US: Honduran Ex-President Pleads Not Guilty in Drug Trafficking Conspiracy

Published: 13 May 2022

Juan Orlando HernándezFormer Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, has been a principal suspect in a transnational drug trafficking conspiracy for years. (Photo: Presidencia El Salvador, Flickr, License)

By Henry Pope

Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who for years has been a principal suspect in a transnational drug trafficking conspiracy, pleaded not guilty Tuesday in U.S. federal court.

Over the course of his long political career, and even during his two terms as president from 2014-2022, U.S. prosecutors allege that Hernández protected Latin American cartels as they trafficked at least 500 tonnes of cocaine into the United States.

“As part of that conspiracy, Juan Orlando Hernández received millions of dollars from multiple drug-trafficking organizations in Honduras, Mexico, and elsewhere, including from the former leader of the Sinaloa Cartel, Joaquin Guzman Loera, a/k/a El Chapo,” according to the indictment filed against the former president.

Prosecutors are making the case that Hernández used this partnership with the cartels to greatly enrich himself and cement his power in Honduras by siphoning drug money to finance his 2013 and 2017 presidential campaigns.

In exchange, authorities allege that he supplied cartels with sensitive information that allowed them to counter police investigations into their activities, as well as outright protect the traffickers from arrest and extradition.

Also on Tuesday, coincidentally, former Honduran National Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares—a.k.a. El Tigre—was extradited to the United States to answer for his alleged role in the drug trafficking conspiracy.

Investigators have compiled a case that Bonilla and Hernandez were together part of a network that facilitated the transport of cartel cocaine shipments across Honduras, Colombia, and Venezuela, before eventually reaching their final destination in the United States.

“Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez would not have risen to power and successfully benefited from massive drug proceeds had it not been for his expansive network of corrupt associates,” said DEA Administrator Anne Milgram. “These associates, including Bonilla Valladares, likewise exploited their positions to traffic cocaine to the United States and violently protect other politically connected drug traffickers.”

Since Hernández originally became a principal suspect in the DEA investigation in 2019, he has repeatedly stated that he is innocent and has in fact been set up as a patsy.

“This is revenge from the cartels,” the former president said. “It is an orchestrated plot so that no government will confront them again.”

Going a step further, he also released a video last month in which he portrayed himself to his countrymen as a voice for truth and justice in an otherwise tragic saga.

“Compatriots,” he began, “I am innocent. I have been and am being subjected to an unjust process.”

He went on to explain that he has defined his career by fighting for peace in Honduras and that he found it ironic how the cartels who have “turned Honduras into one of the most violent countries on the face of the earth” seek to turn themselves into the heroes in this story.

His compatriots, however, have long rejected his claims of innocence.

After the former president submitted his not guilty plea, the judge set January 2023 as a tentative start date for his trial.

“And you shall know the truth,” Hernández said as he quoted the Bible, “and the truth shall set you free.”