Anti-drug crusader or cartel secret weapon? Honduras ex-president's trial kicks off

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By Luc Cohen

NEW YORK (Reuters) - A New York jury on Wednesday heard clashing descriptions of former Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez as his U.S. drugs trial opened, with prosecutors saying traffickers fueled his rise to power and the defense countering that witnesses were framing him as revenge for his crackdown on cartels.

Despite his tough public stance on drugs and cooperation with the United States while in office from 2014 to 2022, prosecutor David Robles said Hernandez, 55, was actually working "hand in hand" with traffickers who paid him millions of dollars in bribes to help send tons of cocaine to the U.S.

"Behind the scenes he made sure that drug traffickers who remained loyal to him were protected," Robles said at the trial in Manhattan federal court. "He abused the power of his country - the military, the police, the justice system - to protect and support those traffickers."

Hernandez has pleaded not guilty. In his opening statement, defense lawyer Renato Stabile urged jurors to discount testimony from convicted criminals who were seeking revenge for Hernandez's anti-drug policies, which included laws to seize traffickers' assets and extradite them to the U.S.

"It's Mr. Hernandez who signed into law all those things that put them out of business," Stabile said.

He said prosecutors' cooperating witnesses were also hoping to lower their own prison sentences.

"Putting murderers and drug dealers on the witness stand who have cut deals and having them point the finger at Mr. Hernandez is not proof beyond a reasonable doubt," Stabile said.

Honduras received more than $50 million in U.S. anti-narcotics assistance and tens of millions more in security and military aid during Hernandez's presidency, and he won support from former President Donald Trump for cracking down on drugs and migration.

"President Hernandez is working with the United States very closely," Trump said in a Dec. 7, 2019 speech. "You know what's going on on our southern border. And we're winning after years and years of losing. We're stopping drugs at a level that has never happened."

Three months after Hernandez left office, however, federal prosecutors in Manhattan charged him with three counts of drug trafficking conspiracy and criminal weapons possession. Attorney General Merrick Garland said he abused his power to operate the country as a "narco-state."

Among the traffickers Hernandez protected was his brother, Robles said. Hernandez's brother, former congressman Tony Hernandez, was convicted on U.S. drugs charges in 2019 and sentenced to life in prison.

Stabile said Tony Hernandez may have used his brother's name in conversations with others to burnish his credentials, but there was no evidence he gave Juan Orlando Hernandez any money.

Earlier in February, two co-defendants who were initially set to be tried alongside Hernandez - his cousin Mauricio Hernandez and former Honduras national police chief Juan Carlos Bonilla - pleaded guilty to drug trafficking.

Hernandez faces a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years and up to life in prison if convicted on all counts. The trial began with jury selection on Tuesday and is expected to last between two and three weeks.

(Reporting by Luc Cohen in New York; Editing by Marguerita Choy)