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U.S. court convicts ex-president of Honduras of aiding drug traffickers

Former President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernández is escorted by Honduran police to be extradited to the United States to face charges related to drug traffickers, on April 21, 2022, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.
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Former President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernández is escorted by Honduran police to be extradited to the United States to face charges related to drug traffickers, on April 21, 2022, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras.

Updated March 8, 2024 at 4:29 PM ET

Former President of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernández has been found guilty on charges relating to drug trafficking and weapons possession, in a trial by jury in New York.

A New York Federal District Court convicted the 55-year-old ex-president Friday of three counts including conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and to use machine guns and "destructive devices."

Once seen as a reliable Central American partner by both the Obama and Trump administrations, Hernández was lauded by former President Donald Trump as a man who helped the U.S. stop "drugs at a level that has never happened."

It is one of the rare instances a former leader of a country has been tried and convicted in the U.S. on drug related charges. A prominent previous example was Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega, who was convicted in 1992 in a federal court in Florida of allowing a Colombian cartel to ship cocaine through Panama to the U.S.

Hernández served as a Honduran congressman, congress leader and finally two-term president. He was arrested in February 2022, only weeks after he finished his second presidential term.

When he eventually took the stand at his trial, he admitted that drug cartels bribed nearly all politicians in Honduras. But he said he never took a bribe.

He argued that drug dealers were trying to sink him by lying at the trial. He pointed to his ties to American officials, including presidents, as proof he was helping the U.S. with its war on drugs.

Prosecutors presented convicted drug dealers as witnesses. And they testified that they paid millions of dollars destined for Hernández and his two campaigns for president in 2013 and 2017. In exchange, they testified, the former president protected some of the world's biggest drug dealers.

The Justice Department said in a statement Friday that Hernández "was at the center of one of the largest and most violent drug-trafficking conspiracies in the world."

Hernández "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," Attorney General Merrick Garland said in the statement.

DEA Administrator Anne Milgram said the former Honduran leader and the leader of Mexico's Sinaloa cartel worked "hand-in-hand to send deadly drugs into American communities."

The verdict was announced during the second day of deliberations, after a two-week trial that has been followed closely in his home country.

NPR correspondent Eyder Peralta contributed reporting from Mexico City.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

International Desk