Juan Orlando Hernández, former president of Honduras, found guilty of drug trafficking

Hernández could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for each of the charges.

Former president of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernández.

After nearly two days of deliberations, a jury in New York declared on Friday that Juan Orlando Hernández, former president of Honduras, is guilty on all charges against him.

The U.S. Department of Justice had brought three charges against the former president: conspiracy to import cocaine into the United States, conspiracy to possess firearms and destructive devices for drug trafficking, and possession of such weaponry during the drug trafficking conspiracy.

In a statement following the verdict, Attorney General Merrick Garland stated, “Juan Orlando Hernández abused his position as president of Honduras to run the country as a narco-state, where violent drug traffickers were allowed to operate with virtual impunity, and the people of Honduras and the United States were forced to suffer the consequences. As today’s conviction demonstrates, the Department of Justice is striking at the entire ecosystem of drug trafficking networks that harm the American people, no matter how far or how high we must reach.”

Attorney General Merrick Garland.
Attorney General Merrick Garland.

Hernández could face a maximum sentence of life imprisonment for each of the charges.

The former president denied all charges and appeared during the trial as part of his defense. Later, his lawyer, Raymond Colón, told CNN en Español about the verdict: “It’s a tragedy for such a noble man who fought for the same goals that the United States had in terms of the war on drugs. He remains strong, although he is quite disillusioned.”

Colón added that the defense would appeal the decision. “We will appeal, but first, there will be different stages, there is an interview with the Probation Department because they have to prepare a report for the court, for the lawyers and the prosecution, after that, after he is sentenced, there will be an appeal,” he said.

Before the jury began deliberating on Thursday, Judge Kevin Castel explained to the 12 members what each charge meant and emphasized that Hernández’s potential sentence should not be considered in their discussions.

During Thursday’s session, the jurors did not reach a unanimous verdict. They resumed deliberations on Friday morning and announced the verdict hours later.

The jury members were prohibited from discussing what was happening inside the deliberation room. Until the verdict, the only clues were the requests they made to review testimonies or evidence presented in the process.

In fact, the jury asked to review the testimony of former mayor Alex Ardón, specifically what he stated about alleged bribes to authorities in Copán.

They also requested to review the testimony of Brigadier General Tulio Romero Palacios, the first witness called by the defense, along with the testimony of Hernández himself, to review what they said about the security provided to Tony Hernández, the former president’s brother, already sentenced to life imprisonment for drug trafficking.

Palacios stated in the trial that Hernández’s wife, children, mother, Tony, and two other sisters received security.

On the other hand, when asked if he provided security to his brother, the former president replied negatively.

The defense of Hernández

Hernández took the stand this Tuesday and denied the accusations against him. In his testimony, he claimed that he was the one who told his brother, Tony Hernández, to present himself to U.S. authorities, who sentenced him to life imprisonment in 2021.

Until the last moment, the appearance of the former president, who governed Honduras from 2014 to 2022, in his own trial was kept secret. Hernández spoke addressing the jury members, who have heard witnesses from the prosecution in recent days, including several former drug traffickers who claimed to have paid bribes to Hernández to traffic cocaine.

Juan Orlando Hernández giving a speech as president of Honduras.
Juan Orlando Hernández giving a speech as president of Honduras, during a visit to El Salvador.

The lawyers for the former president asked him about the alleged meetings and agreements, but Hernández ruled out having received bribes, said he did not promise protection to drug traffickers, and denied meeting with most of the mentioned individuals, members of the Los Cachiros or Los Valle cartels.

Instead, he explained how his meetings with former mayor Alexander Ardón, sentenced to life imprisonment in 2021 in the U.S. for drug trafficking, took place.

Hernández stated that he “coincided” with Ardón in four events with mayors between 2009 and 2014. “It was my duty as the president of the Congress to listen to the people, and mayors represent the people,” he explained. And he emphasized, “I never personally invited Ardón to a meeting.”

He also admitted that Ardón was at his house at another event, but said that the invitation was made by the head of the National Party delegation and that there were 70 other attendees. On that occasion, Juan Orlando Hernández acknowledged that there was a moment when they were alone.

“I was making a call, and he entered,” he said. According to his statement, it was to confront him for not allowing him to run for mayor again. The former president said he did it because of rumors linking Ardón to smuggling and drug trafficking. He also recounted that he maintained his position, and Ardón did not take it well.

“His reaction was quite violent, shouting,” he said. And, he said, the then mayor of El Paraíso made a threat: “He told me that I would regret that decision.”

In his testimony, heard in the first week of the trial, former mayor Ardón claimed that Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán allegedly contributed money to Hernández’s 2013 campaign and also stated that JOH, as he is known, asked him not to run again. In return, Ardón said, Hernández would provide him with presidential protection to avoid extradition.

The former president of Honduras denied receiving $1 million from El Chapo and the Sinaloa Cartel, as Ardón declared, and added that he never met the Mexican drug trafficker or any member of his criminal organization.

The former president also testified that he was the one who asked the Honduran Public Prosecutor’s Office to investigate his brother, Tony Hernández.

Later, he stated, he urged Tony to present himself to U.S. authorities. “I remembered in that conversation that there were rumors, and as a brother, I told him, ‘Get a lawyer and face that problem.'”

However, when asked if they were close, he highlighted the age difference with his younger brother. “We had more than 10 years of difference; I left home at the age of 13 to study,” he said.

Since the beginning of the trial, the defense has tried to dissociate both brothers before the jury, considering the sentence imposed on the younger brother, who has been mentioned numerous times by witnesses as the alleged link for the alleged bribes.

Murals with photographs of victims of violence in the Central American country, placed by their relatives, and several flags of Honduras marked the vigil organized on the sidewalks near the building of the Southern District of Manhattan. Also, an altar with candles was raised, along with several banners with messages and demands.

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