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Honduran Narcodictator Convicted, But ‘no Accountability For The US Role’

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A New York court has found former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández guilty of drug trafficking and weapons possession. It’s a huge verdict that will likely see the former president imprisoned for life.

In the last episode of Under The Shadow, host Michael Fox looked deeply at Hernández’s time as president from 2014 to 2022, which many came to call a narco-dictatorship. He won office in a fraudulent election, consolidated unprecedented power, pushed a neoliberal sell-off, and carried out widespread human rights abuses. 

In this Update 3, Fox looks at the New York trial that convicted him. What went down, what it meant, and what it means going forward for Honduras. And most important, what was missing — namely the role of the United States and Canada in propping up the Hernández regime.

For this update, we speak with Karen Spring, the co-coordinator of the Honduras Solidarity Network and host of the Honduras Now podcast. She was in the New York courtroom throughout Hernandez’s trial.

Under the Shadow is an investigative narrative podcast series that walks back in time, to tell the story of the past by visiting momentous places in the present. 

In each episode, host Michael Fox takes us to a location where something historic happened — a landmark of revolutionary struggle or foreign intervention. Today, it might look like a random street corner, a church, a mall, a monument or a museum. But every place he takes us was once the site of history-making events that shook countries, impacted lives, and left deep marks on the world.

Hosted by Latin America-based journalist Michael Fox.

Recorded in San Salvador, El Salvador

This podcast is produced in partnership between The Real News Network and NACLA.

Guests: Karen Spring

Theme music by Monte Perdido. Other music from Blue Dot Sessions.

Follow and support journalist Michael Fox or Under the Shadow at https://www.patreon.com/mfox


Transcript

Michael Fox:  Hi folks. I’m your host, Michael Fox.

So… If you’ve been following this podcast series, and you heard the last episode about the legacy of the 2009 coup in Honduras, you know that former Honduran narco-dictator Juan Orlando Hernandez has now been convicted of conspiring to traffick drugs into the United States by a New York court. That happened earlier this month, Friday, March 8.

For this update to Episodes 6 and 7 about Honduras, we’re going to dive deep into the trial. We’ll look at what went down, what it meant, and what it means going forward for Honduras and the region. And, most important, what was missing — Namely the role of the United States and Canada in propping up Juan Orlando Hernandez.

Today, I’m speaking with Karen Spring. You’ve heard her before, in Episode 7. She’s the co-coordinator of the Honduras Solidarity Network and the host of the Honduras Now podcast. She’s lived in Honduras since just after the 2009 coup. 

And, most importantly for this update, she was on the ground, in the courtroom in New York throughout Hernandez’s trial. That’s her, during one of numerous Facebook Lives and interviews she did throughout the court proceedings.

Two things to say before we get started:

First, cameras and recording devices were not permitted in the courtroom, so I don’t have as much ambient sound as usual. The closest thing we have is Karen’s firsthand account.

Second, you will note that Karen often uses Juan Orlando Hernandez’s nickname in Spanish, JOH, when she talks about the former president. JOH stands for his initials, J-O-H, and it’s used widely in Honduras as shorthand. If you hear that, you know she’s referring to the former president. 

OK, here’s the interview

[INTERVIEW BEGINS]

Michael Fox: So thank you so much for joining me today, Karen.

Karen Spring: Hi Michael, thanks. No problem.

Michael Fox: So, the trial ended about a week or two ago by the time this will run. Obviously, Juan Orlando Hernandez was found guilty on 3 counts of drug trafficking and weapons conspiracy. What’s the latest? What are the specifics of this conviction, and do we have a sentence?

Karen Spring: So the specifics of the conviction, or the guilty verdict, which was delivered by a jury on March 8, is that they found Juan Orlando Hernandez guilty of conspiring to traffic drugs — Cocaine specifically — Into the United States, and then also guilty on two counts of weapons related charges. So, using machine guns and destructive devices to traffic that cocaine into the United States. 

The guilty verdict on those three counts basically means that Juan Orlando Hernandez faces a minimum of 40 years in prison. But if we look at how other drug traffickers including the brother of Juan Orlando Hernandez, Tony Hernandez, have been sentenced, Juan Orlando Hernandez is most likely to face up to probably life in prison plus 30 years, but we won’t know until he’s sentenced. 

Currently the sentencing date is set for June 26 at 10:00 in the morning, but often what we see is that date will continue to be bumped back as the defense attorneys representing JOH will continue to present motions that are related to the trial. So he likely won’t be sentenced for, I would say… It’s hard to know, but I would say probably another year from now. So we won’t know what his sentence will be until then. But I would say life in prison plus 30 years.

Michael Fox: Wow Karen. You were there at the courtroom the entire time. You were there every single day. Talk about the trial in incredible coverage, by the way, because it wasn’t just you there. You were taking notes, and then sending out your newsletter, and talking to so many people. What was it like to be there and what stood out? Important takeaways?

Karen Spring: There’s so much to say about what went on in the almost three weeks that the trial unfolded inside the Southern District court in New York. I think one of the things about being there in person is that you see the reaction of the people that are participants in the trial. 

So for one, obviously, one of the things that was probably the most interesting and maybe the most descriptive is actually seeing Juan Orlando Hernandez there in the courthouse, and seeing all the Hondurans around that live in New York and other parts of the United States fly into New York to see the trial knowing that it was such a historical moment. 

I spoke to several Hondurans that flew in from Texas, they came in from the Washington DC area, Colorado, so many different areas, and they just said, we want to be here. We want to see this former president face justice for once in the history of Honduras, and especially considering everything that JOH, as people often call him, has done in our country and all the impacts that his two-term presidency has caused in Honduras.

So many Hondurans talked about how seeing him there in the courtroom was just such an exceptional historical moment for them. And as somebody that was in the courthouse or courtroom on a daily basis, Juan Orlando Hernandez would come into the court. Every day he was allowed to wear a suit. And he would sit in between his two defense attorneys. His face… He was often unshaven, which was something that you never really saw when he was the president of Honduras. His hair is much more gray than it was when he again was free and when he was leading Honduras as president.

And what was interesting is that, up until the last few days of the trial, he didn’t have any family members that were there in the trial. Unlike when his brother was on trial in 2019, there was a whole row of his family members from JOH’s family watching and basically accompanying his brother Tony as he faced the same charges. So, I think that was one of the moments that I don’t think many people will forget that were inside the courtroom. 

But also you could see the reaction of the prosecution, the judge, the jury, the 12-person jury that oversaw the whole trial. And then also the dynamic of the different Hondurans that were in the courtroom and the reasons why they all came to attend the trial.

Michael Fox: Karen, can you bring us into the courtroom? Describe what it looked like? If most of the audience was Honduran who was watching this, and also other tidbits of other things that came out that you thought were really important.

Karen Spring: Sure. So the courtroom was on the 26 floor of the Southern District court. I think it’s the largest courtroom in that building, because they expected to have a lot of the public come and watch the trial. So, the whole courtroom is wood, an expensive wood, I don’t know, mahogany wood maybe. 

At the very front is where the judge sits. There’s an American flag, and then behind the judge this really beautiful, I think Native American piece of artwork. And then the judge sits at the very front, up on a platform, and then in front of him are his secretary and the court assistants, and then the prosecution had their table. There were four prosecutors. All very young prosecutors, actually, which was surprising to many, but they did a fantastic job. 

And then after the table of the prosecution that was directly in front of the judge, there was the defense table, where one or two of the individuals on JOH’s defense team sat. And then after that was where the main defense table was. So you had JOH’s two defense attorneys, and JOH was in between his two defense attorneys.

And then directly behind Juan Orlando Hernandez were two court marshals that were dressed in suits, obviously not to prejudice the jury and to give the impression that Juan Orlando Hernandez is a prisoner. And then after those two court martials you had a barrier, a wooden barrier, and then the public was where we sat, in the back of the courtroom. 

And the courtroom permitted probably an estimation of about 100 people from the public when completely full. That would have been a really full courtroom if there were 100 people there in from the public and then to the side of the courtroom. Basically if you’re sitting in the rows where the public sit in the courtroom, to the right was where the jury sat closer to the judge, obviously. 

And there were 12 jurors and six alternates, and eventually there were several. There were, I think, three jurors that dropped out or got sick and that were removed from the jury throughout the process. But that’s where they sat. 

And then there were screens all over the courtroom. So anytime there were exhibits or there were documents that were posted, everyone in the courtroom could see them and participate in the trial. 

So it was quite an experience being in such a small room. It was a big room, but a small room with so many participants and so many interests all in one space.

And then, I think beyond that, obviously we sat and watched this really comprehensive case that the US prosecutors put together. Obviously one of the biggest criticisms I have of the trial and sitting in the trial is is that the scope of any legal trial in Honduras, particularly related to a former president of a foreign country, one that the United States and Canada supported for so many years, was that the scope of any legal trial is extremely limited. So, for me, there is a big elephant in the courtroom the whole time, throughout the whole duration of the trial as we heard. 

Several, I think up to 10 witnesses by the US prosecutors and then again by the defense, there was really no discussion, or very limited discussion, of the role of Canada and the United States in supporting this “democratic ally” that was now a dangerous drug trafficker that had conspired to traffic thousands of kilos of cocaine into the United States that was sitting there on trial in the courtroom at that time. 

And so for me, it’s important to state this before I give my impressions of the details of the trial, is that this was very much a show for me. It was really sad in some moments because, as much as people want to see justice in Honduras and as much as people want to see JOH face justice, it was a very false sense of justice because JOH has done so much damage over so many years in Honduras, and so has the US and Canada for supporting him for so long. 

And so at times, as the prosecutors were questioning witnesses, they were talking about the years that, oh, how did you not know that JOH was trafficking drugs? How did you not know that Tony was trafficking drugs in ‘13, ‘14? I sat and wondered the same. How did the US and Canada not know? Which, of course, they did know, and they ignored it for so many years.

Michael Fox: That’s incredible, that the US was actually asking others that same question, completely ignoring their own role at that exact moment. It’s just fascinating to me.

Karen Spring: Well, it is. Another really big highlight of the trial where that became very evident was when Juan Orlando Hernandez decided to take the stand himself. This is a president that has operated in impunity for so many years. Since the coup, he was president of Congress, and then he took office in 2014, and he was in power for eight years, and he operated in total impunity, including impunity in Honduras, but also impunity from his allies. 

The US and Canada constantly let him do whatever he wanted, and so at one point the prosecutors got up, Michael, and said OK, so you didn’t know that your brother, Tony Ornandez, was trafficking drugs in 2013 or 2014 when another cartel came out in the media in Honduras saying that he was involved in drug trafficking, and Juan Orlando Hernandez said, “No, I didn’t know.” 

And so, as they were drilling him to the degree that he knew his brother was trafficking drugs dating all the way back to ‘13, ‘14, I’m like, wouldn’t it be so great to turn those same questions on the US prosecutors? What do you mean he didn’t know? Well, you’re asking these questions, but of course the US and Canada knew too, and you’re expecting him to know as the president. But, of course, the US and Canada knew. They knew as well. 

So, I think, there were so many moments where it was like, wait a second. Let’s talk about this. Let’s talk about this elephant in the room. But the legal scope of the trial doesn’t permit that, and so that’s why we have to have these discussions outside the courtroom and in the public sphere and in the media, because obviously that trial didn’t permit it.

Michael Fox: Do you have any sense of how much this was, for the United States, like a get out of jail free card? In the sense that they knew what they had done, they knew how much they had supported this narco dictator, and it’s a way of whitewashing their history by showing how altruistic they are of then bringing him to trial right?

Karen Spring:  Oh yeah, it was a total, and it still is, a getting out of getting out of jail free card. There has been no accountability for the role that the US and Canada have played in supporting Juan Orlando. We can now say very clearly that the US and Canada allied with a massive, dangerous drug trafficker, a violent drug trafficker, over eight years of his presidency, and they were arming him and training military and police that were helping him with drug shipments for eight years. So they were aiding and embedding Juan Orlando Hernandez for eight years, if not more, in total impunity. 

And so they’re absolutely getting away with it. And not even getting away with it, it’s even actually worse than that. It’s that they’re getting away with it, but they’re also coming out as these heroes, now holding this massive, violent drug trafficker accountable and putting him in prison for the rest of his life. And they’re coming out saying, look what we did, we stopped this violent drug trafficker and we’ve achieved justice for Honduras, when that’s just a complete lie to the degree that there has been no accountability for the US role and the damages that Juan Orlando Hernandez has done continue in Honduras, as do the damages that the US and Canada have caused in Honduras as well.

Michael Fox: Karen, can you just talk like a little bit of history and context how important the US was for Juan Orlando Hernandez his government throughout the time that he was in power?

Karen Spring: So, I remember in 2013 when Juan Orlando Hernandez ran for the first time for president. He “won” the elections in this current trial. It came out that a lot of drug money went into basically buying his victory to become president of Honduras, which he took office in 2014 for the first time as president. And when he took office, he fought, or he presented himself as this great champion, this warrior who is going to fight against the war on drugs. Or he was going to lead the war on drugs in Honduras, and he was going to ally with the United States to stop drugs, to crack down on organized crime, and to basically stop migration to the United States and Mexico border. 

And so there were so many operations that Juan Orlando Hernandez did together with the US and Canada, military forces that came into Honduras to basically fight the so-called war on drugs and to crack down on organized crime. And we’re talking about special police. We’re talking about the Green Berets, special forces, FBI, SWAT teams, JTF Bravo, which is a military force based in Palmerola air base in Honduras, and even the Canadian military operations. They all partnered with Juan Orlando Hernandez to crack down on drug trafficking. 

And so that facade that Juan Orlando Hernandez used to give, the impression that he was cracking down on organized crime, was basically promoted and encouraged by the US and Canada because of all of this military training. And these high-level meetings with US officials and Canadian officials to yet again promote Juan Orlando Hernandez as this guy that was tough on crime, this president that was tough on crime. And so, as the US prosecutors say, that image that Juan Orlando Hernandez promoted along with the US and Canada was fundamental to his conspiracy to traffic drugs. 

So, without the US backing and helping to build this facade, he might not have been able to traffick as much of the drugs that he did because he used that to shield what he was actually doing behind closed doors, and that was trafficking thousands of kilos of cocaine into the United States. 

But not only that. The fundamental role that the US and Canada played in backing him… I mentioned the 2013 elections, but also the 2017 elections. So, Juan Orlando Hernandez ran for an illegal second term. First, he carried out a judicial coup. He took out magistrates from the Supreme Court that were no longer ruling in his favor, and then he ran for a second term in office. And at that moment, the US already knew that he was trafficking drugs. Or that he was involved, or at least, his brother was involved in trafficking drugs. 

So, in 2016, a scandal broke out in Honduras where Tony Hernandez, his brother, was caught. One of his helicopters was confiscated in a remote region of Honduras and it was known to be carrying drugs. But even before that, in 2013, the DEA already had cooperating witnesses that were saying that Tony Hernandez and Juan Orlando Hernandez were involved in drug trafficking. 

So, fast forward to 2017. You already had the groundwork for the DEA and other agencies in the US knowing that his brother, at a minimum, was involved in drug trafficking. 2017 rolls around. Juan Orlando Hernandez decides he’s going to run for reelection — An illegal election, because the Honduran Constitution forbids, or did forbid, second terms in office. 

So, the United States had the opportunity to pull their support and say, no, no, no, no, no. This is not a legitimate election. But they went ahead. They didn’t say anything. They let him run for election. And then in the election itself, there was massive electoral fraud that was even called out by the Organization of American States, which is not known to be a progressive, a pro-quo institution, at best, and even the OAS said, you know, it’s too hard to determine if these results are legitimate. Maybe there should be new elections in Honduras. 

And so again, the United States had an opportunity to pull the plug and say, no, we’re not going to support Juan Orlando Hernandez. But they just kept supporting him, and they basically certified the electoral results in December of 2017, and they allowed him to continue in office. 

And by allowing him to continue in office — And when I say allow, I think it’s really clear that the power of the US Embassy in Honduras is just unprecedented. People know that how things are going to sway in Honduras really often depends on whether the US Embassy is going to support it or not. 

And so by December 2017, when the US said they were going to recognize Juan Orlando Hernandez as president elect in Honduras, people knew, OK, this is over. They’re basically certifying these illegal and fraudulent elections, and so, we don’t have a choice. We have to accept this president. 

And that basically kept him in power for four more years, which not only kept him in political power, it kept his cartel running for another four years. And the United States knew. They knew. They knew what they were doing and they knew they were keeping a drug trafficker in power.

Michael Fox: Unbelievable, Karen. Do we have a sense of the number of human rights violations throughout Juan Orlando Hernandez’s government? The killings? The disappearances? I remember your partner was jailed for more than a year, right?

Karen Spring: Yeah, I don’t think that there’s a registry where all of the different human rights violations that have been committed over JOH’s administration have been gathered, but off the top of my head… 

So, during the 2017 electoral crisis, there were over 30 people that were shot and killed by state security forces — Basically individuals that went to the street, protesters that went to the streets to protest the electoral fraud, and as the US was certifying the elections, state security forces were shooting protesters. So, that’s over 30 to 35 people that have been documented. 

There were also hundreds of individuals that were detained, illegally detained, during just the 2017 electoral crisis. And then 22 individuals were held for months, and my partner is one who was held for 19 months in a maximum security prison. They were the political prisoners of the 2017 electoral fraud. 

But there were a few disappearances, as well, during the electoral fraud. And then more broadly, if you look, you’d have to look at the numbers. But in the Aguan Valley region alone, I think from 2013 or 2014 and on to the end of JOH’s term in office, or a second term in office, there were, I think, over 100 campesinos, or small farmers, that were murdered in the Aguan valley. And that doesn’t even include disappearances or individuals that were injured or imprisoned. 

I think we have to remember the water defenders from Guapinol, which was a very well-known international case. There were several, I think, seven Guapinol water defenders — I might be getting that number wrong — But they were in prison for over two years on trumped-up charges by an ally of Juan Orlando Hernandez. 

And then there were so many well-known environmentalist Indigenous activists. Berta Caceres was killed in 2016, and then there’s just countless women and individuals from the LGBT community that were murdered. Lawyers, journalists. And some of the journalists and some of the individuals that were killed came out in the trial, that drug traffickers had admitted being involved, basically, in their murders. 

But I think if you want to put that more into a broader context too, JOH had this whole facade that he was cracking down. He was making Honduras a safer place, and that was really far from the truth. And I think that if you look at those numbers of pro-democracy defenders that were put in prison, water defenders that were put in prison, individuals like Berta Caceres, Margarita Murillo, they were murdered for speaking out under Juan Orlando Hernandez. And then campesinos that were also murdered. 

Honduras became a very dangerous place. Not just because of the organized crime that was being promoted under Juan Orlando Hernandez and the organized criminal takeover of the state under Juan Orlando Hernandez, but also to speak out against Juan Orlando Hernandez and to speak out against his government and his policies made Honduras an extremely dangerous place. 

So I think as there’s a registry of the different murders that have taken place that are linked to individuals that were involved in the defense of water, defense of democracy, you have to look also at the homicide rate in general. And the facade that JOH promoted saying that he was making Honduras a safer place, but really it was very dangerous because organized crime was operating in total impunity.

Michael Fox: Karen, when we spoke last year you said something to me that was, I think, really profound. And it was basically, JOH should be standing trial here in Honduras for all the even greater crimes that he committed during his time. 

My question is, what does JOH’s conviction in New York mean for so many that suffered under the narco-dictatorship? Does this give people some sort of closure? Is this what justice looks like, or is there so much left that should be done?

Karen Spring: I think there’s so much left that needs to be done. I think that most people that I spoke with, Hondurans in New York that were there at the trial… Outside the trial there was a vigil where there were pictures of some of the individuals that were killed under Juan Orlando Hernandez, and there were two family members of individuals that were killed. One, the mother of Kayla Martinez, who was a young woman killed in police custody in La Esperanza by the police. And then there was the daughter of Margarita Murillo, who was a Campesina leader in Northern Honduras, who was also murdered under Juan Orlando Hernandez. 

And so, this vigil, for me, represented this ongoing thirst and need for justice — A greater justice for all of the violations that Juan Orlando Hernandez committed. So, I don’t want to say that some sort of level of justice wasn’t achieved by knowing that Juan Orlando Hernandez was found guilty of drug trafficking in New York, but I think that there’s a lot that still needs to be done. 

There are a lot of family members that are still seeking justice for what happened to their family members. They’re still seeking investigations — Closure. Kayla Martinez, there’s nobody in prison for her murder. A police officer was just released, and nobody else has been held accountable. 

So again, Berta Caceres’s family and COPINH, the organization that she co-founded, they’re still seeking justice. So, I think, yes, a level of justice has been achieved, but there’s so much more to do. 

And unfortunately, construction of the Narco State backed by the U.S. in Canada and Honduras means that the whole justice system is infiltrated by organized crime. And so, justice in Honduras, having Juan Orlando Hernandez face some charges in Honduras is probably not going to happen. And that’s very unfortunate. And it’s also the US and Canada’s responsibility that the justice system is like that today in Honduras. 

So I think that there’s still very much a need for some level of justice in Honduras. I don’t know when that is going to happen. I don’t know how, especially considering that the remnants of the narco state are very much intact. But that vigil outside the courthouse with candles, with pictures of so many people that were killed, for me was a message that there’s a level of justice that has happened here in New York, but there’s still so much more that needs to be done.

Michael Fox: Karen, why is there so much impunity in the country historically? You mentioned this a little bit, but I’d love if you could unpack this a little bit more. Like, why is it so hard to get justice in Honduras? And I mean that, for now, obviously, in the crimes post-2009 coup, but even for the 1980s?

Karen Spring: As a Canadian that works in human rights in Honduras, I would first and foremost say that Canada the United States has been a promoter of impunity for decades in Honduras, and particularly the United States because of how powerful it is in Honduras and Central America. More broadly, I think that the economic and political elite in Honduras have operated with total impunity for so long, which has allowed them to basically amass power and wealth and control institutions of the state, which basically enable impunity for the 10 to 12 families that have historically controlled Honduras. And I think that that’s a pattern that repeats itself in other countries in the region. 

And then, the military… I think that the Honduran military, dating back to the Iran-Contra scandal, has operated in total impunity as well. And actually, in the trial there was mention of individuals that were part of battalion 3-16. That was a death squad trained by the CIA in the 1980s, that were involved in disappearances in the 1980s that have never been held accountable. 

And one military official that was mentioned in this trial in New York was actually passing information to drug traffickers to enable drug trafficking, along with Juan Orlando Hernandez, was actually part of Battalion 3-16 in the ‘80s. And so had he, that military official — I think his last name is Amaya, Mario Amaya — Had he been held accountable in the 1980s for being involved in Battalion 3-16 and, actually, the murder of an environmentalist, Jeannette Kawas, as well, he wouldn’t have been able to traffick drugs and support Juan Orlando Hernandez’s drug trafficking operations in 2013 and beyond. 

So, I think the impunity with which the US-backed and trained and funded Honduras military has operated since the ‘80s and beyond has also basically contributed to impunity in Honduras. And I think that one of the things that often people talk about is they say, oh, there’s weak institutions in Honduras, and Honduras just has weak institutions, and that’s why there’s so much impunity. 

But I don’t like that analysis because I think that it misconstrues what impunity is, and it’s often, for me, a political decision. It’s a political decision to prosecute some people and then let others go and let others operate as they choose. 

And so, for me, as a human rights defender that’s worked in Honduras for so many years, when the state wants to crack down on peasant farmers or small farmers when they want to criminalize individuals like Berta Caceres, when they want to throw pro-democracy protesters like my partner in prison for protesting and electoral fraud, they put all of the resources of the state behind that prosecution and criminalization, and they ensure that those people are silenced or face the full brunt of the justice system in Honduras. 

And so, for me, I don’t think that weak institutions is necessarily the reason that impunity has been promoted and basically flourished since the 1980s and beyond. I think it’s a political decision, and I think that the more we start looking at it like that, the less that individuals can keep saying, oh, we just need to keep funding the justice system, and the police, and the military, and that will deal with impunity. No. These are political decisions, and it’s political decisions that have led to the ongoing impunity in Honduras, and I would probably say in Central America as well.

Michael Fox: Karen, one thing about this trial that kept coming up in the back of my head is that this is not the first time that, say, the United States had a really strong ally in Central America that fell out of favor with the US and they just decided to bring him to the United States and convict him, or take him to trial for drug trafficking charges. Was there any mention during the court process, or were people remembering the past with Manuel Noriega and what happened there? 

And the US connection, the US role, I think, it’s really interesting that this parallel runs deep. And I’ll just say that part of the reason why I’m interested in this is also because for Under the Shadow, for my podcast, I’m going to come back to Panama, the US invasion there in 1989, Noriega. That’s the last chapter of my series, and so it’s interesting that we see this happening again.

Karen Spring: I’m glad you mentioned that, because it actually wasn’t mentioned at all except in pre-trial deliberations or pretrial discussions. In Juan Orlando Hernandez’s pre-trial discussions… And it was one of the reasons that the trial was delayed. It was delayed a few times, but then it was delayed the final week. It was delayed, and it was because the defense was in discussions with the prosecution about classified documents. 

There’s a typical classified document procedure called CIPA, and it’s getting a lot of coverage now because of the Trump proceedings in the US. But basically, it’s where they discuss how classified information is going to be revealed, or not, in the trial proceedings. 

Because JOH’s defense wanted to bring in classified information. And one of the things they wanted to bring in was the fact that Juan Orlando Hernandez had met with and collaborated with, extensively, several agencies of the US government over many years. And that contributed to his defense, that he couldn’t possibly be a drug trafficker if he was visiting the CIA headquarters, if he was visiting with the FBI, etc.

And so, in one pre-trial argument that was submitted in writing by the prosecution, they cited Noriega’s case, because Noriega, as well, wanted to bring in classified information because he had worked very closely with the United States government. And he was actually, I think, a CIA, like on the CIA payroll, if I’m not mistaken. And so they referred to Noriega’s case. 

And it was interesting because in one…. I mean, it was a heavily redacted document itself, but they were citing Noriega’s case. And so for me that was like, oh, look at this. This is the second time that a Central American president is being held accountable in the US for drug trafficking crimes or organized crime. And so, they were citing these documents. And one of the citations — And I actually put it in one of our campaign updates — Was this trial is about drug trafficking, or the defendant’s drug trafficking, not about US relations and operations abroad.

And that’s, again, what they were arguing in Noriega’s case. And so it really shows us that this ongoing history and legacy of the US role, and the impunity in which the US has operated, and the way that these legal mechanisms or these legal cases are built to exclude these really important discussions. 

And so that information, a lot of the classified information that JOH’s defense might have used was blocked from being used. But that was the only mention of Noriega in the trial proceedings against JOH. But I think a really key and relevant moment was hiding the role of the United States by blocking classified information in JOH’s trial.

Michael Fox: Yeah, absolutely. One of the things that, as I dug into the Panama story and Noriega and that history and went and interviewed many people there, was looking at how that was the first invasion by the US government, and the first major measure of basically taking Noriega and bringing him to the United States after the fall of the Cold War. That was the first thing done in this new era. 

And it was setting the US up on this international scene, as the war on drugs will be the next battlefront. And it’s a way that the US can then frame its work abroad and its interventions abroad, not within the Cold War or within fighting communism, but now within fighting drugs, which is, of course, much more elusive. And they’re able to do so many things, and we’ve seen that with Plan Colombia and everything up and down the hemisphere. 

But it is interesting to look at that parallel within Honduras as the United States reaffirming this mission of the great savior of the war on drugs again. Here we are, what was it, 35 years later, and it’s the same story. And it’s just reaffirming that as the arbiter of justice in the United States and stopping those bad drug traffickers abroad. So, it’s an interesting historic moment to think about that within that context.

Karen Spring: I think it also shows that there’s been no lessons learned either. Just no lessons have been learned, what you said, 35 years later. And I think that’s one of the reasons that we, through this campaign, are putting the US and Canada on trial, that we’re demanding investigations and inquiries in Canada and the United States and the declassification of documents. These are not new requests. These are requests that have been made by other Latin American countries or people in other Latin American countries. 

But it’s just no lessons learned 35 years later and it’s just um. Again, it’s an uphill battle. But I think it’s important that someone points that out, and we keep pointing that out.

Michael Fox: Karen, thank you so much for all of your work. Thank you so much for this interview. Is there anything else that you think is important to add?

Karen Spring: There were a lot of witnesses I mentioned. I think that one of the main things is that Juan Orlando Hernandez decided to take the stand. And that is a very unusual occurrence in a trial, especially when the burden of proof is on the prosecution and the defense actually doesn’t even have to present any evidence. They just have to be there and listen to the prosecution present whatever evidence they have, and the burden is totally on the government to show that JOH is guilty. So it’s very surprising when Juan Orlando Hernandez took the stand. 

But again, I think it’s the psychology of impunity, that and his arrogance that led him to take the stand and give the impression, or that he actually thought that he could trick the jury into believing him. For me, Juan Orlando Hernandez lost his case as soon as he took the stand, because he couldn’t answer many questions that the prosecution asked of him. 

They showed him two pictures of him standing next to drug traffickers or children of drug traffickers, and in both instances he skirted the issue by saying, I think that photo’s been modified, or parece que sí, that’s me. It seems like that’s me in the picture. 

And so, it was almost like he underestimated the intelligence of the jury and made fun of the process by thinking that he could just lie his way out of these photos, amongst other questions that the prosecution asked him. 

But when he took the stand he mentioned his close relationship and all the help that he received from John Kelly, who was the head of the US Southern Command, who then later became the Director of Homeland Security. And so he tried to give the impression that he was this really amazing president and that he wasn’t corrupt and did all of these great things for Honduras. 

And the judge had to keep cutting him off, because at one point I felt like he was going on a political speech, talking about how amazing he was as president. And so the judge had to keep calling order, saying, stop doing that. You’re not allowed to do that. And so, again, it was really clear that he really felt that taking the stand was a good thing for his defense, and I think that it basically sunk his case for him. 

But another thing that came out — And I just wanted to say that it wasn’t just that JOH took the stand in his own trial. He actually brought three military from Honduras to testify in his favor, and one of them actually ended up also sinking his defense. 

Because one military officer, his last name is Romero Palacios, he’s actually an active military. He also said that he provided presidential security for Tony Hernandez while Tony Hernandez was trafficking drugs. And obviously he didn’t say that Tony Hernandez was trafficking drugs, but the military officer said that he was basically using the resources of the state and the presidential security to give security to Tony Hernandez. So again, that kind of sunk his defense as well. 

So that was a really interesting decision made by the defense. I think it was a really bad decision. But I think those military officers, at least two of them that are still active in the Honduran military, are facing disciplinary actions by the Honduran military right now in Honduras, after the trial. 

The second thing that came out that was really interesting, and I think really relevant for what’s going on now internationally, especially in Palestine right now, is that at one point there was a former member of the Sinaloa Cartel that worked really closely with El Chapo Guzman from Mexico, the notorious Mexican drug trafficker. 

He testified, or he just said really quickly while he was being cross-examined by JOH’s defense attorney. At one point he was asked how he laundered drug money that he was making in Honduras by bringing in huge containers of cocaine from Colombia into Honduras’s largest port in Porto Cortés in Northern Honduras, which is a huge logistics hub in Central America, especially to the US market. So the Sinaloa Cartel was bringing in these huge containers of cocaine from Colombia into Puerto Cortés, in Honduras, and then bribing Juan Orlando Hernandez with drug money to basically allow them to bring in these containers. 

And so on cross-examination, the defense attorney asked this former member of the Sinaloa Cartel, how did you launder your drug money? And he said, well, we used an Israeli diplomat who had a diplomatic passport that worked in the Israeli embassy in Colombia. She would use her diplomatic passport to carry drug money from Honduras in a suitcase to Colombia. And she carried approximately $100 to $150 million dollars over a period of, I think, three or four years, and got a cut of 3% for her work in laundering that drug money. 

So that was really quite a little tiny tidbit of information that came out unexpectedly in the trial that is obviously very interesting, and there should be follow up in Colombia related to who that diplomat is and to what extent it has to links with the broader Israeli diplomatic staff and Israeli government in that drug money laundering scheme with the Sinaloa Cartel. So that was really interesting. 

Another thing that came out that I think is really important, especially for the ways that violence is depicted in the media and the US violence in Honduras, is that it came out — And very detailed — That Juan Orlando Hernandez worked alongside and in conjunction with the MS-13, which is one of the largest street gangs in Central America. It operates in Guatemala and El Salvador and in Honduras. 

And that was really important for me because often when the media in the United States and Canada talk about why people are fleeing Honduras, they talk about these street gangs that are obviously dangerous, that are obviously committing very violent acts. But they were working hand in hand with Juan Orlando Hernandez. 

And there was audio that was released in his trial, in JOH’s trial, I think dating back to 2015, where the leader of the MS-13 is describing these really high-level government drug operations going all the way up to Juan Orlando Hernandez. 

And so the only way that the MS-13 could have known these things — This individual’s name is Alexander Mendoza, his alias is “El Porky” — In Honduras, is if they were working hand in hand with Juan Orlando Hernandez and his drug cartel. 

And that very much came out, how much the MS-13, basically, were receiving drugs and how they were getting weapons from Honduran police in order to carry out their operations,as a street gang. How they were working alongside JOH’s co-conspirators to run drugs, to kill drug rivalries. How they were using their connections inside the Honduran police and the Honduran government, all the way up to the presidency, to get gang members released from prison. 

And also how even these high-level MS-13 leaders knew that Juan Orlando Hernandez was using elite police units to kill drug rivals in Honduras. So individuals that were threatening JOH’s drug cartel power in Honduras. These elite police units were being used, and by Juan Orlando Hernandez. 

So that was, for me, really important information that was revealed, because so many people flee Honduras and they ask for asylum in the United States because of these gang threats. And when the US government argues these asylum cases, they say, oh, but these are gang threats. They don’t qualify as threats because this is not the state that is threatening them. These are gangs.”

And so the revelations in this trial show that the MS-13 and the Honduran government and the Honduran police are one and the same. And that is really important, and it was one of the most important tidbits of information that came out. 

The Honduras Solidarity Network will be putting out a much more extensive report about that relationship, because it’s so important for people in the United States and Canada to understand that the Honduran state is essentially a mafia state, an organized criminal state, where the MS-13 is basically enabled, promoted, and encouraged by the Honduran government police and military.

Michael Fox: Karen Spring, amazing. Oh my gosh. Thank you so much. One quick question to segue off of that: What is the situation now? Obviously Xiomara Castro is in power. How has that changed everything, and how has her battle against criminal gangs worked?

Karen Spring: So I think there’s two things I want to mention about that. 

First one, in the immediate aftermath of this trial, Juan Orlando Hernandez’s spouse has now announced that she will run for president in the next elections. Anna Garcia is now on the campaign trail, and she’s rallying support of the National Party, which was JOH’s party, and the party that’s been in power in Honduras since the 2009 coup. 

And so there’s this big campaign in Honduras to say that JOH’s conviction is unjust, the trial was unjust, and that he’s innocent. And one of the things that Juan Orlando Hernandez said as he was exiting the courtroom after he was found guilty is he said “Tell the world that I’m innocent.” 

And so there are still very very powerful, organized criminal interests in Honduras that are promoting that narrative, that this is a wrongful conviction, that JOH is innocent, and it is untrue that he was involved in the creation of a narco-state in Honduras. 

And so the denial of that of that narco-state and JOH’s guilty and the guilty verdict against JOH is very much telling of my of my second point, which is the uphill battle that president Xiomara Castro faces in basically eliminating these structures of the narco-state that JOH has left very much intact and that are very much intact inside the judicial system, the police, and the military. 

And not only that these institutions are still very much infiltrated by organized crime, but also the battle to, basically, clean up these institutions is really difficult. And it’s been very difficult in the now two-plus years that Xiomara Castro has been in power. And as she’s trying to confront, and face, and clean up these institutions, which is a very difficult if not impossible task, the levels of impunity in Honduras continue to be the same. 

How do you pick up the pieces of this narco-state that is intact? How do you address them? How do you address the narco-state? It’s so complex, and so difficult, but not only that. The National Party gets very even, though it’s totally infiltrated by organized crime — Some argue that it’s an organized criminal organization — Receives so much support from the United States government still. 

And so how does Xiomara Castro move forward, propose progressive reforms in Honduras that try to address migration, which they have tried to do? And they constantly are getting [pushback]. They’re getting opposition. There’s so much opposition from the oligarchs, the economic and political elite, the US government, and then this narco-state that continues intact, that doesn’t want the status quo to change in Honduras. 

So it’s very challenging. Again, this is why I say just a little bit of justice has been served in Honduras, but there’s still so much more that needs to be done, and I think that that work will continue in Honduras. 

And the situation’s very challenging, and I think, again, that’s why our campaign calls for investigations in the United States into the role of the US, because until we confront how we played a huge role — Canada and the United States played a huge role — In creating the narco-state, I don’t think we can create any breathing room for Hondurans to actually address the narco-state in Honduras and to make the changes that they need to then seek the level of justice that still is lacking in Honduras. 

Michael Fox: Karen, wonderful. Thank you so much. This has been so good. I really appreciate all your insight and just everything. It’s fantastic.

Karen Spring: Thank you very much, Michael, for having me.

[INTERVIEW ENDS]

Michael Fox:  And that is all for this update to our coverage of Honduras.

Next time, I’ll bring you Episode 8, where we dive into the crazy world of the 1850s and walk in the footsteps of US filibuster William Walker as he takes over Nicaragua and tries to grab the rest of Central America, too.

That is next on Under the Shadow.

[Music]

As always, if you like what you hear, please check out my Patreon page: patreon.com/mfox. There you can also support my work, become a monthly sustainer, or sign up to stay abreast of the latest on this podcast and my other reporting across Latin America. 

The theme music is by my band, Monte Perdido. We have a new album coming out. Once it’s available, you can find the link in the show notes.

Under the Shadow is a co-production in partnership with The Real News and NACLA. 

This is Michael Fox. Many thanks.

See you next time… 

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