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Former president of Honduras is convicted of drug trafficking charges in New York

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Former president of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernandez has been found guilty in a federal jury trial in New York. The charges relate to drug trafficking and weapons possession. Hernandez was arrested in February 2022, only weeks after he finished his second term as president. The Obama and Trump administrations both saw him as a reliable ally, but prosecutors told the jury that, actually, Hernandez had, quote, "paved a cocaine superhighway to the United States." NPR's Eyder Peralta has been following the trial from Mexico City. Hi, Eyder.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: Hey, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Walk us through the trial. What evidence came to light in court?

PERALTA: Most of the evidence in this trial came from the testimony of convicted drug dealers. And they said that they had paid millions of dollars in bribes that were destined for former President Juan Orlando Hernandez and his political campaigns. And in return, they testified that he protected some of the most notorious drug dealers in the world, including El Chapo Guzman.

And what is notable is that Juan Orlando Hernandez took to the stand to defend himself. He testified that yes, indeed, almost all politicians in Honduras take money from drug cartels, but he said he was the exception, that he had never taken any bribes. And his defense was to say, look. I was a staunch U.S. ally. And that is true. The Obama and Trump administration both welcomed Juan Orlando Hernandez to the White House. And the defense asked, why would the U.S. do business with the man if he was a drug dealer? They asked, how could this former president be a drug dealer if he was helping the U.S. with its drug war?

SHAPIRO: But obviously, the jury did not buy that defense.

PERALTA: They didn't buy it. They convicted him on their second day of deliberation. And I mean, really, truly, this shouldn't surprise us. American prosecutors have had success trying these types of cases. They got a conviction against El Chapo Guzman, and more recently, they convicted Genaro Garcia Luna, who used to be Mexico's top public safety official and another U.S. ally. And they did it using the same tactic - with testimony from other convicted drug dealers. One interesting testimony in this trial came from the leader of a Honduran drug gang. He said, look. Don't think you're going to get recordings or pictures. He said, quote, "the only proof against drug traffickers is the word of another drug trafficker." And those testimonies have proven to work in these cases for U.S. prosecutors.

SHAPIRO: Well, how are people in Honduras reacting to the news today?

PERALTA: We sent our producer, Paulo Cerrato, to talk to Hondurans in San Pedro Sula, and he heard relief. Some people were celebrating in the streets. You know, when he was president, Juan Orlando Hernandez wasn't just implicated in drug trafficking, but he was implicated in massive corruption schemes. And so the Hondurans that Paulo talked to were happy that justice was being served even if their own justice system wasn't the one delivering it. Carlos Lopez, who's 33, told him that this conviction sent a message to all other corrupt politicians in the country.

CARLOS LOPEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "If we really want a change in our country," he said, "these other people should also be tried." And during this trial, a few major politicians, even some connected to the current president, were accused of taking drug money. Lopez says he hopes they, too, will get arrested, extradited and tried in the United States.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Eyder Peralta. Thank you.

PERALTA: Thank you, Ari. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eyder Peralta
Eyder Peralta is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.