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Ex-Honduran president defends himself at New York drug trafficking trial

NEW YORK (AP) — Former Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández took the witness stand in his defense at his New York trial on Tuesday, denying that he teamed up with drug dealers to protect them in return for millions of dollars in bribes.

His testimony in Manhattan federal court came after several days of testimony by drug cartel traffickers who are hoping to earn leniency from long prison sentences in exchange for their cooperation against him. They claimed he protected the drug trade in return for millions of dollars that helped fuel his rise to power.

But Hernández said the opposite, testifying that he worked against the interest of drug traffickers because they “did a lot of damage to my country.”

Prosecutors say Hernández, who served as president from 2014 to 2022, used his Central American nation’s military and police to help drug dealers move cocaine through the country on its way to America. In the U.S., he was often viewed by Democratic and Republican administrations as beneficial to American interests in the region.

Hernández denied helping drug traffickers or accepting bribes and cast himself as a crusader against drug trafficking who did everything he could to help the United States in its pursuit of drug dealers, including by extraditing about two dozen individuals.

“I said any request of extradition by the United States was to be granted,” Hernández said.

Hernández was asked by a defense lawyer whether he ever accepted bribes or offered protection to several drug cartels or drug traffickers mentioned repeatedly at the trial that began two weeks ago.

He insisted he did not.

And, in regards to one witness who testified that he trafficked in tens of millions of dollars' worth of drugs while Hernández served as a mayor in Honduras, Hernández said he did not promise to protect him from prosecution if he agreed not to run for another term as mayor amid headlines outing him as a drug dealer.

“Never,” Hernández said through an interpreter.

At one point, he was asked if one cartel wanted to assassinate him.

“I was warned of that by the FBI, sir,” he responded.

On cross examination, a prosecutor took Hernández to task over photographs, including one in which the arm of a known drug trafficker was wrapped around him at the 2010 World Cup.

Throughout the questioning, Hernández suggested that the images might be faked and he denied knowing the man at the World Cup at all.

Of another picture, the prosecutor asked: “Did the meeting depicted in the photo occur?”

“I’m not sure, sir,” he said.

Hernández also said that drug traffickers had given money to all political parties in Honduras but not to him.

The prosecutor mocked him, and asked him if he was seriously saying he was “the only honest politician in Honduras.”

An objection was sustained by the judge and Hernández was not required to answer.

The ex-president’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a former Honduran congressman, was sentenced in 2021 in Manhattan federal court to life in prison for his own conviction on drug charges.

Prosecutors say Tony Hernández secured and distributed millions of dollars in bribes from 2004 to 2019 from drug dealers for his country’s politicians, including $1 million from notorious Mexican capo Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman for Juan Orlando Hernández.

The former president was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, in February 2022 — just three months after leaving office — and was extradited to the U.S. in April of that year.