019 and court filings produced in his trial would publicly name the former Honduran president as the defendant’s co-conspirator.
Immediately after the end of his second term, JOH was indicted by grand jury for the charges mentioned and a warrant was issued for his arrest on January 27, 2022. On February 15, 2022, Honduran law enforcement authorities arrested the former president and the Honduran Supreme Court would later affirm the extradition request on March 28, 2022.
In remarks delivered on April 21, 2022, U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland says, “Hernandez abused his position as President of Honduras from 2014 through 2022 to operate the country as a narco state. . . We alleged that Hernandez corrupted legitimate public institutions in the country – including parts of the national police, military, and national Congress.”
The indictment and extradition of the former president shows there is no impunity even for a former head of state. The developments illustrate how political winds can change: Hernandez and Trump lost elections. The Biden Administration has focused on cracking down on anti-corruption in the Northern Triangle, since corruption is seen as one of the root causes of illegal migration. The fact that Honduras so quickly extradited the former president is likely a wakeup call to other heads of state and political leaders in Central America.
 United States District Court Southern District of New York, United States v. Juan Orlando Hernandez, January 27, 2022. https://www.justice.gov/opa/press-release/file/1496076/download
 Bruce Zagaris, Honduras Supreme Court Affirms Extradition of Former President to The United States, IELR Vol. 38 Issue 4, April 8, 2022.
 Department of Justice, Attorney General Merrick B. Garland Delivers Remarks Announcing Charges Against Juan Orlando Hernandez, Former President of Honduras, DOJ, April 21, 2022. https://www.justice.gov/opa/speech/attorney-general-merrick-b-garland-delivers-remarks-announcing-charges-against-juan