Former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez has appeared in a New York courtroom facing drug trafficking and weapons charges.

Hernandez was described by a prosecutor at the start of his trial as a corrupt politician who let his country’s biggest drug traffickers fuel his rise to power.

However, he was portrayed by his defence lawyer as a heroic leader who worked with US authorities to fight the drug trade.

Hernandez went on trial in a Manhattan federal court two years after his arrest and extradition to the US to face drug trafficking and weapons charges after he had served as president of the Central American nation from 2014 to 2022.

During two terms, he was often viewed by Democratic and Republican administrations as beneficial to American interests in the region.

Assistant US attorney David Robles briefly pointed at Hernandez, seated in a suit at the defence table, as he claimed that the former president sold himself to drug traffickers in return for their help in securing his political success.

“For years, he worked hand in hand with some of the largest and most violent drug traffickers in Honduras to send tonne after tonne of cocaine here to the United States, traffickers who fuelled his rise to power with millions of dollars in bribes,” Mr Robles said, citing the powerful Sinaloa cartel in Mexico among Hernandez’s allies.

In return, the prosecutor said, he abused his power to enlist the Honduras military, its police and its justice system to protect and support drug traffickers.

At one point, Hernandez even boasted at a meeting with drug dealers that “together they were going to shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos, of the Americans,” Mr Robles said.

In this courtroom sketch, former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez, seated left at the defence table, looks at prospective jurors who are waiting to speak with Judge P Kevin Castel
In this courtroom sketch, former Honduran president Juan Orlando Hernandez, seated left at the defence table, looks at prospective jurors who are waiting to speak with Judge P Kevin Castel (Elizabeth Williams via AP)

Defence lawyer Renato Stabile, though, said Hernandez first ran as a congressman representing his rural home province in western Honduras because he wanted to rid his country of the scourge of the drug trade. He became president of the National Congress before he became president.

Mr Stabile warned jurors to be wary of government witnesses, particularly several men who had killed dozens of individuals and are hoping their evidence will win them leniency at sentencing.

“If you look around this courtroom, the number of people they have killed is probably more than everyone sitting here right now,” he told jurors in the packed courtroom, saying some witnesses they will see had tortured people and killed children.

“These are depraved people. These are psychopaths. These are people not worthy of your trust and belief,” Mr Stabile said.

The lawyer said Honduras was the murder capital of the world a year before Hernandez became president and reduced the murder rate by more than 50% as he stood up to gangs and drug cartels.

Mr Stabile said his client agreed to extradite two dozen individuals to the US to face criminal charges, though three people escaped.

“Mr Hernandez doesn’t sit down with drug dealers. He stood up to drug dealers,” the lawyer said of a married man with four children who has a master’s degree from the State University of New York at Albany.

The defence lawyer told jurors they will hear a lot during the trial about the ex-president’s brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, a former Honduran congressman who was sentenced in 2021 in Manhattan federal court to life in prison for his own conviction on drug charges.

Prosecutors say Tony Hernandez secured and distributed millions of dollars in bribes from 2004 to 2019 from drug dealers for his country’s politicians, including 1 million dollars from notorious Mexican capo Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman for Juan Orlando Hernandez.

The former president was arrested at his home in Tegucigalpa, the Honduran capital, in February 2022 – just three months after leaving office – and was extradited to the US in April of that year.