From U.S. ally in the fight against drugs to being accused of turning Honduras into a 'narco-state': The case of Juan Orlando Hernández

Federal prosecutors in New York began the court case against the former Central American president, who was arrested and extradited to the United States in 2022.

New York authorities will define the fate of Juan Orlando Hernández, the former president of Honduras accused of bringing hundreds of thousands of kilos of cocaine into the United States and turning his country into an oasis for drug traffickers. According to prosecutors, the former president even protected Joaquín El Chapo Guzmán.

Hernández served as president of Honduras between 2014 and 2022. Precisely, the case accuses him of taking advantage of his position to protect numerous drug traffickers in exchange for mountains of money, which he would later use to finance his campaigns and buy wills.

It would have been precisely that money that boosted the career of a young congressman to become one of the youngest presidents in the country. He was even seen on some occasions as a great ally of the United States in stopping the migratory influx and combating drugs in Latin America.

"This is a case of power, of corruption"

The former president was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa in February 2022, just three months after leaving office. He was extradited to the United States in April of that same year and accused of his alleged crimes on American soil.

Federal prosecutors in New York spent years investigating criminal organizations linked to drug trafficking in Honduras, hoping to reach the person their sources said was at the top: Hernández himself.

"This is a case about power, about corruption, about large amounts of cocaine and about a man who was at the center of it all," said prosecutor David Robles while pointing to Hernández, who wore a dark gray suit on the first day of the trial.

According to prosecutors, El Chapo Guzmán, head of the Sinaloa cartel, traveled to Honduras for a meeting in which he agreed to pay Hernández $1 million in exchange for protection. After the deal, the defendant provided police escorts and helped planes loaded with drugs avoid law enforcement.

In turn, some former drug traffickers turned witnesses agreed to testify against the alleged "gang boss," which could further complicate their case.

His brother, Tony Hernández, a former deputy in the Honduran Congress, was convicted in 2019 of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and sentenced to life in prison. At the same time, the case also accuses the former president of possession of machine guns and other devices of destruction, although he denies all accusations.

The trial, which is expected to last at least two weeks, began Wednesday afternoon in Manhattan, where the former president was directly accused of turning Honduras into a "narco-state" for two decades.

"Complete contradiction in U.S. foreign policy interests"

For Michael Shifter, former president of the Inter-American Dialogue, a Washington-based think tank, Hernández's case will be uncomfortable for some D.C. leaders.

"Juan Orlando Hernández was the poster child for this complete contradiction in U.S. foreign policy interests. The U.S. was left supporting a criminal," he declared in dialogue with The Wall Street Journal.

According to Shifter, some U.S. officials turned a blind eye to the president's alleged corruption in exchange for his cooperation in controlling Honduran immigration.

Even Donald Trump praised Hernández for his work in 2019. "President Hernández is working with the United States very closely. You know what's going on at our southern border. And we're winning after years and years of losing. We are stopping drugs at a level that has never happened," said the Republican when he was still Commander in Chief.

According to court documents in the case, Hernández suggested that he could testify in his own defense and justify his work with the United States.