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US charges Honduran president’s brother with drug conspiracy

November 26, 2018

NEW YORK (AP) — A brother of Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez was charged in the U.S. on Monday with scheming for years to bring tons of cocaine into the country, with prosecutors calling him a big-time trafficker so enmeshed in the trade that the drug was sometimes stamped with his initials.

Federal prosecutors in New York announced drug conspiracy and other charges against Antonio “Tony” Hernandez, a former Honduran congressman. He has previously denied doing anything illegal.

He was appearing in court in Miami, where he was arrested Friday. His lawyer’s name wasn’t immediately available.

The drug-related corruption allegations that swirled around Tony Hernandez have cast a shadow over his brother’s government in a Central American country that is a major transit hub for cocaine.

Honduras is also the homeland of thousands of migrants who recently have been traveling toward and are now camping out at the U.S. border with Mexico, saying they are fleeing a poor economy and oppressive gang crime.

After his brother’s arrest Friday, the president’s administration reiterated an earlier statement that “no one is above the law, and every person must have the right to a legitimate defense and be presumed innocent.”

The statement also said that the president maintains that everyone is responsible for his or her actions and can’t shift accountability to other people. The government said it would see that justice was carried out with “absolute openness and strict observance to the law.”

An indictment unveiled Monday charges Tony Hernandez with conspiracy, weapons possession and lying to U.S. authorities in a 2016 interview by saying he never aided or took money from drug traffickers.

“Tony Hernandez was involved in all stages of the trafficking” of multi-ton loads of U.S.-bound cocaine through Honduras, Manhattan U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman said in a statement. Raymond Donovan, who heads U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration special operations, said the ex-congressman is accused of working with “some of the world’s most deadly and dangerous transnational criminal networks” to “flood American streets with deadly drugs.”

The indictment portrays Tony Hernandez as “a large-scale drug trafficker” involved for over a decade in receiving, processing and distributing coke that came from such countries as Colombia via planes, go-fast boats — and at least once, a submarine — and made their way through Honduras en route to the United States.

Tony Hernandez arranged for and sometimes participated in machine-gun-wielding security escorts, sometimes including Honduran police, for drug shipments, the indictment alleged.

It also says he paid and took bribes to smooth the flow of drugs and money — at times paying off law enforcement officials for information to safeguard drug shipments, and at others soliciting bribes for himself and other high-ranking officials.

A convicted trafficker, Devis Leonel Rivera Maradiaga, testified last year in New York that Tony Hernandez asked him for a bribe in exchange for government contracts. Rivera was trying to get Honduras’ government to pay its debts to a company his cartel used to launder money.

The indictment says that Rivera paid the former congressman $50,000 during their video-recorded 2014 meeting.

In a statement after the testimony, Tony Hernandez denied involvement in illegal activities and said he was “at the disposition of Honduran or international justice for any investigation.”

He noted that he’d given voluntary testimony to U.S. authorities in Miami in 2016 and testified to Honduras’ Public Ministry last year.

“I reaffirm strongly that I am ready to collaborate with any investigation that is carried out in a serious fashion,” he said. “And like I did before, I am ready to present myself again to authorities in the United States if it is required because he who doesn’t owe, doesn’t fear.”

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Associated Press writers Gisela Salomon in Miami and Natalia Schachar in Mexico City contributed to this report.

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