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U.S. drug trial opens for Honduran president's brother

Honduran politician Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernandez smuggled tons of cocaine into the United States for years under the protection of his brother, the Central American country's current president, a U.S. prosecutor told jurors at the opening of his trial on Wednesday.

By Brendan Pierson

NEW YORK, Oct 2 (Reuters) - Honduran politician Juan Antonio "Tony" Hernandez smuggled tons of cocaine into the United States for years under the protection of his brother, the Central American country's current president, a U.S. prosecutor told jurors at the opening of his trial on Wednesday.

In his opening statement in federal court in Manhattan, Assistant U.S. Attorney Jason Richman said Hernandez even personally took a bribe for his brother from Mexican drug lord Joaquin "El Chapo" Guzman. He urged the jurors to find Hernandez, who was arrested in Miami last year, guilty of drug conspiracy and possessing illegal weapons.

Hernandez's lawyer, Omar Malone, told the jurors the case was based on lies by drug traffickers seeking revenge on Hernandez and his brother, Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez.

The president, who has not been charged with a crime, has denied involvement in drug trafficking. In a speech before the United Nations General Assembly last week, he said he was the target of "a dirty smear campaign, led by narcotraffickers, gang members, corrupt or purged police, and confessed killers, businessmen who collude with those criminals and even politicians."

His office did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Wednesday.

Richman described Tony Hernandez as a key player in a "sophisticated state-sponsored organization" that operated with the help of "bought and paid for" Honduran government, military and police officials.

"Most importantly, the defendant was protected by, and had access to, his brother, the current sitting president of Honduras," Richman said.

Believing he was immune from prosecution, Tony Hernandez became so "arrogant" that he had his initials stamped on packages of cocaine and boasted of his arsenal of illegal weapons, Richman said.

He told jurors they would hear from several of Hernandez's onetime co-conspirators. One of those, according to court papers, is Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, former leader of the Cachiros drug gang, who has been cooperating with U.S. authorities since 2013.

But Malone urged the jurors to be skeptical of the prosecution's witnesses, who are currently in prison, saying they would "say what they think what the government wants to hear" in an effort to get their sentences reduced.

He said both Hernandez and his brother were being targeted by drug traffickers because they were tough on crime.

The Hernandez government struck a deal with the United States last month to take in more asylum seekers as part of U.S. President Donald Trump's push to reduce migration.

The U.S. government has supported Hernandez, a conservative, as a staunch ally in the fight against drug trafficking. In Honduras he has faced mounting popular opposition and weeks of intermittent street protests since he was sworn in for a second term in January 2018 despite allegations of electoral fraud.

Several other prominent Hondurans have already been prosecuted in Manhattan for drug-related crimes. Fabio Lobo, the son of a former president, was sentenced to 24 years in prison in September 2017 after pleading guilty to conspiring to import cocaine into the United States.

Yani Rosenthal, a former Honduran legislator who twice ran for president, and his cousin Yankel Rosenthal, a former minister of investment, have also both been sentenced to prison. Prosecutors have said the Rosenthals worked closely with the Cachiros.

(Reporting by Brendan Pierson in New York and Delphine Schranke in Mexico City; Editing by Tom Brown)

((Brendan.Pierson@thomsonreuters.com; 646-223-6017 (desk); 646-306-0235 (cell);))

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