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‘He paved a cocaine superhighway’: ex-Honduran president convicted in New York trafficking trial

Jeff Ernst. The Guardian. March 8, 2024

The former president of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernández has been convicted of cocaine trafficking, securing a place in infamy for the one-time US ally in the war on drugs.

Hernández is the first former head of state to be found guilty of drug trafficking in the United States since Panamanian strongman Gen Manuel Noriega was convicted in 1992.

A jury on Friday found Hernández, 55, guilty on three counts of drug trafficking and weapons conspiracy. He faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years in prison.

During the two-week trial, witnesses described bribes paid to Hernández’s political campaigns, including $1m from the notorious former leader of the Sinaloa cartel Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán.

During closing arguments on Wednesday, assistant US attorney Jacob Gutwillig told the court that a corrupt Hernández had “paved a cocaine superhighway to the United States”.

Hernández took the stand in his own defense, highlighting his role in passing anti-crime legislation and cooperation with the United States on counternarcotics measures, and calling the witnesses “professional liars”.

But prosecutors made the case that while Hernández went after some drug traffickers, he protected others – including his brother, former legislator Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, who was convicted of drug trafficking in the same courthouse in 2019.

“He protected their drugs with the full power of the state,” said Gutwillig in closing remarks.

The conviction marks a major victory for the US Drug Enforcement Agency’s strategy of targeting public officials whose support traffickers rely upon, but also raises questions about the US government’s past collaboration with the former president.

Attorney Damian Williams said he hoped the conviction “sends a message to all corrupt politicians who would consider a similar path: choose differently”.

Hernández was long considered a top US ally in Central America, particularly by the Trump administration, which was willing to turn a blind eye so long as the Honduran government complied with its migration agenda.

“[Hernández] did what no other [Honduran] president had done: he worked with the United States,” said one of his lawyers, Renato Stabile, while highlighting his cooperation with Washington in opening remarks.

Hernández’s political ascent coincided with his country’s plunge into turmoil as drug trafficking routes shifted from Mexico and the Caribbean into Honduras, flooding the nation with easy money and making it one of the world’s most dangerous countries.

Hernández campaigned for president in 2013 as a hardliner against crime, touting his role in the passage of a constitutional amendment that paved the way for the extradition of Honduran traffickers for the first time. It would ultimately be his own undoing.

But the court heard that his election victory was fueled by drug traffickers who testified that they paid millions of dollars in bribes to his campaign.

Soon after Juan Orlando took office in 2014, rumors about his brother Tony’s links to traffickers began circulating in the media.

“Tony’s rise as a drug trafficker was because of the defendant, the defendant’s power,” said Gutwillig.

As his first term in office came to an end, Hernández made the controversial decision to seek re-election as president despite a constitutional prohibition against it. The following 2017 election was marred by allegations of fraud and violence.

The United States provided Hernández the recognition he needed to secure victory, despite calls for a new election.

Even after he was clearly implicated in his brother’s October 2019 drug-trafficking trial, Trump, then the president, praised Hernández for his help with stopping drugs.

But when Joe Biden took office in January 2021, he shunned his Honduran counterpart.

Hernández was arrested on 15 February 2022, just weeks after completing his second term as president. He was extradited to the United States two months later. The much-delayed trial was hotly anticipated by Hondurans who are tired of impunity in their country and eager to see corrupt politicians brought to justice.

During the trial, witnesses described a political system in Honduras in which traffickers and elected officials had a symbiotic relationship.

“The narcos don’t have a political party,” said Hernández, under cross-examination from the government.

“They support everyone,” he said, pausing for a moment before adding: “Or at least they try.”

“Just like you, Mr Hernández?” responded assistant US attorney Kyle Wirshba.