Feb 17, 2022 - Politics & Policy

What an ex-president's arrest says about U.S.-Latin America relations

Former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez sits, his ankles cuffed, surrounded by police in bulltproof vests and masks
Juan Orlando Hernández (sitting) after his arres on Monday. Credit: STR/AFP via Getty Images

The dramatic arrest and likely extradition of former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is a stunning fall from grace for a leader once embraced by American authorities desperate to stem migration to the U.S.

Driving the news: The U.S. government says Hernández led a “violent, state-sponsored drug trafficking conspiracy” with co-opted armed forces, police, Congress members and mayors.

  • Unlike other Latin American countries where criminal groups and cartels work with some corrupt officials, U.S. prosecutors suggest the outgoing Honduran government itself became a cartel, a “narco-state.”

The big picture: Violence and corruption, along with poverty, are the root causes of Central American migration to the U.S. The American government’s move to charge Hernández comes after it embraced him while trying to stymie huge numbers of migrants coming to the U.S.-Mexico border.

  • The case against Hernández also highlights the challenges facing the incoming Honduran government of Xiomara Castro, which has promised to end corruption, and the Biden administration’s ongoing attempts to stop the heavy migration flows from the region.

The situation also shows the tricky balance Washington keeps in its relations with the Northern Triangle countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, working with and giving funds to local governments suspected of corruption when looking to stem migration and promote cooperation.

  • Top U.S. officials, including a DEA director and Joe Biden when he was vice president, met with Hernández for discussions related to migration and security cooperation while the criminal investigations against him were ongoing.
  • The Department of Homeland Security even called the Hernández government “a valued and proven partner” in 2020.

Flashback: Several Hondurans have been extradited for similar charges, including two major drug kingpins that testified Hernández received bribes from them or gave them instructions for money laundering.

  • Tony Hernández, a former congress member and brother of Juan Orlando Hernández, was sentenced to life in prison on drug charges last year.
  • The ex-president's predecessor, Porfirio Lobo, is also linked to drug-trafficking groups and is on a U.S. list of corrupt past and present officials.
  • Other Central American figures who have faced corruption charges include former Guatemalan president Otto Pérez Molina, whose trial on fraud charges in his country started last month. Former El Salvador president Antonio Saca recently recently confessed that he and a myriad of legislators and judges participated in an embezzlement scheme.

What's next: A Honduran judge who belongs to Hernández’ National Party will decide whether the former president will be extradited. The decision could take months.

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