Brother of Honduran president gets life in US jail in drug case

During Tony Hernandez’s trial, US prosecutors said the Honduran president was a co-conspirator in his brother’s crimes.

In this March 16, 2017 file photo, Juan Antonio 'Tony' Hernandez, brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, arrives for a press conference in Tegucigalpa, Honduras [File: Fernando Antonio/ AP]

The brother of Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez has been sentenced to life in prison in the United States after he was convicted at a trial that a prosecutor said exposed him as a central figure in one of the world’s largest and most violent drug conspiracies.

Juan Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernandez, a former Honduran congressman, was sentenced on Tuesday in the Manhattan federal court. The 42-year-old was convicted in October 2019 of charges that carried a mandatory minimum sentence of 40 years in prison.

US District Judge P Kevin Castel said Hernandez’s life sentence was “richly deserved” because of his “free choice to engage in a life of drug trafficking for 12 years”.

Hernandez was also ordered to pay $138.5m in forfeiture, which prosecutors said was “blood money” from drug trafficking.

Assistant US Attorney Matthew Laroche characterised the crimes as “state-sponsored drug trafficking”.

He called Hernandez the “central figure in one of the largest and most violent cocaine conspiracies in the world” and said that he had for 15 years funnelled cocaine shipments into the US by paying millions of dollars to top Honduran officials like his brother.

Honduras president Juan Orlando Hernandez waves during a rally in his support after his brother Juan Antonio ‘Tony’ Hernandez was found guilty of US drug trafficking, outside the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa, Honduras October 20, 2019 [File: Jorge Cabrera/ Reuters]

“Honduras is one of the principal drug transhipment places in the world and one of the most violent places in the world,” Laroche said. “He [Hernandez] secured protection from investigation, arrest and extradition by paying enormous bribes to politicians, like his brother, and like [former president] Porfirio Lobo Sosa.”

He said Hernandez had also accepted millions in bribes, including $1m from El Chapo Guzman, to funnel into the ruling National Party’s coffers for elections in 2009, 2013, and 2017 to benefit his brother.

‘Hard personally’

President Hernandez has denied the allegations and has not been charged with a crime.

In a voice note released by Honduras’ presidency, President Hernandez said he found it “incredible that false testimonies of confessed murderers” were taken seriously.

“What happened today is something hard for the family, hard personally,” Hernandez said. “I do not wish it on anyone.”

Hernandez’s lawyer, Peter Brill, had argued for leniency and mercy for his client, saying the US should focus anti-drug trafficking efforts on the “voracious appetite” of its citizens for drugs.

Brill said Hernandez “feels that the witnesses who testified against him were not only self-motivated but were motivated against him … to make up as much as they could to ruin his life and the life of his family and have succeeded in doing so.”

Court filings laid out that in addition to corrupting institutions to transport at least 185,000 kilograms (407,855 pounds) of cocaine to the United States, Hernandez commanded members of Honduran security forces, controlled drug laboratories, sold machine guns and ammunition, some from the military, to drug traffickers and helped cause two murders.

President Hernandez has often represented himself as tough on drugs, acting as an ally to the US in immigration and anti-narcotics operations.

The allegations could complicate the efforts of the new US administration of President Joe Biden to address the causes of migration from Central America by investing $4bn in the region, including Honduras.

In an indictment in a case earlier this month against now-convicted Honduran drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, prosecutors said that Hernandez, who has been president since 2014, used Honduran law enforcement and military officials to protect drug traffickers.

In court on Tuesday, Hernandez looked pale and downcast. When the defendant was given a chance to speak, he complained about his lawyers, saying he hardly saw them and they barely responded to his emails.

“I feel I have been lied to,” he said through a translator.

As Hernandez was led from the courtroom, a spectator yelled out: “Criminal! Just like your brother!”

Outside the courthouse, about 80 people with signs critical of the president of Honduras held a noisy protest.

Source: News Agencies