Hondurans gathered in front of the Southern District Court of New York in Lower Manhattan demand three life sentences for extradited ex-president Juan Orlando Hernández, accused on three counts of drug trafficking
The ex-president’s next court hearing will take place on Monday, May 10th
Text and photos: Dashiell Allen
New York, United States. «He wasn’t a president, he’s a delinquent! He’s a drug dealer!» chanted a group of over a dozen protestors on the streets of Lower Manhattan, referring to the ex-president of Honduras Juan Orlando Hernández, often referred to as JOH, who since Thursday has been in New York City, after being extradited to the United States on three drug trafficking charges.
Some of the Hondurans gathered in front of Columbus Park in Manhattan’s Chinatown, which faces the Southern District Court where Hernández will be tried, shouted through megaphones.
Others, handcuffed and dressed up as if they were incarcerated, wore masks made from cut-out photos of the ex-president’s face, while holding up posters that read «No clemency for narcopolitics,» «extradition for Juan Orlando Hernández,» and «narco-government makes people migrate.»
«Time is proving us right,» said Josué Blanco, one of the protestors, an immigrant from the afro-indigenous Honduran Garífuna community of San Juan on the Caribbean coast.
«The people have been right since day zero, when in the streets they were demanding that this [corrupt] class of people not run our country,» added Blanco, referring to Hernández.
Three life sentences for ‘JOH‘
For nearly the past year, Hondurans both at home and abroad have been happily singing a song titled Juanchi se va pa Nueva York – Juanchi’s (another nickname for JOH) going to New York. That’s because he was named as a co-conspirator last year in a case against his brother, Juan Antonio Tony Hernández, who was sentenced to life in prison for smuggling at least 185 tons of cocaine and firearms into the United States.
Many in Honduras consider the Hernández brothers to be two of the ringleaders in a much larger ‘narco-criminal’ structure that has governed the country for the past 12 years, ever since a United States-backed military coup back in 2009 threw then-president Mel Zelaya into exile. Last November, Zelaya’s wife, Xiomara Castro, a member of the Democratic Socialist ‘Libre’ party, was elected as Honduras’s first female president, promising to root out corruption and fight inequality.
«We are satisfied, happy, and celebrating justice,» said Honduran activist Lida Perdomo, who sported a black shirt with «Extradition CC4» written on it, referring to Hernández’s court classification as ‘co-conspirator four.’
«We are here today for something we have been asking for many years,» added Perdomo. «We are asking for three life sentences. And justice for Honduras. We want to see the entire narco-criminal structure fall.»
Displaced Garífunas protest
Garífunas, a historically marginalized Afro-Indigenous community that primarily resides in Honduras’s northern coastal region, have immigrated to New York City in great numbers–at least 200,000 according to community activists.
Josué Blanco told Reportar Sin Miedo that, since the start of conservative ex-president Rafael Leonardo Callejas’s government (1990-1994), the Garífuna community has been forcibly displaced from their communities.
«Through its narco-dictatorship, the government is systematically displacing the Garifuna population,» said Blanco. «Before they said the Garifuna people didn’t belong in the city and they sent us to the beach; now they don’t even want us on the beach, they’re systematically displacing us, leading many to request asylum in the United States.»
Blanco denounced the disappearance of Garifuna leaders from a community in Triunfo de la Cruz, in 2020.
«Garifuna lives matter!» everyone in the crowd shouted.
Hernández will go before a judge on May 10th
Juan Orlando appeared on Friday at 1:00 p.m. before Judge Stewart D. Aaron of the U.S. Southern District Court of New York.
He made his appearance via video conference from the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, saying, through an interpreter, only that he was aware of the charges brought against him, without making an admission of guilt or innocence.
The hearing lasted less than 20 minutes. Hernández’s arraignment is set for May 10th before Judge Kevin Castel, the same justice who heard his brother’s case.
«Hernández is charged with participating in a corrupt and violent drug-trafficking conspiracy to facilitate the importation of tons of cocaine into the United States from 2004 to 2022,» said U.S. Attorney General Merrick Garland during a press conference alongside Southern District Prosecutor Damian Williams and Anne Milgram, Administrator of the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
Hernández allegedly helped to smuggle 500 tons of cocaine into the United States between 2004 and 2022.
U.S. prosecutors accuse him of receiving «millions of dollars» from drug cartels, including $1 million from drug lord Joaquín Chapo Guzmán, who is serving a life sentence in the United States, and of creating a «narco-state» in the eight years he was president of Honduras (2014-2022).
The accusers allege that the drug money served not only to his benefit (earlier this month, Honduran authorities seized and secured the former president’s home and dozens of properties, financial products and other assets), but also served to «finance his political campaign and commit electoral fraud» in the 2013 and 2017 presidential elections (the results of which were hotly contested, leading to massive protests).
«I am innocent and I am being subjected to a process in an unjust manner,» Hernández said in a video released in Tegucigalpa, the capital of Honduras, hours before boarding the DEA plane that on Thursday flew him to the United States.
Hernandez’s extradition should «send a clear message» to foreign leaders who abuse their power to support drug cartels,» the DEA chief said.
«If they think they can hide behind their office, they are wrong,» Milgram warned.