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Former president of Honduras is on trial, facing charges that he ran a 'narco state'

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Almost two years after he was extradited to the U.S., the trial of the former president of Honduras has begun in New York City. As NPR's Eyder Peralta reports, Juan Orlando Hernandez faces charges that he ran Honduras as a narco-state.

EYDER PERALTA, BYLINE: In a country used to impunity, it was a shock to see what happened in the spring of 2022.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: The former president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, came out of jail handcuffed. And he was put on a plane to the United States, where he was charged with drug trafficking. According to prosecutors, Hernandez took millions of dollars from some of the world's most powerful drug cartels, and in exchange, they say, the president offered them protection. The U.S. alleges Hernandez helped move tons of cocaine through Honduras on its way to the United States. Juan Orlando Hernandez has denied all of these charges. Outside the courthouse this morning, just before jury selection began, his lawyer, Raymond Colon, said they were confident in their defense.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

RAYMOND COLON: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "Tell me," he said. "Why would a president promote extradition, why would he fight against organized crime if he was a drug trafficker?" That has been central to Hernandez's defense. In an open letter, he said this trial was revenge by drug traffickers who resent his tough policies against them. How could he be a drug trafficker if, as president, he was such a good friend to the U.S.? Hernandez's wife, Ana Hernandez, published a video reading his letter.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANA HERNANDEZ: (Speaking Spanish).

PERALTA: "All of his plans were known by the highest levels of the American government," the letter reads, from President Biden, who knew him as vice president, to President Trump, the CIA, to the Justice Department, to the DEA. So how could he now be accused of being a drug trafficker? Dana Frank, whose book "The Long Honduran Night" details Honduras' recent history, says that might be one of the most interesting parts of this trial. During his two terms as president, Juan Orlando Hernandez, she says, was an unwavering American ally. Indeed, while Hernandez was president, the U.S. pumped millions into his government, including to fight drug trafficking. That's why, Frank says, this is not a story about how the United States is heroically bringing a corrupt former president to justice.

DANA FRANK: Because the United States knew about all his crimes.

PERALTA: Frank says she hopes this trial will reveal not only how narco-corruption works in Honduras but much more on how the United States might be complicit. Eyder Peralta, NPR News, Mexico City. 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 is NPR's East Africa correspondent based in Nairobi, Kenya.
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