He Was an Ally of the U.S. War on Drugs. Prosecutors Promise to Expose His Double Life.

A courtroom sketch of former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández with his lawyers.
A courtroom sketch of former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández with his lawyers.

Summary

Ex-Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández is accused of helping move tons of cocaine to the U.S.

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was once the toast of Washington as a key ally in the war on drugs. Now he is headed to trial in New York on allegations of helping move 500 tons of cocaine through his country.

In a rare U.S. case against a former head of state, prosecutors say he lived a double life.

Notorious drug traffickers, including former Mexican cartel leader Joaquín “El Chapo" Guzmán, lined up to pay him millions of dollars in bribes to protect their shipments, prosecutors allege.

Prosecutors have said they want to show the jury a photo of a machine gun inscribed with Hernández’s name and presidential title. Hernández faces one count of conspiracy to import cocaine and two counts of possessing a machine gun and destructive devices.

The 55-year-old Hernández has denied the charges and pleaded not guilty. In a public letter Monday, Hernández said the accusations against him were the work of political enemies, and people involved in organized crime seeking revenge for his having cracked down on them.

The trial, which begins Wednesday and is expected to last two to three weeks, is another marker in what has been a dizzying fall for a powerful figure who dominated Honduran politics for nearly a decade. Hernández was seen as an important partner for both Democratic and Republican administrations who sought his aid in stopping a wave of U.S.-bound migrants from Honduras.

Hondurans have been transfixed by what local TV networks dub as “the trial of the century."

The trial is expected to offer a window into how drug trafficking has fueled vote rigging and corruption in Honduran politics. The indictment alleges Hernández turned Honduras into a “narco-state."

“Juan Orlando has been an omnipresent figure for the last 12 years," said Miguel Cálix, a Honduran political analyst. “This will show how deeply the political system can be corrupted by organized crime. There’s the expectation many powerful people will be named."

In court filings, Hernández has indicated that he might testify in his own defense and highlight his work with the U.S. He said in his public letter that top U.S. security officials knew well all he had done to fight organized crime.

Hernández served two consecutive four-year terms as president before leaving office in 2022. Weeks after ceding power to his successor, leftist Xiomara Castro, he was arrested and then extradited to the U.S.

Prosecutors allege Hernández used bribes from cartel members to advance his political career, get rich and commit voter fraud as he went on to win the presidential elections of 2013 and 2017.

During the first election, El Chapo, then the head of Mexico’s Sinaloa cartel, flew to Honduras for a secret meeting at a ranch where he agreed to pay $1 million to Hernández, to fund his political campaign in exchange for protection, according to prosecutors.

Hernández provided cartel members with armed police escorts and helped their drug-laden airplanes avoid detection from law-enforcement radar, prosecutors say. Hernández’s brother was so confident in the protection of his violent narco empire that he personalized his cocaine bricks by stamping them with his initials, according to prosecutors.

The former president boasted to another drug trafficker he was joining with that he was going to “stuff the drugs right up the noses of the gringos," prosecutors say.

Hernández faces a tough road ahead at trial. Several former drug traffickers turned cooperating witnesses are expected to testify against him.

Two co-defendants who were set to go to trial with Hernández have pleaded guilty in recent weeks. His cousin, former police official Mauricio Hernández Pineda pleaded guilty to drug-trafficking conspiracy and Juan Carlos Bonilla, Honduras’s once-feared national police chief also known as “El Tigre," pleaded guilty to one drug-trafficking charge.

Hernández’s brother, Tony Hernández, was previously convicted of participating in a drug-trafficking conspiracy and other charges in a New York federal court. He was sentenced to life in prison in 2021.

The Hernández trial might be uncomfortable for Washington policymakers if he is found guilty, said Michael Shifter, the former president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank.

“Juan Orlando Hernández was the poster child for this complete contradiction in U.S. foreign policy interests," said Shifter. “The U.S. was left supporting a criminal."

For years, U.S. officials were willing to overlook signs of Hernández’s alleged corruption and involvement in drug trafficking in exchange for his cooperation in what was perceived as the more important issue, controlling migration, Shifter said.

At a meeting in 2019, then-President Donald Trump praised Hernández for his work combating drugs. “President Hernández is working with the United States very closely," said Trump. “You know what’s going on our southern border. And we’re winning after years and years of losing. We are stopping drugs at a level that has never happened."

Write to José de Córdoba at jose.decordoba@wsj.com and James Fanelli at james.fanelli@wsj.com

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