Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez found guilty in US drug trafficking case

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(NEW YORK) -- Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was convicted on drug trafficking charges Friday in a Manhattan federal court.

Hernandez, who served as president of Honduras from 2014 to 2022, had been charged by U.S. authorities with drug trafficking and weapons offenses that linked him to tons of cocaine imported into the United States over the last two decades. Prosecutors say he accepted bribes from El Chapo's Sinaloa cartel and other drug networks to line his own pockets, finance his political campaigns, and commit electoral fraud to win two presidential elections.

In exchange, prosecutors say, he protected drug traffickers, including his own brother, Tony Hernandez, who was convicted of drug trafficking in the U.S. in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison.

Hernandez even presented himself as a partner of the United States on crime, drugs and immigration policies as U.S. law enforcement secretly investigated him over involvement in the drug trade.

He was indicted and arrested in February 2022 -- just three weeks after leaving office -- and extradited to the U.S. months later.

Two of his co-defendants plead guilty -- a former Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, and Hernandez's cousin Mauricio Hernandez.

The former president maintained his innocence and claimed the prosecution was the result of drug traffickers smearing him to get revenge for his crackdown on the drug trade.

The U.S. Justice Department said he and his conspirators trafficked over 400 tons of U.S. bound cocaine through Honduras under Hernandez's tenure in government.

"Juan Orlando Hernandez abused his position as President of Honduras to operate 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," U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland said in a statement. "As today's conviction demonstrates, the Justice Department is disrupting the entire ecosystem of drug trafficking networks that harm the American people, no matter how far or how high we must go."

The case had been closely watched in Hernandez's country, where it was dubbed the "trial of the century" in the media.

Hernandez is scheduled to be sentenced on June 26. He faces up to life in prison.

-ABC News' Conor J. Finnegan and Victoria Moll Ramirez contributed to this report.

Friday, March 8, 2024 at 5:16PM by Aaron Katersky, ABC News Permalink