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Ex-President of Honduras Stands Trial, Accused of Taking Millions from Drug Cartels

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A trial is underway in the United States to determine if the former president of Honduras is the anti-drug crusader he framed himself as while in power or a cartel puppet whose influence was used to traffic millions of dollars worth of drugs and firearms into the U.S.

Ex-president Juan Orlando Hernandez began his trial in New York Wednesday as prosecutors outlined the charges, alleging that Hernandez’s rise to power was financed and fueled by powerful cartel syndicates while the defense argued the former president was being framed by cartel operatives for his tough stance on drug crimes.

Hernandez pleaded not guilty to drugs and weapons charges in May, 2022. During his time in office he was awarded over $50 million in anti-narcotics assistance from the United States and many million more in security aid, according to Reuters. Three months after leaving his office, Hernandez was charged with criminal weapons possession and three counts of drug trafficking conspiracy. Attorney General Merrick Garland accused Hernandez of using his power as president to run Honduras as a narco-state.

Prosecutor David Robles said Wednesday that Hernandez was working “hand in hand” with the cartels to import multiple tons of cocaine into the U.S. at the same time he was cooperating with the U.S. federal government from 2014 to 2022. 

“Behind the scenes he made sure that drug traffickers who remained loyal to him were protected,” Robles said in court. “He abused the power of his country – the military, the police, the justice system – to protect and support those traffickers.”

Hernandez’s defense attorney Renato Stabile argued in court that testimony from convicted criminals affected by anti-drug trafficking legislation that Hernandez signed into law while in office should be disregarded by the jury. Some of these laws gave the government increased power to seize assets from convicted traffickers as well as extradite them to the United States. Stabile argued that any witnesses testifying against Hernandez were clearly seeking personal revenge or being paid by the cartels to do so.

“It’s Mr. Hernandez who signed into law all those things that put them out of business,” Stabile said. “Putting murderers and drug dealers on the witness stand who have cut deals and having them point the finger at Mr. Hernandez is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt.”

President Trump praised Hernandez’s efforts to curb drug trafficking and illegal immigration during his administration. A caravan of Hondurans seeking asylum in the United States after back to back hurricanes was thwarted by a coordinated military operation Hernandez was closely involved in, winning him favor with President Trump while already under suspicion of having ties to drug cartels but angering the people of Honduras who accused him of making the country simultaneously unlivable and unescapable. 

“President Hernandez is working with the United States very closely,” Trump said in a Dec. 7, 2019 speech. “You know what’s going on on our southern border. And we’re winning after years and years of losing. We’re stopping drugs at a level that has never happened.”

Hernandez was extradited to the United States in April of 2022, accused of accepting millions of dollars from drug cartels on the promise that they would not be arrested. Upon his arrival in the U.S. Hernandez’s defense attorney Raymond Colon told the court that Hernandez was being mistreated in prison, testifying that he had been held in solitary confinement and not permitted to contact his family.

“He’s being treated like a prisoner of war,” Colon said. “We’re not asking for him to get special treatment because he’s a former head of state, but these conditions are psychologically debilitating.”

According to Reuters, Hernandez brother Mauricio Hernandez and former Honduras national police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla, both of whom were originally supposed to be tried simultaneously with Hernandez, pleaded guilty to drug trafficking charges earlier this month. Hernandez faces 40 years to life in prison if convicted on all charges. His trial should last the next two or three weeks.

“This rampant corruption and massive cocaine trafficking came at a cost to the people of Honduras,” Damian Williams, the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District of New York, said shortly after Hernandez was extradited.