Ex-Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández Found Guilty in Drug Trafficking Trial

Ex-Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández Found Guilty in Drug Trafficking Trial

For more than a decade, Juan Orlando Hernández wielded power in Honduras, first as a member of Congress, then as that body’s leader and finally as the nation’s president.

On Friday, an American jury in Federal District Court found Mr. Hernández guilty of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and of possessing and conspiring to possess “destructive devices,” including machine guns.

During his first presidential campaign in 2013, Mr. Hernández, a member of the right-wing Honduran National Party, portrayed himself as a law-and-order candidate who could stem the epidemic of drugs and crime that had suffused the country.

But according to prosecutors in the United States, Mr. Hernández was allied with the same forces he purported to oppose. A string of witnesses testified during a conspiracy trial in Manhattan that Mr. Hernández’s political success was fueled by drug proceeds funneled to him by cocaine traffickers whom he treated as business partners.

Prosecutors have said that Mr. Hernández received millions of dollars from trafficking organizations in Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere, including from Joaquín Guzmán Loera, known as El Chapo, who was a Mexican drug lord and the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel. In return, prosecutors added, Mr. Hernández allowed vast amounts of cocaine to pass through Honduras on its way to the United States.

He boasted that he would “stuff the drugs right up the noses of the gringos,” according to U.S. prosecutors.

Evidence and testimony presented during Mr. Hernández’s trial painted a dismal picture of a country where drugs and politics had long been intertwined and people working in politics routinely demanded and accepted bribes.

Rows of benches in the trial courtroom were filled each day with Hondurans who said they had come to watch Mr. Hernández face a judicial process of the sort some doubted could have taken place in his home country.

Some of those spectators laughed derisively when Mr. Hernández, wearing a businesslike dark suit, testified near the end of the trial, insisting that he had no connection to drug trafficking and that the witnesses who had testified to the contrary were “professional liars.”

A defense lawyer expanded upon that idea during his summation, running through a list of crimes — including a total of 224 murders — associated with several former traffickers who took the stand as government witnesses.

“This was a cast of characters you have never seen before and the likes of which you will never see again as long as you live,” the lawyer, Renato Stabile, said. “Through the trial these people have told you they were liars. They have told you they were murderers.”

But a prosecutor, Jacob H. Gutwillig, told jurors that Mr. Hernández had accepted “cocaine-fueled bribes” from cartels and “protected their drugs with the full power and strength of the state — military, police and justice system.”

Although former foreign leaders sometimes go to trial in the United States, they are not often prosecuted for drug-related offenses. The closest parallel to Mr. Hernández is Gen. Manuel Antonio Noriega, the former leader of Panama, who in 1992 was found guilty in federal court in Miami of allowing the Medellín drug cartel to ship cocaine through his country to the United States in exchange for millions of dollars in bribes.

By the time Mr. Hernández stepped down from the presidency in 2022, he was a deeply unpopular figure in Honduras. His administration had done little to blunt the effects of crime or to create a stable economy, leading many citizens to leave the country. Mr. Hernández’s successor as president, Xiomara Castro, accused him of having turned the nation into a “narco-dictatorship,” and thousands of Hondurans celebrated when he was extradited to New York three months after leaving office.

Mr. Hernández’s trial was relatively straightforward, based mainly on testimony from witnesses, including a Honduran drug investigator and the former traffickers, including two men who said they had pleaded guilty to grave crimes and are facing potential life sentences in American prisons.

The investigator, Miguel Reynoso, testified that he was present when the Honduran authorities stopped a group of vehicles with hidden compartments and found firearms, grenades and nearly $200,000 in U.S. currency wrapped in plastic. The authorities also found notebooks with Mr. Hernández’s initials that prosecutors in Manhattan said detailed drug transactions.

Mr. Reynoso testified that the notebooks were placed into sealed plastic bags and that he brought those, seals intact, to prosecutors in the United States in 2019.

Among the former traffickers who took the stand was Amilcar Alexander Ardon Soriano, who testified that he had served as the mayor of the municipality of El Paraíso while running drugs, participated in torture and murdered two people, and that he was responsible for the deaths of more than 50 others. He said that he had asked lawmakers whom he had previously bribed to vote for Mr. Hernández as the president of the Honduran Congress. In return, Mr. Ardon said, Mr. Hernández promised to protect him from prosecutors.

Mr. Ardon added that he gave $500,000 in drug proceeds to Mr. Hernández’s presidential campaign in 2013 and had bribed people in El Paraíso to vote for him. He also said it was his understanding that El Chapo had agreed to provide that campaign with $1 million.

Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, a former leader of the brutal Honduran gang Los Cachiros, was probably the most notorious witness to take the stand. He began secretly working with American authorities a decade ago and admitted to being involved in the deaths of 78 people, including two journalists and an official who was serving as Honduras’s antidrug czar.

In 2012, Mr. Rivera testified, he had bribed Mr. Hernández with $250,000 delivered to his sister, Hilda, in exchange for protection of the Cachiros.

Asked by a defense lawyer whether he felt any remorse over the people he had harmed, Mr. Rivera replied that he was sorry for everything he did as a member of what he called “a dangerous gang,” including his payment of bribes to “corrupt” police officers and politicians.

“They should have tried to catch us,” he said, adding that instead “they allied with us.”

Nate Schweber contributed reporting.

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