Ex-Honduran President Sentenced to 45 Years for Trafficking Drugs to U.S.

REUTERS/Fredy Rodriguez
Ana Garcia attends a press conference after her husband former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was sentenced by a U.S. judge to 45 years in prison for his conviction on drug and firearm offenses, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras June 26, 2024.

NEW YORK – Former Honduran president and U.S. ally Juan Orlando Hernández was sentenced by a U.S. judge on Wednesday to 45 years in a federal prison and an $8 million fine for running a “narco-state” that helped send South American cocaine to the United States.

Hernández, 55, who was convicted of federal drug and weapons charges in March, built his political career on millions of dollars in bribes from traffickers in Honduras and Mexico, U.S. prosecutors said. During his two terms as president from 2014 to 2022, they said, he helped move at least 400 tons of cocaine to the United States while protecting traffickers from extradition and prosecution.

U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel spoke of the breadth of the trafficking conspiracy before he handed down the sentence.

The 400 tons of cocaine sent to the United States was worth “well over $10 billion” on the street, Castel said, and two participants who cooperated against Hernández admitted to more than 130 murders. While Hernández posed as a “champion” against narco-trafficking, the judge said, he was facilitating violence, disease and addiction.

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of life in prison plus 30 years.

“Juan Orlando Hernández abused his power as the president of Honduras to send incomprehensible amounts of cocaine to the United States,” prosecutor Jacob Gutwillig said. “He was polluting this country with incomprehensible amounts of poison.”

During Hernández’s presidency, the U.S. government portrayed him as an ally against narco-trafficking and illegal immigration. In 2015, then-Vice President Joe Biden hosted him at the White House. In December 2019, President Donald Trump praised him for his cooperation, saying the countries were “stopping drugs at a level that has never happened.”

But the Justice Department was investigating him as part of a broader probe into drug trafficking allegations against the Honduran political elite. His brother, Tony Hernández, was convicted of federal drug trafficking charges in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison. Prosecutors named Juan Orlando Hernández an unindicted co-conspirator in that case.

At the request of the United States, Honduran police arrested Hernández within weeks of his departure from office in January 2022, and he was extradited to face federal charges in New York.

His prosecution has raised questions about whether the U.S. government ignored his criminal activities as they sought his help in slowing migration toward the southwest border.

Former U.S. diplomats have denied that. They’ve said the case illustrates Washington’s bureaucratic dysfunction: State Department officials were left in the dark about the Justice Department investigation.

Hernández has denied any wrongdoing. He has accused jailed drug dealers of giving false testimony against him in exchange for reduced sentences. He is expected to appeal his conviction.

“Your honor, I reiterate that I am innocent, that I was wrongly accused and convicted,” Hernandez told Castel on Wednesday. Castel warned Hernández repeatedly to stick to the subject – his sentence – and not to try to re-litigate his case.

His lawyer had sought a 40-year sentence, the mandatory minimum.

“Mr. Hernández did more to combat narcotrafficking in Honduras than any Honduran President before or since,” Renato Stabile wrote to the court before the hearing Wednesday.

Hernández’s conservative National Party assumed the presidency of the country of 10 million in 2009 after leftist president Mel Zelaya was toppled in a coup. But the party was weakened by corruption and drug-trafficking scandals. It lost the presidency in 2021 – to Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro.