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Ex-Honduran President Hernández Arrested on Drug Charges; U.S. Backed His Narco-State for 8 Years

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Authorities in Honduras have arrested former President Juan Orlando Hernández for allegedly smuggling over 1 million pounds of cocaine into the United States since 2004. Hernández, who now faces extradition to the United States, was a longtime U.S. ally, in power from 2014 until January 27 of this year, when he was succeeded by Xiomara Castro, Honduras’s first female president. We speak with Castro’s deputy minister of foreign affairs, Gerardo Torres Zelaya, who calls the U.S. extradition a step in the correct direction and a dramatic shift from prior U.S. administrations that condoned Hernández’s “kidnapping” of Honduras’s democracy. We also speak with history professor Dana Frank, who says Hernández was not just a drug trafficker, but a dictator who unleashed “tremendous repression and militarization” on Honduras.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We begin today’s show in Honduras, where authorities have arrested former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who faces extradition to the United States on drug trafficking charges. Hernández was a longtime U.S. ally who had led Honduras from 2014 until this past January 27th, when he was succeeded by Xiomara Castro, Honduras’s first female president.

This week’s dramatic events began Monday, when the U.S. State Department formally requested the extradition of the former president, alleging he smuggled over a million pounds of cocaine into the United States since 2004. On Tuesday, over a hundred Honduran police officers surrounded his home, then took him into custody. Fireworks exploded in Tegucigalpa as video emerged showing Juan Orlando Hernández being escorted from his home in a bulletproof vest with his wrists and ankles in chains. The extradition case now heads to Honduras’s Supreme Court. Last year, a federal court in New York sentenced his brother, Tony Hernández, to life in prison for drug trafficking. Juan Orlando Hernández was listed as an unindicted co-conspirator in another drug smuggling case.

To talk more about the arrest of former President Juan Orlando Hernández, we’re joined by two guests. Dana Frank is professor of history emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup. And joining us from Honduras [sic] is Gerardo Torres Zelaya, vice minister of foreign affairs of Honduras in Xiomara Castro’s new administration. He’s joining us, actually, from France.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, both. It’s great to have you with us. Gerardo Torres Zelaya, let’s begin with you. Can you talk about the significance of the arrest of the not just former president of Honduras, a U.S.-backed president of Honduras, but he just stepped down from office?

GERARDO TORRES ZELAYA: Hello, Amy, Juan and Dana. It’s a pleasure. Thank you for this invitation. Hello to everyone that watches Democracy Now! in the United States and all around the world.

Well, February 15 will stay forever in the history of Honduras. Juan Orlando Hernández is the first former president of my country that has been ever arrested for drug trafficking. Two years ago, I was also here at the European Parliament, as a member of the resistance, as a member of the Libre Party. And when we said that we were fighting and struggling against a dictatorship, a drug cartel, a trafficking state, a criminal state in Honduras, and we were fighting as a peaceful movement and were trying to bring a political change to Honduras, many people here in the European Parliament told us that we were exaggerating, that we couldn’t use those kinds of adjectives to speak to a government that, for Europe, was also, as for the United States, an important ally in the region. But, as Hondurans, we knew what was going on in our country. When the South District of New York condemned President Hernández’s brother, Tony Hernández, as you just said, we knew that it was a step in the correct direction.

The United States, because of their support after — to the governments that came after the coup d’état, also allowed them to gain very strong power in the region. And that power, they used for criminal activities and for drug trafficking. Hernández had impunity. Hernández wasn’t going to be sent to jail as long as he or his party will continue in power. But on November 28th of last year, the Honduran people gave a very strong message. We have been participating since 2013, 2017. And in 2021, the difference that we had was over 21, 20% of the votes, and that enabled them to try any strategies that had to do with fraud or violence that we have seen in the country in years before. In 2021, the people of Honduras went hopefully to vote. We had the biggest voting in our history. We have the first woman to become president in the country. And them losing power, the National Party, that had became this strong party after the coup d’état, 2009, lost control of the Honduran government. And once they lost control of the Honduran government, then all this actions that had been already been worked or built in the United States, especially in the South District of New York, started to take place.

We received a letter two days ago from the United States asking for the extradition of Juan Orlando Hernández, former president of Honduras. We sent that request to our Supreme Court. And the Supreme Court acted immediately, and also the Attorney General’s Office, the police. And in less than 24 hours, who, who was a couple of months ago the strongest man in Honduras and one of the strongest men in Central America, was arrested because of his participation in Central America’s biggest and strongest drug cartel, that was able to become so strong because of the impunity that came because of the political interest to maintain the governments that took power after the coup d’état of 2009.

So, we, as Honduran people, we are hopeful. We are not happy, because it’s not easy to say to the world what we have become. But it’s hopeful, and it brings a lot of opportunities to see that this new government, with Xiomara Castro at the head of government, has less than 20 days in office, and we have already given strong messages and strong actions that things in my country are starting to change.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Vice Minister Torres, I wanted to ask you, in terms of the — were you surprised by the change of direction of the U.S. government here? Because, after all, this request for extradition must have received approval from the White House, and President Biden was part of the administration of Barack Obama back then, when Juan Orlando Hernández was — before becoming president, he was also president of the National Congress back in 2010, when Hillary Clinton and the Obama administration pointed to the Congress as the reason why they were not opposing the coup against President Zelaya. They said that this was a battle between two branches of government. But now we’re finding out, as you say, that there was a narco state. Not only the Hernández brothers, both of whom were in the Congress, but also the chief of the National Police, Juan Carlos Bonilla, was also indicted as a drug trafficker. So, you, in essence, had the Clinton — I mean, Clinton and Barack Obama were backing a Congress that was dominated back then by narcotraffickers. Have you been surprised by the change in direction now of the Biden administration?

GERARDO TORRES ZELAYA: Well, as you well say and remember, the coup d’état against President Manuel Zelaya took place only six months after President Obama started power in the United States. For those eight years that he was in office, we had a lot of visits to the United States to alert what was going on in our country, to tell the United States and the international community what was going on in Honduras. We were living in a narco-state. We had many people that were part of the political movements that were killed, tortured, imprisoned. And it was really hard for us to go. I had the opportunity, I think 10 years ago, to be the first time with Amy in this show and talking about exactly the same things that we’re saying today. Democracy Now! always gave us that opportunity to say what was really going on in Honduras. But we didn’t have that much attention when we went to the United States Senate or the United States government. And they said, as you just said, that it was a political problem. And we told them it wasn’t just a political problem. We were presenting a political solution to something that went farther away than democracy, didn’t have to do just with elections. It had to do with a dictatorship, a military dictatorship, that had whole power, that had kidnapped democracy and that was refusing to give the Honduran people the rights that other countries or other people had. We didn’t have the possibility to participate. This became a dangerous — the most dangerous country to be a journalist, to be a woman, to be an environmentalist, to be a lawyer. Honduras became the world’s most violent country. And when we went to the Obama administration and told him that it was because we had a dictatorship, that this wasn’t a political competition, that this was peoples organizing to fight against this narco-state, against these criminal organizations, they told us that we were exaggerating.

Then we had the change in government in the United States, and the Trump administration paid even less attention to our claims. Migration became bigger. People in Honduras were escaping this reality that we were living.

And then, I have to say, with Mr. Biden and Ms. Kamala Harris coming in office, we saw a shift in the United States’ position towards Honduras. And maybe it had to do because the narco-state had went out of hand, or maybe because they really had a desire to stop this criminal organization to continue the control of the Honduran government and the control of our state. We saw a difference in this administration. We also saw that the DEA and the South District of New York started to make actions against the National Party in Honduras. They had the control of Congress, of the presidency and the Supreme Court. It was impossible for anyone to hope for any investigation in the Hernández brothers or the members of the National Party or the government. But the participation of the DEA and the South District of New York allowed that that impunity started to weaken. And these people that had never shown any way of responsibility in front of law were starting to be being called and asked to respond for their actions.

And now we had also the support from the Biden-Harris administration in this past elections of November of 2021. And we had the participation of the United States vice president. It was the first time in Honduras that that happened, and we know that it’s not very common that that happens in Latin America. Vice President Kamala Harris was with President Xiomara Castro in her inauguration. And I think that was a clear message that things were changing in the relationship that the United States has had with Honduras in the last 12 years.

The first action that they did, a week ago, was to suspend or cancel the visa of Juan Orlando Hernández. And we knew that that was the first step in the United States to start a legal action against Hernández, who’s been charged of drug trafficking, weapon trafficking and the conspiracy to assassinate public officers in Honduras, attorneys, lawyers and many people that in my country were killed to speak out and to talk about what was really going on in the country, in moments when it was very dangerous, in moments where, unfortunately, not many people were paying attention. Now the world has paid attention. This is a message that I have given here in the European Union. What we said two years ago, now you have proof. We weren’t exaggerating. We defeated not a political party. We defeated a criminal organization. And we defeated, with democracy and political participation, a narco-state. And now we’re trying to bring democracy back to Honduras.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Well, I’d like to bring in Dana Frank to the conversation. Professor Frank, were you surprised by this latest action? You’ve written that Juan Orlando Hernández is guilty of much more than just drug trafficking. If you could talk about his legacy and about the sudden decision a few weeks ago — or, announcement by Secretary of State Blinken that Juan Orlando Hernández was on something called the Engel List? Could you explain what the Engel List is?

DANA FRANK: Yeah, well, first of all, Juan Orlando Hernández is not just a drug trafficker. He is a dictator that has controlled the Supreme Court, the attorney general, the military and police, and the Congress for eight years and has wrought incredible destruction on the Honduran people with tremendous repression and militarization. So, the U.S. wants to talk about this as just drug trafficking or “corruption,” and it’s much more than that. It’s a destruction of the state and massive thievery and repression. So, just to frame all that, you know.

And in terms of the Engel List, you know, what happened was that there is this list that the State Department was forced to come put out with, saying which — the people who have committed crimes or are corrupt. And when they put out the list last July, they only put some few people on it that were like nobodies and were already on procedures, criminal procedures. And they left off Juan Orlando and other top people in his administration very deliberately. A week ago, they announced that they had in fact secretly put Hernández on the list last July. Now, they did that because of Senator Merkley and Congresswoman Schakowsky and dozens of other congressmembers and senators who had called for sanctions on Juan Orlando. And so, what I think was going on is the State Department decided that they had to allow the Southern District of New York to charge Juan Orlando and ask for his extradition. They couldn’t stop that any longer, claiming there was a precedent that you couldn’t charge a president. And so, they wanted — I think the State Department wanted to look good and look like they were heroic, when they actually did it last year and didn’t tell anybody, so they want to look like they were a part of this all along. And, you know, of course, why didn’t they tell anyone last July, if they did it?

And they did it kicking and screaming all the way. In fact, the Biden administration has supported Juan Orlando for eight years — excuse me, Obama, Trump and Biden administrations have supported Juan Orlando for eight years with military spending and intelligence sharing, support for the police, all the way up to the day that Xiomara Castro took power on January 27th. And, in fact, the Biden administration did not want the Southern District of New York to charge Juan Orlando. They were never happy that his brother was charged and convicted of drug trafficking and sent to jail for life. And so, it’s not like the Biden administration is the heroic figure here. They are kicking and screaming all the way, and they’re now trying to look like they’re anti-corruption, when they actually created and supported this monster, Juan Orlando Hernández, and the whole post-coup regime. So, it’s really important to see that they created this monster; now they’re kicking him out because it’s no longer convenient for them for geostrategic reasons, for all kinds of reasons. They’ve chosen to recognize Xiomara Castro and, quote-unquote, “support her,” which is, of course, a dubious concept anyway, because a leopard isn’t going to change its spots, and they’re still going to try to control her and make Honduras safe for transnational corporations and the U.S. military.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to link to Juan’s questioning of Hillary Clinton, when she was secretary of state, running for president, when he was working at the New York Daily News editorial board, asking her about why the U.S. supported the coup against the current President Xiomara’s husband, President Zelaya. It’s very interesting. But before you both go, Gerardo Torres Zelaya, I wanted to ask you about where you are right now. You’re in Paris, but you’re coming from the refugee camps in Algeria of the Sahrawi. Honduras has long supported the Sahrawi government in exile, as over 80 countries have. Juan Orlando Hernández started to side with Morocco. But can you talk about the significance of your trip?

GERARDO TORRES ZELAYA: Well, yes, I’m currently at France, in Strasbourg, in the European Parliament offices. As I said, we’ve just started in government, and, well, my visit here is to know better how the Honduran state is represented in the multilateral United Nations offices here in Europe. I’m going now to Brussels to finish my visit and then going back to Honduras.

Our first official visit was precisely to the refugee camps of the Sahrawan people — well, my first official visit — because the Frente Polisario, even though they are in a big struggle and it’s not easy for them in what they’re working and what they’re doing, since moment one, they have been very — shown a lot of solidarity with Honduras. President Manuel Zelaya, when was in office, started to move forward in the recognition of the Sahrawan republic. That relationship stopped because of the coup. And we have been in touch for this 12 years. Of course, the Honduran context is very different than the Sahrawan context, but we share sympathy, and we share this friendship and this brotherhood that we have built for the last 12 years. The Frente Polisario has been in the three elections, 2013, '17, 2021. They have accompanied us during the floods, during the most violent times. And now that we managed to win the control of the government, we thought it was a good gesture to go and tell the Sahrawans that we are friends, we'll continue to be friends, and they can count on the support now of the Honduran state, in which we now again recognize the Sahrawan republic, as you already said, like other 80 countries in the world, and recognize the right of the Sahrawan people to have their own country, to have the right to choose over their lands, their lives and their future.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, we want to thank you both for being with us, Gerardo Torres Zelaya, Honduran vice minister of foreign affairs in the new administration of Honduran President Xiomara Castro, speaking to us from Strasbourg, France, where the European Parliament is. And we want to thank Dana Frank, professor of history emerita UC Santa Cruz, author of The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup.

Next up, we’ll speak with Parkland survivor David Hogg and Manny Oliver, whose 17-year-old son Guac died in the mass shooting four years ago on Valentine’s Day at Parkland high school. Oliver was arrested Monday for climbing a crane over a hundred feet high in the air outside of the White House, unveiling a banner that read, “45K people died from gun violence on your watch,” calling on President Biden to do more. Stay with us.

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