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What Happens After a U.S.-Enabled Narco-Dictatorship Ends?

Xiomara Castro’s win in Honduras means the end of Juan Orlando Hernández’s corrupt reign—and a chance for the U.S. to reform its broken policy toward Central America.

Xiomara Castro, presidential candidate of the Libre Party
Inti Ocon/Getty Images
Xiomara Castro, presidential candidate of the Libre Party, celebrates during general elections on November 28, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

As voting came to a close in Honduras’s presidential election this Sunday, there were still those who doubted things could somehow end peacefully. They had reason to worry: During the previous elections, in 2017, the theft of the vote by the corruption-stained ruling National Party had been so blatant and the repression that followed so savage and murderous, many believed this time around there was no way that opposition candidate Xiomara Castro would be allowed to win fairly, despite her overwhelming popularity.

Toward 9 p.m., as the votes began coming in, the results became steadily undeniable. Castro, a progressive populist, Honduras’s first woman president and the wife of Manuel Zelaya, a former president ousted in a military coup, seemed to have ended the reign of a right-wing “narco-dictatorship.” It was, for once, a piece of good news out of Central America.

What comes next poses important questions for U.S. policy in the region. The outgoing president, Juan Orlando Hernández, was named in several New York City trials as a major participant in the drug trade, even as his government received ample funds, equipment, and political support from the United States. Will he be extradited to the U.S.? Will he take refuge in Nicaragua, or inside a corporate enclave in Honduras? How was it that the U.S. maintained a relationship for so long with perhaps the most notorious state drug trafficker in the world? And most importantly, can the U.S. ever alter the contradictions of its position toward Central America?

Hernández, known in Honduras as “JOH,” came to power in the chaotic ferment that followed the 2009 military coup, which helped transform Honduras into one of the world’s most violent countries and sent hundreds of thousands of migrants fleeing toward the U.S. He was elected president in 2013, though in effect he’s lorded over the country since 2009, when he was president of the Honduran Congress.

Those who wonder why people flee Honduras need to look no further than some of Hernández’s policies, which exacerbated existing social crises and created new ones. In his first term, he controversially deployed the military to the streets under the pretext of fighting gangs, part of a militarized, iron-fist security policy Hernández touted as having reduced violence. In fact, an apparent drop in the murder rate had more to do with a cynical change in how homicides were registered, while harsh crackdowns also meant the police and military became as feared and distrusted as the gangs. Hernández promoted a model of corporate investment that involved the displacement of rural and Indigenous populations for agribusiness, mining, or tourism. He was an advocate of deregulation under the label of “competitiveness,” further stripping back labor rights and environmental protections. And his 2019 attempt to privatize health care and education (which provoked yet more mass protests and then violent repression) nearly eliminated access to those services for the precarious and the poor—all contributing to making daily life less livable for ordinary Hondurans.

But for quite a while, U.S. officials saw Hernández not as a narco but as a charming young law-and-order leader whose excesses they were willing to tolerate. Honduras has long been a strategic front in the war on drugs, which has meant that, irrespective of accusations of postcoup human rights violations, the U.S. continued training and abetting the Honduran military apparatus. (In 2019, 44 members of Congress, including Bernie Sanders and Ilhan Omar, co-sponsored an act to “withhold funds from Honduran police and military until gross human rights violations are investigated and prosecuted”; it has yet to pass.)

If the Obama administration’s acquiescence to Hernández was problematic, Donald Trump was much worse. After the contested 2017 election, the State Department quickly recognized the National Party government. Hernández eagerly promised Trump to help block immigration to the U.S. In 2019, Trump declared that with Hernández as an ally, the U.S. was “stopping drugs at a level we’ve never seen.” That was despite the fact that, just a few months earlier, the president’s brother Juan Antonio Hernández had been arrested in Miami and charged as a “large-scale drug trafficker.” The trial quickly surfaced allegations that President Hernández was also deeply involved.

Prosecutors in New York attested that the president had not only been aware of his brother’s narcotics activities but had himself presided over a sprawling state drug trafficking conspiracy, in which the military and police forces facilitated the northbound flow of cocaine by protecting shipments and killing off political and personal enemies. Juan Orlando turned into an embarrassing ally, an inconvenient glitch in the facade of the U.S.-led drug war. Trump wasn’t much bothered by it, of course, but the Biden administration seemed unsure of how to handle the situation. Ricardo Zúñiga, Joe Biden’s envoy to Central America, studiously avoided visiting Hernández on his tour of the region this April; the Engel’s List, a new effort to sanction corrupt officials in Central America, notably excluded any mention of President Hernández.

Honduras isn’t the only example of U.S. hypocrisy in Latin America: Ostensibly promoting democratic governance, and panicking about migration, while empowering corrupt and repressive institutions driving people to flee is par for the course. In Mexico, for instance, security forces trained by the U.S. have an alarming tendency to be complicit in the drug trade and human rights violations, which hasn’t stopped the training. There are many other examples, but the as yet undetermined fate of Hernández brings these maddening contradictions into their full light.

The exploitative relationship between Honduras and its northern neighbor has deep roots. Honduras was more or less run by the United Fruit Company in the early twentieth century. In the 1980s, the U.S. pushed for a sweeping militarization of the country that turned it into a staging ground for anti-revolutionary actions against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and leftist guerrillas in El Salvador. (U.S. officials joked that there were so many gringo soldiers that it was the “USS Honduras”; Hondurans saw it as an occupation.) By the 1990s, the country, like much of Central America, became a laboratory for neoliberal economic restructuring pushed by the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Those sweeping changes displaced rural workers and piled them into sprawling urban slums, where they faced bleak choices: working long hours for pennies in sweatshop-style maquiladoras; joining a gang; or, like increasing numbers of people braving the Border Patrol today, simply throwing in the towel and leaving. There’s also the problem, common to many small nations in the Western hemisphere, of the fundamental asymmetry between the importance of the U.S. to Honduras and the latter’s almost nonexistent role in U.S. consciousness. The journalist Hilary Goodfriend, in her review of Obama’s memoir, noted that Honduras doesn’t receive a single direct mention—despite Obama’s key role in legitimating the illegal postcoup government by resuming financial and military aid even after violence commenced.

These “root causes,” to use a phrase beloved of the Biden administration, are not so easy to undo. Many hope that, as president, Castro will be able to leverage the Biden administration’s proclaimed rhetoric supporting anti-corruption efforts to hold undemocratic actors in Honduras accountable in a way that was less feasible during the Trump era.

The mere fact a country known for extreme femicide and violence against women now has a woman president is itself worthy of celebration. The problems supercharged after the coup—the violence and poverty, the crisis of outmigration and entrenched corruption—are unlikely to disappear even within a few years. But still, the end of a blatant narco-dictatorship means that, for the first time in 12 years, Hondurans can breathe a little bit easier.