Honduras ex-President Hernandez convicted at US drugs trial

By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez was found guilty on Friday of drug trafficking conspiracy by a U.S. jury, cementing the onetime U.S. ally's fall from grace.

Jurors in federal court in Manhattan reached the verdict after about two days, following a two-week trial.

Hernandez, 55, faces possible life in prison. U.S. District Judge Kevin Castel will determine his sentence at a later date.

Renato Stabile, a lawyer for Hernandez, said his client plans to appeal the verdict.

During Hernandez's presidency, which ran from 2014 to 2022, the Central American country received more than $50 million in U.S. anti-narcotics assistance, and tens of millions of dollars in security and military aid.

But the Justice Department said Hernandez abused his power by accepting millions of dollars in bribes from traffickers to protect their U.S.-bound cocaine shipments, and to fuel his rise in Honduran politics.

Hernandez was convicted on three charges: using machine guns to further a cocaine importation conspiracy, conspiring to use machine guns to further that conspiracy, and conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.

"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 after the verdict.

Hernandez was arrested and extradited to the United States in April 2022, three months after he left office.

He had pleaded not guilty to drug trafficking conspiracy and criminal weapons possession charges.

At the trial, several convicted traffickers testified they had bribed Hernandez.

In Honduras' capital, Tegucigalpa, on Friday, former first lady Ana Garcia de Hernandez said her husband's "unjust" conviction lacked proof and was the "revenge of those criminals" she said he had targeted as president.

"Today it was Juan Orlando. Tomorrow it could be anyone," she said in a warning to other Latin American presidents.

Prosecutors said Hernandez used drug cash to bribe officials to manipulate voting results in his favor during Honduras' 2013 and 2017 presidential elections.

Hernandez's lawyers contended that prosecutors were relying on testimony from criminals who were trying to reduce their own sentences, and get even for Hernandez's crackdown on cartels.

Testifying in his own defense on Tuesday, Hernandez denied meeting with or taking bribes from the traffickers, including convicted Mexican kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman.

"I had a policy against all those people because I could not stand them," Hernandez said, referring to drug traffickers. "They did a lot of damage in the country."

Hernandez's brother Tony Hernandez was convicted on U.S. drug-trafficking charges and related weapons charges in October 2019 and sentenced to life in prison in March 2021. Prosecutors had said that Tony Hernandez accepted millions in bribes, including from Guzman, to funnel into his country's ruling National Party coffers for elections in 2009, 2013 and 2017 to benefit his brother.

The former president has been jailed at Brooklyn's Metropolitan Detention Center since his extradition.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Additional reporting by Jonathan Stempel and Orfa Mejia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Bill Berkrot, Chris Reese and Leslie Adler)