Prosecutors alleged Wednesday that convicted Mexican drug lord Joaquín “El Chapo” Guzmán personally gave $1 million in bribes to the brother of Honduras’ president to pass on to the Central American leader, who swiftly denied wrongdoing.
Prosecutor Jason Richman revealed the allegation in a federal court in Manhattan where Juan Antonio “Tony” Hernández, 41, is accused of using his government connections to smuggle U.S.-bound cocaine through Honduras.
In opening statements, Richman described Hernández as “untouchable” in Honduras and confident he would never face justice because of his powerful sibling.
“The defendant was protected by and had access to his brother, the current sitting president of Honduras, a man who himself has received millions of dollars in drug money bribes — bribes he received from some of the largest cocaine traffickers in the world, bribes he received from men like ‘El Chapo’ and the Sinaloa cartel who personally delivered $1 million to the defendant for his brother,” Richman said.
The defendant was described as a “violent drug trafficker of epic proportions” who moved “massive” amounts of narcotics.
Hernández’s defense told jurors they will see no proof against their client during the trial.
Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernández has been labeled a co-conspirator, though he has not been charged. Prosecutors allege he took some $1.5 million in drug proceeds to win his first presidential campaign in 2013, in exchange for traffickers receiving protection.
“The allegation in itself is 100% false, absurd and ridiculous … this is less serious than Alice in Wonderland,” the president tweeted Wednesday after news of the prosecutor’s affirmations circulated. He has said in the past that drug smugglers extradited under his government are seeking revenge.
Relatives of Tony Hernández, who was arrested in 2018 in Miami, declined to speak with journalists at the court. In Honduras, Juan Arnaldo Hernández, another brother, predicted Tony Hernández will be cleared of the accusations.
Jury selection in the case took place earlier in the day.
Richman told the panel that they would hear details of two murders in which Tony Hernández was allegedly involved. He said the defendant stamped cocaine shipments with his initials, T.H., and first got into smuggling around 2004.
Prosecutors will call as witnesses Drug Enforcement Administration agents, an expert on Honduran politics and history, and former drug traffickers who worked with Hernández.
“At the end the question won’t be whether you like the witnesses,” Richman said, “but whether you believe them.”
Juan Orlando Hernández was re-elected in 2017 despite a constitutional ban on re-election. Last week, Honduras signed an agreement about handling asylum seekers with the U.S. government.
In early August, prosecutors in New York accused him of working with his brother and then-President Porfirio Lobo, who was in office in 2010-2014, to take advantage of drug trafficking to consolidate power and control in Honduras.
In a 49-page document, prosecutors said the president and his predecessor depended on drug money for campaign financing. The document alleged that the Honduran government essentially functions as a narco-state.
The president has called the accusations false and retaliation for his government’s policies on fighting organized crime and drug trafficking, highlighting among other measures laws on extradition, money laundering and cleaning up police forces.
The prosecutor did not say when the purported bribery by Guzmán took place, and it was not clear whether it was part of or separate from the $1.5 million that Juan Orlando Hernández allegedly received from traffickers.
Guzmán, the longtime boss of the Sinaloa cartel, gained international notoriety for twice escaping prison in Mexico.
After being extradited from Mexico, Guzmán was convicted in a U.S. court earlier this year, sentenced to life behind bars and sent to a super-secure lockup in Colorado.