Home World Business Honduras’ Ex-President Faces NY Trial for Cocaine Trafficking, Weapons

Honduras’ Ex-President Faces NY Trial for Cocaine Trafficking, Weapons

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Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, once considered to be a key ally to the United States on anti-narcotics efforts during his two-term tenure, is set to stand trial in New York on allegations that for nearly 20 years he built up a “corrupt and violent” empire to smuggle tons of cocaine to America.

Federal prosecutors allege that Hernández, between 2004 and 2022, received millions of dollars in bribes from drug trafficking organizations — including from the notorious, now-imprisoned Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán Loera — and essentially transformed Honduras into a narco-state.

In court documents, prosecutors wrote that Hernández worked for years with “violent drug traffickers to harm the United States, telling his co-conspirators that he wanted to ‘stuff the drugs up the noses of the gringos.'”

Hernández “abused his position as the president of Honduras to operate the country as a narco-state” and used the drug trafficking proceeds “to enrich himself, finance his political campaigns, and commit voter fraud,” prosecutors alleged in the indictment against him.

The former president’s high-profile trial on drug trafficking and weapons charges is scheduled to kick off Tuesday in Manhattan federal court, starting with jury selection.

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2020.

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández in 2020.
AP Photo/Moises Castillo, File

Hernández was viewed much differently when he was first elected

The brutal picture prosecutors have painted of Hernández, who is now 55 years old, is much different than how he was viewed after he was first elected in 2013 as president of Honduras.

In January 2015, one year into the first year of Hernández’s first term as president, officials at the US embassy in the Honduran capital of Tegucigalpa saw reason to be cautiously optimistic.

Embassy staffers, in a diplomatic cable summarizing his first year in office, described Hernández as an effective leader doing his best in a bad situation, pursuing market-friendly reforms and anti-corruption initiatives with a “religious zeal.”

“Hernández started his first year with a stand against corruption and finished it with a sweeping commitment to improving transparency,” reads the memo, which was approved by then-Ambassador James D. Nealon. “Violence is, in fact, down. Narco traffickers are on the run.”

If the memo had anything to say about potential ties between Hernández and organized crime, it’s not apparent in the publicly available version, which was declassified in 2017. The document ends with a section entitled, “Measure of the Man,” followed by more than two full pages of redacted material.

Now, nearly a decade later, this rosy description stands in stark contrast to the sordid picture laid out by federal prosecutors in the Southern District of New York, who have accused Hernández of turning Honduras into a mafia state, financing his campaigns with drug money, and directly enlisting the help of drug traffickers to carry out a systematic campaign of election fraud that ensured his victory in 2013 and his reelection in 2017.

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, center in chains, is shown to the press at the Police Headquarters in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.

Juan Orlando Hernández, center in chains, is shown to the press at the Police Headquarters in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, Tuesday, Feb. 15, 2022.
AP Photo/Elmer Martinez

The former Honduran president could spend the rest of his life in a US prison

This posturing, however, may have led to one of the former president’s gravest mistakes.

In 2012, under pressure from Washington, Hernández, then serving as president of Honduras’ congress, worked to push through a constitutional amendment allowing for extradition of Honduran citizens to the US. When their partners in the drug world expressed concerns about extradition, Hernández and his brother assured their allies that extradition would only be used against enemies.

During Hernández’s two terms as president of Honduras, from 2014 to 2022, his government oversaw, at the request of US officials, the extradition of more than 30 people, according to one analysis. Among these were two former allies of Hernández who he handed over to the US after learning of their plans to assassinate him, according to court documents.

Shortly after Hernández left office in 2022, it was under this provision that he was arrested in Honduras and shipped off to New York, where he has sat ever since in a federal lockup in Brooklyn.

If convicted of the charges against him, Hernández — who has pleaded not guilty — could spend the rest of his life inside a US prison.

Hernández was charged alongside his cousin and an ex-police chief, but those two have since pleaded guilty

Former Honduras police chief Gen. Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares.

Former Honduras police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla.
AP Photo/File

Hernández was originally charged alongside two other co-defendants: his cousin, Mauricio Hernandez Pineda, and former Honduran National Police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla, aka “El Tigre.” Pineda, however, pleaded guilty on Feb. 2 to one charge of conspiracy to import cocaine, and Bonilla followed suit last Wednesday, just days ahead of the trial.

Hernández will now face the charges alone. It is not clear if Pineda and Bonilla will testify against their former president.

The trial, which is expected to last two to three weeks, is the denouement of a saga that first burst into the public eye in 2017 with the arrest in Miami of Hernández’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández.

Tony Hernández, a former Honduran congressman and a close advisor to his brother, was accused of acting as his brother’s liaison to their alleged allies in the criminal underworld, and actively participating in drug trafficking networks that used Honduras as a transit country to move cocaine from Colombia to the US.

At Tony Hernández’s two-week trial in 2019, a parade of former associates testified to explosive allegations of corruption and criminal violence at the highest levels of the Honduran government.

Tony Hernández was convicted and found to have had a personal stake in a cocaine lab in Colombia as well as a direct hand in moving nearly 200,000 tons of cocaine into the US over 15 years. In Honduras, he had sold machine guns to drug traffickers and was complicit in at least two murders, federal prosecutors said. One witness said Tony Hernández personally met with and accepted a $1 million bribe, in cash, from El Chapo.

Prosecutors introduced drug ledgers seized in the 2018 arrest of a major trafficker that directly implicated both Juan Orlando Hernández and Tony Hernández, and showed bricks of cocaine stamped with a stylized imprint of Tony’s initials.

Tony Hernández was found guilty on all counts in 2019 and was later sentenced to life in prison. In a court filing from last May, prosecutors said they do not expect that he would agree to testify against his brother.

Even as his alleged connections to the activities of Tony Hernández were aired in open court, Honduran law granted Juan Orlando Hernández immunity from prosecution or extradition — until he left office.

In this courtroom sketch, Juan Orlando Hernández, center, speaks into a microphone while pleading not guilty to drug trafficking and weapons charges in 2022.

In this courtroom sketch, Juan Orlando Hernández, center, speaks into a microphone while pleading not guilty to drug trafficking and weapons charges in 2022.
AP Photo/Elizabeth Williams

Hernández’s high-profile trial is being closely watched in Honduras

The looming trial of Juan Orlando Hernández, like that of Tony Hernández, is being closely watched in Honduras, where there long existed a pervasive understanding that the government was in league with some of the most malevolent forces of corruption and organized crime in the country, according to Pamela Ruíz, a Central America analyst with the International Crisis Group think-tank.

“Many Hondurans described it as living under a narco-state,” Rúiz told Business Insider. “Everybody kind of knew that the government was involved at some level or another with narco-trafficking groups.”

During the years in which Juan Orlando Hernández was in power, the country was beset by waves of violent crime fueled by the drug trade, and the influence of drug gangs like Los Cachiros, whom Hernández is accused of protecting. The country has also seen wide-ranging human rights violations, including attacks on environmental activists by paramilitary groups linked to security forces and rampant threats against journalists.

In Honduras, where politicians like Juan Orlando Hernández and politically connected trafficking networks have long been viewed as virtually untouchable, it is momentous to see him face trial for his alleged crimes, according to Ruíz. “For the first time in many years, if not decades, Hondurans felt like justice would actually be served,” she said.

Several witnesses who testified against Tony Hernández are set to testify against the former president, including Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, a leader of Los Cachiros, a trafficking gang with which Juan Orlando Hernández and his brother were deeply entwined, prosecutors have alleged. Alex Ardon, a drug trafficker and former mayor of El Paraiso, a city on the border of Guatemala, is also expected to testify and describe meeting with El Chapo alongside Tony Hernández and the funneling of millions of dollars in drug money to Juan Orlando Hernández and the National Party.

Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernández.

Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, the brother of Juan Orlando Hernández.
AP Photo/Fernando Antonio, File

Court documents also point to several as-yet-unnamed witnesses, including two members of the Sinaloa Cartel, a former official who allowed drugs and other contraband to flow freely through the largest port in Honduras, and a relative of Alex Ardon whom Juan Orlando Hernández appointed to run a major government construction agency, a role the witness used to pave roads for drug routes and dish out government contracts to other traffickers.

The details that are alleged in court documents illustrate a remarkable portrait of a state-run protection racket carefully constructed by Juan Orlando Hernández and his allies and a level of corruption that went far beyond simply accepting bribes. In the prosecution’s narrative, the former president comes across as an outright gangster, acting with almost delusional brazenness.

But Juan Orlando Hernández was also a highly skilled political operator, and was — for as long as he could be — careful to keep a buffer between himself and the nastier side of the trafficking networks with whom he is accused of partnering, prosecutors said. To maintain contact, Tony Hernández, the national police chief Bonilla, and others acted as his emissaries, taking a more hands-on approach to underworld schemes, prosecutors have said.

The whims and wishes of US foreign policy have long played an outsize role in the domestic politics of Honduras. And so Juan Orlando Hernández was also careful, for as long as he could be, to remain in the good graces of Washington and repeatedly took steps to make himself indispensable in aligning himself with its policy goals, according to prosecutors.

From the time he entered Congress as a deputy for the center-right National Party, through his swift rise through the ranks of the Honduran political elite, Juan Orlando Hernández had presented himself as a staunch ally of US interests in Honduras, using his growing political clout to pursue anti-drug policies.

In private, however, the Hernández brothers assured the drug traffickers to whom he offered protection that they would not face arrest or extradition; instead, he used extradition as a weapon against rival drug traffickers, prosecutors said.

“The vast majority of the co-conspirators in this scheme were never prosecuted in Honduras despite trafficking massive quantities of cocaine and committing brutal acts of violence,” prosecutors wrote in court documents. “Juan Orlando and his powerful allies ensured their protection.”

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