Former Honduran President convicted in US of conspiring with drug traffickers

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, second from right, is taken in handcuffs as he is extradited to the United States, 21 April 2022
Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, second from right, is taken in handcuffs as he is extradited to the United States, 21 April 2022 Copyright Associated Press
By Euronews with AP
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Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was convicted in New York on Friday of conspiring with drug traffickers to enable tonnes of cocaine to be smuggled into the US.

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Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was convicted Friday in New York of charges that he conspired with drug traffickers and used his military and national police force to enable tonnes of cocaine to make it unhindered into the US.

The jury returned its verdict at a federal court after a two-week trial, which has been closely followed in his home country. Hernández was convicted of conspiring to import cocaine into the US and two weapons counts. The charges carry a mandatory minimum of 40 years in prison and a potential maximum of life. Sentencing was set for 26 June.

Hernández, 55, served two terms as the leader of Honduras, a nation of roughly 10 million people.

Jurors reached a unanimous verdict, which was necessary for a conviction. Defence lawyer Sabrina Shroff said Hernández will appeal the conviction.

In a release, US lawyer Damian Williams said he hopes the conviction “sends a message to all corrupt politicians who would consider a similar path: choose differently.”

He added that Hernández “had every opportunity to be a force for good in his native Honduras. Instead, he chose to abuse his office and country for his own personal gain and partnered with some of the largest and most violent drug trafficking organisations in the world to transport tonnes of cocaine to the United States.”

Hernández was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, three months after leaving office in 2022 and was extradited to the US in April of that year.

US prosecutors accused Hernández of working with drug traffickers as long ago as 2004, saying he took millions of dollars in bribes as he rose from rural congressman to president of the National Congress and then to the country's highest office.

Hernández acknowledged in trial testimony that drug money was paid to virtually all political parties in Honduras, but he denied accepting bribes himself.

He noted that he had visited the White House and met US presidents as he cast himself as a champion in the war on drugs who worked with the US to curb the flow of drugs to the US.

In one instance, he said, he was warned by the FBI that a drug cartel wanted to assassinate him.

He said his accusers fabricated their claims about him in bids for leniency for their crimes.

"They all have motivation to lie, and they are professional liars,” Hernández said.

But the prosecution mocked Hernández for seemingly claiming to be the only honest politician in Honduras.

During closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant US Attorney Jacob Gutwillig told the jury that a corrupt Hernández “paved a cocaine superhighway to the United States.”

Stabile said his client “has been wrongfully charged” as he urged an acquittal.

Trial witnesses included traffickers who admitted responsibility for dozens of murders and said Hernandez was an enthusiastic protector of some of the world's most powerful cocaine dealers, including notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is serving a life prison term in the US.

Hernández, wearing a suit throughout the trial, was mostly dispassionate as he testified through an interpreter, repeatedly saying “no sir” as he was asked if he ever paid bribes or promised to protect traffickers from extradition to the US.

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His brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, a former Honduran congressman, was sentenced to life in 2021 in Manhattan federal court for his own conviction on drug charges.

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