Report

Will Honduras’s Hernández Face Justice in New York?

Extraditing the outgoing president won’t be easy, but it’s what many citizens want.

By , a freelance journalist based in San Salvador covering immigration, human rights and security in Central America.
Supporters of the Honduran opposition and members of the leftist Liberty and Refoundation party celebrate in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on March 30, after Tony Hernández, the brother of the President Juan Orlando Hernández, pictured in the poster, was sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking offenses in New York.
Supporters of the Honduran opposition and members of the leftist Liberty and Refoundation party celebrate in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, on March 30, after Tony Hernández, the brother of the President Juan Orlando Hernández, pictured in the poster, was sentenced to life in prison for drug trafficking offenses in New York. Orlando Sierra/AFP via Getty Images

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras—At Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro’s campaign celebration on Nov. 28, the already energetic crowd went into overdrive when the first notes of a campaign song resounded, setting off a rumble of cheers and a wave of even more fervent dancing. “Juanchi, Juanchi, Juanchi,” they sang, in reference to outgoing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, whom many suspect could be extradited to the United States on drug-trafficking charges upon leaving office. “Juanchi is going to New York!”

The song was a hit on the campaign trail and has remained popular in the weeks since Castro, the leftist Libre Party candidate, was recognized as president-elect. Her win marks the end of 12 years of conservative National Party rule since a 2009 coup deposed Castro’s husband, former President Manuel Zelaya. With 99 percent of ballots counted as of Dec. 17, Castro won more than 51 percent of the votes and secured a 14-point lead over her closet competitor. She courted voters by promising to clean up Honduras’s corrupt institutions and turn over a new leaf in a country U.S. prosecutors labeled a “narco-state”—meaning its police, military, and politicians all help facilitate Honduras’s role as a major transit point for drugs, mainly cocaine.

Hernández remains in office until Jan. 27, and his fate is not sealed just yet. But the song represents many Hondurans’ hopes that he will face justice for his alleged involvement in drug trafficking. That involvement came to light in a 2019 U.S. federal trial in New York in which his brother, former Honduran congressman Tony Hernández, was convicted on drug-trafficking charges and sentenced to life in prison in the United States. U.S. federal prosecutors identified Juan Orlando Hernández as a co-conspirator in the case, but formal charges were not brought against him. “This mambo is for you to dance with Tony,” the song lyrics jest.

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras—At Honduran President-elect Xiomara Castro’s campaign celebration on Nov. 28, the already energetic crowd went into overdrive when the first notes of a campaign song resounded, setting off a rumble of cheers and a wave of even more fervent dancing. “Juanchi, Juanchi, Juanchi,” they sang, in reference to outgoing Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, whom many suspect could be extradited to the United States on drug-trafficking charges upon leaving office. “Juanchi is going to New York!”

The song was a hit on the campaign trail and has remained popular in the weeks since Castro, the leftist Libre Party candidate, was recognized as president-elect. Her win marks the end of 12 years of conservative National Party rule since a 2009 coup deposed Castro’s husband, former President Manuel Zelaya. With 99 percent of ballots counted as of Dec. 17, Castro won more than 51 percent of the votes and secured a 14-point lead over her closet competitor. She courted voters by promising to clean up Honduras’s corrupt institutions and turn over a new leaf in a country U.S. prosecutors labeled a “narco-state”—meaning its police, military, and politicians all help facilitate Honduras’s role as a major transit point for drugs, mainly cocaine.

Hernández remains in office until Jan. 27, and his fate is not sealed just yet. But the song represents many Hondurans’ hopes that he will face justice for his alleged involvement in drug trafficking. That involvement came to light in a 2019 U.S. federal trial in New York in which his brother, former Honduran congressman Tony Hernández, was convicted on drug-trafficking charges and sentenced to life in prison in the United States. U.S. federal prosecutors identified Juan Orlando Hernández as a co-conspirator in the case, but formal charges were not brought against him. “This mambo is for you to dance with Tony,” the song lyrics jest.

A whopping 63 percent of Hondurans disapproved of Juan Orlando Hernández as of October, citing unemployment, corruption, and the pandemic response as their biggest grievances. Under Hernández, the country has seen a mass exodus of its citizens, nearly 700,000 since he took office in 2014. Many fled in caravans after losing hope that their country could provide security and economic opportunities.

This frustration with the current government helped Castro secure her overwhelming win, and the message in the “Juanchi” song promised a catharsis for all the pain Hondurans have endured during Hernández’s eight years in office. “No one wants Juan Orlando,” said Brian Wilson, a 36-year-old unemployed Castro voter from Tegucigalpa who spoke to Foreign Policy at the polls on election day. “We can’t take it anymore. He has us drowning in poverty.”

Whether Hernández will face justice in the United States depends on many factors. As president, he has immunity under Honduran law, and it would be unprecedented for the United States to file charges against a sitting president. Yet although the U.S. Department of Justice has not confirmed that he will be indicted upon leaving office, some U.S. officials believe that will happen, and a former New York prosecutor told Univision that previous cases indicate there is enough evidence to bring drug-trafficking charges against Hernández.

Hernández’s recent announcement that he will join the Central American Parliament, a largely symbolic international governing body that grants immunity to its members in countries that recognize its mandate, may seem to complicate the situation. But it’s unlikely to affect the United States’ decision: Although that position grants Hernández immunity from prosecution in Guatemala, El Salvador, Nicaragua, Panama, and the Dominican Republic, that immunity is not recognized in Honduras (because of a special stipulation) or the United States (because it is not a member state).

Should the United States request Hernández’s extradition, it will be a test of Honduras’s justice system.

Should the United States request his extradition, it will be a test of Honduras’s justice system, since the Honduran Supreme Court will ultimately decide whether to grant it. Extraditing Hernández is not a task that falls directly to the president, but garnering the political will to follow through on the campaign song’s promise of extraditing Hernández would prove to Castro supporters that she can make good on her promises and thus establish Castro as a true anti-corruption figure early on. It would also be a step forward for the Biden administration’s floundering anti-corruption efforts in Central America.

U.S. President Joe Biden has promised to recommit to fighting corruption in the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. The Trump administration enabled elites in those countries to dismantle internationally backed anti-corruption commissions by failing to take a stand when those commissions were threatened. The International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala closed in 2019 under then-Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales, followed by the Mission to Support the Fight against Corruption and Impunity in Honduras in 2020 under Hernández. El Salvador continued this trend in 2021 in the first months of the Biden administration when President Nayib Bukele pulled out of the International Commission Against Impunity in El Salvador.

Biden and his team have been slow to make progress on their Central America goals since taking office. Meanwhile, the situation has deteriorated further, with El Salvador’s legislature illegally removing the Constitutional Court judges and attorney general in May and the firing of a top anti-corruption prosecutor in Guatemala in July. Extraditing Hernández could revive Biden’s anti-corruption agenda.

But that won’t be easy: Hernández has repeatedly insisted that he is innocent and that the allegations against him stem from political enemies fabricating lies to seek revenge. Political analysts also told Foreign Policy that extraditing Hernández comes with steep challenges given his astute political prowess and his advance planning.

Speculating about Hernández’s post-presidency plans has almost become a sport in Honduras in recent months. Recent state visits to Nicaragua and Taiwan, as well as the Hernández administration’s decision earlier this year to move the Honduran embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, provide some hints. Perhaps he’ll seek refuge in Nicaragua, Taiwan, or the Israeli Embassy, negotiate a deal with incoming leaders, or take shelter in special economic zones known as “ZEDEs” that aren’t subject to Honduran law, citizens and analysts alike ponder. Though the details of his plan are unknown, analysts have no doubt he has one.

“He knows the risks that he faces nationally and internationally with this message that the voters sent,” said Honduran political analyst Julio Raudales, referring to Castro’s win. So why would a new government choose to go after Hernández, knowing full well that he could find multiple ways to dodge justice?

One major reason is that it’s what many Hondurans want. Hondurans will be watching closely in the first months of the Castro administration to ensure she follows through on her promises, explained Carlos Hernandez (no relation to the president), director of the Honduran organization Association for a More Just Society (ASJ). “The people want blood,” he said. “When I say blood, I mean they want them to all die behind bars.”

International partners, such as Washington, may also be looking for quick results and could see a regional partner in Castro. Biden administration officials were quick to establish direct contact with Castro after avoiding Hernández on recent visits to the region. U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris discussed combating corruption with Castro on a call on Dec. 11, just before a visit by U.S. Agency for International Development officials to the country. In a press conference, Juan Gonzalez, the senior director for the Western Hemisphere on the White House National Security Council, said the Biden administration would consider inviting Castro to next year’s Summit for Democracy, after it excluded Hernández this year. “It’s possible that the U.S. sees in Honduras the opportunity for the Democrats to finally drive forward an effective anti-corruption strategy,” Hernandez of ASJ added.

High-profile cases can lead to important convictions, but justice doesn’t always last.

But focusing too much on a single case to fight corruption and drug trafficking can backfire, according to Hernandez of ASJ. High-profile cases can lead to important convictions, he explained, but justice doesn’t always last. For example, a Honduran court sentenced former Honduran first lady Rosa Bonilla to 58 years in prison in 2019 for misappropriation of nearly $800,000 in public funds while her husband, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, was president from 2010 to 2014. The case was met with fanfare by Hondurans, who rejoiced at seeing a recognizable face behind bars for stealing taxpayer money. Less than a year later, her conviction was thrown out and a Honduran court ordered her release pending a new trial. Bonilla has repeatedly said she is innocent.

Hernández could find a similar way to fight extradition, by blocking it through the Honduran justice system, where he’s had a lasting influence. Both the attorney general and all the members of the Supreme Court were appointed under his administration, and Castro will not have the chance to appoint new ones until 2023. Even when the time comes, Castro will likely need some votes from Hernández’s National Party to reach the two-thirds threshold to name new officials. Moreover, Hernández’s party already seems to be setting in motion a plan to help Hernández retain some power and protection once he leaves office: On Dec. 9, Congress—still controlled by Hernández’s party by a slight majority until Castro takes office—passed a law that will allow former public officials, including ex-presidents, to receive security protection from the state.

A laser focus on pursuing Hernández could also drain state resources, Hernandez of ASJ said, while failing to address any of the deeper issues of corruption. “You need to transcend the scandal and arrive to the root,” he said.

Tiziano Breda, a Central America analyst with the International Crisis Group, pointed out that Hernández is just “the tip of the iceberg of a broader scheme of corruption and infiltration in several layers of the state that are unlikely to be uprooted with just Juan Orlando’s possible investigation or trial.” Corruption and drug-trafficking allegations have been leveled against local representatives, mayors, and congressman as well, even if they are not household names in Honduras.

Still, desperate Hondurans—tens of thousands of whom flee to the U.S. border each year—are eager to find someone to blame and hold accountable. “You converted my country into a narco-state,” the lyrics of Castro’s campaign song go. They blame Hernández, and they have placed their trust in Castro to dismantle the narco-state, starting with him. So when Castro takes office on Jan. 27, as the song plays to get the crowd riled, one major question will loom: “Is Juanchi going to New York?”

Correction, Dec. 30, 2021: A previous version of this article misstated Juan Gonzalez’s current title.

Anna-Catherine Brigida is a freelance journalist based in San Salvador covering immigration, human rights and security in Central America. Twitter: @AnnaCat_Brigida

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