U.S. prosecutors say Honduras has become a 'narco-state'

NEW YORK (Reuters) - U.S. prosecutors alleged on Tuesday that Honduras had become a “narco-state” with security forces and politicians, including President Juan Orlando Hernandez, working with traffickers to move large quantities of cocaine into the United States.

FILE PHOTO: Honduras' President Juan Orlando Hernandez speaks during a joint message with U.S. Department of Homeland Security (DHS) acting Secretary Chad Wolf (not pictured), at the Presidential House in Tegucigalpa, Honduras January 9, 2020. REUTERS/Jorge Cabrera

In opening statements to the jury in the trial of alleged drug trafficker Geovanny Fuentes Ramirez, the prosecution said the defendant had paid Hernandez in order to receive protection from security forces in Honduras.

Fuentes Ramirez pleaded not guilty on Monday to charges of drug trafficking and related weapons offenses.

“He was untouchable, a key part of the Honduran narco-state,” prosecutor Jacob Gutwillig said of Fuentes Ramirez in his opening statements to the jury.

“This is a violent, armed cocaine trafficker, who worked with police, military, politicians, including the president, who made millions helping the president traffic cocaine.”

Hernandez, who has repeatedly denied any involvement in drug trafficking, was a key ally to the United States under both the Obama and the Trump administrations, in both immigration and anti-narcotics operations in the region.

The investigation could complicate the new Biden administration’s efforts to invest $4 billion in Central America, including Honduras, to address the causes of migration.

In a series of tweets on Monday, Hernandez said that drug traffickers were giving false testimony against him to U.S. authorities as revenge against his government and to reduce their own sentences. He said Honduras’ anti-narcotics cooperation would be harmed if U.S. authorities believed them.

According to the indictment, Hernandez, who has been president since 2014, used Honduran law enforcement and military officials to protect drug traffickers, including Fuentes Ramirez, who they said bribed Hernandez with $25,000.

Prosecutors said Fuentes Ramirez began trafficking small amounts of drugs in 2009, but that it was not until 2013, when he partnered with Hernandez, then a presidential candidate, that his business started to “flourish.”

The Drug Enforcement Administration agent who arrested Fuentes Ramirez in Miami in March 2020, Brian Fairbanks, testified for the prosecution on Tuesday that along with photos of assault rifles and cash, the agency found contact information for Hernandez in the businessman’s cell phones.

Evidence submitted from Fuentes Ramirez’s cell phones and his son’s iCloud account showed a photo of Cristian Fuentes, the businessman’s brother and a current congressional candidate, with Hernandez, as well as contact information for ex-President Mel Zelaya and a number of high-ranking military and police officials.

In court on Tuesday, the defense acknowledged that Fuentes Ramirez knew Hernandez through Fuad Jarufe, the owner of the rice business where the defendant allegedly paid bribes to Hernandez. However, defense lawyer Eylan Schulman said in his opening statement to the jury that the government’s case was “dependent on self-interested witnesses with too much to gain, too little to lose,” in reference to the self-confessed traffickers expected to testify against Fuentes Ramirez.

Prosecutors alleged that Fuentes Ramirez reported “directly to Tony Hernandez,” the president’s brother, who was convicted in federal court in Manhattan of drug trafficking and related weapons charges in October 2019. In that trial, U.S. prosecutors said President Hernandez had accepted millions in bribes from drug traffickers. He has repeatedly denied the allegation.

Reporting by Sarah Kinosian; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler