Juan Orlando Hernández Went From Honduran President To International Drug Smuggler

In early 2022, the former president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernández, was arrested and extradited to the United States based on accusations of trafficking cocaine and smuggling weapons into the U.S. (via The Washington Post). This situation is particularly unique because the United States is not known to detain heads of states of other nations, and some even compared his arrest to high-profile drug lords like Joaquín "El Chapo" Guzmán, who ironically bribed Hernandez, according to Vice.

Mired in corruption, Hernández has faced controversy for many years, but at one point, he was considered to be an important ally to the United States. He accepted a bribe to use the military to protect drug traffickers in Honduras in 2005; helped his brother, Antonio Hernández, in a drug trafficking scheme that led to the sibling's arrest in 2019; and is also facing accusations of election fraud. So who is Juan Orlando Hernández, and how did he end up in such controversy?

Career Politician

Juan Orlando Hernández was born in the city of Gracias, Lempira, in the village called the Río Grande, on October 28, 1968 (via the World Economic Forum). He studied at the National Autonomous University of Honduras (also known as UNAH), where he studied law and became a lawyer. He graduated in law and social sciences but also obtained a master's degree in public administration, focusing on U.S. foreign policy. While studying at UNAH, he was very involved with student politics and became the president of the Law Students Association.

It was after his education at UNAH that he entered his career in politicking. Hernández's brother, Marco Augusto, was the First Secretary of the Legislature and appointed Hernández to work for him. Hernández worked in a variety of law firms and even taught law at UNAH, but in 1997, he ran for the MP office in Lempira and won, beating the incumbent Liberal Party member at the time (via the World Economic Forum). He eventually became First Secretary of the Board and began working his way up the chain of power to become the future president of Honduras.

Corruption from the Start

Juan Orlando Hernández has never shied away from corruption, and for most of his career, he's been entrenched in it one way or the other. In 2005, Víctor Hugo Díaz Morales, also known as "El Rojo," paid a bribe to Hernández worth $40,000 in exchange for protection from the Honduras military, according to Vice. In 2009, when Hernandez was campaigning to be the president of the National Congress, El Rojo paid another $100,000 bribe with the agreement that if Hernandez won the election, he would give El Rojo information from the Honduran government on where anti-narcotic United States secret agents were lurking.

During this time, Hernández's brother, Antonio Hernández, was arrested for drug trafficking-related crimes. In 2012, Hernández also made a deal to renew the U.S. extradition agreements but told gangs and drug cartels behind closed doors that nothing would change for them, and business could remain as usual. Even though all this corruption plagued his career while he was a congressman, things only amplified when he became the nation's president.

A Controversial Presidency

Juan Orlando Hernández was only 46 when he became president of Honduras back in 2014, and during his term, he helped the United States in dealing with issues such as migration and, ironically, drug trafficking (via The Washington Post). Hernandez extradited important figures in the drug trade like Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga and Geovanny Fuentes to the United States, according to Vice. During his administration, he was accused of turning the Honduran government into a narco-state that aided drug traffickers and exploiting his power to send weapons and drugs to countries like the United States (via The Washington Post).

In 2017, Hernández was reelected to the presidency, but some suspect that the election might've been rigged. During the election, when 60% of the votes had been counted, Hernández's opponent, Salvador Nasralla, had been in the lead, but then the results stopped being shown. When election officials resumed the results, Hernández had a narrow lead over his opponent. This raised eyebrows in organizations like the Organization of American States, which called for a recount of the election. Protests erupted across Honduras, and at least 17 protesters were killed. The United States, however, recognized Hernández as the rightful winner and objected to a recount of the vote, according to The Guardian.

Corruption in Honduras

In 2021, Juan Orlando Hernández faced an election against Xiomara Castro for the presidency, which Castro won. Castro accused Hernández of turning the Honduran government into a "narco-dictatorship," but she hasn't been free from criticism either, and her administration was accused of nepotism, according to The Washington Post. Although Castro promised to fight against corruption, her administration had an extraordinary uphill battle.

Honduras ranks 24/100 in corruption and is considered to be the 157th most corrupt country out of 180 countries surveyed, according to Transparency International. It's also suspected that in 2018, corruption cost Honduras 12.5% of its total GDP, which equates to around 2 billion dollars, according to La Tribuna. The rampant corruption also caused the Honduran government problems when it came to dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic, given how the government is known to embezzle funds (via Transparency International).

Facing Justice Abroad

After Juan Orlando Hernández left office in early 2022, he was arrested by the Honduran authorities, and a Honduran magistrate judge approved an extradition request from the United States. Hernández appealed the court's decision to the Honduran Supreme Court, but the Honduran Supreme Court denied his appeal. In April 2022, the extradition process was deemed complete, and Hernandez was sent to the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Justice.

As of August 2023, Hernández was facing three charges (via the U.S. Department of Justice): "conspiring to import cocaine into the United States ... using and carrying machine guns and destructive devices during, and possessing machine guns and destructive devices in furtherance of, the cocaine importation conspiracy ... and 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." The arrest is important for the Latin American region given the fact that Hernández was very high up in the drug trade and will probably help the United States in uncovering key criminals, according to The Washington Post.