US jails Honduran ex-president for 45 years on drug charges

Honduran then-president Juan Orlando Hernandez Alvarado addresses the 76th session UN General Assembly on September 22, 2021, in New York (EDUARDO MUNOZ)
Honduran then-president Juan Orlando Hernandez Alvarado addresses the 76th session UN General Assembly on September 22, 2021, in New York (EDUARDO MUNOZ)

A court in New York on Wednesday sentenced former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez to 45 years in prison after he was convicted of trafficking hundreds of tons of cocaine into the United States.

Anti-Hernandez protesters gathered outside the Manhattan courthouse ahead of sentencing brandishing placards decrying the former head of state's crimes with one declaring "Narco government -- makes the people emigrate."

"The role of Mr Hernandez was to use his political power as president of Congress and president of Honduras to limit the risks of drug traffickers in exchange of money," said Judge Kevin Castel as the disgraced statesman stood impassively.

He said Hernandez provided police and military support and helped to send 400 tons of drugs -- worth $10 billion at market prices -- to the United States.

In a speech ahead of sentencing, Hernandez, who wore prison garb and used a walking stick to enter court, was interrupted by the judge for contesting the trial's outcome and insisting he was wrongly charged.

The sentence, which also included an $8 million fine, was less than the life imprisonment that prosecutors had sought -- although Hernandez's age, 55, means he may die behind bars.

"He's going to pursue every single possible legal remedy that he can pursue," Hernandez's lawyer Renato Stabile told reporters outside court.

- War on drugs -

Hernandez, who US federal prosecutors said turned his Central American country into a "narco-state" during his 2014-2022 presidency, has previously indicated through his legal team he would appeal his conviction.

He was convicted in March of having facilitated the smuggling of hundreds of tons of cocaine -- mainly from Colombia and Venezuela -- to the United States via Honduras since 2004, starting long before he became president.

Hernandez used the drug money to enrich himself and finance his political campaign, and commit electoral fraud in the 2013 and 2017 elections, prosecutors said.

He had presented himself as a champion of the war on drugs and was initially seen by Washington as an ally in the fight.

In 2017, the United States was one of the first countries to recognize his re-election, while the opposition denounced fraud against a backdrop of violent protests that left some 30 people dead.

He was extradited to the United States in 2022 using a law he had himself helped to pass as Congress president under pressure from Washington, accused of aiding drug smugglers in return for millions of dollars in bribes.

US Attorney General Merrick Garland said Hernandez "abused his power to support one of the largest and most violent drug trafficking conspiracies in the world, and the people of Honduras and the United States bore the consequences."

The fall of Hernandez, who is known in his country as "JOH," was abrupt.

No sooner had he handed over power to the new left-wing president Xiomara Castro, the outgoing leader was shackled and paraded in front of journalists.

Hernandez follows in the footsteps of other former Latin American heads of state convicted in the United States, including Panama's Manuel Noriega in 1992 and Guatemala's Alfonso Portillo in 2014.

The short, athletic leader was known for his military haircut, having served as an officer before training as a lawyer, completing a masters degree in New York in 1995.

His legal woes began in earnest in 2018 when his brother, Juan Antonio Hernandez, was arrested in Miami and sentenced in March 2021 to life imprisonment for "large-scale" drug trafficking.

After his arrest in Honduras in February 2022, Hernandez said he was a victim of "revenge" by the drug lords, many of whom testified against him in New York.