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Narco-State: U.S.-Backed Fmr. Honduran Pres. Juan Orlando Hernández on Trial in NY for Drug Trafficking

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Federal prosecutors in New York have rested their case against former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who is accused of turning the Central American country into a narco-state. Hernández is on trial for cocaine trafficking and weapons charges and is the first former head of state to stand trial in the United States since Panamanian dictator and U.S. ally Manuel Noriega was also tried on drug charges after a U.S.-led ouster. Prosecutors accuse Hernández, a longtime U.S. ally accused of human rights violations throughout his presidency, of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from cocaine traffickers in exchange for protection and turning Honduras into a drug trafficking narco-state. If convicted, Hernández could join his brother Juan Antonio in serving a life sentence in the U.S. We speak to two writers who have been attending the trial in New York: historian Dana Frank and author and Honduran screenwriter Oscar Estrada. “There’s a narrative here that … the Honduran people can’t govern themselves, and then suddenly the U.S. is coming in and heroically imposing the rule of law,” says Frank about U.S. public perception of the trial. However, she continues, “It’s the opposite. It’s the United States that helped destroy the criminal justice system in Honduras.”

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StoryMar 11, 2024Guilty: U.S.-Backed Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández Convicted of Drug Trafficking
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, with Juan González.

Here in New York, prosecutors have rested their case against the former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández, who’s on trial for cocaine trafficking and weapons charges as prosecutors accuse Hernández of ruling the Central American country as a narco-state. He’s the first former head of state to stand trial in the U.S. since the Panamanian dictator and U.S. ally Manuel Noriega, who was ousted in 1989 when U.S. forces invaded Panama, and later he was convicted on drug charges.

Hernández is accused of accepting millions of dollars in bribes from cocaine traffickers in exchange for protection. During the trial, several convicted drug traffickers testified against him, including some affiliated with the Sinaloa Cartel and the son of another former U.S.-backed Honduran president, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo Sosa.

Hernández was arrested in February 2022, less than a month after his presidential term ended, and extradited to the U.S. in April of 2022. He was a longtime U.S. ally who received backing during his entire eight-year term despite mounting reports of human rights violations and accusations of corruption and involvement with drug smuggling. His brother, “Tony” Hernández, Juan Antonio Hernández, is now serving a prison sentence in U.S., a life sentence, after being convicted in 2019 of smuggling cocaine. Juan Orlando Hernández faces life in prison, if convicted, as well.

For more, we’re joined by two guests who have been attending the trial in New York. Dana Frank is professor of history emerita at the University of California, Santa Cruz, author of The Long Honduran Night: Resistance, Terror, and the United States in the Aftermath of the Coup. And Oscar Estrada, a Honduran writer and screenwriter, his latest book, Land of Narcos: How the Mafias Took Over Honduras.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Professor Frank, why don’t you start by giving us the overall context, before we get into what’s testified at this trial?

DANA FRANK: Well, the main thing here is that the U.S. is apparently deciding to try — has decided to try one of its most important allies. And the overall context of this is, of course, the U.S. support for the 2009 military coup, which the U.S. backed and allowed to stabilize. And that, in turn, destroyed the rule of law in Honduras. So it’s not just that Juan Orlando is randomly a corrupt drug trafficker and repressive figure, but the U.S. supported him, they supported the previous president, Porfirio “Pepe” Lobo, and allowed the destruction of the rule of law, which then opened the door for the kind of criminal behavior and drug trafficking not only by the narcos, but by figures at the top of the military, the government and the police.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to ask Oscar Estrada — you’ve also been at the trial. What struck you most about it so far? Especially could you talk about the testimony of Fabio Lobo, son of the former president, Porfirio Lobo?

OSCAR ESTRADA: Yeah. I think at this point it’s been shown very clear the involvement of narco money, narcotrafficked money, into Honduran elections. And it’s very interesting that the United States prosecutor now is trying to back up for the original indictment about election fraud in the 2013 election, which is the one that has been shown the most. And I think that all the different witnesses are saying that they paid bribes for the different candidates in the United States. And I think the Honduran people have been expecting more about this trial in the sense that trying to see what happened in the elections, what happened with all this different narcotrafficking involvement on — for political campaign.

And with Fabio Lobo, I think that it’s very clear, when he’s delivering on the witness stand, that he has a lot more to say that it wasn’t really shown there. And at the end, it shows like a man full of resentment of his father and different political figures that left him alone when he was arrested in Haiti in 2015.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dana Frank, why did the United States turn so dramatically against a leader that it supported for two terms in office, one of which was ostensibly an illegal term?

DANA FRANK: Well, I think the first term, I mean, you see the amount of money that flowed in from narcos for his first term, has come out in the trial. So I think that underscores how corrupt both elections were, which I’ve been saying all along, as have many Hondurans.

I think the question is, to answer how the U.S. turned on Juan Orlando is, like, you have to disaggregate who the United States is in here, because it’s been the Southern District of New York that’s been independently following these cases, building the case, that have led to Juan Orlando Hernández and, before that, his brother Tony. And the evidence that I know is that the U.S., the White House and the State Department have not been happy about this. I mean, I’ve interviewed officials at the State Department and three different ambassadors, and it was clear they were very hostile of the Southern District and all these cases that they had been gaining. And it’s also clear that although Obama and Trump and Biden all supported Juan Orlando Hernández, Biden did not want the Southern District of New York to charge and extradite Juan Orlando Hernández until after Hernández was out of office. And so, it’s like very important, because, otherwise, it looks like the U.S. — you know, there’s a narrative here, that you could see in The New York Times, for example, that the Honduran people can’t govern themselves, and then suddenly the U.S. is coming in and heroically imposing the rule of law. And it’s the opposite. It’s the United States that helped destroy the criminal justice system in Honduras, and Obama and Trump did not want Juan Orlando to be charged and extradited.

AMY GOODMAN: So, Oscar Estrada, if you can talk about the human rights situation on the ground when JOH, J-O-H, Juan Orlando Hernández, was president — for example, turning the Honduran military, essentially, into private security guards for drug traffickers — and what that meant for human rights activists and people on the ground who were critical of the president?

OSCAR ESTRADA: Well, it’s clear that we have seen, since the coup d’état in 2009, a deterioration of the human rights situation in Honduras. And from then on, you know, like pretty much all the last decade, has been a lot of accusation of violation of human rights. And the military role is very important. And we see it now with his defense. What we’ve seen is generals of the army actually came here and taking the stand supporting his defense. It’s very clear that he was backed up by the military from the beginning, and it’s the military is now defending him. So, it’s clear that the army in Honduras, even though it is trying to back it up from this military officers, generals, most of them, they are like in the stand for the defense witness. They’re trying to back it up, but it’s clear that he still have a lot of influence inside the army.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Dana Frank, I wanted to ask you — it’s been two years since Xiomara Castro was elected president at the head of a popular movement in Honduras. Has U.S. policy toward Honduras changed at all, or is it still backing the corrupt elite of the former presidents?

DANA FRANK: Well, there’s a very clear pattern, since very early on, when Xiomara first took office, of the U.S. supporting the very same actors it has for many years, of working with the National Party — that’s Juan Orlando Hernández’s party — working with corrupt figures at the top of the National Party — the actual head of the party is a fugitive from justice as we speak — and trying to pressure LIBRE, the ruling party, to accept National Party as an equal actor. And the U.S. ambassador, Laura Dogu, has very aggressively been trying to undermine human — Honduran sovereignty, opposing tax reform law, opposing the reform of the electrical system, very aggressively supporting the ZEDEs, which are the so-called model cities, that are a total violation of the Honduran Constitution. It’s very clear that the U.S. agenda is to support transnational corporate investments in Honduras, which it always has. And, of course, it cares about Honduras as part of its larger geopolitical effort to militarily dominate the hemisphere.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, Oscar, the former head of Honduras’s National Police pleaded guilty Tuesday to cocaine trafficking. Juan Carlos Bonilla, known as “El Tigre,” appeared in a New York City court just days before he was scheduled to go on trial with the president, with Juan Orlando Hernández. Can you talk about the significance of his guilty plea, as we wrap up?

OSCAR ESTRADA: Well, I think that we in Honduras, we wanted Tigre Bonilla to be persecuted for all his human rights violation record, which is very well known and recorded in Honduras. Instead of that, he’s pleading guilty for one charge of narcotraffic. But what we don’t want is for that to be a cover-up of this record of human rights violations, from the coup d’état and from way before. He was one of the leaders of the one death squad in early 2000s and very famous. He built a career as a repressor. And now that he’s been sentenced — I mean, he’s going to be sentenced in the South District Court in the United States, we want to know more about what else has he done during this time in being chief of police.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Professor Frank, we just have 30 seconds, but as the U.S. increasingly criminalizes immigrants coming into this country, the huge flow of, for example, Honduran immigrants, the connection between migration and what the U.S. has supported in Honduras?

DANA FRANK: Well, people are fleeing because they’re fleeing the gangs, they’re fleeing poverty, and they’re fleeing the post-coup regime, three different presidents that have destroyed the country and had been backed by the United States in doing that. The United States is the single biggest factor creating the crisis in Honduras, the single biggest factor why people are fleeing. And then it turns around and says, somehow, they’re a disaster down there independently, when actually it’s the U.S. that’s responsible for why people are fleeing Honduras.

AMY GOODMAN: Dana Frank, we want to thank you for being with us, professor of history emerita at University of California, Santa Cruz, and Oscar Estrada, Honduran writer and screenwriter. His latest book, Land of Narcos: How the Mafias Took Over Honduras.

Coming up, we speak with the producer of the Oscar-nominated Holocaust film, Zone of Interest, who raised Israel’s assault on Gaza in his BAFTA acceptance award. Stay with us.

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