Home News Hondurans cheer a rare win over their corrupt politicians, far from home | News

Hondurans cheer a rare win over their corrupt politicians, far from home | News

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Hondurans cheer a rare win over their corrupt politicians, far from home | News

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New York City, New York – The defendant, greying and pale after two years in a jail cell, lowered his head in a final prayer as the verdict was read.

For almost three weeks, defence lawyers for former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez had tried to persuade jurors in a federal courtroom here that the state’s witnesses of convicted drug traffickers and murderers were liars and their testimony –  that they operated under the former president’s protection as part of a “narco-state” – was untrustworthy.

But Hernandez’s prayers would go unanswered and his attorneys’ words unheeded as jurors found the ex-president guilty on all three counts of drugs and weapons charges, concluding a fall from grace so epic that it mirrors that of late Panamanian President Manuel Antonio Noriega, who was convicted 32 years ago in a federal courthouse in Miami of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from the Medellin drug cartel.

Like Noriega, Hernandez was once a staunch United States ally in its “War on Drugs”. Representing a deeply conservative Honduran political party, Hernandez portrayed himself as a law and order candidate in his 2013 presidential campaign, promising to reduce the flow of illegal drugs into the country and the violence that stemmed from it.

He did neither, according to the Honduran people, and instead ushered in a period of state repression targeting dissidents and the country’s Indigenous and Afro-Caribbean population, the most notable of whom was the environmental activist Berta Caceres, who was assassinated in 2016 by a local business executive with ties to the government.

So unpopular was Hernandez that many Hondurans gloated when he was arrested by US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) agents three weeks after he left office in January of 2022 and extradited to the US to stand trial three months later. His case enthralled Honduran expatriates who filled the benches in the 26th-floor Manhattan courtroom each day, some laughing uproariously when Hernandez testified that he had no connection to drug trafficking and that his accusers were “professional liars”.

Outside, dozens of Hondurans flocked to Columbus Park, which sits across from the federal courthouse in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighbourhood, tying a sea of Honduran flags to the park’s fence. When the verdict was announced, the expatriates erupted in song, some holding up their cell phones to livestream the celebration to friends and relatives in Honduras while others held a vigil for dozens of Hondurans killed by security forces and assassins under Hernandez’s government.

One of those attending the vigil was Norma Martinez, a slightly built woman with purple earrings. In 2021, her daughter Keyla, a nursing student, was raped and killed by Honduran National Police, sparking national outrage and protests.

“Justice has been done for the thousands of victims whose blood was spilled under his narco-dictatorship,” she told Al Jazeera. “Even though in the case of Keyla, there’s no justice and I don’t feel fully satisfied, at least we can say Hernandez is in jail.”

‘Narco-dictatorship’

For years, many in Honduras thought Hernandez, known as JOH, was untouchable, including, apparently, the man himself.

Elected in 2013, he promised to deploy military and police forces to implement a “Mano Dura”, or “Iron Fist” strategy to combat street gangs.

Evidence presented at trial suggests that his 2013 campaign was supplemented with millions of dollars in donations from drug traffickers.

[BELOW: I don’t understand what’s in this picture. The caption should explain that]

Supporters of the ruling Libertad y Refundacion party (LIBRE) celebrate in Tegucigalpa
Juan Orlando Hernandez was convicted of drug trafficking by a New York jury, in the United States [Orlando Sierra/AFP]

In 2017, after overseeing a change in the constitution that allowed him to run for a second term, Hernandez was re-elected in a ballot that international observers said was riven with irregularities although US President Donald Trump’s administration endorsed the official outcome. Mass protests followed. They were met with a surge in repression, and security forces killed dozens of people in the days after the vote.

In 2018, DEA agents arrested Hernandez’s brother, Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, in the US. Incensed by widespread allegations of drug trafficking as well as suspicions that he won re-election through fraud, many Hondurans began referring to the Hernandez government as a “narco-dictatorship”.

When US President Joe Biden’s administration took office in 2021, it made a point to avoid public meetings between US officials and Hernandez, even though training and collaboration between US and Honduran security forces on anti-drug operations quietly continued. Hernandez left office in January 2022, and he was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa the next month by local police accompanied by DEA agents. He was extradited to the US three months later.

For many, the court proceedings were seen as a trial not just of Hernandez but also the system of lawlessness and impunity that is associated with Honduras’s top politicians. At the same time, the court case raised questions about the relationship between US politicians and a right-wing elite in Latin America dating back to the 1954 coup d’etat that ousted Guatemala’s democratically elected president.

‘Shove coke right up the noses of the gringos’

Defence attorneys for Hernandez asserted that the state’s witnesses couldn’t be trusted because they sought to reduce their own sentences through plea deals with the government. The prosecutors also emphasized the criminality of their witnesses — which included drug traffickers in US prisons who cumulatively were responsible for dozens of murders — by saying that “these were the men the defendant chose to work with.”

Witness testimony focused on corruption that began in the late 2000s when Hernandez was a congressman. The witnesses asserted that the president and his brother manipulated the powers of the state to consolidate their control of the northbound cocaine trade – Honduras is a key route for deliveries from Colombia – while negotiating pacts between regional drug-trafficking clans.

The prosecutors additionally provided multiple photos of the former president with drug traffickers, including one with the leaders of the Valle Valle drug clan at the South Africa World Cup in 2010.

In almost every case, former drug traffickers described receiving protection from military and police forces as well as from judges, prosecutors and politicians.

Jose Sanchez, a former accountant for the rice company Graneros Nacionales, alleged that Hernandez made frequent visits to the company’s headquarters in the city of Choloma. Sanchez said that on multiple occasions while Hernandez was president of the Honduran Congress and then president of the country, he would meet the owner of the company, Fuad Jarufe, and the convicted drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes to discuss a cocaine laboratory in the nearby mountains.

“We’re going to shove coke right up the noses of the gringos,” he testified Hernandez said.

Sanchez also testified that he saw a box of bulletproof vests from the 105th Infantry Brigade of the Honduran military in Hernandez’s home in San Pedro Sula and a trafficker brandished a submachine gun as they drove to exchange currency for a money laundering scheme, saying how he wanted a chance “to use this little toy from [his] friends in the military”.

The accountant alleged that Hernandez would ask him to change US dollars from Fuentes, the drug trafficker, into lempiras, the Honduran currency, so the company could launder bribes.

The scheme was part of what the prosecutors alleged was a larger pattern of collecting donations from various drug traffickers.

An imprisoned Honduran politician, Alex Ardon, testified that he met several times with Tony Hernandez, culminating in a meeting late in 2013 at a mansion in western Honduras, where Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman handed over $1m for Juan Orlando Hernandez’s 2013 presidential campaign. In exchange, the candidate agreed to protect cocaine shipments from the DEA.

Another state witness, the drug kingpin Leonel Devis Rivera Maradiaga, is linked to at least 78 murders as well as collaborating with Hernandez. He testified that in 2012, he received a phone call and then two video calls from his brother while at a party with another drug trafficker. In the calls, he said, he saw Hernandez at a series of tables with the traffickers “as if it were a private meeting”. One of the traffickers, Neftaly Duarte Mejia, told Rivera Maradiaga that “he’d already given him [$100,000] as well as his private helicopter to use for his [2013 presidential] campaign.”

Less than a week later, Rivera Maradiaga said he and a Honduran congressman, Oscar Najera, delivered $250,000 to Hernandez’s sister, Hilda, in Tegucigalpa.

USS Honduras

The imprisoned drug trafficker Fabio Lobo described a 2013 meeting in which he and Tony Hernandez drove to a petrol station outside Tegucigalpa, where the president’s brother accepted a bag filled with $4m from a man in another car.

“We got the package our friends, the Valles [drug clan], sent,” Tony allegedly said to his brother on speaker phone as they drove back from picking up the money.

Lobo said the man who handed the cash to Tony Hernandez was the same who, on June 6, 2018, was arrested in a caravan of armored cars containing a cache of weapons, $200,000 and “Narco-libretas” (narco-booklets) embossed with the initials of the president and his brother.

Hitmen, known as “sicarios” in Spanish, from the MS-13 street gang were used by police to provide armed security for drug shipments, according to the former intimate partner of Alexander Mendoza, or “El Porkie”.

After being arrested in 2019, Mendoza escaped custody in a violent shootout that killed four people. The men who freed him were wearing uniforms of the same elite military police unit that was touted by Hernandez’s defence as evidence of his anti-drug record. That unit stands accused of extrajudicial killings and collaborating with MS-13.

Mendoza’s ex-girlfriend testified that she frequently overheard him on the phone with Juan Carlos “El Tigre” Bonilla, a police commander with close ties to the military and Tony Hernandez who was known for organising death squads responsible for “social cleansing”. Tony Hernandez pleaded guilty to drug trafficking on February 7.

Supporters of the ruling Libertad y Refundacion party (LIBRE) celebrate in Tegucigalpa
A New York jury on March 8, 2024, found 55-year-old Hernandez guilty of trafficking hundreds of tonnes of cocaine into the United States, enriching himself while protecting and abetting some of the region’s most infamous drug cartels [Orlando Sierra/AFP]

She said she overheard Mendoza say to other gang members: “Call ‘El Tigre’ if there’s a problem. He’ll fix this.” At one juncture, she said, “El Tigre” provided Mendoza with a large cache of military-grade weapons.

The DEA began investigating Juan Orlando Hernandez as early as 2014, according to Lobo. That year, he and the military commander Julian Pacheco Tinoco had a series of meetings to discuss using military intelligence to protect drug routes. On the third meeting, when Lobo introduced him to two Mexican traffickers linked to the Sinaloa Cartel, Pacheco Tinoco stormed out of the room. He recognized the traffickers as DEA informants.

Although several office-based research analysts spoke to the court, no active DEA field agents working in Honduras testified.

The US continued to provide security aid to Honduras until 2020, funneling weapons, training and technologies while sponsoring “depuraciones”, or cleanups, of the police.

“Juan Orlando said he did a cleanup of the National Police and military police, but that was totally false. It wasn’t true,” Martinez told Al Jazeera.

“What they did do was get rid of honest people who did serve the people and leave only the police who would do the work of pushing drugs, allowing drugs to move.”

What is not often said publicly is the role that the US played in Hondurans’ suffering. Cold War warriors in Washington dubbed the Central American nation the “USS Honduras” in reference to its use by the CIA as a staging ground to launch attacks against Nicaragua’s leftist government. Similarly, a CIA-trained paramilitary group known as Battalion 316 tortured and killed leftist Hondurans.

And more recently, US President Barack Obama’s administration was ambivalent in opposing the 2009 coup that toppled moderate President Manuel Zelaya after he had raised Honduras’s minimum monthly wage to a modest $300.

The legacy of US meddling in Honduras, many say, is a nation that struggles to govern itself.

“It’s good to have justice,” Alexis Castellanos, a Honduran immigrant living in New York, said amid the din of shouting and singing at Columbus Park following the verdict, “but it’s a little bit sad that we need to do it here. We can’t have justice in our own country.”

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