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Guilty: U.S.-Backed Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández Convicted of Drug Trafficking


Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was found guilty of cocaine trafficking Friday after a two-week trial in a New York federal court, where prosecutors accused Hernández of ruling the Central American country as a narco-state and accepting millions of dollars in bribes from cocaine traffickers in exchange for protection. He faces a possible life sentence. Hernández served as president of Honduras from 2014 to 2022 and was a close U.S. ally despite mounting reports of human rights violations and accusations of corruption and involvement with drug smuggling during his tenure. Hernández was arrested less than a month after his term ended and was extradited to the United States in April 2022. “The majority feeling is satisfaction, a feeling of progress in achieving justice,” says activist Camilo Bermúdez from Tegucigalpa. He is a member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, the organization founded by Berta Cáceres, the Lenca Indigenous environmental defender who was assassinated in 2016 while Juan Orlando Hernández was president. We also speak with Dana Frank, professor of history emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who says the 2009 U.S.-backed coup against President Manuel Zelaya set the stage for the corrupt governments that followed. While U.S. prosecutors may have convicted Hernández, Frank stresses that multiple U.S. administrations “legitimated and celebrated him.”


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, I’m Amy Goodman.

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was found guilty Friday of cocaine trafficking, following a two-week trial here in New York. Prosecutors accused him of ruling Honduras as a narco-state, accepting millions of dollars in bribes from cocaine traffickers in exchange for protection, including deploying the Honduran National Police to safeguard cocaine loads as they were transported through Honduras. Ahead of the trial in February, the former head of Honduras’s National Police, Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, pleaded guilty to cocaine trafficking charges. Celebrations erupted after Friday’s verdict. This is a Honduran activist speaking outside Manhattan’s federal courthouse.

LIDA PERDOMO: [translated] We are satisfied because justice has been done. Honduras is a country thirsty for justice, where impunity has prevailed. And unfortunately, we Hondurans have to come to foreign countries to ask for justice, because it does not exist there since the bodies for justice, the public ministry, prosecutor’s office, judicial power, continue to collude with organized crime. The rotten political class we have has brought the country to total collapse. And everyone we see here, this entire community thirsting for justice, is a clear example of a society in total collapse that has been trampled on and sunk by corrupt politicians.

AMY GOODMAN: During the trial, several convicted drug traffickers testified against Hernández, including some affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel and the son of another former U.S.-backed Honduran president, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa. One confidential witness alleged officials with the Israeli Embassy in Colombia were involved in the drug scheme and helped launder millions of dollars that were transferred from Honduras.

Hernández served as president of Honduras from 2014 to 2022. He was a longtime U.S. ally despite mounting reports of human rights violations and accusations of corruption and involvement with drug smuggling. He was arrested less than a month after his presidential term ended and was extradited to the United States. His brother, Tony Hernández, is already serving a life sentence in the U.S. for drug smuggling. Juan Orlando Hernández faces life in prison now that he’s convicted.

For more, we’re joined by two guests. In the Honduras’s capital Tegucigalpa, we’re joined by Camilo Bermúdez, a member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, the organization founded by Berta Cáceres, the Lenca Indigenous environmental defender who was assassinated in 2016 while Hernández was president. And we’re joined by Dana Frank, professor of history emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup. She attended Juan Orlando Hernández’s trial here in New York.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Frank, you were here in New York when we last spoke to you. You were going each day to the trial. Talk about the significance of this conviction and the testimony that was provided to convict him.

DANA FRANK: Well, you know, it’s an incredible vindication of what Hondurans and so many of us have known since Juan Orlando was first elected, and, in fact, since the 2009 military coup overthrowing President Zelaya that the U.S. backed.

I mean, the evidence was chilling, and it was very hard for all of us to sit there every day and listen to this litany of assassinations of prosecutors, assassinations of journalists, corruption of the police, the military, politicians, the president, his brother, you name it. And it was like the curtain was drawn back, and you could see the day-to-day workings of this tremendous violent, corrupt mechanism that was the Juan Orlando Hernández administration, but also that of “Pepe” Lobo, as you said, before him. And all of this was what happened after the 2009 coup that opened the door for the destruction of the rule of law in Honduras.

So, it was, you know, very sobering to listen to. And, you know, we were just terrified with which way the jury was going to go. And so, it’s a great thing, with very complicated caveats about the U.S. role in all this. It’s a great thing that he was convicted, legitimating what Hondurans know, but we can talk about what it means that it was the U.S. that did it.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about what it means that the U.S. did it. I mean, Democracy Now!, we went on the plane from Nicaragua to Honduras with the Zelayas, with Mel Zelaya, who was the president who was deposed in a coup, and his wife Xiomara, who’s currently the president of Honduras, when they returned to Honduras.

DANA FRANK: You know, the United States — this all flows back to the 2009 coup, which the U.S. supported the stabilization of it. It supported a completely bogus election a few months after that. And it supported Juan Orlando when he — well, first of all, it didn’t say a peep when, as president of Congress, he overthrew the Supreme Court in 2012. The U.S. legitimated the fraudulent 2013 election. You can see, step by step by step, how the U.S. continued to continue to endorse this illegal regime, most obviously in 2017, when he was supposedly reelected. It was very clear that he stole the election, and international observers were saying, “You need another election. You need to redo this,” and the U.S. legitimated him.

So the U.S. kept Juan Orlando in power for all these eight years. But it also legitimated and celebrated him and sent hundreds of millions of dollars in military and security aid. You know, and I want to underscore, that was the Obama administration. It was Biden celebrating him when he was vice president. It was Trump, and it was Biden again as president. And so, it’s a long and devastating story of what happened to the Honduran people.

You know, and I want to underscore that Juan Orlando was not just a drug trafficker and moving arms. I mean, he was a criminal on a vast scale, as I said. Not only did he support the coup and the overturning of the Supreme Court. He ran for reelection completely illegally, in violation of the constitution. He and his party stole at least $300 million from the national health service for his 2013 election, bankrupting it and leading to the death of tens of thousands of people. I mean, many of the crimes of — many are the crimes of Juan Orlando Hernández, not just those narrowly defined by the Southern District of New York as having imported cocaine and arms into the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: Camilo Bermúdez, you’re on the ground in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, right now, member of the Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, founded by the assassinated environmental Indigenous leader Berta Cáceres, assassinated during the tenure of President Orlando Hernández. Can you talk about the response on the ground when people heard the verdict on Friday?

CAMILO BERMÚDEZ: Hi, Amy. Thank you for the invitation. Of course.

Well, the reaction to this, to the verdict against Juan Orlando, is multiple. Honduran people are still trying to process this news and all the information that the trial has brought to light. The majority feeling is satisfaction, a feeling of progress in human justice for a people that has suffered much from the state violence and very high rates of poverty and precariousness by — led by the whole Juan Orlando Hernández government and National Party. Of course, many are worried about what it had happened — why it had happened in the U.S. and not in Honduras, and what this says about the Honduran justice system and what is going to happen next.

Of course, some sectors are trying to minimize this verdict. Others, such as popular evangelical pastors and the traditional media and, of course, Juan Orlando’s close circle are trying to create doubt and criticism about the conviction and evidence against JOH. But an organization as COPINH, who — we denounced for many years all the criminal action of Juan Orlando, we are convinced about his conviction and his guilt. And, well, many of us are raising questions about why the U.S. government, knowing this information from at least 2015, continued to support Juan Orlando’s authoritarian regime, even when he ran for an unconstitutional reelection in 2017.

AMY GOODMAN: What’s so interesting is this is an election year in the United States. Immigration is one of the major issues, if not the primary issue. Many Hondurans have tried to flee to the United States, fleeing what had become in Honduras a narco-state with the help of the United States. Camilo Bermúdez, do people make that connection in Honduras? And how do they feel about the draconian immigrant response, the crackdown on people trying to cross the border, given what the U.S. has done in creating that situation?

CAMILO BERMÚDEZ: Well, I think that people do do the connections about how the state of Honduras has become a narco-state or a state run by criminals, but it’s not that easy to make the connection about the U.S. Like, now the U.S. has — or, the U.S. government has come as an heroic act of going after Juan Orlando, and it’s difficult to read how this impacts on the public.

We remember, several organizations remember that during the Juan Orlando regime, multiple social leaders were assassinated, multiple cases, vast case of corruptions, vast cases of dispossession for Indigenous lands. And, well, it is, of course, known that the condemnation of Juan Orlando as head of an organized crime and drug trafficking structure is a step forward. However, we cannot have done this without the support — or, he could not have done this without the support of the private companies and financial institutions. And many people are wondering what are the investigations against that, what are the processes against that, what are the processes behind all the violence that has come to a result of people leaving Honduras.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Professor Frank, what happens next? When is the sentencing? And, I mean, we just finished a whole segment on Haiti, that is in total turmoil, with not the same details, but similar U.S. shoring up of coup regimes.

DANA FRANK: Well, you know, exactly. I was thinking about the previous speaker and the phrase “U.S. imperial machinations.” This has been going on, well, of course, through all of 20th century Honduran history.

But, you know, what happens next is, you know, he can appeal. Nobody thinks he’s going to win on appeal. His sentencing hearing is June 26th in New York. The minimum sentence is 40 years, and he can get three life sentences. So, he’s 55 years old. He’s going to be in jail 'til he's 95 at the very least.

And, you know, I guess I just — you know, in terms of what happens next, it’s not the United States or the Biden administration that was wanting to get rid of Juan Orlando. It was the Southern District of New York that followed the money, followed the drugs and did this, and Biden administration and Trump administration kicking — and Obama administration, kicking and screaming all the way.

So, you know, right now Xiomara Castro, the president of Honduras, center-left president, who was elected by the biggest landslide in Honduran history a little over two years ago, she faces tremendously devastated government and economy. You know, they’re making progress there, and it’s incredible challenges that she and her government are facing, and they don’t control the Congress.

What is the United States going to do? They haven’t said a peep. The State Department has not said a peep. And the ambassador, Dogu, who just loves to tweet out attacking the Honduran government, all she did was repeat what the Southern District from New York had said. You know, the pattern in the last two years, since Xiomara came into office, is that the U.S. has been repeatedly trying to undermine her and to undermine the reforms that she’s put through or tried to put through of the tax system, of the electrical system, trying to push back the corruption of all the post-coup years. And it’s shameless, the way the United States is continuing to work with the National Party, which is so established to be full of drug traffickers and criminals. The president of — the current president of the National Party, which is —

AMY GOODMAN: Ten seconds.

DANA FRANK: — is actually a fugitive from justice. And so, the U.S. has been supporting the National Party in every way it can and acting like it’s an equal actor with LIBRE. So, is the U.S. going to apologize? Is it going to pay reparations? Is it going to change its way. Is it going to acknowledge what it did? And we have to hold the United States government accountable, as the U.S. Congress has repeatedly tried to do.

AMY GOODMAN: Dana Frank, I want to thank you for being with us, professor of history emerita at University of California, Santa Cruz, and Camilo Bermúdez, Civic Council of Popular and Indigenous Organizations of Honduras, founded by the assassinated leader Berta Cáceres, t.he organization called COPINH.

This is Democracy Now! When we come back, a report from Gaza, in 20 seconds.


AMY GOODMAN: Billie Eilish and Finneas O’Connell singing “What Was I Made For?” the theme song for the movie Barbie, last night at Oscars awards. They won the Oscar for best original song. During their speech, Billie and Finneas were wearing Artists4Ceasefire pins for Gaza.

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