Honduran ex-president Juan Orlando Hernández convicted in cocaine case | EUROtoday

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Former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernández, a one-time American ally, was convicted in a New York court docket Friday of serving to drug traffickers ship tons of cocaine to the United States in alternate for hefty bribes that fueled his political profession.

The verdict underscored the extent to which narcotics gangs have penetrated some Latin American governments. Hernández was accused of utilizing police and the navy to protect U.S.-bound cocaine shipments, and of sharing delicate U.S. regulation enforcement data with traffickers. Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacob Gutwillig mentioned the ex-president “paved a cocaine superhighway to the United States.”

Yet whilst Hernández presided over what prosecutors referred to as a “narco-state,” U.S. authorities continued to work carefully with him. In December 2019, then-President Donald Trump praised the Honduran chief for his cooperation on curbing migration and narcotics shipments. “We’re stopping drugs at a level that has never happened,” Trump mentioned. Hernández additionally met with Joe Biden and Mike Pence whereas they served as vice chairman.

“How is it possible the U.S. government did not know this stuff was going on?” mentioned Dana Frank, a historian and Honduras knowledgeable at University of California Santa Cruz. “They chose to look the other way.”

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U.S. coverage towards Central America in recent times has been closely targeted on curbing migration — generally crowding out different points, corresponding to corruption and democratic backsliding, analysts mentioned. But former U.S. diplomats mentioned the Drug Enforcement Administration and Department of Justice didn’t inform the manager department that they had been investigating Hernández.

The case was one of the crucial vital U.S. prosecutions of a Latin American chief for the reason that 1992 conviction of former dictator Manuel Antonio Noriega, accused of creating Panama a springboard for drug shipments to the United States. Noriega — a U.S. accomplice in the course of the Cold War — was captured in a U.S. invasion of the Central American nation.

Prosecutors alleged that Hernández started cooperating with traffickers in 2004, when he was a congressman. Over the subsequent 18 years — together with whereas he served as president from 2014 to 2022 — he helped traffickers transfer not less than 500 tons of cocaine to the United States, in accordance with the indictment.

In Honduras, residents have been mesmerized by information of the trial, which started Feb. 20. Hernández’s conservative National social gathering had dominated the nation of 10 million individuals for greater than a decade, taking energy after a 2009 coup ousted leftist President Mel Zelaya. But Hernández’s rule was marked by corruption and drug-trafficking scandals and allegations of irregularities in his 2017 reelection. Opposition candidate Xiomara Castro — Zelaya’s spouse — received the presidency in 2021.

Hernández denied the U.S. prices and mentioned most of the witnesses had been convicted drug sellers in search of decreased sentences or revenge. “I had a policy against all those people,” he testified. “They did a lot of damage to the country.”

Hernández faces a sentence of as much as life in jail.

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The trial supplied an unusually detailed take a look at the way in which drug traffickers have turn out to be main sources of marketing campaign financing in Latin America and have bribed safety officers and politicians to function with impunity.

The case “is not just about Juan Orlando Hernández, as a person, but about how these illicit networks operate,” mentioned Ana Maria Méndez-Dardón, the Central America director for the Washington Office on Latin America.

Frank, the educational, mentioned the trial offered an “extremely damning” take a look at U.S. coverage. Former American diplomats who handled Honduras mentioned that for years, Hernández had gave the impression to be a very good accomplice — backing extraditions and a reform of the corruption-riddled police. U.S. information confirmed a lower in drug shipments throughout Hernández’s tenure.

“Today’s verdict makes all of us who collaborated with him look either complicit or gullible in the eyes of the Honduran public,” mentioned John Feeley, who was a prime official within the State Department’s Latin America bureau throughout Hernández’s presidency. “We were neither, but we were unaware of the investigation that was being conducted by DEA when he was still in office.”

Honduras is poor, violent and unstable. The U.S. desires it to simply accept extra asylum seekers.

Hernández was arrested on U.S. prices in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, in February 2022, just a few weeks after he left workplace. He was subsequently extradited.

While U.S. diplomats might have been unaware of Hernández’s alleged drug ties in the course of the early years of his presidency, the accusations have piled up in recent times. In 2019, his brother Tony was convicted in a U.S. court docket on prices of drug trafficking. U.S. prosecutors mentioned he acquired a $1 million donation from Sinaloa cartel chief Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzmán in 2013 that was supposed for Juan Orlando Hernández, then working for president. (Hernández denied the allegation.)

In 2021, throughout one other trial, U.S. prosecutors described a gathering between Hernández and an accused trafficker, Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, at which the then-president allegedly mentioned they’d “shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos.” The former Honduran chief denied making the comment.

In current years, federal prosecutors in New York have convicted a number of main Latin American drug traffickers, in addition to some officers accused of aiding them. Mexico’s former minister of safety, Genaro García Luna, was discovered responsible final yr of accepting thousands and thousands of {dollars} in bribes from the Sinaloa drug cartel.

But not all of the circumstances have resulted in responsible verdicts. In 2020, U.S. prosecutors accused a former Mexican protection secretary, Salvador Cienfuegos, of working with the legal underworld. But the Justice Department dropped the case amid inner questions on its solidity and blowback from the Mexican authorities, which threatened to drastically cut back anti-drug cooperation.

Lorena Rios in Monterrey, Mexico, contributed to this report.