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US jails Honduras ex-president for 45 years on drug charges

June 26, 2024

Juan Orlando Hernandez faces 45 years in jail after being convicted of helping to traffic vast amounts cocaine into the US. He was in office from 2014 to 2022; the US says he turned the country into a "narco-state."

Honduras Juan Orlando Hernandez
Image: Jorge Cabrera/AA/picture alliance

A court in New York on Wednesday sentenced Juan Orlando Hernandez to 45 years in prison. The Honduran former president was convicted of helping cartels to traffic hundreds of tons of cocaine into the US in March

The sentence also included an $8 million (roughly €7.5 million) fine. The prison term fell short of the life sentence prosecutors had sought, however, given the 55-year-old's age, he is likely to die behind bars. 

Judge P. Kevin Castel said the sentence should serve as a warning to "well educated, well dressed" individuals who gain power and think their status will insulate them from justice. 

"I am innocent," Hernandez said through an interpreter in court on Wednesday. "I was wrongly and unjustly accused."

He'd also previously indicated he would appeal the conviction. 

Protesters gathered outside the New York court on Wednesday with banners calling for an end to the drugs trade and pictures of people who had died as a result of it in Honduras. 

Protesters signs and images victims of Honduran drug traffickers outside Federal court, Wednesday, June 26, 2024, in New York.
Demonstrators were present outside the federal court in New York awaiting the sentenceImage: John Minchillo/AP/picture alliance

Transporting 500 tons of cocaine into the US

US federal prosecutors say that Hernandez turned Honduras into a "narco-state" during his 2014-2022 tenure.

In March, he was convicted of facilitating the trafficking of some 500 tons of cocaine — most of it originally hailing from Colombia or Venezuela — to the US via Honduras. 

Handcuffed Honduras walks flanked by security, wearing a medical face mask
Honduras (c) was extradited to the US in April 2022Image: Elmer Martinez/AP Photo/picture alliance

His alleged complicity began long before he was president, dating back to 2004. 

Prosecutors said Hernandez used the money to enrich himself, to finance his political campaign, and to commit electoral fraud in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections. 

He was originally extradited to the US in 2022, soon after leaving office, with the top court in Honduras agreeing to send him to the US.

Judge says the ex-president exhibited 'considerable acting skills'

Hernandez himself, meanwhile, portrayed himself in court as a hero of efforts to combat drug trafficking who had teamed up with three different former US presidents to work towards this goal. 

Former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez looks down as a courtroom deputy reads the guilty verdict before U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel at his trial on U.S. drug trafficking charges in federal court in the Manhattan borough of New York City, U.S., March 8, 2024 in this courtroom sketch.
Hernandez, on the left of this courtroom sketch from earlier in the trial, cut a defiant figure throughout the trial and at sentencingImage: Jane Rosenberg/REUTERS

Judge Castel dismissed it, saying the former president had exhibited "considerable acting skills" to portray himself as an ally of the US in combating the cocaine trade while actually using the country's police and even military when necessary to protect it. 

The judge called the former president a "two-faced politician hungry for power." 

Hernandez is not the first Latin American former head of state to face narcotics trafficking convictions in the US. Panama's Manuel Noriega was sentenced in 1992 and Guatemala's Alfonso Portillo in 2014. 

How Europe became addicted to cocaine

msh/dj (AFP, AP)