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Ex-Honduran leader praised by Trump faces trial in US for running ‘narco-state’

Five years after he was lavished with praise by Donald Trump for “stopping drugs at a level that has never happened” – and two years after he was extradited in shackles to the US – the former Honduras president Juan Orlando Hernández is to stand trial in New York on Monday, accused of overseeing a “narco-state” and accepting millions in bribes from drug traffickers, including the former leader of the Sinaloa cartel, Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán.

Hernández is the first former head of state to face drug trafficking charges in the United States since another former US ally, the Panamanian strongman Gen Manuel Noriega, over 30 years ago.

The trial will be arguably the biggest test yet of the DEA’s strategy to bring to account public officials who facilitate drug trafficking to the US.

Hernández has dismissed the accusations as retaliation by the cartels seeking revenge for his anti-narcotics policies, and cited his cooperation with – and the accolades received from – US authorities as evidence of his innocence.

During his first run for president in 2013, Hernández campaigned as a hardliner on crime, touting his role as a legislator in the passage of a constitutional amendment that paved the way for the extradition of Hondurans accused of drug trafficking.

At the time, Honduras was sinking into anarchy, and the majority of the cocaine that reached the United States was passing through the country.

Record numbers of Hondurans fled the violence and headed to US border. The Obama administration saw Hernández as a flawed, but eager partner on immigration and security policy.

“It was pretty well known that Juan Orlando was a corrupt actor,” said Ricardo Zúñiga, a former senior state department official. “But we didn’t see him as an organized crime figure.”

By the time Hernández became president in January 2014, however, a small group of DEA agents and prosecutors had already started to suspect otherwise.

During the 2013 campaign, agents from the DEA were reviewing transcripts of intercepted phone calls provided to them by Honduran counterparts when one became the talk of the office.

“It was one drug trafficker calling another and he says, ‘Who are you voting for in the election?’ and he goes, ‘We’re voting for all of them,’” said Andrew Pappas, a retired DEA agent who was stationed in Honduras at the time.

“When that phone call came in, we knew [the traffickers] weren’t worried at all about who was going to win the election; they had paid them all off.”

Soon after, the threat of extradition led a string of Honduran traffickers to cut deals with the DEA that would expose the depths of their infiltration into local politics. Hardly a week after Hernández’s inauguration, one of the country’s most notorious traffickers secretly recorded a meeting with the president’s brother, the legislator Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández.

By October 2016, rumors of Tony Hernández’s involvement in drug trafficking swirled in local media. He announced that he would travel to Miami to meet with the DEA and clear his name. Instead, he perjured himself and exposed many of his own connections to traffickers.

According to prosecutors, Hernández then attempted to distance himself from his brother and work even harder to stay in the good graces of US authorities. Donald Trump’s victory in the November 2016 US presidential election made the latter much easier.

The next year, Hernández ran for re-election despite a constitutional prohibition against it. The November 2017 election was marred by violence and allegations of fraud that prosecutors say was aided by drug traffickers. The secretary general of the Organization of the American States called for a new election, but the Trump administration provided Hernández the recognition he needed to secure a second term in office.

Late in 2018, DEA agents arrested Tony Hernández on drug trafficking charges after he made an ill-advised trip to the United States. During his trial a year later, prosecutors laid out the bulk of their case against the former president in open court. Tony Hernández was convicted on all counts and sentenced to life in prison.

To experts following that trial, it was clear that Hernández was a likely target of the DEA, protected only by an unwritten Department of Justice policy against indicting sitting presidents.

Yet, the accolades from Washington continued.

Less than two months after the trial, then president Trump heaped praise on Hernández at the 2019 Israeli American Council National Summit, thanking the Honduran president and saying that he was “working with the United States very closely” and that “we’re stopping drugs at a level that has never happened”.

Juan Orlando Hernández sits shackled in a jury box before Judge Kevin Castel during a hearing in New York last month. Photograph: Jane Rosenberg/Reuters

When Joe Biden took office in January 2021, the praise finally stopped. “It was pretty clear that US attorneys wanted to go after him,” said Zúñiga, who was appointed Central America envoy.

But it wasn’t until Hernández’s party was voted out of office by a landslide that the Department of Justice officially informed the state department of its intentions, explained Zúñiga.

A few weeks after he was arrested, Hernández, wearing a blue suit and a crisp white shirt that evoked the colors of the Honduran flag, sat in a Tegucigalpa courthouse and pleaded with the judge who would decide whether or not to approve his extradition.

According to a transcript reviewed by the Guardian, the former president cited his lengthy cooperation with US authorities on anti-narcotics and immigration policies and noted the “contradiction” between the accolades he received and the accusations against him.

He also criticized the extradition process that he had championed for a decade as one of his greatest achievements – and more recently as evidence of his innocence.

If the extradition were approved, then “the only thing that awaits me is a life sentence”, said Hernández.