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Former Honduran president will be in a New York courtroom for drug charges tomorrow


Last month, the former president of Honduras, Juan Orlando Hernandez, was loaded onto a plane owned by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and extradited to the United States. Tomorrow, Hernandez will be arraigned in a New York courtroom on charges that for two decades, including during his time as president, he worked with drug cartels to help send hundreds of tons of cocaine into the United States. Sarah Kinosian is a reporter for Reuters and has been following this story. Welcome.

SARAH KINOSIAN: Hi there. Thank you.

FLORIDO: When he announced the charges last month, Attorney General Merrick Garland accused Hernandez of running Honduras, in Garland's words, as a narco state. What did he mean by that? What are the sorts of things that he's accused of having done?

KINOSIAN: The list is long, and some details came out during the trial of his brother Tony, who was also convicted on narco trafficking charges. It ranges from accepting money from drug traffickers to finance his political campaigns to protecting drug shipments, protecting specific drug traffickers to help facilitate the movement of cocaine up towards the United States.

FLORIDO: I understand he's accused of using the military to help get those drugs into the U.S.

KINOSIAN: Yeah, that's a big part of it, sort of. When you read the indictment, it mentions using military officers to help protect drug traffickers, leaking information to drug traffickers about anti-narcotics operations, oftentimes anti-narcotics operations done in conjunction with the United States because Juan Orlando was a key ally to the United States in anti-drug efforts. So sometimes, though, that information would get leaked to drug traffickers who were favored by the military or in different part of the government to help facilitate the movement of drugs.

FLORIDO: And is he accused of having personally profited from the proceeds of these drug shipments?

KINOSIAN: Yeah, and primarily a lot of that money went into his political campaigns. I think most audience members are familiar with El Chapo from Mexico's Sinaloa cartel. And he - this came out during the trial of Juan Orlando's brother, Tony - was accused of giving $1 million that went into one of Juan Orlando's campaigns.

FLORIDO: Well, Hernandez will be in a New York courtroom tomorrow, as we mentioned. How is he expected to plea to these charges against him?

KINOSIAN: All signs point to he's going to plead not guilty. He himself has long denied the drug charges. But the fact that he was such a prominent U.S. ally in Central America in anti-narcotics efforts is a key part of his defense team's argument because during his time, Honduras extradited several narco traffickers to the United States, some of who have come out saying that they bribed Juan Orlando or in some way had dealings with him. And his defense team says, well, they're taking the word from these narco traffickers, but at the same time, he cooperated so much with the United States.

FLORIDO: It is somewhat surprising, though, right? Because, I mean, just a few years ago, Hernandez seemed to enjoy a pretty good relationship with the U.S., especially on issues of immigration and security. President Donald Trump even shook his hand at the U.N. in 2019. So what happened? How did the relationship take such a turn?

KINOSIAN: I mean, that is a big question why Juan Orlando was able to hold such good relationships with various administrations - Trump but also under Democratic administrations like Obama. There were good relationships on the one side. But this investigation was going on on the other. I think in some cases, one hand didn't know what the other one was doing. And then on the other, the United States government felt like they needed a partner, and he was willing to step up and do some things that various U.S. governments wanted. So in playing nice, he sort of bought himself time. But at the same time, there were these ongoing investigations.

FLORIDO: Well, Honduras' new president, Xiomara Castro, she fully cooperated with her predecessor's extradition, it seems. What does this signal about the U.S.-Honduras relationship now, you think?

KINOSIAN: I think it's at a tense moment, but I think that there is a lot of hope. In speaking with a couple of members of her administration, there is - does seem to be a willingness to want to cooperate with the United States and try and run a government that is less corrupt than the previous one.

FLORIDO: Sarah Kinosian is a reporter for Reuters. Thank you so much for joining us.

KINOSIAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.
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