Orlando Hernandez made Honduras a paradise for drug trafficking, according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

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By LatAm Reports Editor

The trial of the former Honduran president began Wednesday in Manhattan. The former president is accused of years of poor government funded by cocaine trafficking revenue.

Packages after packages of cocaine flowed for years to the United States from countries such as Venezuela and Colombia, all channelled through Honduras, a small country in Central America.

Aircraft taking off from clandestine runways and the smugglers’ boats that appeared to be fishing boats found a safe haven there, U.S. officials said. And the ruthless gangs that operated them, according to officials, had a partner and protector in Juan Orlando Hernández, who was president of the country for two terms.

Initial pleadings in Hernandez’s trial for drug trafficking began Wednesday in the Federal District Court of Manhattan. He is accused of participating in a plot that lasted more than 20 years and that introduced more than 500 kilograms of cocaine in the United States.

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Hernandez, who was president for eight years until his departure from office in 2022, used the proceeds to fund his campaigns, according to U.S. authorities, and then ordered the Honduran police and army to protect the traffickers who paid him. An accused accomplice was killed in a Honduran prison to protect Hernandez, according to an indictment.

In opening statements on Wednesday, all the seats were full and there were folding chairs lined up on the walls.

“This is a case of power, about corruption, about large amounts of cocaine and about a man who was at the center of it all,” prosecutor David Robles said as he pointed to Hernandez. The defendant, who wore a dark grey suit and golden-mounted glasses, was sitting in defiant pose.

When Hernandez was extradited to New York in 2022, according to U.S. officials, he authorized the use of violence and revelled in his ability to flood the United States with cocaine. It was claimed that his brother (Tony Hernandez) had told a dealer that Hernandez was going to put the drug in the nose of the gringos.

The brother of the former president, Tony Hernandez, a former Honduran Congress congressman, was found guilty in 2019 of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and sentenced to life imprisonment.

The former president, who has also been charged with possession and conspiracy to possess machine guns and destructive devices, has denied any wrongdoing.

On Wednesday, Hernandez’s lawyer, Renato Stabile, argued before jurors that his client was the victim of revenge plots by depraved people who trafficked drugs, mass murder and wanted clemency from the U.S. U.S. He added: “They are real psychopaths.”

“Mr. Hernández does not sit down with drug traffickers; he faces drug traffickers,” Stabile said.

It is not unheard of for a former head of state to face charges in New York: Hernandez is not even the first Honduran president to do so. Rafael Callejas, who was the country’s president from 1990 to 1994, pleaded guilty in 2016 in Brooklyn to accepting bribes while leading the Honduran football federation.

Alfonso Portillo, a former president of Guatemala, pleaded guilty in 2014 in Manhattan to accepting bribes in exchange for Taiwan’s diplomatic recognition.

The closest parallel to Hernandez is General Manuel Antonio Noriega, former leader of Panama. He was found guilty in 1992 in federal court in Miami of allowing Medellin’s drug cartel to send huge amounts of cocaine across his country to the United States in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes.

The trial can bring some resolution to Honduras, a poverty-stricken country of about 10 million inhabitants, which has been fighting corruption and violence for decades, and where Hernandez has become deeply unpopular.

His government failed to stop crime or build a healthy economy and hundreds of thousands of desperate Hondurans left, many of them aiming to enter the United States. Hernandez’s successor, Xiomara Castro, accused him of turning the country into an “narcodicting.”

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In his two presidential campaigns, according to prosecutors, Hernandez used drug money to bribe election officials and manipulate the vote. Widespread mistrust in the results of the second elections, in 2017, led to protests that blocked roads and bridges. Prosecutors claimed that Hernandez gave money to a colleague of his political party, who paid gang members to commit acts of violence, and that protesters were killed during clashes with security forces later.

In 2022, fireworks broke out in the capital, Tegucigalpa, after the Supreme Court of Honduras approved Hernandez’s extradition, which generated celebrations that included chants such as: Juancho goes to New York, using the nickname of the former president.

The allegations describe an expanding conspiracy and stunning corruption, detailing how officials with elected office applied for and accepting bribes, formed alliances with traffickers and created ghost companies to launder money.

Prosecutors have said they plan to take collaborator witnesses and some accomplices to the stand. One of them was described as a man who provided security to a group of Honduran traffickers known as the Cachiros.

Another is Alex Ardon, a non-deficator who was mayor of the municipality of El Paraíso and who, according to prosecutors, would testify that the Hernandez brothers entrusted special missions to a senior official of the Honduran National Police, including the murder.

One of the most striking evidence may be the ledgers recovered by the Honduran military police, along with firearms, grenades and cash, from a car in which a trafficker was travelling as a passenger. Those ledgers, according to prosecutors, included the initials of Juan Orlando Hernandez, along with details of large-scale cocaine transactions. 

This article has been translated from the original which first appeared in Prensa Libre