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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Cocaine and consequences: A Honduran president’s trial in New York

Demonstrators hold signs as they stand behind a television news reporter from Honduras outside the federal courthouse in Manhattan on Feb. 21, 2024. The criminal trial of former President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras has drawn a large contingent of the Honduran press corps, who beam the news to residents at home. (Jefferson Siegel/The New York Times)

By Corey Kilgannon and Wesley Parnell

In the clamor of the New York City news cycle, the criminal case playing out in lower Manhattan against former President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras hardly registers.

To Hondurans, it is a rare chance for national justice.

The prosecution of Hernández in U.S. District Court on charges of conspiracy to import narcotics has gripped the tiny Central American country and its expatriates, drawing a cross-section of the 40,000 Hondurans who live in New York City, as well as others from out of state and even from Honduras itself.

“He sent our country to hell,” said Flavio Ulises Yuja, 62, who had traveled from Honduras to Florida for a vacation but abruptly changed plans and flew to New York to attend the trial.

The trial is a spotlight on the woes of a country plagued by corruption, poverty and lawlessness. And even as Americans debate weaknesses in their own democracy and justice system, Hondurans see American courts as a venue for something unavailable back home: a fair trial and a measure of justice.

Hondurans are a daily presence outside the courthouse. During the first week of the trial, dozens gathered in the cold, chanting through bullhorns and marching with Honduran flags and homemade signs denouncing Hernández. A woman from Brooklyn hawked $7 homemade tuna-and-turkey sandwiches from a cooler.

Each day, Hernández is led into a packed courtroom in front of a squadron of Honduran reporters taking notes. Hernández led his country for eight years until early 2022, when he was extradited to the United States shortly after leaving office.

During the many high-profile trials held in this lower Manhattan courthouse — including those of former President Donald Trump and the crypto fraudster Sam Bankman-Fried — network film crews have clustered out front with state-of-the-art news vans equipped with lighting units. At the Hernández trial, newscasters have been recording each day’s events on their iPhones and broadcasting the news via social media.

The proceedings they are beaming home detail a culture of corruption in Honduras, one that allowed huge amounts of cocaine to flow into the United States. Hernández, who has denied wrongdoing, is accused of running a “narco state” from the capital, Tegucigalpa, raking in millions from violent cartels.

To the degree that Honduras is known to Americans at all, it may be for a history rife with poverty, political instability — and American intervention. This includes the so-called Banana Wars, which began in the late 1800s to bolster fruit companies’ political power, and the presence of the U.S. military in the 1980s, there to support Contra guerrillas fighting Nicaraguan leaders.

By the 2000s, drug traffickers enjoying political protection helped make Honduras a prime transfer point for cocaine shipments from South America, much of it headed to the United States to satisfy its voracious appetite for the drug.

Shannon K. O’Neil, an expert on Latin America with the Council on Foreign Relations, said the trial would hardly reform corruption in Honduras overnight, but that a U.S. prosecution could be a deterrent.

“It does matter when someone all-powerful is brought to justice,” she said. “Seeing a president brought down and possibly winding up in a supermax prison in the U.S., that can have a chilling effect on other leaders and elites, whether in Honduras or other Latin American countries.”

Many Hondurans blame Hernández for furthering the decline of their country, and celebrations broke out when he was extradited.

Sitting alongside the reporters in the front row at the trial recently, sisters Eugenia Brown, 69, and Aurora Martinez, 64, nodded their heads at stories about murder, drug trafficking and corruption. They gasped during testimony that Hernández had ordered his police chief to assassinate rivals.

The sisters, Honduran immigrants, said they had traveled from New Jersey and the Bronx to watch justice being served at last.

“It’s embarrassing for Honduras, but it’s also a good thing because, at the end of the day, we want justice,” Brown said.

Martha Rochez, 60, another Honduran immigrant who now lives nearby in Chinatown, walked out of the courtroom visibly upset and leaned against a wall.

“I want to see him in jail. He made us suffer. He made my family suffer,” she said. “I couldn’t stand to hear what they had done to my country. My back is in pain just listening to the way they acted toward our people.”

Some 2,000 miles away in Honduras, whose population of 10 million is barely larger than that of New York City, the case is a sensation from the Mosquito Coast to Tegucigalpa. Roughly half the population lives in poverty, gang violence is endemic and the country’s per capita gross domestic product is only about $3,400, compared with $83,000 in the United States.

“JOH may be guilty there, but the damage to the country has been done,” said Suyapa Mendez, 63, a vegetable seller in a Tegucigalpa market who used a common nickname for Hernandez.

Some residents of the capital were taking bets on which figures from the country’s overlapping worlds of crime and government might be called to testify next. Some political allies of Hernández called the case payback for his lack of cooperation with U.S. authorities and expressed skepticism that he could get a fair trial.

But Mario Sierra, 69, a cabinetmaker who has been following the trial on television in his workshop, said Hondurans were “grateful that they took him, because nothing could be done to him here.”

“We already know that he is a narco. We always knew it here,” he said, “but only the gringos could condemn him.”

New York City is roughly one-third Hispanic, but Hondurans — dispersed throughout pockets of the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn — make up only roughly 0.5% of the total population, paling in number compared with groups like Puerto Ricans and Dominicans, and in more recent years, Mexicans and Ecuadorians.

Decades of corruption, crime and unemployment also drove waves of Hondurans to the United States, helping to explain a sign held by a demonstrator outside the courthouse recently: “Narco-government forces people to emigrate.”

Victor Velasquez, 47, stood watching it all and taking photos. He said he had driven all night with his wife and their teenage son from Virginia to bring a friend, also a Honduran immigrant, to an asylum hearing in lower Manhattan.

“These are trials that we can’t have in our countries; it shows the level of corruption we have there, that other countries must intervene,” said Velasquez, who added that corruption in the Honduran government had driven away the nonprofit where he worked, costing him his job.

Outside, Alex Laboriel, 41, from Brooklyn, called it difficult — embarrassing even — to watch his native country’s former president on trial.

“There are a lot of feelings of indignation,” he said. “It’s a pain that isn’t just felt in a courtroom. It’s a pain that we’ve had to understand by living through it.”

“I just wish this were happening in Honduras,” he added.

Rommel Gómez, 40, a journalist for Radio Progreso, called the trial a test for every Honduran.

“It’s not just Juan Orlando Hernández who is on trial,” he said. “It’s the state.”

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