Former President of Honduras Sentenced to 45 Years in Sweeping Drug Case

During the eight years that Juan Orlando Hernández was president of Honduras, the tiny country was a conduit for hundreds of tons of cocaine that flowed north into the United States.

Mr. Hernández’s political fortunes were tied to the gangs that transported those drugs, according to federal prosecutors in Manhattan. The traffickers fueled his rise, subsidizing Mr. Hernández’s campaigns in return for promises of protection, even as the two-term president presented himself as a U.S. ally in the war against drugs, prosecutors said.

Now Mr. Hernández will spend 45 years in prison. He was sentenced on Wednesday in Federal District Court in Manhattan after being convicted in March of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and of possessing and conspiring to possess “destructive devices,” including machine guns.

Judge P. Kevin Castel called Mr. Hernández “a two-faced politician hungry for power” who had masqueraded as an antidrug crusader while partnering with traffickers. He said the sentence would send a message to figures who believed their “fine appearance and elegant manner” might protect them.

“I wish for the victims of the crimes in this case that there is a small degree of closure,” the judge added.

Just before being sentenced, Mr. Hernández spoke for nearly an hour, insisting that he had been the target of a conspiracy.

“It’s as if I had been thrown into a deep river with my hands bound” he said, adding: “This was a political persecution.”

The defense had asked that Mr. Hernández, 55, receive the minimum term of 40 years, saying that would effectively be a life sentence.

But prosecutors asked the judge to make sure Mr. Hernández would die behind bars, citing his abuse of power, connections to violent traffickers and “the unfathomable destruction” caused by cocaine.

The sentence on Wednesday was among several stemming from indictments dating back to 2015 that mapped a sprawling conspiracy.

In 2021, Mr. Hernández’s brother, Juan Antonio Hernández, a former Honduran congressman accused of brokering bribes to his sibling, was sentenced to life in prison. The next year, the same sentence was imposed on Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, a trafficker accused of bribing politicians and torturing and murdering a law enforcement official.

Some government witnesses who testified during former President Hernández’s trial acknowledged behaving just as brutally.

One, Amilcar Alexander Ardon Soriano, a trafficker and former mayor of the municipality of El Paraíso, testified that he had participated in torture and murdered two people, and was responsible for the deaths of more than 50 others.

Another, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, a former leader of a Honduran gang, admitted being involved in the deaths of 78 people, including two journalists and the country’s antidrug czar.

Defense lawyers suggested those witnesses had lied about Mr. Hernández to escape lengthy prison sentences and as retribution for what the lawyers said had been his vigorous pursuit of traffickers while in office. Mr. Hernández made a similar case directly to the judge in a letter that quoted Edmund Burke, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Bible.

Prosecutors countered that Mr. Hernández’s arguments “reflect an alternate reality.” They wrote that he had protected “his drug trafficking co-conspirators from prosecution and extradition, giving safe harbor to violent, massive cocaine traffickers as they used Honduras as a springboard for pumping cocaine into the United States.”

The verdict in Mr. Hernández’s trial came after weeks of evidence that he had received millions of dollars from drug organizations in Honduras, Mexico and elsewhere. In addition to statements by former traffickers, that evidence included testimony from a Honduran investigator and notebooks with Mr. Hernández’s initials that prosecutors said detailed drug transactions.

By early 2022, when Mr. Hernández was detained in Honduras less than a month after leaving office, he had become deeply unpopular there. His successor as president, Xiomara Castro, accused him of turning the country into a “narco-dictatorship” and officials in the United States said that Mr. Hernández had used drug money during both of his presidential campaigns to bribe election officials and manipulate the vote.

Many Hondurans blamed him for the country’s high rates of crime and violence and a faltering economy that had led thousands of people to flee, with many migrating to the United States.

The trial in Lower Manhattan served as a sort of proxy proceeding for dozens of expatriate Hondurans who said that they wished it had been possible for Mr. Hernández to face justice in his home country. They showed up each day, filling benches in the courtroom and in a nearby overflow room where testimony was beamed on a large screen.

Some in the overflow room jeered when Mr. Hernández, dressed in a dark suit, testified in his own defense. At one point he denied associations with drug traffickers even as prosecutors displayed a photograph of him posing at a World Cup soccer match in South Africa with a notorious narco kingpin.

After Mr. Hernández was convicted, crowds of Hondurans celebrated outside the courthouse, chanting in Spanish and displaying an orange prison jumpsuit with handcuffs connected by a long chain. One woman held up a sign reading, “No clemency for narcopolitics.”

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