Trial implicating Honduran president in drug trafficking begins

US prosecutors say Juan Orlando Hernandez accepted bribes from drug cartels, the president has denied the allegations.

Honduras's President Juan Orlando Hernandez has been accused of accepting millions in bribes from drug traffickers. In comments to local media, he has denied all wrongdoing [File: Moises Castillo/AP Photo]

The trial of an alleged Honduran drug-trafficker, whose case implicates Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez and other high-ranking officials, is getting under way in the Southern District of New York on Monday.

Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, 50, was arrested trying to leave Miami in 2020 and has pleaded “not guilty” to charges of conspiring to smuggle cocaine into the United States and related weapons charges.

References to Hernandez appear frequently in the filings against Fuentes Ramirez, as well as in a drug-trafficking case against Hernandez’s brother Tony, who was convicted of drug trafficking and related weapons charges in October 2019.

In that trial, US prosecutors said Hernandez had accepted millions in bribes from drug traffickers. The president has repeatedly denied the allegation.

Tony Hernandez, the brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez, has been convicted in a big drug conspiracy that prosecutors say was protected by the Central American country’s government [File: Claudia Torrens/AP Photo]

In a tweet at the time, he said the verdict was “based on testimonies of confessed murderers”, referring to former drug traffickers who cooperated with US authorities in the trial. In comments to Honduran media, Hernandez has denied all wrongdoing.

In Fuentes Ramirez’s case documents, federal prosecutors accused Hernandez, who has been president since 2014, of using Honduran law enforcement and military officials to protect drug traffickers.

Hernandez was a key ally to the US under both the Obama and the Trump administrations.

The investigation could not only affect future bilateral relations but also complicate the new Biden administration’s efforts to invest $4bn in Central America, including Honduras, to address the causes of migration.

Last month, thousands of Hondurans joined one of the largest-ever migrant caravans hoping to reach the US, with many citing rampant violence, government corruption and worsening poverty as their reasons for leaving home.

Democratic US senators in late February introduced a bill that would sanction Hernandez for alleged drug trafficking and corruption and cut off financial assistance and ammunition sales to Honduran security forces.

Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez addresses the congress in a speech about security and organised crime, in Tegucigalpa, Honduras [File: Honduras’ Presidency/Handout via Reuters]

In addition to potentially shedding light on the extent of corruption and official involvement in drug trafficking in Honduras, revelations from Fuentes Ramirez’s trial could affect presidential primaries taking place in Honduras this month ahead of November’s election.

Previous court filings show that the US Drug Enforcement Administration began investigating Hernandez and others for drug trafficking and money laundering around 2013, the year he was elected president after heading the parliament, or Congress.

He was re-elected in a contested ballot in 2017 to hold office until early 2022.

Hernandez has denied the allegations in the Fuentes Ramirez case. In a tweet, the presidency said the idea that Hernandez had taken drug money from Fuentes Ramirez or protected traffickers was “100 percent false and appears to be based on the lies of confessed criminals who seek revenge or to reduce their sentences”.

He has often represented himself as tough on drugs and claimed credit for breaking up powerful crime cartels and extraditing numerous traffickers to the US.

US prosecutors said the Honduran government has “hardly been forthcoming” with assistance in their investigations and said the government had not honoured requests to extradite potential witnesses against the president.

Source: Reuters