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Honduran ex-president accused of running his country as a ‘narco-state’ stands trial in NYC

ELIZABETH WILLIAMS VIA AP
                                In this courtroom sketch in Federal court in New York, former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, seated center at the defense table, is flanked by his attorneys at the start of his trial.
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ELIZABETH WILLIAMS VIA AP

In this courtroom sketch in Federal court in New York, former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, seated center at the defense table, is flanked by his attorneys at the start of his trial.

NEW YORK >> Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was once touted by U.S. authorities as a key ally in the war on drugs. Now, federal prosecutors say the political leader ran his Central American nation as a “narco-state,” collecting millions of dollars from violent cartels to fuel his rise to power.

Nearly two years after his arrest and extradition to the U.S., Hernández went on trial today in Manhattan federal court on drug trafficking and weapons charges. A jury was chosen and opening statements were scheduled for Wednesday at a trial Judge P. Kevin Castel projected would last two to three weeks.

It’s a stunning fall from grace for a political leader long viewed — by Democratic and Republican administrations alike — as beneficial to American interests in the region, including combatting the illegal drug trade and helping slow the waves of migrants crossing the southern U.S. border.

That Hernández is being tried in the U.S. rather than his native country underscores Honduras’ institutional weakness, says Raúl Pineda Alvarado, a Honduran political analyst and former three-term congressman from Hernández’s National Party.

“For Hondurans it signifies how weak our democracy is in terms of the separation of powers,” he said. “Politicians are not subject to any control.”

Federal authorities say that for nearly two decades, Hernández profited from drug trades that brought hundreds of thousands of kilos of cocaine into the U.S., even at times working with the powerful Sinaloa cartel in Mexico.

The millions of dollars in drug money that began flowing to Hernández starting around 2004, in turn, powered his rise from a congressman representing his rural home province in western Honduras to president of the National Congress and then two consecutive presidential terms from 2014 to 2022, prosecutors say.

In exchange for bribes that propped up his political aspirations, U.S. prosecutors say, drug traffickers were allowed to operate in the country with near impunity, receiving information to evade authorities and even law enforcement escorts for their shipments.

During his first winning presidential campaign, Hernández solicited $1.6 million from a drug trafficker to support his run and those of other politicians in his conservative political party, federal prosecutors say.

His brother also received a $1 million campaign donation from notorious Sinaloa boss Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán on the promise the cartel’s drug shipments would find safe passage through Honduras if Hernández was elected.

Federal prosecutors in New York spent years working their way up through Honduran drug trafficking organizations before reaching the person many believed was at the very pinnacle — Hernández.

He was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, in February 2022, just three months after leaving office, and was extradited to the U.S. in April that year.

U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said at the time that Hernández abused his position as president “to operate the country as a narco-state.”

Hernández’s lawyers declined to comment ahead of the trial, in which prosecutors are expected to rely on testimony from drug traffickers and corrupt Honduran law enforcement officials and politicians.

The former president, who earned a master’s degree from the State University of New York at Albany, has steadfastly maintained his innocence, saying the allegations are revenge from drug traffickers he had extradited to the U.S.

Hernández faces federal charges including drug trafficking conspiracy and possession of machine guns and destructive devices.

Meanwhile his co-defendants — the former head of the Honduran national police, Juan Carlos Bonilla, and Hernández’s cousin, Mauricio Hernández Pineda — both pleaded guilty in recent weeks to drug trafficking charges in the same Manhattan courthouse where his trial is occurring.

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