Honduras' Hernandez accused of taking drug money from 'El Chapo'

In trial of president's brother, New York prosecutors claim Honduran leader took at least $1.5m from Mexican drug lord.

    President Juan Orlando Hernandez [centre] has denied allegations he took money from drug lords as 'absurd' and 'false' [File: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters]
    President Juan Orlando Hernandez [centre] has denied allegations he took money from drug lords as 'absurd' and 'false' [File: Jorge Cabrera/Reuters]

    Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez took millions of dollars in bribes from drug lords including jailed Mexican kingpin Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman, a US prosecutor said on Wednesday, at the opening of his brother's trial.

    The president's brother, Juan Antonio Hernandez - a former Honduras congressman also known as Tony - was arrested at a Miami airport in November 2018 for conspiring to import cocaine into the United States, weapons offences and making false statements.

    "The defendant was protected by the current president, who has received millions of dollars in bribes from drug traffickers such as El Chapo Guzman, who personally delivered $1m to the defendant for his brother," prosecutor Jason Richman said.

    Richman described the drug operation as a "sophisticated state-sponsored organisation".

    President Hernandez dismissed the accusation as "absurd."

    It "is 100% false, absurd and ridiculous... this is less serious than Alice in Wonderland," he wrote on Twitter.

    Richman said that Tony Hernandez belonged to "a state-sponsored organisation that distributed cocaine for years" in the US, with the goal of making millions of dollars, adding that corrupt "mayors, congressmen, military generals (and) police chiefs protected his organisation."

    The charges run to four counts. If convicted, he faces from five years of jail to life in prison.

    The US government alleges that Tony Hernandez, who served as a member of the Honduran Congress from 2014 to 2018, worked from 2004 to 2016 with others in Colombia, Honduras and Mexico to import cocaine into the US by plane, boat and submarine.

    The prosecution also says Hernandez was involved in at least two murders of rival drug traffickers in 2011 and 2013.

    President Hernandez - Trump
    Hernandez met US President Donald Trump in September in New York to discuss the issue of migrants from Latin America [Presidency of Honduras via Reuters]

    Some of the cocaine he was transporting was labelled with his initials "TH," according to US lawyer Geoffrey Berman.

    'Target of criminals'

    Defence lawyer Omar Malone said Tony Hernandez was a target of violent criminals because his brother's administration authorised the extradition of drug traffickers to the US.

    He also referenced the cordial relationship between Honduras and the US, which saw the country's president shake hands with his US counterpart Donald Trump at the United Nations General Assembly in New York.

    The president of Honduras has interacted with the US like any other president of any other country, Malone said.

    Tony Hernandez, 41, wore a blue suit and appeared calm during the selection process of 12 jurors and six alternates. For security reasons, the jurors will be identified only by numbers, which is typical for major drug-trafficking trials.

    The judge estimates the trial will last between 10 and 12 working days.

    Hernandez's trial comes after Guzman, the 62-year-old former co-leader of Mexico's feared Sinaloa drug cartel, was convicted in February of smuggling hundreds of tons of cocaine, heroin, methamphetamines and cannabis into the US.

    He has been jailed for life, a sentence he is appealing.

    US prosecutors have aggressively pursued current, or former Honduran public officials and their relatives over drug-trafficking allegations.

    The prosecution also claims that several candidates from Honduras' ruling National Party accepted campaign funding from Hernandez, including his brother and former president Porfirio Lobo. Hernandez was elected first in 2013 and again in 2017.

    Drug-tainted campaign money

    The Manhattan prosecutor's office filed a motion in August alleging that President Hernandez received at least $1.5m in drug money from one of the prosecution's cooperating witnesses for his first campaign, and $40,000 for the second.

    President Hernandez and Lobo have rejected the accusations, and neither has been formally charged with offences in the US.

    The prosecution plans to call as witnesses five former drug lords imprisoned in the US who claim they were Tony Hernandez's accomplices.

    One witness is a former cartel leader who claimed during the 2017 trial of Fabio Lobo, Porfirio Lobo's son, to have bribed Hernandez during his congressional tenure.

    Fabio Lobo was sentenced to 24 years in a US prison for conspiring to smuggle cocaine.

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    SOURCE: Reuters news agency