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Hondurans are glued to their former president's drug trafficking trial in a New York courtroom

TEGUCIGALPA, Honduras (AP) — Hondurans call it the “Trial of the Century,” but it’s occurring in a New York courtroom some 3,500 miles (5,630 kilometers) away.

Former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernández has been on trial since February in a federal courthouse in Manhattan, accused of taking bribes to protect drug traffickers, even as he portrayed himself publicly as an ally in the U.S. drug war.

Testifying Tuesday and Wednesday in his own defense, Hernández denied conspiring with drug dealers or taking bribes. “Never,” he insisted, adding that he was once warned that a drug cartel wanted to assassinate him. Deliberations were scheduled to start Thursday.

The trial is not televised, but some Honduran news outlets sent their own reporters to New York to cover the prosecution, with each pre-trial motion dissected by local news outlets. Others simply follow a handful of people who have been live-tweeting testimony and summarizing the day’s courtroom developments.

Hernández, 55, was arrested in February 2022, less than three weeks after leaving office, and extradited that April. Despite being praised for years by U.S. officials as a valued partner in the drug war, U.S. prosecutors allege he was part of a conspiracy that took millions of dollars from drug traffickers in exchange for helping them move U.S.-bound cocaine through Honduras.

If convicted, he could face a life sentence.

Despised for years in Honduras as he trampled a constitutional ban on reelection to run again and win in a highly criticized election filled with irregularities, many Hondurans are eager to see him face justice.

“I follow it through social networks, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and TikTok, because I don’t really watch the news and there they give summaries of how the trial is going,” said Milagros Oviedo, a 20-year-old college student in the capital.

Local news programs read the tweets from those following the trial on air and then invite lawyers to discuss the details of the U.S. penal system.

Testimony from several drug cartel witnesses seeking to avoid spending the rest of their lives behind bars consumed much of the trial. Required to divulge their roles in dozens of murders, they also claimed Hernández and his brother accepted millions of dollars to protect drug shipments for years.

One drug trafficker who testified that he was responsible for 56 murders, though he only personally killed two people, said Hernández promised him as long ago as 2009 that he would ensure law enforcement left him alone if he provided financing for his political career.

Throughout his two days on the witness stand, Hernández kept his composure, calmly answering questions even as a prosecutor taunted him with questions, even asking sarcastically if all five trial witnesses who claimed he accepted money from drug dealers were lying and he was the only one telling the truth.

“They all have motivation to lie, and they are professional liars,” Hernández said. Four of the five were convicted drug traffickers who testified that they gave money to Hernández themselves.

Prosecutors rested their case Monday. The first witness called by the defense, a former security chief for Hernandez, testified that he had never seen him with drug dealers.

In closing arguments Wednesday, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jacob Gutwillig told the jury that Hernandez “paved a cocaine superhighway to the United States,” empowering and protecting drug dealers he favored and turning over to U.S. authorities those he considered enemies.

The prosecutor said Hernandez “thought he had everyone fooled” by posing publicly as an anti-drug trafficking crusader.

In his closing, defense attorney Renato Stabile attacked the credibility of drug traffickers who testified against Hernandez, saying, “not only do their stories make no sense, they contradict each other.”

“The man has been wrongfully charged,” he said. “I'm asking you to find him not guilty on all counts.”

Cristian Cálix, a 23-year-old law student in Tegucigalpa, said the U.S. trial is complicated because “it shows the difference in thinking (between the prosecutors and the defense) that doesn’t leave it clear whether the ex-president is guilty or innocent.” There’s also a difference in legal systems to bridge, like the U.S. prosecutors’ reliance on testimony from other convicted criminals.

“So far in the case, there isn’t overwhelming evidence – photos, videos – that show his guilt, beyond testimony, but knowing the U.S. laws it would be difficult for him to escape a possible sentence,” Cálix said.

Academic Marco Flores wants justice but has mixed feelings about the amount of attention the trial is drawing in Honduras.

“He must pay for all of the harm he did to the country,” Flores said. Hernández was never going to be brought to justice in Honduras, but “They’re giving a lot of propaganda to a criminal and there are more important things to worry about in Honduras.”

Sociologist and analyst Pablo Carías said Hernández’s trial, while justified, is doing harm to Honduras.

“There is not the least doubt that a broad sector of the Honduran people will have greater apathy toward politics and politicians because of what is happening,” he said.

“If a president is being tried abroad for drug trafficking, it’s because the institutions (in Honduras) were co-opted by organized crime and that doesn’t give guarantees to anyone,” Carías said.

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Neumeister reported from New York.