Juan Orlando Hernandez
Honduras' President Juan Orlando Hernandez speaks during the opening ceremony of the UN Climate Change Conference COP26 in Glasgow, Scotland, Monday November 1, 2021. (Andy Buchanan/Pool via AP)

Honduras is the second-largest nation of origin for the stream of refugees fleeing north to the U.S. border. In fiscal year 2021, the U.S. Border Patrol reported 308,931 “encounters” with Hondurans, which was one-fifth of the overall total.

On November 28, Hondurans will vote for president, members of the National Congress, and members of the Central American Parliament. The pro-democracy opposition is leading in the polls, but the current regime will try to steal the election. If the Biden administration continues the disastrous policy that the U.S. has carried out for more than a decade—which has essentially been to support the corrupt, violent government with aid and diplomatic cover—it will accept that fraud. And several hundred thousand more Hondurans may see no choice but to join the exodus northward.

It is giving U.S. policy makers splitting headaches that the current Honduran president, Juan Orlando Hernández, will almost certainly be indicted in a New York federal court for massive drug trafficking—either the day after he leaves office in January, or possibly even sooner. In the meantime, he heads the nation’s electoral fraud machine that will try to install his successor.

Dana Frank, a former professor of history at the University of California, Santa Cruz, and a leading expert on Honduras, told me, “The U.S. created a monster, and now they don’t know what to do with him. They’ve lost control of their own monster.”

Further complicating the U.S. response, Honduras hosts a major American military base at Soto Cano, where between 500 and 1,500 American service personnel are stationed. Part of their mission is to interdict narcotics trafficking, a fact that is darkly humorous given that Hernández’s brother, Tony, was sentenced in New York last March to life imprisonment for drug smuggling. Federal prosecutors said Tony Hernández had taken a $1 million bribe on behalf of his brother from Joaquín (“El Chapo”) Guzman, the notorious Mexican cartel leader now serving a life sentence in a federal prison.

(In a disturbing aside, The Washington Post reported in 2019 that the Honduran regime had hired Arnold & Porter, an elite Washington law firm, to lobby federal prosecutors to call off their investigation into Tony Hernández’s drug trafficking. The Honduran government’s relationship with the white-shoe firm ended on December 31 of that year.)

Fortunately, Senator Jeff Merkley, a Democrat from Oregon, and 13 of his colleagues, along with 15 House members, including Illinois Democrat Jan Schakowsky, are pushing the U.S. State Department to reject efforts to steal the November 28 election. The members of Congress wrote Secretary of State Antony Blinken, “We believe it is essential that the United States be viewed as a neutral, credible, and impartial observer and support an outcome in Honduras that is genuinely democratic and inclusive.”

The lawmakers have ample reason to worry about the U.S. role in Honduras. Frank’s 2018 book, The Long Honduran Night, provides a comprehensive and compelling look at how U.S. policy in the country is both immoral and a failure in its own terms. America’s errors started in earnest in June 2009, when the Honduran military and other politicians overthrew the elected president, Manuel Zelaya, after he made some moderately progressive gestures. The Obama administration, with Hillary Clinton as secretary of state, protested feebly, but then tacitly accepted the military coup. The State Department continued to look the other way, ignoring irregularities during the 2013 election that brought Hernández to power.

In the November 2017 election, it was the Trump administration’s turn to betray democracy in Honduras. On election night, the pro-democracy opposition was leading—until the election commission claimed that the computers had shut down. The commission didn’t announce results for two days. When the count restarted, Hernández had somehow eked out a 1.7 percent win. The United States accepted the results.

The Hernández regime is not only corrupt but also deadly. In Tony Hernández’s trial in New York, the court heard testimony that his narco ring had ordered the murder of a number of people, including his former business partner—who was reportedly planning to turn on him—and his lawyer.

I last reported from Honduras in 2019, and a dissident journalist I met in San Pedro Sula, the country’s commercial capital, estimated back then that Hernández would only win 20 percent of the votes in a free election. The journalist said Hondurans blame the U.S. for propping up the regime. Since then, Hernández’s popularity has sunk further, particularly after his government mishandled its response to the two killer hurricanes that hit in November 2020, which gave another boost to the exodus north.

For this election, the pro-democracy forces are united behind Xiomara Castro, the wife of former President Zelaya. The more recent opinion polls showed that she had a comfortable lead over the regime’s candidate, Nasry Asfura; polling is only allowed up to a month before Election Day. But a well-placed source in Tegucigalpa, the capital, told me how outgoing President Hernández has built a nationwide vote-buying machine for the National Party with his drug money and diverted government funds. “There are several fraud techniques,” the source said. “In one, for instance, voters will be told to photograph their ballots before putting them in the box. Those who can prove later that they voted for the National Party will receive a cash award of $300.”

What’s more, Hernández is well prepared for any post-election legal disputes. Dana Frank’s book explains how the president purged the supreme court and installed jurists who will issue rulings in his favor. Also, over his eight years in power, he has cemented his control of the police and the military, who under Honduran law are directly responsible for running the election. Frank said, “What I fear is that once again mainstream U.S. media reports will describe ‘clashes after a disputed election’—when the truth should be ‘Hernández’s security forces opened fire on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrators.’”

Frank predicted that the State Department will hope for “a plausible enough result” that the U.S. can try to sell internationally. She called American policy since the 2009 coup “sickening and heartbreaking,” and asked, “Why are the Honduran people not allowed to have democracy and free and fair elections?”

If the State Department does try to endorse a fraud, however, it might run into big trouble from an unusual quarter. The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, which put Hernández’s brother in prison for life, is so far regarded by everyone who follows Honduras as incorruptible. Until now, the U.S. Attorney’s Office has observed the unwritten American policy not to indict a sitting president. But Hernández leaves office in late January. If he’s charged, will he be extradited? Will Honduran courts, which are packed with his allies, agree to let him be put on a plane and flown to stand trial in the U.S.? Or, if he remains the de facto ruler of Honduras, how many more Hondurans will flee north, having lost all hope in their country’s future?

James North

Follow James on Twitter @jamesnorth7. James North has reported from Latin America, Africa and Asia for 46 years. He lives in New York City.