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Spectacle of Justice

The trial of Juan Orlando Hernández
Then Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández stands next to then vice president Joe Biden in January 2016. They're both waving and smiling.

The defendant would come into the courtroom a little before ten, settling into his chair as if there was nothing to be worried about. The crowd filing in didn’t seem to faze him, and they craned their necks to catch a glimpse and see if he still looked the same. He was paler now, even a little sickly, a dusting of stubble having sprouted across his face. For over two weeks he’d sat listening to former partners discuss his life—specifically, their business interactions with him—on the twenty-sixth floor of the Southern District Court of New York in lower Manhattan while his security detail sat, stone-faced, behind him. He kept calm, sometimes patting his lawyers on the back, at times even smiling, almost as if he was still a head of state, jetting off to D.C. to have meetings at the International Monetary Fund or to solicit weapons from the Pentagon.

The defendant, former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández, had once been a rising star of U.S.-sponsored crackdowns on crime in Latin America, an uncompromising and ruthless drug war hawk who thundered that “the party [was] over” for criminals in his inaugural address. Now, he was facing up to life in prison for importing cocaine into the United States.

Hernández took the stand. Chin raised, lips pursed, deferential and attentive, he let his defense walk him through the story of his past: the military academy, the National Autonomous University of Honduras, law school at SUNY Albany in New York. In 1998, he became a diputado, or congressional deputy, for his home department of Lempira. In 2010, he became president of the National Congress in the aftermath of a military coup. In 2014, when homicides clocked in at levels higher than most war zones, he traded that position for the presidency of the republic. Soon, the humble simplicity of his answers—Si señor, he’d say every time with a gracious nod—devolved into ever more elaborate, self-aggrandizing accounts of his time fighting criminals while in office.

There was the extradition law he passed. The law to seize assets. There was his participation in the war on drugs. There was the laundry list of military-police units he’d created to, in his words, “eradicate violence produced by drug trafficking and gangs.” The Military Police for Public Order were brutal against gangs—some gangs, at least—but what the jury didn’t hear was that they murdered at least thirty students and protesters as they protested Hernández’s fraudulent second election in 2017. The Technical Agency for Criminal Investigation followed some cases but then “disappeared” other student activists. The FBI-trained National Anti-Mob and Gang Force was effective at killing, but it also brokered a pact with MS-13 while operating as a death squad that drowned or shot members of other gangs, not to mention any poor men they found.

There was the way Hernández got the U.S. military to collaborate with some of those units. The objections to Hernández’s unabashed braggadocio intensified, but he got cockier, his chin raised higher as he responded with greater gusto. In 2014, when he became president, he’d met the head of the U.S. military’s Southern Command, General John Kelly, “at the first opportunity,” and in a “very private meeting” in Miami, he requested drug war collaboration and assistance that was duly granted. Hernández and General Kelly met, by his own estimate, fifteen to twenty times. He also met with the FBI, the Department of Homeland Security, and the Drug Enforcement Administration. He’d met U.S. presidents Obama and Trump. “Many times,” he said: thirty-five or forty by his own count. How could someone like that be a drug trafficker?

One of the most striking aspects of Hernández’s trial wasn’t any singular revelation, many of which had been partly exposed in the drugs trial of two former associates, as well as his younger brother. It was, instead, the sheer quantity of information that was left out, brushed over, or ignored—especially evidence implicating the state in the drug trade. It was a spectacle of justice, a simulacrum of accountability separating the individual criminal from the power structures he represented. Hernández was an assiduous yes-man for the U.S.-sponsored military interventions across Latin America known as the war on drugs, though his fall typifies a wider trend of high-level state complicity in criminal networks. The difference, it seems, is that Hernández let the matrix of state-criminal collusion glitch just enough for him to fall afoul of his benefactor to the north, meaning he had to be done away with to disabuse us of the notion that such corruption is systematic. The jury was left to believe that the source of drugs north of the border and bloodshed to the south was a single, conniving, high-level criminal who’d slithered into the halls of state power. It went without saying that the war he carried out while engaged in that criminality needed to remain in place.

In March, the jury convicted him on all three drugs and weapons charges. This week, he was sentenced to forty-five years in prison and ordered to pay an $8 million fine.

Justice in the Southern District of New York was about indicting a president—not a system.

This is not a new story. A politician, usually but not exclusively on the right, promises Mano dura, or “iron-fist” policing at an inflection point or crisis: a coup or stolen election, social unrest or a sudden rise in violence either real or staged. They promise to deploy the military to fight drug traffickers as if they were waging an internal war. (In the most recent iteration of the phenomenon, in January the Ecuadorian president Daniel Noboa declared an “internal armed conflict” against gangs). The United States almost always supports the effort under the rubric of reestablishing the rule of law, a pattern of support that never seems to waver even when the recipients of its largesse turn out to be criminals themselves.

Image betrays reality, and the state proclaiming to be taking the country back from criminals turns out to be scraping money off of them and instrumentalizing them to strengthen their hold on power. They use the military and police to give preferential treatment to criminal networks, participating in organized crime and managing these networks rather than carrying out a legitimate fight against them. Years later, once the leaders are out of office, the first revelations begin to leak: they were “working for the other side”; they were “bought off” or “bribed.”

This kind of corruption comes close on the heels of the U.S. war on drugs wherever it is enacted. Following the implementation of Plan Colombia in 2000, the right-wing U.S. ally and then president Álvaro Uribe was linked to drug traffickers. Following the implementation of Plan Mérida in 2008 in Mexico, at least two former presidents, as well as the heads of law enforcement and the Mexican military—all U.S. allies—were accused of supporting the now fractured criminal network known as the Sinaloa cartel. Supporters might argue that this is because organized crime exerts more power over the state, necessitating the continuation of war against criminals, though it flies in the face of the fact that the Sinaloa cartel has been shattered into warring factions and dozens of local paramilitary enforcers that are incapable of making a serious long-term stand (leaving aside two several-hour standoffs subjected to enormous publicity) against the Mexican government. The notion that organized crime threatened the status quo—political, economic, and social—would continue to guide U.S. hemispheric security policy. In Honduras, Hernández helped institutionalize the drug war through arranging the allocation of funds through CARSI, a U.S.-directed security initiative that funneled billions of dollars to security forces in Guatemala, El Salvador, and Honduras through mechanisms notorious for their lack of transparency.

The most damning testimonies in Hernández’s trial, replete with accompanying photos of the narrow-eyed, jovial, chubby-cheeked ex-president smiling next to narcos at the 2010 South Africa World Cup, or with their children on private docks in Honduras, were delivered by imprisoned leaders of violent rural drug clans: the Cachiros, the Valles (who didn’t make an appearance), the Ardóns. Each witness alleged that their group paid millions to Hernández for political campaigns in exchange for protection as well as, in one case, an influential government road-building post, allowing them to gain a degree of legitimacy in their neglected rural hometowns. But their operations couldn’t function on their own. Without fail, each witness described how ensuring protection from state persecution meant also paying off an interconnected web of soldiers, police, judges, and prosecutors (though sometimes promises were betrayed). Who, then, were those soldiers? Though the prosecutors were seeking to take down Hernández as an individual, the extent of justice felt limited: zeroing in on the dealings surrounding one criminal when an abundance of testimony suggested he was but a node in a larger system of corruption.

It’d be wrong, after all, to say corruption was limited to low-ranking grunts in the military or police, who, if caught, could be prosecuted as individuals without threatening the legitimacy of their institutions. Such a conclusion flies in the face of testimonies offered by the likes of Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, the mean-faced former drug trafficker who made passing mention of a clandestine landing strip that was managed by a high-level military officer. (Though accusations of high-level complicity of the Honduran military in drug trafficking networks as well as extrajudicial killings have existed for years, no military official has been tried for running a landing strip, and almost none have faced prosecutions for similar crimes). State complicity in criminal networks wasn’t limited to demanding a slice of the proceeds. It often meant direct participation in the business.

One witness in Hernández’s trial learned this well while dating Alexander Mendoza, the Honduran leader of the MS-13 known as “El Porky.” In 2020, Porky, now at large again, was rescued from police custody in Honduras in a deadly shootout by commandos who were wearing the uniforms of the National Anti-Mob and Gang Force. When the witness lived with him in San Pedro Sula around 2013, she claimed he collaborated with the police official and grandstanding death squad commander Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, who the United States once feted for the same reasons as Hernández before extraditing him and condemning him on similar charges. The gang leader and top cop, she said, had regular phone calls discussing drug shipments, weapons, and mutual favors. As early as 2004, sicarios under Porky’s watch were subcontracted to work alongside uniformed soldiers and police providing armed security for caravans of cocaine-laden trucks as they moved from landing strips in the rainforested east, scarred with palm plantations, to the dusty, mountainous drop-off points near the border with Guatemala. That flow was enabled by an ecosystem of armed actors, with and without badges, that was protected, sanctioned, or else ignored by a criminal state under the watch of the United States.

But justice in the Southern District of New York was about indicting a president—not a system—and the overwhelming evidence of broader corruption seemed to be taken for granted. No one asked. The trial continued.

The investigator Molly Molloy, who spent years documenting homicides after the military occupation of Juárez during the first years of the Mexican drug war, wrote that power in that country is expressed through “a system of arrangements between government, business, and narco-trafficking.” The same, accounting for local variations, could be said of the drug trade throughout Latin America. One of most crucial institutional backbones of that trade comes from military and police forces, whose members give out weapons, lend units to protect select traffickers, use criminal groups to carry out killings, pocket a portion of the profits in exchange for allowing them to continue operating—in short, leveraging their overwhelming firepower to manipulate criminal networks as they wish.

The drug trade almost always functions through institutional corruption, where the state operates like locks on a dam that can manipulate, divert, or channel a river’s energy without ever stopping its flow. In Mexico, Guatemala, Honduras, and Colombia, the same military forces who got away with massive crimes against humanity during the Cold War—crimes they carried out while developing close connections to, or with the help of, criminal networks—are now the institutions with some of the most high-profile links to the drug trade. And their power only continues to grow. 

Getting rid of a figure like Hernández, in other words, doesn’t stop the permanent deployment of militarized state power, in which security forces at all levels are able to get rich off the drug trade while promoting a state of exception that allows the government to kick in the doors of its citizens for whatever reason it pleases. But it does create an illusion of justice that allows that system to continue.

Fabio Lobo, the graying son of former Honduran president Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, who took power after a 2009 military coup, was a judge turned narco who coordinated cocaine shipments with Hernández. Staring with a laser-like gaze at his former partner for the two days of his testimony and cross-examination, he recounted a series of meetings he had with the high-level military commander and U.S. ally Julián Pacheco Tinoco (one of the only military officials named during the trial) at his office in Tegucigalpa. It was 2014. The subject the two were discussing was sharing intelligence from the military so the Cessnas and helicopters loaded with cocaine, the seats stripped to fit as many plastic-wrapped bricks as possible, could putter across the Caribbean from Venezuela and Colombia while avoiding DEA detection. In the third meeting, Lobo brought three Mexican traffickers linked to the Sinaloa cartel to discuss receiving shipments. But the commander stormed out. “It’s a trap,” he spit out. “They’re DEA informants.”

It was one of several indications throughout the trial that the DEA had been investigating Hernández and his brother through informants as early as 2013—nearly a full decade before he was arrested. Why, then, did they wait so long?

There’s almost zero chance Hernández will be ever tried for the full scope of his crimes.

One answer might lie in the modus operandi of the DEA itself. For decades the agency, whose budget has grown on a steady trajectory since its founding in 1973, topping out at just under $3.3 billion in 2021, has failed in its stated mission to reduce drug flows. In the interim, questionable alliances and corruption have flourished. Since the beginning of last year, the agency has been rocked by a series of scandals: Nick Palmeri, the former head of operations for Latin America, opted for an ignominious “involuntary retirement” in 2022 after it was revealed he was hosting lavish parties at a mansion on the outskirts of Mexico City and regularly meeting and vacationing with lawyers for drug traffickers from Miami. The agency’s image was stained further last year with revelations that agents helped traffic over forty-four tons of Colombian cocaine into the United States while “infiltrating” criminal organizations.

Yet there was no way to know what happened with the DEA in its apparent quest to take down Hernández because there was hardly any information regarding their activities in pursuit of him. Was he an asset for the organization? We’re left with only the testimonies and secretly recorded videos and audios taken by drug traffickers who—while they continued to kill, traffic drugs, and pay off politicians—were DEA assets for months, even years, at a time. Were they aware of Hernández’s criminality? We wouldn’t know on the basis of the trial, so we’re left, instead, to guess and look over the agency’s activities elsewhere in the hemisphere. 

The DEA plays a permanent game of whack-a-mole with criminal organizations—infiltrating one cartel through undercover agents and informants to get dirt on another, before deciding to turn on the original organization, directing regional military and police forces to capture or kill their leadership, and on and on. This strategy is not just ineffective in its stated mission of staunching the flow of drugs to the United States; it produces violence comparable to many war zones. The wars between factions proliferate as the DEA pursues its quixotic “Kingpin Strategy,” capturing or killing individual leaders and shattering criminal groups into factions, who grow more violent and paranoid as they fight for ever smaller patches of territory while gaining more recruits and foot soldiers.

The agency isn’t without its controversies in Honduras specifically. In 2012, DEA agents directed a helicopter of Honduran soldiers to machine-gun a wooden boat traveling down the Ahuás river in the Moskitia rainforest, believing it to be transporting drugs, but instead killing four innocent people, the family members of fishermen returning to their village.  

Perhaps, then, given their failure to reduce drug flows and associated corruption and human rights abuses, it makes sense that there were no DEA field agents testifying at Hernández’s trial. There were only two employees from the agency who gave testimony—one woman was an office-based analyst who spent a month in Honduras in 2015 and was now located in Hawaii, who testified, absurdly, that San Pedro Sula is one of the most violent cities in the world “because of a lack of law enforcement presence.” The other was a young-looking man who reviewed the text messages of a former drug trafficker, though when the defense pressed him, he conceded that he wasn’t fluent in Spanish. The DEA was the presumed organization that pulled the strings to bring Hernández to the United States. There was little to no transparency as to how they got the information to do so. Nor was there clarification as to whether Hernández himself had been an asset.

While I was in the elevator between court sessions, a friend commented about how listening to the testimonies of former drug traffickers was like watching Narcos. I asked if she didn’t think that was DEA propaganda. “What do you think we’re watching right now?” she replied. I wasn’t sure. Hernández, for one, had said the viability of his case was tarnished by influence from the DEA, among others. And there were moments in the trial—just a few—when Hernández’s face seemed to be gripped with a look of genuine confusion.

There’s almost zero chance Hernández will be ever tried for the full scope of his crimes. The case against him—indeed, the entire stated reason he was extradited to the United States—had to do with his ties to the cocaine trade, meaning the evidence presented by the prosecution provided a very narrow glimpse of the bloodshed caused by the criminality he helped institutionalize. This dovetails with the common American understanding of why Latin America is so violent—when, or even if, it ever crosses an American’s mind.

The state, we are told, is besieged by the irrational savagery of poor brown people and criminals who can only be held off through continuous warfare.

It mirrors the sepia-tinted Hollywood worldview of Narcos and Sicario, where irrational drug-peddling killers with endless regenerative power can only be dealt with through violence. It also lines up with the U.S. security state, whose policies of militarization are justified through the specter of criminal organizations that threaten state power—as opposed to forming a messy, unstable, unofficial part of it. The state, we are told, is besieged by the irrational savagery of poor brown people and criminals who can only be held off by continuous warfare. You could hear the echoes of that worldview in the voice of the clean-shaven prosecutor, who, presenting his opening argument, spoke with the same wide-eyed indignation of a middle schooler giving an anti-drug presentation: “With his power as president,” he said ominously, “He shipped drugs into the country.”

The focus on the drug trade could lead one to conclude that violence executed or sanctioned by the state under Hernández wouldn’t have mattered, or at least wouldn’t have merited his prosecution, if he’d kept his distance from the narcos. That violence—land and water defenders murdered by military-linked assassins, teenagers machine-gunned by police-linked death squads, student protesters sniped by the military, women raped by abusive cops, not to mention all the taxi drivers and shop owners killed by gangs who have paid for protection from state security forces—continued under Hernández’s watch, despite glowing media reports about an apparent drop in violence. Perhaps if he had been more careful, less direct about his links to criminal networks, or maybe if he’d come from a larger country like Colombia or Mexico, then he could have ended up with an honorary teaching position at Georgetown, like Álvaro Uribe.

But the justice system required a sacrifice, so he was portrayed as a criminal because he betrayed the mandate of the war on drugs. Yet perhaps he was criminal less because of his betrayal than for his faithfulness to the cause. He said as much while describing how he equipped the state to carry out violence. “We reformed the National Police,” he said with the same humble nod.

A woman in the audience shook her head angrily as Hernández made that claim. Sensitive, nervous, trembling with trauma but keeping her composure while watching the deliberations, she’d come to watch the last few days of the trial. I talked to her one morning in the polished marble antechamber where everyone waited before being ushered into the court. She wore purple earrings. Her name was Norma Rodríguez.

In 2021, Rodríguez’s twenty-six-year-old daughter, Keyla, a nursing student as petite as her mother, had gone out with friends in the mountainous department of Intibucá. She never returned. The Honduran National Police—the same institution “purified” by Hernández with U.S. assistance—had detained her, and though the details remain unclear, she was later found dead, suffocated, inside the station. The police claimed she’d hung herself with her shirt, which her mother recalls as thin satin incapable of holding up her weight. Protesters didn’t buy the story, suspecting, as her mother does, that she had been raped and murdered, leading to wave of protests that was smothered in teargas in a matter of days. Though one of the police officers was charged with reckless homicide, the family believes complicity in what happened to her—and a potential cover-up—go higher than a single rotten agent.

“I feel good seeing him face justice,” she told me. But she wasn’t going back to Honduras. The police in her hometown had been threatening her: squad cars of uniformed officers parked in front of their house brandishing U.S.-supplied assault weapons and pointing them at the windows, unmarked vehicles shadowed them around town, and text messages from anonymous numbers warned the family that their time was limited. “They said we needed to forget the case,” she said, “and if not, that we would have to mourn someone else.”

Hernández was going to be locked away from Honduras forever, though many of the thugs he empowered—with U.S. support—continue patrolling the streets with badges, clean and honest and ready to keep promoting law and order.