Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez vowed to help flood US with cocaine, prosecutor says

The trial is also something of a referendum on President Hernandez, who has been dogged for years by accusations of possible connections to drug traffickers.
The trial is also something of a referendum on President Hernandez, who has been dogged for years by accusations of possible connections to drug traffickers.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK/MEXICO CITY (NYTIMES) - President Juan Orlando Hernández of Honduras promised to protect drug traffickers using the nation's security forces and law enforcement agencies, and to help them flood the United States with cocaine, a US prosecutor said Tuesday (March 9).

"They would - as the President put it - 'shove the drugs right up the noses of the gringos,'" said the prosecutor, Jacob Harris Gutwillig, an assistant US attorney in New York.

The allegations emerged in US District Court in Manhattan during opening arguments in the trial of Geovanny Fuentes Ramírez, a Honduran accused of conspiring to import cocaine into the United States from Honduras, as well as of weapons charges.

The trial is also something of a referendum on Hernández, who has been dogged for years by accusations of possible connections to drug traffickers. He has not been charged, but in court documents filed this year, US prosecutors revealed for the first time that they were investigating the Honduran President.

Hernández is a key US ally in the region, and the investigation could jeopardise the bilateral relationship and complicate the Biden administration's efforts to invest US$4 billion (S$5.3 billion) in Central America to address violence and corruption, reduce poverty and bolster the rule of law in an effort to stem migration to the United States.

The testimony Tuesday, which echoed allegations made by prosecutors in court documents filed this year, added to growing pressure on Hernández. The President has also been implicated in other recent criminal prosecutions, including the conviction of his brother in 2019 in US District Court in Manhattan on cocaine trafficking charges, as well as a recent criminal complaint against a former Honduran police chief.

During his brother's trial, witnesses and prosecutors said the Honduran President had accepted millions of dollars for his and his party's political campaigns in exchange for protecting drug traffickers.

The President, who was not charged in the earlier case but was described by prosecutors as a co-conspirator, has repeatedly denied the allegations against him, arguing that they come from unreliable witnesses - drug traffickers seeking revenge against Hernández for his efforts to break up criminal groups and extradite suspects to the United States.

In a series of Twitter posts Monday, as jury selection in Fuentes' trial got underway in Manhattan, Hernández again declared his innocence, saying that "with my election, the party ended" for drug traffickers.

"I will maintain international cooperation," he wrote. "But the next government and those of other countries? How will the future be if the narcos win benefits from the USA for their false testimonies, with obvious lies?" He added, "Inevitable collapse."

The trial of Fuentes, who has denied the charges against him, is expected to run into next week. A defence lawyer for Fuentes, Eylan Schulman, said in his opening argument that his client was "an innocent man wrongly accused of very serious crimes."

If Tuesday's statements, coupled with court filings, are any indication, prosecutors are likely to draw a stark portrait of Hernández as a key player in the drug trafficking industry, which has contributed to the chaos and violence that has driven many Hondurans to leave the country in search of safety and better opportunity.

Gutwillig, the prosecutor, did not mince words in his opening arguments Tuesday: He called Honduras "a narco-state." Fuentes, he said, "distributed massive quantities of cocaine to the United States," a business that was enabled through his connections "to police, military and political power in Honduras: mayors, congressmen, military generals and police chiefs, even the current President of Honduras." "The defendant owned them all - bought and paid for," Gutwillig said.

Fuentes developed a relationship with Hernández, who took office in 2014, in a series of secret meetings in 2013 and 2014 during which the men "plotted to send as much cocaine as possible to the United States," the prosecutor said. Fuentes paid Hernández US$25,000 for the help.

Hernández, he said, "made the defendant bulletproof." Court records describe conversations between Hernández and Fuentes in which the President tells the accused trafficker not to worry about arrest, extradition or the long reach of the US Drug Enforcement Administration. According to prosecutors, Hernández told Fuentes that his fight against drug trafficking was a bluff and that he planned to get rid of the extradition policy and flood the United States with cocaine.

The President also said he was embezzling aid money from the United States using fraudulent organisations and siphoning money from the country's Social Security system, according to the documents, which do not mention Hernández by name, describing him as "CC-4" - meaning co-conspirator 4 - although his identity was clear.

Hernández offered up the services of the Honduran armed forces and the attorney-general's office to facilitate cocaine transportation and noted his own interest in accessing Fuentes' cocaine laboratory, which was near Puerto Cortés, a major Honduran commercial shipping port, prosecutors said.

He also gave Fuentes the phone number of his brother Tony Hernández, according to court documents.

After their meetings, Fuentes received military equipment, including military uniforms, bulletproof vests and police badges, prosecutors said.

Fuentes' defence lawyers do not deny that their client knows the President. But Schulman said Tuesday that his client and Hernández were introduced by Fuentes' mentor, Fuad Jarufe, a businessman, who also introduced Fuentes to the vice-president and to members of the military.

Democratic senators in the United States last month introduced a Bill urging President Joe Biden to impose sanctions on Hernández and to suspend security assistance for the Honduran police and military.

"The United States cannot remain silent in the face of deeply alarming corruption and human rights abuses being committed at the highest levels of the Honduran government," Democratic Senator of Oregon, Jeff Merkley said in a statement.