Juan Orlando Hernández, the disgraced former president of Honduras, has been sentenced to 45 years in prison for enabling drug traffickers to use his military and national police force to help ship tons of cocaine into the United States.

US federal judge P Kevin Castel sentenced Hernández to 45 years in a US prison and fined him $8m. A jury convicted him in March in a Manhattan federal court after a two-week trial, which was closely followed in his home country.

“I am innocent,” Hernández said at his sentencing. “I was wrongly and unjustly accused.”

Castel called Hernández a “two-faced politician hungry for power” who protected a select group of traffickers.

Hernández was in a full green prison uniform as he stood in court with his lawyers. Two US marshals stood behind him.

Prosecutors had sought a sentence of life in prison, plus 30 years.

Hernández, 55, was the first former head of state to be found guilty of drug trafficking in the United States since the Panamanian strongman Gen Manuel Noriega was convicted in 1992.

His conviction marked a spectacular fall from grace for a president who was once considered one of Washington’s top allies in the region.

Hernández served two terms as the leader of the Central American nation of roughly 10 million people.

He was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, three months after leaving office in 2022 and was extradited to the US in April of that year.

US prosecutors say Hernández worked with drug traffickers as long ago as 2004, taking millions of dollars in bribes as he rose from rural congressman to president of the national congress and then to the country’s highest office.

During closing arguments, one prosecutor told the court that Hernández had “paved a cocaine superhighway to the United States”.

In his testimony, Hernández acknowledged that drug money was paid to virtually all political parties in Honduras, but he denied accepting bribes himself.

Hernández insisted in a lengthy statement made through an interpreter that his trial was unjust because he was not allowed to include evidence that would have caused the jury to find him not guilty. He said he was being persecuted by politicians and drug traffickers.

“It’s as if I had been thrown into a deep river with my hands bound,” he said.

Trial witnesses included traffickers who admitted responsibility for dozens of murders and said Hernández was an enthusiastic protector of some of the world’s most powerful cocaine dealers, including the notorious Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán, who is now serving a life prison term in the US.

His brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, a former Honduran congressman, was sentenced to life in a US prison in 2021 for his own conviction on drug charges.

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Guardian

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