Juan Orlando Hernandez, Honduras’ Elected Strongman
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Those kids swarming the U.S. border last year had a reason for fleeing.
Could a check be the smoking gun that brings down the Honduran government? Last month, a local journalist came across one from the country’s social security bank, made out to the National Party election committee — feeding speculation that the ruling party had directly bankrolled the most recent election campaign by way of the country’s pension funds and public health system. The scandal — after the prosecutor’s office confirmed the check was real — has since blown into epic proportions, drawing thousands of outraged protesters to the streets in a region of the world that’s still recovering from its last round of dictatorships. Amid death threats, the prosecutor has fled the country.
But the pretty boy with the dimpled smile and perfectly coiffed hair — President Juan Orlando Hernandez, or JOH — isn’t sweating it. That’s because he’s got the whole system, from the Supreme Court to the military, in his hands like hair gel. And even beyond his country’s borders, he has plenty of support, from international development agencies to the White House.
Welcome to modern Honduras, where 46-year-old Hernandez is running a government so integrated in its control that scholars like Adrienne Pine of American University say, “He helped orchestrate and is benefiting from a system where there is not supposed to be accountability.” Professor Dana Frank of the University of California Santa Cruz goes further; to her, Hernandez is a “Machiavellian thug,” and “the single biggest threat to the rule of law in Honduras.” (Hernandez’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment.)
These days, all signs indicate that Hernandez is digging in for the long haul.
Since Hernandez took over the reins of the National Party in 2010, Honduras has become the most murderous country in the world — by nearly double. In this land of 8 million people, 90 out of every 100,000 citizens are murdered. (In neighboring Guatemala and El Salvador, it’s less than half that rate.) So it’s no surprise the violence is driving a mass exodus out of Honduras, and straight for the border of the United States. Recall that wave of unaccompanied minors that happened last summer; more than a quarter of them were fleeing Honduras, packed onto trains and trucks by teary, unfathomably desperate mothers who knew things would only get worse before they got better.
And it’s that prospect that’s worrying the whole Northern Triangle, home to the El Salvador/Guatemala/Honduras patch of Central America. Neither El Salvador nor Guatemala is doing particularly well, though having a neighbor like Honduras hasn’t helped. Neither will a new Central American dictator, which is what some observers believe Hernandez is quickly becoming. That whole business about the check? Not helping matters.
Yet Hernandez, it seems, has always had his way. Trained in the military and a former lawyer, by 1997 he was elected to Congress. The married father of four has focused much of his early energy on reforming the judicial system, which meant removing troublesome Supreme Court judges and replacing them with party loyalists. All that work paid off when a 2009 technical coup ousted the democratically elected president and launched Hernandez into the leadership of the National Party. Then came 2013, and he threw his hat in the ring, winning even as several opposing party activists were murdered on election day and vote-buying was reported by some observers. (The European Union and the Organization of American States found the elections to be reasonably transparent.)
He made it through, and these days, Hernandez is focused on keeping Hondurans safe. That’s where the rub comes. Over the past few years, observers have watched Honduras undergo a massive militarization, ramped up by a new domestic police force that Hernandez formed, in open defiance of the constitution. Today, machine-gun-wielding, balaclava-wearing domestic police forces patrol residential neighborhoods. On the one hand, having more police on the ground might seem like a good solution to a skyrocketing murder rate. But, as Pine points out, it’s “enacting greater violence against the people who are already victims.” According to the most recent report by the Violence Observatory at the National Autonomous University of Honduras, 98 homicides were the result of police action, up from 71 in 2012, but those numbers may not tell the whole story. Human Rights Watch reports endemic corruption within the police force, and Frank says it is an open secret that gangs are intertwined with police ranks. Meanwhile, a study conducted by the Alliance for Peace and Justice, a Honduran NGO, found that only 1 percent of murders in three major cities resulted in convictions. Which leaves many Hondurans in a state of fear and paranoia.
But not everyone is as critical of Hernandez’s performance so far. International development agencies have bought into at least part of his vision, charmed by his “model cities” project, which promises tax-free economic zones to big investors like mining companies. He’s also been paraded around 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, lauded as an “excellent partner” in stemming the droves of migrating children, in addition to being a business-friendly leader in a country ripe for development. Domestically, he’s garnered the support of the Supreme Court and the military, his old stomping ground.
These days, all signs indicate that Hernandez is digging in for the long haul. This spring, he managed to push through a new constitutional amendment — the removal of the traditional Honduran presidential term limit — that, when first proposed, resulted in the 2009 coup and his predecessor’s overthrow. At this point, it’s really just the Honduran legislature that’s standing in Hernandez’s way. But some observers say he’ll have plenty of time, and international investment, to help him secure that branch’s support before 2017, which is when he’s up for re-election.
This article’s description of gang-police connections was revised on June 27, 2015.