US judge sentences ex-president of Honduras to 45 years in prison

Former US ally Juan Orlando Hernández was sentenced to 45 years in prison. A Manhattan court convicted him for the crime of exporting more than 400 tons of cocaine to the United States and possession of “destructive devices”

June 27, 2024 by Pablo Meriguet
Juan Orlando Hernández with US Vice President Mike Pence in Washington, DC, 23 March 2017. Photo: Vice President Office

Juan Orlando Hernández was sentenced by US Judge Kevin Castel to 45 years in prison for the crime of exporting more than 400 tons of cocaine to the United States and for the possession of “destructive devices”. Castel called Hernández “a two-faced politician” because, on the one hand, he claimed to fight drug trafficking in his country, while, on the other hand, he supported the drug cartels. Prosecutors alleged that the former president built a “Narco-State” in which he personally received millions of dollars in bribes from drug traffickers. In addition, he must pay a fine of USD 8 million for his crimes.

In the trial, the prosecution argued that “JUAN ORLANDO HERNANDEZ, a/k/a ‘JOH’ the defendant, received millions of dollars from multiple drug-trafficking organizations in Honduras, Mexico, and elsewhere, including from the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin Guzman Loera, a/k/a ‘El Chapo’ (‘Guzman Loera’). HERNANDEZ used those drug-trafficking proceeds to enrich himself, finance his political campaigns, and commit voter fraud, including in connection with the 2013 and 2017 Honduran presidential elections. In exchange, HERNANDEZ protected drug traffickers, including his brother and former member of the Honduran National Congress Juan Antonio Hernandez Alvarado, a/k/a ‘Tony Hernandez’ (‘Hernandez Alvarado’), from investigation, arrest, and extradition; caused sensitive law enforcement and military information to be provided to drug traffickers to assist their criminal activities; caused members of the Honduran National Police and military to protect drug shipments in Honduras; and allowed brutal violence to be committed without consequence.”

However, as many have pointed out, while president, Hernández was a man the US government trusted and a key ally in Central America. That is why his administration received millions of dollars from the US government for the “destruction” of drug gangs. Even former US President Donald Trump said that he was “a reliable ally of the United States” in its fight against drug trafficking.

Throughout the trial, Hernández declared his innocence and said that he was accused “unfairly, improperly” because the main testimonies against him were statements by convicted criminals, who agreed with the prosecution to reduce their sentences if they testified against him. During the trial, the jury heard from several former drug traffickers who claimed to have given millions of dollars to people close to the former Honduran president. However, Hernández’s defense continued to claim that the trial against him was a conspiracy and political persecution.

In 2021, Juan Antonio Hernández, the brother of the former president, was sentenced to life in prison in the United States for having mediated between drug traffickers and the head of state of Honduras. A year later, Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez was also convicted of bribing several Honduran political figures. These and other testimonies were collected by the prosecution, which ultimately convinced the jury that Juan Orlando Hernández was guilty of the crimes charged.

Hernández’s questionable electoral victories

In 2013, Hernández, a conservative politician, became president of Honduras after defeating Ricardo Álvarez. At first, Álvarez accused Hernández of having committed electoral fraud, although, shortly thereafter, he accepted his defeat in exchange for a political agreement with his former rival. His government was a continuation of the previous administration that had overthrown President Manuel Zelaya in a coup d’état.

Four years later, Hernández won the presidential reelection by a mere 50,000 votes over opposition candidate Salvador Nasralla. The election was, again, seriously questioned, and Nasralla accused Hernández of electoral fraud. The Organization of American States called for new elections. The Honduran people took to the streets and demanded a recount of the votes. However, Hernández’s right-wing government decided to heavily repress the protests.

Shortly thereafter, a US court document claimed that Hernandez’s 2013 election campaign was financed with drug money. This reignited the protests, which demanded the resignation of the president, whom they called a “narco-dictator”. The government again cracked down on the protesters with an iron fist. The current conviction of Hernández seems to confirm the repeated suspicions of electoral fraud.

After leaving the presidency, on February 16, 2022, he was arrested by Honduran police following an extradition request from the United States for conspiring to traffic drugs in the US. Finally, on April 21, 2022, Hernández was extradited to the United States.