From Latin America to the Middle East, the US government has a history of turning its back on former allies like Panama’s Manuel Noriega who was toppled from power and jailed in America.
Juan Orlando Hernandez, Honduras’s president until last month, might end up in a US jail after he was arrested in dramatic fashion on Tuesday over charges of trafficking weapons and drugs by the American government.
Hernandez, in handcuffs and his wrists and ankles chained, was whisked away by Honduran police, who even thanked US agencies for their help to detain the former president.
Now, the former president awaits the country’s Supreme Court’s decision on the US extradition request. If the court rules that Hernandez should be extradited, then the former right-wing president will be tried by a US court and possibly spend time in an American prison.
Hernandez’s case brings back memories of some other high-profile trials sponsored by the US. Panama’s former military leader Manuel Noriega and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein were also pursued and captured by the US after American military operations.
Noriega spent more than 17 years in a US prison and Hussein was executed by an Iraqi court facilitated by US occupation forces following the 2003 invasion.
Paradoxically, all these former heads of state from Hernandez to Noriega and Hussein were notoriously former political allies of the US government.
Here’s how the cookie crumbled for these once-powerful leaders.
Juan Orlando Hernandez
Hernandez, 53, ruled Honduras for eight years during which Washington backed his government. The US-educated former president’s controversial re-election in 2017 by a narrow margin of 0.5 percent was found fraudulent by the Organisation of American states (OAS), but Washington recognised him the winner anyway.
But now Washington has requested that its former ally be extradited to the US over charges that he had participated in a drug trafficking scheme between 2004 and 2022 alongside his brother Juan Antonio Hernandez, who was already sentenced to life in prison by an American court.
It’s quite paradoxical that Hernandez has been charged by Washington for shipping tonnes of cocaine from Colombia and Venezuela to the US in a period when he had been regarded as “a vital ally” by the American government during his presidency between 2014 and 2022.
The US has also charged Hernandez with taking millions of dollars in bribes for providing protection to traffickers and their allies, as well as enabling criminals to use firearms, including machine guns.
Obviously, the question is, if Hernandez was a drug trafficker during his presidency, why did the US government allow him to conduct his illicit business and keep him as an ally?
The way Hernandez was detained in Honduras resembled scenes from Hollywood action movies. More than 100 Honduras security forces and US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents surrounded the former president’s house after the Central American state received Washington’s extradition request.
Honduras police acted in a way that gave the impression that it followed instructions from the DEA to detain its own president, as if the US agency was chasing a drug trafficker in an American suburb.
Another head of state the US chased and captured was Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. Like Honduras’s Hernandez, Hussein was a former ally of the US during the brutal and long Iraq-Iran war in the 1980s. But later, during the Second Gulf War, he was overthrown by the US invasion and eventually captured by American forces in 2003.
Declassified CIA files and interviews with former US intelligence officials show that Washington actively supported Saddam Hussein’s Iraq during its war with Tehran, which has followed an anti-American policy since the 1979 Iran Revolution.
Using satellite imagery, the US supplied Hussein with crucial battlefield information, like letting Baghdad know about possible Iranian attacks against Iraqi troops ahead of their launch by Tehran.
Washington continued to inform Baghdad on Iranian actions even though the US knew Saddam Hussein's forces would use deadly chemical weapons against Tehran to stop its attacks. Washington also sold US-made arms to Hussein to protect his regime from a possible defeat at the hands of Iran.
Donald Rumsfeld, the US Middle East envoy during the 1980s who also led the American invasion against Hussein in 2003, even met the former Iraqi president to show American support to him in 1983. The Reagan administration gave him billions of dollars in aid, making Iraq the third largest recipient of the US assistance.
But Hussein became an enemy of the US after he invaded Kuwait, a neighbouring Gulf state, in 1990. The US and its allies launched the First Gulf War to remove him from Kuwait, but they wanted to keep their operation limited, keeping him in power in Baghdad.
After the September 11 attacks, Washington launched another invasion against Iraq in 2003, occupying Iraq as a whole and removing Hussein from power. The Iraqi leader, hiding in a “spider hole”, was captured in December, 2003.
He was tried by an Iraqi court, which was set up by the US-led Coalition Provisional Authority. He was found guilty of crimes against humanity and other offences. He was executed in Baghdad in December, 2006.
Like Hernandez and Hussein, the Panamanian leader Noriega also presents an interesting case vis-a-vis US conduct against him. Like the Honduran and Iraqi leaders, the US’s relationship with Noriega had long been cordial before Washington launched a military operation in Panama to capture its former ally in 1990.
Since the 1950s, Noriega, who rose through the ranks of the Panamanian military until he became the de facto leader of the country in 1983, had developed strong connections with US intelligence. Like the oil-rich Iraq, Panama held great importance for Washington because the Panama Channel, a strategic international waterway, is located in the Central Asian state.
Noriega was designated by the CIA as one of its most valued intelligence sources. For decades, he served Washington for transfer of illicit arms, military equipment and money to US-backed anti-communist forces across Latin America. In 1971, even after he became the head of Panamanian intelligence, he was still on the CIA payroll.
Between 1983 and 1987, during which he was the military dictator of Panama, his connections with the US grew further as he functioned like a middle man to arm and fund anti-communist Contra rebels in Nicaragua and other pro-American groups in Latin America.
But in the late 1980s, Noriega’s relationship with the communist Cuban government was revealed as some prominent American journalists wrote that he sold intelligence to the Fidel Castro government, deteriorating his ties with Washington.
In 1988, Noriega was indicted in US courts in Florida over drug smuggling and money laundering charges, but there was no indictment of Washington though it had played a crucial role in enabling Noriega to commit some of those crimes. In 1989, the US launched the invasion of Panama to topple Noriega. In early 1990, he surrendered to invading US forces.
After his trial by a US court, he was sentenced to 40 years in prison. He spent 17 years in prison in the US after his sentence was reduced due to his good behaviour. After he was released, he was first extradited to France and then, his native country, where he died under house arrest in 2017.