Honduran Ex-President Juan Orlando Hernández Sentenced to 45 Years in US for Drug Trafficking

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández was sentenced to 45 years in prison on Wednesday for a decade-long conspiracy to facilitate the smuggling of over 400 tons of cocaine into the United States. The sentence also included an $8 million fine.

Judge P. Kevin Castel, presiding over the case in Manhattan federal court, stated that the sentence serves as a warning to those who abuse their power, emphasizing that status does not provide immunity from justice.

Hernández was found guilty in March following a two-week trial that garnered significant attention in his home country.

“I am innocent,” Hernández asserted through an interpreter during his sentencing. “I was wrongly and unjustly accused.”

In a lengthy statement delivered during the sentencing, Hernández attempted to portray himself as a champion in the fight against drug trafficking, claiming collaboration with American authorities under various administrations to reduce drug imports. However, the judge dismissed this claim, citing evidence presented at trial that contradicted Hernández’s narrative.

Castel described Hernández as a “two-faced politician hungry for power” who selectively protected certain traffickers, using his authority to shield their operations while maintaining the facade of an anti-drug crusader.

As the sentence was announced, Hernández, dressed in a dull green prison uniform, stood beside his lawyer, his expression somber. Following a brief handshake with his lawyer and a nod towards the spectators, Hernández, aided by a cane and a brace on his foot, left the courtroom.

Prosecutors had initially sought a life sentence plus 30 years, aligning with the recommendations of the court’s probation officers.

Hernández, 55, served two terms as president of Honduras, a Central American nation with a population of approximately 10 million.

He was apprehended at his home in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, three months after leaving office in 2022. His extradition to the United States occurred in April of that year.

US prosecutors alleged that Hernández’s involvement with drug traffickers dated back to 2004, during which time he allegedly accepted millions of dollars in bribes as he ascended through the ranks of Honduran politics, ultimately reaching the presidency.

Hernández conceded in his trial testimony that drug money was distributed among virtually all political parties in Honduras but denied receiving bribes himself.

In his statement, Hernández maintained that his trial was unfair, arguing that he was denied the opportunity to present evidence that would have led to his acquittal. He accused politicians and drug traffickers of orchestrating a campaign of persecution against him.

“It’s as if I had been thrown into a deep river with my hands bound,” he stated.

In Honduras, US Ambassador Laura Dogu characterized the sentencing as a significant step in combating the societal ramifications of drug trafficking.

“Here and in the United States, we cannot forget that the actions of Juan Orlando have made the people suffer,” Dogu remarked.

Luis Romero, a Honduran criminal lawyer and analyst, expressed surprise at the sentence, stating that many in Honduras anticipated a life sentence for Hernández.

At a press conference in Honduras, Hernández’s wife, Ana García, declared her husband’s innocence, labeling the sentencing a “judicial lynching.” García, a prospective presidential candidate in next year’s election, expressed confidence in her husband’s appeal.

“Today is only a chapter in a series of injustices,” she asserted.

Trial witnesses included drug traffickers who confessed to numerous murders and implicated Hernández as a staunch protector of some of the world’s most powerful cocaine dealers, including Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, the notorious Mexican drug lord currently serving a life sentence in the United States.

During his remarks, the judge acknowledged that Guzman had personally bribed Hernández’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a former Honduran congressman, with $1 million in 2013. Tony Hernández was sentenced to life in a US prison in 2021 for drug trafficking convictions in New York.

Hernández shook his head as Assistant US Attorney Jacob Gutwillig declared that he had chosen to “commit evil.”

“No one, not even the former president of a country, is above the law,” Gutwillig emphasized.

Hernández’s sentencing took place in a federal courthouse situated just two blocks from the location where former US President Donald Trump is scheduled to be sentenced on July 11 for convictions related to falsifying business records.

In announcing the sentence, Castel elaborated on the fairness of Hernández’s trial and highlighted key evidence that established his guilt.

Castel described the number of killings linked to the drug trade during Hernández’s political career as “staggering,” citing testimony from a drug trafficking witness who acknowledged involvement in 78 murders prior to collaborating with US authorities.

He noted that Hernández selectively assisted drug traffickers who furthered his political ambitions, but not consistently.

“No, he was too smart for that,” Castel asserted, emphasizing that Hernández aided traffickers opportunistically.

“His No. 1 goal was his own political survival,” Castel concluded.