US prosecutors accuse Honduran president of drug conspiracy
MEXICO CITY (AP) — U.S. federal prosecutors have accused the Honduran government of essentially functioning as a narco-state, with the current and former presidents having received campaign contributions from cocaine traffickers in exchange for protection.
A 49-page document filed in New York’s southern district on Friday refers to Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández as a co-conspirator who worked with his brother, Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, and former President Porfirio Lobo “to use drug trafficking to help assert power and control in Honduras.”
It says that the president and his predecessor “relied on drug proceeds” to fund political campaigns and cites “evidence of high-level political corruption.”
The filing comes just months after other U.S. federal court documents showed the current president and some of his closest advisers were among the targets of a Drug Enforcement Administration investigation, casting further doubt on the United States’ assertion that Honduras has helped stop the flow of drugs.
The U.S. government has been a staunch supporter of Hernández’s government, pouring millions of dollars into security cooperation to stop cocaine headed to the U.S. from South America.
The office of the Honduran president said via Twitter on Saturday that Hernández “categorically denies the false and perverse accusations.”
It later issued a separate, lengthier statement suggesting that the allegations in New York were put forward by drug dealers seeking retaliation against the president, who was head of the Central American country’s congress in 2012 when the legislature authorized extradition of Honduran nationals to face drug-trafficking charges in the U.S.
Since then, the president’s office said, more than 40 Hondurans have been extradited and others have negotiated plea deals with U.S. officials in exchange for information.
“President Hernández has been relentless in the fight against drug traffickers despite predictable reprisals, to the point that one of his 17 siblings, a younger brother, is now being tried in New York,” the office said.
Specifically, New York prosecutors allege that the president used $1.5 million in drug trafficking proceeds to help secure power in 2013. That campaign support came via cash bribes to Honduran officials as well as gifts and favors to local politicians, prosecutors argue. Hernández won re-election in 2017, despite term-limits in Honduras and widespread allegations of election fraud.
The filing also alludes to multiple payments of $1 million or more from drug dealers to Lobo.
Lobo’s wife was arrested by Honduran officials in 2018 on charges of diverting $700,000 in public funds. His son, Fabio, was sentenced in the U.S. to 24 years in prison in 2017 for drug trafficking.
Lobo was Hernández’s mentor and oversaw his rise to power.
The filing forms part of pre-trial documents in an upcoming case against Tony Hernández, who was arrested in 2018 in Miami on charges of smuggling thousands of kilograms of cocaine into the U.S.
Prosecutors describe Tony Hernández as a “violent, multi-ton drug trafficker” with significant influence over high-ranking Honduran officials, who in turn protected his shipments and turf. They also say that members of the Honduran National Police escorted his cocaine through the country’s waters and airspace, while Lobo once deployed military personnel to the nation’s border with Guatemala to deter another drug trafficker from encroaching on territory in western Honduras.
On at least two occasions, prosecutors say Tony Hernández helped arrange murders of drug-trafficking rivals, one of whom he had executed by a member of the national police. That hit man was later promoted to chief of police, they say.
The court filing included an image of a kilo of cocaine monogramed with the initials TH, which prosecutors say stood for Tony Hernández.
The DEA says Tony Hernández’s trafficking career began in 2004 and continued after he won a seat in Honduras’ congress in 2014. It’s unclear why Hernández was in Miami when U.S. officials arrested him last year.
Separately, on Friday, a New York judged sentenced Honduran Hector Emilio Fernández Rosa to life in prison for drug trafficking.
Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey S. Berman, who is also handling the Tony Hernández case, said Fernández paid millions of dollars in bribes to Honduran officials during his career, including a $2 million payment to former President José Manuel Zelaya Rosales.
Zelaya was forced out of office via a 2009 coup, after which Lobo was elected president.
Associated Press writer Marlon González contributed to this story from Tegucigalpa, Honduras.