U.S. charges Honduran congressman with drug trafficking conspiracy

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Federal authorities announced drug trafficking and weapons charges against a congressman from Honduras on Friday, the latest U.S. case accusing current and former officials of the Central American country of involvement in the drug trade.

Fredy Renan Najera Montoya, 41, was charged with conspiring to import “huge quantities of cocaine” into the United States, according to U.S. Attorney Geoffrey Berman in Manhattan.

Najera, who was also charged in an indictment filed Thursday in Manhattan federal court with carrying and using machine guns, could not be reached for comment and a lawyer for him could not immediately be identified.

“We are committed to attacking the drug trade at every level, regardless of a defendant’s status,” Berman said in a statement. “We look forward to trying Najera on U.S. soil.”

James Margolin, a spokesman for Berman, said Najera was not in U.S. custody. He declined to comment on whether prosecutors would seek to have him extradited.

Prosecutors said that between 2009 and 2014, Najera assisted in large-scale trafficking of cocaine from Colombia and elsewhere through Honduras, which U.S. authorities have long identified as a major transshipment point for drugs being smuggled into the United States.

Najera helped arrange clandestine landing strips, protected by heavily armed gunmen, for aircraft ferrying cocaine into Honduras, the prosecutors said. They said the cocaine was then sold to Mexico’s Sinaloa Cartel and ultimately imported into the United States.

Najera was also charged with taking part in a cocaine trafficking operation that involved payment of a $50,000 bribe to Fabio Lobo, the son of former Honduran President Porfirio Lobo.

Prosecutors said in Thursday’s indictment that drug traffickers paid bribes to Honduran officials, including members of the national congress, to ensure safe passage of drugs through the country.

Fabio Lobo was arrested in a DEA sting in 2015, pleaded guilty to conspiring to import cocaine into the United States and was sentenced to 24 years in prison in September.

U.S. prosecutors have charged several other prominent Hondurans with involvement in drug trafficking.

Yankel Rosenthal, who served as minister of investment under current President Juan Orlando Hernandez, was sentenced to two years and five months in prison on Friday after he pleaded guilty to attempting to launder drug proceeds on behalf of a Honduran lawyer.

Rosenthal’s cousin, Yani Rosenthal, was previously sentenced to three years, and his father, former Honduran vice president Jaime Rosenthal, was charged but remains at large.

Reporting By Brendan Pierson in New York; Additional reporting by Gustavo Palencia in Tegucigalpa; Editing by Tom Brown