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Crime and Justice

Former Honduran president facing uphill battle in court

Juan Orlando Hernández is due to go on trial in January, but questions are swirling about his defense team, which is described as "ill-prepared". (Lea este artículo en español)
Publicado 13 Sep 2022 – 05:17 PM EDT | Actualizado 13 Sep 2022 – 05:46 PM EDT
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El abogado defensor Raymond Colon habla con los medios de comunicación a las puertas del tribunal de Manhattan donde su cliente, el ex presidente hondureño Juan Orlando Hernández, será juzgado el 17 de enero de 2023. El letrero detrás de él dice: "No hay clemencia para la narcopolítica". Crédito: David Adams / Univision

The legal defense team of former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez appears to be unraveling after one attorney left the case and two other assistants also stopped collaborating with the lead attorney in New York, Raymond Colon, sources told Univision.

Two key co-defendants also appear poised to plead guilty and possibly testify against him, according to court documents.

Hernandez was extradited to the United States in April and is due to go on trial in January on three counts of drug trafficking and associated weapons charges in an unprecedented prosecution of a former foreign head of state. He faces life in prison if found guilty.

Former co-counsel, Daniel Perez, had been representing Hernandez with Colon until last month but he stepped aside due to disagreements over the way the case was being handled, according to three sources.

The future role of two other people assisting the defense, Florida rabbi Jay Levy and Miami private detective Angel Martinez, also appear in doubt over differences with Colon. The pair recently participated with an official Honduran trade delegation to Puerto Rico, led by Honduran vice-president Salvador Nasralla, one of Hernandez’s most ardent critics.

Colon declined to explicitly confirm the changes to the defense team but made no secret of his differences with Martinez and Levy.

“Neither I, nor President Hernandez sanctioned this meeting,” he said in a text message. “My loyalty and zeal are committed solely to my client’s defense and best interests,” he added. Colon added a reference to the Gospel of Matthew, chapter six verse 24: “No one can serve two masters, for either he will hate the one and love the other; or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other.”

Former President Hernandez faces a battle against "Goliath"

The private detective, Angel Martinez, did not respond to messages from Univision. But he posted a video on Facebook saying that the loss of Perez to the team represented “a weakening" of his defense.

He insisted he was still working with Colon and appealed for “reinforcements” to defend the former president in what he recognized was an uphill battle. Another source said the Hernandez family was having trouble raising funds due to the freezing of his assets in Honduras.

“How weak we look facing the Goliath of the era, the United States,” he said.

Hernandez's defense strategy baffles pundits

The defense travails have left many analysts scratching their heads as to Hernandez’s legal strategy. “I always thought from the very beginning the Hernandez defense team was ill-prepared and pretty incompetent,” said Mike Vigil, the DEA’s former head of international operations who has been closely following the case. “Now, with everything that’s taking place it only buttresses that opinion,” he added.

Colon, the attorney for Hernandez, has staked the case to his client’s long-standing cooperation with the U.S. government, including the CIA and DEA, suggesting that many secrets will emerge at trial that could make his client appear in a more favorable light.

Others expressed surprise at the very public way the defense is handling such a sensitive, high-profile case. “It is extremely out of the ordinary and peculiar,” said David Weinstein, a former federal prosecutor now in private practice in Miami. “If I were representing a former head of state I would strictly keep all the theories and facts in the case close to me. And I would expect anyone encompassed in my defense team to do the same,” he added.

Hernandez is due back in court Sept 28 for a hearing to discuss progress in the government’s turning over its evidence against Hernandez prior to the case going to trial. That is currently scheduled for January 17, but could be delayed.

Two co-defendants, including his brother Tony Hernandez, have already been convicted by a jury and sentenced to life in prison. Evidence presented in those trials, including the sworn testimony of several drug traffickers, implicated Juan Orlando Hernandez who prosecutors have accused of turning Honduras into a virtual ‘narco state’. Prosecutors say Hernandez was part of “a violent drug-trafficking conspiracy” that smuggled roughly 500,000 kilos of cocaine through Honduras to the United States in what it has dubbed “state-sponsored drug trafficking”.

Hernandez pleaded not guilty at his last hearing in May. Since then, several developments in the complicated case involving 11 co-defendants appear to have worsened Hernandez’ chances of winning the case if it goes to trial.

Key witnesses: the case of the Salguero cousins

Two co-defendants who had been holding out against the government this month appeared to reverse course and now look more likely to plead guilty and possibly testify against Hernandez. The Guatemalan cousins, Ronald and Otto Salguero, allegedly witnessed a $1 million bribe by the notorious Mexican drug trafficker Joaquin ‘El Chapo’ Guzman, for Hernandez’s presidential campaign in 2013. The alleged bribe is the single most explosive piece of evidence against Hernandez, and played a key role in conviction of his brother Juan Antonio Hernandez in 2021, who was accused of personally receiving the money at a meeting in northern Honduras.

Linda George, a lawyer for Ronald Salguero, recently filed a sealed document in his case that she told the court revealed “inconsistencies in the prosecution's case” contained in a report by a private investigator she hired to refute testimony by the government’s key witness, a confessed trafficker Alexander Ardon. However, instead of jumping at the chance of claiming his innocence, Salguero fired his lawyer and withdrew the document from the court archive. The judge ordered that the document remain sealed.

Univision reached out to Salguero’s new lawyer, David Zapp, for an explanation, but received no immediate response.

Another key co-defendant, former Honduran police chief, Juan Carlos Bonilla, was extradited to the United States in May on drug trafficking charges. He also faces life in jail, though it is unclear if he is cooperating with the government or not.

Meanwhile, another co-defendant, Mauricio Hernandez Pineda, a former cop and cousin of president Hernandez, is also set to go on trial in January. His decision to go to trial after more than two years of negotiations with prosecutors was a blow to the government's attempts to obtain more witnesses against the former president ahead of his trial. Hernandez Pineda was allegedly present at the meeting when El Chapo paid the alleged $1 million bribe for Hernandez's campaign.

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