Former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández pleaded not guilty to drug charges on the same day that a notorious ex-Honduras police chief was extradited to the United States – in a strange confluence of events that speak to the country’s descent into a narco-state.
Hernández entered his plea in an arraignment hearing at a federal New York court on May 10 in front of Judge Kevin Castel. US prosecutors have charged Hernández with one count of cocaine importation conspiracy, alleging that he was part of an international trafficking network that moved 500 tons of cocaine over two decades.
Prosecutors told the judge that evidence includes recordings, data from electronic devices, social media information and other hard evidence, Univision reported.
SEE ALSO: Juan Orlando Hernández Profile
Coincidentally, the hearing came on the same morning that former Honduras National Police Chief Juan Carlos Bonilla Valladares, better known as “El Tigre,” was extradited to the US to face drug charges in the same New York court.
Prosecutors indicted Bonilla in 2020, alleging that he used his role to facilitate the safe passage of cocaine and to protect “politically connected traffickers he aligned with,” including President Hernández and his brother, Tony, who was convicted of drug trafficking in 2019.
Hernández, who served two terms as president from 2014 to 2022, is accused of receiving millions of dollars in drug money from some of his country’s most notorious traffickers, including Victor Hugo Díaz Morales, alias “El Rojo”; Amilcar Alexander Ardón, a former mayor; Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, who allegedly provided him with access to a cocaine lab; and his brother.
Prosecutors allege that Hernández even dispatched his brother to receive a $1 million bribe from Sinaloa Cartel kingpin Joaquín Guzmán Loera, alias "El Chapo." Prosecutors also accuse Hernández of financing his political campaigns and bribing election officials with drug money.
The former Honduran president was extradited to the US on April 21. His indictment and extradition capped off a stunning fall for Hernández, who was once considered a US ally in combatting drug trafficking and later became the subject of repeated accusations by US prosecutors of ties to the drug trade.
A tentative trial date in Hernández's case was set for January 2023.
InSight Crime Analysis
The back-to-back scenes of a former president in court and a former police chief placed on a US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) plane offer a stark display of how drug money infiltrated the highest rungs of government and law enforcement in Honduras.
Ironically, any relationships the pair may have had with US officials could complicate their cases if they go to trial, while also embarrassing the US government if those relationships are made public.
Hernández’s defense attorneys have already signaled that they plan to look for evidence of his cooperation with US officials and to probe the traffickers-turned-witnesses who are likely to appear in the case.
Hernández’s defense has asked prosecutors to disclose all information that can impugn the trial testimony of a government witness, according to one court document.
The former president's lawyers, meanwhile, made the outrageous claim to Univision that they plan to call on former US presidents Barack Obama and Donald Trump in the case, as well as current President Joe Biden, to speak about Hernández’s collaboration with the US government during his tenure.
One of his defense team members, Jay Levy, told the news outlet that Hernández made a 2017 visit to the headquarters of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), where he received national security documents despite supposedly being under investigation.
As for Bonilla, his lawyer in Honduras, Ramón Matamoros, told HRN Radio that his client plans to plead not guilty, saying that the DEA and US prosecutors don’t have evidence that demonstrates Bonilla participated in drug trafficking.
The separate criminal indictments against the pair indicate that two cases are entwined, and speculation has swirled that Bonilla could become another key cooperating witness in the case against Hernández, who is accused of using the police and military to protect drug shipments.
According to the complaint against Bonilla, Hernández “helped Bonilla advance his position within the Honduran National Police” while the former president was the head of the legislature between 2010 and 2013. In return, Bonilla protected his and his brother’s drug trafficking activities, prosecutors allege.
Matamoros said Bonilla “will decide if he wants to be a protected witness.”